Brief Encounter: de Man on Wordsworth, or The Irony of 'The Rhetoric of Temporality'

In “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” Paul de Man invokes allegory and irony as two distinct perspectives on the question on time: the former responding to an epistemological problem by transposing it into temporal sequence and the latter collapsing temporal sequence into simultaneity. This leads him, however, to imagine the possibility of texts that would “overcome irony.” When he examines “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” as an example of such an overcoming, de Man’s own text, however, encounters the accident of an irony that opens a window onto the instability of his pedagogical distinction between irony and allegory—an instability that hinges on the necessity of “reading” irony’s brevity in narrative terms.

Brief Encounter: de Man on Wordsworth, or The Irony of “The Rhetoric of Temporality”

Lee Edelman
Tufts University


1.        In the second part of “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” Paul de Man arrives at a “provisional conclusion” (222) about the relation of allegory and irony. Describing the two as “linked in their common discovery of a temporal predicament” (222), he suggests that each of them demystifies a particular literary mode (symbolism in the case of allegory, realism in the case of irony) that came to prominence in the nineteenth century by seeming to hold out the promise that “fiction and reality could coincide” (222). Wary of his own conclusion, however, insofar as he finds it “dangerously satisfying and highly vulnerable to irony” (222), de Man remarks that it “rescues a coherent historical picture at the expense of stated human incoherence” (222). His conclusion offers, in others words, a historical narrative in which symbolism constitutes a regression from the theoretical insights intrinsic to allegory just as realism regresses from the negativity that characterizes irony. And it does so while asserting the “incoherence” of our relation, as linguistic subjects, to the empirical world.

2.        But at this point something surprising happens; de Man insists on the possibility of a literature exempt from such incoherence because exempt from irony's “endless process that leads to no synthesis” (220), its “dizziness to the point of madness” (215). Referring to Baudelaire’s “De l’essence du rire,” on which he relies in his discussion of irony, de Man recalls that “Baudelaire speaks, without apparent irony, of a semimythical poetic figure that would exist beyond the realm of irony” (223). No sooner has de Man invoked this fictional or “semimythical” figure, however, than he adduces its ostensible real world equivalents, referring to Hölderlin and Wordsworth, along with Baudelaire, as if himself intent on making “fiction and reality coincide.” But then again, he compares the poetry he identifies as “truly meta-ironical, as having transcended irony,” and as “definitely non-ironic” (223) to what Baudelaire describes as “la poésie pure, . . . limpide et profonde comme la nature” (223), a simile that could seem to suggest the coincidence of nature and linguistic fiction too.

3.        Baudelaire, though, conjures this figure of a poet “beyond the realm of irony” only, as de Man precisely phrases it, “without apparent irony” (223, emphasis mine), just as the clarity and depth of “pure poetry” is only comparable to that of nature. However irreducible the distance between language and empirical reality, however persistent the threat of an irony that might not be “apparent,” something about irony tempts de Man to envision “overcoming” (223) it, and he proposes that these poets, in some of their writings, do so by means of allegory. Since allegory and irony, as de Man makes clear, both demystify rhetorics of presence and the coincidence of fiction and reality, the prospect of overcoming irony by allegory must rest on their different relations to history, narrative, and time. When de Man introduces Wordsworth’s poem, “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” for a “brief comparison of the temporal structure of allegory and irony,” he chooses it not only because the poem is “well known,” but also because it is “exceedingly brief” (223). This double insistence on brevity in his engagement with a poem concerned with time suggests that his brief against irony may have something to do with brevity too and perhaps with the pedagogy of exemplarity that brevity often serves.


4.        Brevity, seen as the soul of wit, can make things easier to remember, thus enabling them to endure, but it also can be seen as duration’s impossible dream of self-erasure, its effort to collapse or minimalize the spatialization of time as distance. In that sense, the simultaneity of events (as opposed to their sequential unfolding) would constitute brevity’s absolute form, its purest realization.  But the difference that duration articulates (in terms of what’s past, what’s passing, and what’s yet to come) shapes simultaneity as well.  The reading of two or more events as occurring at the same time demands their conceptual disentanglement, their interpretation as separate events, and thus introduces the distance that the act of reading depends on too, inflecting with narrative duration the simultaneity that seems to refuse it. If reading in this sense persistently translates simultaneity into sequence, into the narrative performed by that reading’s unfolding, then such sequencing is also bound, though blind, to what collapses it back on itself: the non-identity of knowing and doing that makes reading simultaneous with misreading.

