previous chapter
Chapter Thirteen— Rilke's House of Being
next section

De Man and De Trut

We find ourselves coming back to the idea that the poets were there first: if modern criticism has been interested in poets of that era, maybe it's because it got its methods from them and ended up just looking at itself. And looking at itself and knowing that it was looking at itself (remember that phrase of Mr. Head, who, while being, looked at himself looking at himself?) increasingly made modern criticism think that selfreferenriality was itself a pretty interesting thing to talk about, and so it began to talk about language and how language never does anything but refer back to itself. Which refers us back to Part I of this book, where we looked at how language became a subject of criticism (which is nothing more than language about other language).

Actually, it refers us back to the very beginning of this book, to the Introduction, where we talked about those modern critics who have made their way into the popular press with the idea that literature is nothing more than subterfuge. After the revelation was made late in 1987 that Paul de Man had written for a pro-Nazi Belgian newspaper during World War II, the popular press for months was full of ankles about the great academic scandal. James Atlas wrote an article about the affair in the New York Times Magazine in August of 1988. The article contains an amusing story about Paul de Man, amusing mostly because it makes fun of de Man's European accent. One time, after a class with his Yale colleague Geoffrey Hartman, de Man is alleged to have said, "We've had beauty. Now let's have de trut."[8] The master player of the game of subterfuge, the art of concealment and evasion, was Paul de Man. He played it in his writing when he refused to issue an interpretation of a text on the grounds that the text was merely selfreferential. He made it the subject of his writing when he showed how texts evaded interpretation because they were merely self-referential. And, of course, he played it in his life when he surfaced in this country as a complete unknown after World War II and went on to enjoy a long and brilliant academic career without telling anyone "de trut" about the person he had been before. But I'm not here to talk about "de man." I'm here to talk about his work.


One of de Man's finest examples of the self-referentiality of texts was Rilke. In "Tropes (Rilke)" de Man argues his way from pointing out Rilke's characteristic reversals to claiming that Rilke's poetry is ultimately about language and that it thus asserts the complete failure of language to mean anything. "The determining figure of Rilke's poetry," de Man says, "is that of chiasmus, the crossing that reverses the attributes of words and of things. The poems are composed of entities, objects and subjects, who themselves behave like words, which 'play' at language according to the rules of rhetoric as one plays ball according to the rules of the game."[9] The world Rilke has created "is then explicitly designated as a verbal world" with an "orientation towards the pole of language" (p. 39). De Man analyzes one of the poems from Rilke's Neue Gedichte (New poems) called "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes." The poem is about Orpheus's ascent from the underworld with Eurydice. The important moment for de Man comes at the end, when Hermes, who has accompanied Orpheus on his journey, leaves Orpheus to return to the world of the living (after Orpheus has looked at Eurydice) and "follows Eurydice into a world of privation and nonbeing" (p. 47). Without any warning, de Man draws this extraordinary conclusion from the scene he has described:

On the level of poetic language, this renunciation [that is, Hermes's act of renunciation] corresponds to the loss of a primacy of meaning located within the referent and it allows for the new rhetoric of Rilke's "figure." Rilke also calls this loss of referentiality by the ambivalent term of "inwardness" (innen entstehen, Weltinnenraum, etc.), which then does not designate the self-presence of a consciousness but the inevitable absence of a reliable referent. It designates the impossibility for the language of poetry to appropriate anything, be it as consciousness, as object, or as a synthesis of both.
(p. 47)

So everything is language, nothing is determinate, everything is awash in polyvalence, and Rilke proves it. What's more, he seems to believe it. Of course, this is an extravagant thing to say, and anyone other than de Man would be hard put to find this idea in this poem (or "designated" by this poem). Furthermore, as we saw earlier, de Man's worldview is not so polyvalent and indeterminate as he might lead us to think, since it is anchored in a fervent faith in the specificity of poetic language (when it comes to language, de Man calls his private Eden "rhetoricity"). In any case, if we are looking for the idea that de Man sees in Rilke's poem, we will find it sooner in Heidegger and the notion of the hermeneutic circle . This concept, which I mentioned in the Introduction, is


from Heidegger's Being and Time, and it has to do with how, when we interpret something, we must already understand what we are trying to interpret, with the result that understanding and interpretation move in what appears to be a vicious circle. De Man talks about this question early in Blindness and Insight, and his intimacy with Heideggerian thought in general is apparent in his writings.

What we do find in Rilke is ontology. We find it in the problematic nature of the interaction between human subject and the subject's world, something de Man has described so well in his analysis of reversals in Rilke's poetry. And we find it in the idea of Weltinnenraum, something de Man completely, but predictably, misunderstands (or was blinded to, as he would say). Ontology is one thing that attracted Heidegger to Rilke; it's what they have in common both with each other and with de Man. Once he's convinced that the world is deprived of faith, the Heideggerian can always turn to Being as the object of his essentialist yearning. And Rilke, the most religious irreligious poet that ever lived, is always there to serve as an example.

So what happens is something like this: We begin with Rilke and dwell with him in the "house of Being." This leads us to reflect on ontology. For Heidegger and de Man, ontology is inextricably caught up with hermeneutics and the idea of interpretation. De Man, in fact, declares that the hermeneutic circle is at the basis of Being and Time . From the idea of hermeneutics we arrive with de Man at the circularity of language and the indeterminacy and polyvalence of all meaning. And from the idea that interpretation and understanding are circular we arrive at the idea that poetry and criticism are not really so different. This was one of de Man's favorite ideas, and, as it happens, he introduces it, in Blindness and Insight, precisely within the discussion of the hermeneutic circle. I quoted from that discussion in the Introduction, and it is worth repeating: "The relationship between author and critic does not designate a difference in the type of activity involved, since no fundamental discontinuity exists between two acts that both aim at full understanding; the difference is primarily temporal in kind. Poetry is the foreknowledge of criticism. Far from changing or distorting it, criticism merely discloses poetry for what it is."[10]

And so here we are, back at Rilke, who gives us the idea that . . . well, it's no use repeating it, because we'll just be starting all over again, with books about books about books. About books.


previous chapter
Chapter Thirteen— Rilke's House of Being
next section