November 18, 2005

Paul de Man's revaluation of early Romanticism

Paul de Man (1919-83)'s writings, which came to be associated with Deconstruction but might best be characterized as "rhetorical reading," focuses on reading as it arises from the rhetorical character of any text- its possibility of having a figural as well as a literal meaning. Like Jacques Derrida's, de Man's work brings to the fore questions of language; he writes that "the advent of theory . . . occurs with the introduction of linguistic terminology in the metalanguage about literature," when historical and aesthetic considerations give place to linguistic ones (Resistance 8).
De Man's own chief contribution to literary history is the revaluation of early Romanticism as the decisive, not yet superseded moment of the modern period. Essays written between 1956 and 1983 gathered in The Rhetoric of Romanticism read Friedrich Hölderlin, Rousseau, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, W. B. Yeats, Charles Baudelaire, and Heinrich von Kleist; complementary to them are rhetorical readings of texts of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller, and G. W. F. Hegel gathered in Aesthetic Ideology, focused on the concept of the sublime and on the function and status of the category of the aesthetic.
The concept of materiality that emerges through these readings is connected by de Man with the concept of history as irreversible occurrence. Close consideration of the category of the aesthetic in Kant and Hegel and of a literary text staging the Schillerian notions of "aesthetic education" and the "aesthetic state" (Kleist's "On the Marionette Theater") leads de Man to diagnose and indict, as a fundamental strategy of the aesthetic ideology he links with the totalitarian state, "aesthetic formalization": the aesthetification, as a satisfying, recognizable form, of the formal, mechanical, arbitrary, and contradictory processes of language. Cynthia Chase The Johns Hopkins University Press

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