5.        To call this an account of “The Rhetoric of Temporality” would confer on that essay a coherence that, precisely to the extent that this reading is “true,” would have to be seen as false. The essay, that is, in coming to a “knowledge” about the irony that scuttles all knowledge-claims, however negative those claims may be, simultaneously resists that knowledge by asserting it sequentially. This leads to a question at the heart of the essay: does temporality reveal the “truth” of rhetoric or does rhetoric produce fictions of temporality?  The genitive structure of the essay’s title, like that of Keats’s “The Fall of Hyperion” as de Man discusses it in “The Resistance to Theory,” condenses both possibilities. In a longer analysis this tension could be approached by focusing on the figure of “history” in “The Rhetoric of Temporality.” The first section of the essay concludes, after all, by proposing a “historical scheme” (208) in which the Romantic discourse of symbolism attests to a regression from the critical insight made available through the structure of allegory. But de Man begins the second section by observing that irony cannot be approached through a similar “historical de-mystification.” Though symbolism’s “mystification is a fact of history” (211), irony, to the contrary, as de Man points out, often targets “the claim to speak about human matters as if they were facts of history” (211). [1]  Thus in the space of a mere three sentences de Man both affirms as a “fact of history” the mystification effected by symbolism and pointedly calls attention to irony’s demystification of historical fact. This leads to a moment that may tempt us to read it as an instance of ironic self-consciousness when de Man writes, in magisterial but still playful prose: “It is a historical fact that irony becomes increasingly conscious of itself in the course of demonstrating the impossibility of our being historical” (211). [2]   But can irony ever “be conscious of itself”? What consciousness could irony, as a mode, possess? Can we, moreover, with any certainty, be conscious of irony ourselves? Irony may refer, instead, to a loss or lapse of consciousness. Thus if irony seems to show itself here we cannot be sure of its target. Is the historical fact with which the sentence begins undone in the end by irony, or does the irony lie in irony’s ultimate historical determination? The copresence of such incompatible readings in an assertion presented as “fact” may define de Man’s take on irony, but to define the result as ironic immediately dismisses the copresence of what resists it.

6.        To put this slightly differently: irony consists in the simultaneity of wisdom’s emergence from error and of error’s persistence in the very belief that wisdom has been achieved. In this way irony precipitates into a "temporal predicament" that allows for "no end, for no totality" (222) insofar as it divides "the flow of temporal experience into a past that is pure mystification and a future that remains harassed forever by a relapse within the inauthentic" (222). Like irony, allegory too may approach what de Man calls a "temporal void” (222), but it does so by mobilizing temporal relations in which signs refer to earlier signs instead of enacting, as irony does, “an instantaneous process that takes place rapidly, suddenly, in one single moment” (225).  "Always implying an unreachable anteriority" (222), allegory, in de Man’s view, "designates primarily a distance in relation to its own origins, and, renouncing the nostalgia and the desire to coincide, it establishes its language in the void of this temporal difference" (207). Thus allegory leads to a negative truth, understood as escape from error, by treating signs historically, while irony exposes the error of thinking that history could lead us to truth. [3]   This may clarify de Man’s assertion that “in speaking of irony we are dealing not with the history of an error but with a problem that exists within the self” (211, emphasis mine); in contra-distinction to allegory, irony deals with non-identity not as a relation between moments, but rather as inherent in the self and therefore operative at every moment.

7.        De Man’s representation of allegory as distance from “its own origins” coexists, nonetheless, with his implicit identification of allegory as an origin. The first part of “The Rhetoric of Temporality” strives to correct “the widespread ‘idées reçues’ on the nature and the origins of European romanticism” (204) by proposing that allegory, not symbolism, deserves recognition in such a context. Symbolism may follow allegory in literary history, but it denotes a critical regression from the latter’s relentless historical regression, from allegory’s persistent orientation toward an "unreachable anteriority” informing its linguistic signs.  Though expressive of a “negative self-knowledge” (208) that bespeaks the temporal fate of the human, allegory gets figured by de Man, nonetheless, as the “light,” the source of radiance, over which symbolism throws a “veil” (208). Recalling Coleridge’s metaphor for symbolism, cited earlier in “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” as “the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal” (192), de Man’s figural evocation of allegory similarly returns us to an originary light, but one that exposes the error of viewing the symbol as itself participating in what it represents and that “prevents the self from an illusory identification with the non-self, which is now [i.e., by virtue of allegory] fully, though painfully, recognized as a non-self” (207). Fully recognized? What can this possibly mean in a context where allegory continuously opens new vistas of distance and difference? The fantasy of awakening from illusion so thoroughly that everything pertaining to the non-self is “fully . . . recognized” as such, has its corollary in the fantasy of a self that would coincide with itself completely through complete separation from what it is not. Such a fantasy of allegorical awareness perversely returns us to the “nostalgia and the desire to coincide” that allegory supposedly renounces and it does so here in a prosopopeia (allegory’s “renunciation” of desire) that gives human agency to a literary structure, showing just how hard it is to differentiate self and non-self.

