Paul De Man--The
Rhetoric of Temporality
structures his essay around a discussion of allegory and symbol.
Along with allegory and symbol, he builds his argument on an
opposition of transcendence and finitude, eternity and
temporality. In a departure from the then- and still-usual
analysis of the Romantics, De Man insists that theirs was an art
of allegory, not an art of symbol. Why is this distinction
important to him?
Symbol is a
feature of an art which attempts to transcend , avoid, or deny
the inescapable fact of temporality in embodied human existence;
allegory--according to De Man--not only does not attempt to
avoid temporality, it highlights human finitude. In
symbol, subject and object are a unity: "the symbol is
founded on an intimate unity between the image that rises up
before the senses and the suprasensory totality that the image
suggests." In allegory, subject and object are
irreconcilably different and separate: "in the world of
allegory, time is the originary constitutive category . . . .
The meaning constituted by the allegorical sign can . . .
consist only in the repetition . . . of a previous sign
with which it can never coincide, since it is of the essence of
this previous sign to be pure anteriority."
"Whereas the symbol postulates the possibility of an
identity or identification, allegory designates primarily a
distance in relation to its own origin, and renouncing the
nostalgia and the desire to coincide, it establishes its
language in the void of this temporal difference."
when "early romantic literature finds its true voice,"
it is expressing--according to De Man (who I believe is
doing tremendous violence to Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and
Co. with this reading)--the inability of the self to form an
"illusory identification with the non-self, which is now
fully, though painfully, recognized as a non-self." In
this reading, the Romantic project was most authentic, was most
itself, when it expressed the stark separation and uncrossable
bridge between subject and object, man and the universe, man and
God: "The dialectical relationship between subject and
object is no longer the central statement of romantic thought,
but this dialectic is now located entirely in the temporal
relationships that exist within a system of allegorical signs.
It becomes a conflict between a conception of the self seen in
its authentically temporal predicament and a defensive strategy
that tries to hide from this negative self-knowledge. On the
level of language, the asserted superiority of the symbol over
allegory . . . is one of the forms taken by this tenacious
self-mystification." It would seem that De Man asks that
literature take a stand reminiscent of Heidegger's authentic
being-towards-death. Allegory is an acknowledgement and
linguistic embodiement of temporality, anteriority and
posteriority, difference, deferral, and finitude; thus, allegory
is, for De Man, authentic. Symbol is a mystification: it denies
temporality, emphasizing the connection of subject and object,
self and non-self. It is "a defensive strategy that tries
to hide from this negative self-knowledge." Symbol is
inauthentic in its being-towards-death.
De Man goes on
to a discussion of irony, which he defines as "a
relationship, within consciousness, between two selves."
He emphasises, however, that this relationship "is not an
intersubjective relationship"; it is not a relationship
between two subjects, but a self-conscious relationship of the
subject to itself. De Man refers to irony as a "doublement,"
a capacity observing the self, looking on the self as if it were
an other: "The dedoublement thus designates the
activity of a consciousness by which a man differntiates himself
from the non-human world. The capacity for such duplication is
rare . . . but belongs specifically to those who, like artists
or philosophers, deal in language." Language functions
to divide the self into two selves: that which differentiates
and signifies through language, and that which is differentiated
and signified. This is reminiscent of Husserl's distinction
between the noetic--that which experiences, the
experiencing--and the noematic--that which is
experienced, being experienced. The noetic is that part
of the self which is most real and fundamental in its ironic
existence, while the noematic is dependent and, strictly
speaking, unreal, and quite unironic--that which is
perceived and constituted, insofar as it is perceived, by the
perceiving and ironic self .
De Man links
the ironic division of the subject into multiplicity with a fall:
"The element of falling introduces the specifically comical
and ultimately ironical ingredient. At the moment that the
artistic or the philosophical, that is, the language-determined,
man laughs at himself falling, he is laughing at a mistaken,
mystified assumption he was making about himself . . . . The
ironic, twofold self that the writer or philosopher constitutes
by his language seems able to come into being only at the
expense of his empirical self, falling (or rising) from a stage
of mystified adjustment into the knowledge of his mystification.
The ironic language splits the subject into an empirical self
that exists in a state of inauthenticity and a self that exists
only in the form of a language that asserts the knowledge of
this inauthenticity." Irony is a consciousness of absolute
separateness, fragmentation, and difference. In this way, irony
is connected to allegory: "Allegory and irony are thus
linked in their common discovery of a truly temporal predicament
. . . . Both are determined by an authentic experience of
temporality, which, seen from the point of view of the self
engaged in the world, is a negative one."