8.        The truth of the distance between the two, like the truth of the difference between the human and the natural world for de Man, can be recognized “fully” only at the cost of being recognized “painfully.” Pain accompanies the knowledge of truth for de Man as it informs the experience of respect for Kant. [4]  Irony occasions a mordant laughter but allegory’s wisdom hurts. “It is this painful knowledge that we perceive at the moments when early romantic literature finds its true voice” (207), de Man asserts, associating allegory’s painful recognition (the recognition, precisely, of the irreducible distance between the self and non-self, between linguistic fiction and empirical reality) with his own demystification of symbol. No sooner has he done so, however, than irony appears in his text: “it is ironically revealing that this voice is so rarely recognized for what it really is” (207). The allegory that “designates . . . distance,” though emphatically figured by de Man here as presence, even originary presence (“the true voice,” “what it really is”), has remained, to the moment of de Man’s essay, largely a presence concealed, like the light beneath symbolism’s “veil.” If this veiling reveals a general truth about the resistance to reading allegory, it does so only “ironically,” through the very act of concealing it. Irony insists on this simultaneity of revelation and concealment, but recognizing irony requires forgetting what that recognition veils: the impossibility of ever “fully” recognizing the difference between self and non-self and the equal impossibility of fully recognizing the presence or absence of irony. For irony, to put this another way, never in fact reveals; the claim that it does so forgets that irony is only ironically revealing, only revealing of its own insistence, and even then without any certainty that one can ever in fact “know” irony. In effect, by describing as “ironically revealing” the failure to recognize allegory as Romanticism’s “true voice,” de Man turns irony into allegory.  He imposes the narrative structure of a movement from blindness to recognition, from concealment to revelation, rather than dwelling in the unreadable coincidence of irony’s insight and error, which is to say, its illegibility.   

9.        In this context it makes a certain sense that when de Man proposes his “brief comparison” of the temporalities of allegory and irony by engaging with Wordsworth’s “exceedingly brief” “A Slumber did my Spirit Seal,” he boldly declares: “[t]he text clearly is not ironic” (223).  But when he subsequently analyzes “the structure of irony” (225), contrasting it with allegory’s “tendency . . . toward narrative . . . in order to give duration” (225), he refers to what he calls Baudelaire’s “later, most ironic works” (2225), works that “grow shorter and shorter and always climax in the single brief moment of a final pointe” (225-26). Brevity, the hallmark of irony’s movement toward the undoing of allegorical duration, defines from the outset the poem in which irony, de Man argues, has been “transcended” (223). But brevity serves as a switchpoint here between duration and simultaneity, simultaneously expressing narrative extension and the movement toward a “single brief moment” in which antagonistic possibilities “are simultaneously present, juxtaposed within the same moment but as two irreconcilable and disjointed beings” (226). [5]  Given the difficulty of reading the difference between the allegorical and ironic temporalities that the concept of brevity condenses, we might want to examine the stake in de Man’s claim that Wordsworth’s “exceedingly brief” poem “clearly is not ironic” (emphasis mine).

10.        De Man commences his reading by pointing to the allegorical shape of its narrative: its “successive description of two stages of consciousness, one belonging to the past and mystified, the other to the now of the poem, the stage that has recovered from the mystification of a past now presented as being in error” (224).  But this reading of the process of demystification from stanza one to stanza two should not obscure the quite different terms in which Marc Redfield evokes the poem. Introducing an issue of The Wordsworth Circle devoted to essays on Geoffrey Hartman, Redfield refers to Wordsworth’s “lightning-like temporality” in which “something appears or disappears at once” and thereby produces a difference “at once momentous, a matter of life and death, and yet strangely minimal, as hard to read as the difference between the first and the second stanzas of ‘A Slumber did my Spirit Seal’” (6). De Man’s determination that the brevity of the poem elaborates duration (rather than the “lightning-like temporality” of irony) [6]  and so denotes an allegorical structure leads him to maximize this “minimal” difference, even at the expense of denying the poem any irony whatsoever and maintaining that this “difference has been spread out over a temporality . . . in which the conditions of error and wisdom have become successive.  . . . The fundamental structure of allegory reappears here in the tendency of language toward narrative, the spreading out along the axis of an imaginary time in order to give duration to what is, in fact, simultaneous within the subject” (225). By treating diachronically a difference inherent in the self at every moment, the poem, as de Man construes it, allegorizes irony and overcomes it. The narrator’s error in the first stanza, his submission to the “slumber” that “seals” his “spirit,” gives way to “grim awareness” (224) in the second as the woman, who first seemed incapable of feeling “the touch of earthly years," proves unable, after the stanza break, to feel, see, or hear at all.

11.        As persuasive as this allegorization may be, de Man cannot completely ignore the pressure of irony in the poem, especially in lines three and four: “It could be said that, read within the perspective of the entire poem, these two lines are ironic, though they are not ironic in themselves or within the context of the first stanza. Nor is the poem, as a whole, ironic. The stance of the speaker, who exists in the ‘now,’ is that of a subject whose insight is no longer in doubt and who is no longer vulnerable to irony” (224). De Man then returns to his earlier phrasing to assert that “the poem is written from the point of view of a unified self that fully recognizes a past condition as one of error and stands in a present that, however painful, sees things as they actually are” (224). This language repeats the central terms (“fully . . . recognized,” “painfully,” “recognized for what it really is”) used earlier by de Man in his unveiling of allegory as the “true voice” of early Romanticism. But de Man in that passage could only unveil what was, in its very concealment, already “ironically revealing.” This may suggest, however “unintentionally” (and however much at odds, therefore, with the “full recognition” to which allegory is said to bring the supposedly “unified self”), that such an unveiling, pace de Man, “reveals” the insistence of irony. How, though, could one “reveal” irony without succumbing to the spatialization of time as the movement from error to knowledge, as the difference between now and then, as the clarifying logic of history (Wordsworth’s poem “clearly is not ironic,” de Man maintains)?

12.        De Man claims that the difference effected by the demystification the poem describes, the transformation of the narrator’s stance from the first stanza (“first there was error” [225]) to the second (“now an eternal insight” [225]), “does not exist within the subject, which remains unique throughout” (225). That difference, instead, gets displaced onto the temporal sequencing of the poem as such. In effect, the irony that would divide the subject, that would signal a “radical discontinuity” (224) like that of the death on which the poem turns, gets consigned, as does the death itself, to the space between the two stanzas. The poem becomes a text “about” irony, then, much as it becomes a text about death: that is, precisely by leaving it out. Or so de Man seems to argue. The whole of his reading of Wordsworth’s poem returns (in imitation of allegory) to the language his essay used earlier in explicating irony.  Focusing on the subject’s altered understanding of the woman as a “thing that could not feel / The touch of earthly years,” he writes that after the stanza break “[s]he now has become a thing in the full sense of the word, not unlike Baudelaire’s falling man who became a thing in the grip of gravity” (224). The falling man, the exemplary case of the encounter with irony in “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” finds himself divided between the thing that falls and the subject capable of seeing that fall as a fall into the knowledge of his thingness. He gains access to an understanding of his difference from the world through the language that lets him reflect on the world, and on himself, while dividing him from both as well. This difference, therefore, characterizes the falling man himself, splitting him into an empirical self, a thing among the many things in the world, and a self that inhabits the fictions of language and is prone to the mystified faith that this knowledge makes him superior to things as such.   

13.        This ironic division gives way to a “unified self” in “A Slumber did my Spirit Seal” insofar as that division, according to de Man, gets externalized (which is also to say, allegorized) in the movement of the woman from life to death, of the “thing” from figural to literal, and of the first stanza’s retrospection to the second stanza’s “eternal” present. In this way the woman, not the subject, “falls”; it is she who enacts “the purely instrumental, reified character of [humanity’s] relationship to nature” (214), to quote de Man’s earlier account of what the falling man must learn. In displacing the fall onto the woman, however, and that phrasing should echo an ongoing history of gender relations in the West, de Man succeeds in depicting the subject as a “unified self” (224) that remains “unique” (225)—that is, singular and coherent—only by imagining the subject of the poem as radically different from the ironist. Where the latter is split “into an empirical self that exists in a state of inauthenticity [i.e., that presumes its superiority to nature] and a self that exists only in the form of a language that asserts the knowledge of this inauthenticity” (214), Wordsworth’s subject inhabits “the ideal, self-created temporality of the poem” and not the “actual temporality of experience” (225) in the reading de Man proposes.  The claim that the poem has transcended irony thus depends on the subject having escaped the constraints of the “actual” or “empirical self.”

14.        But does Wordsworth’s subject really dwell in an “ideal . . . temporality” untouched by that of “actual . . .  experience”? Is it really the voice of “eternal insight”? The subject who refers to the moment of its error as when it “had no human fears,” seems strangely unchanged when awakened from that error by the fact of the woman’s death.  Indeed, the very “etern[ity]” of its “insight” repeats that exemption from the human. Although de Man will attribute an emotional intensity to the subject’s awakened consciousness—he refers to it as a “grim awareness” experienced, to some degree, as “painful” (224)—the poem makes no such claim. The subject’s affect, like the woman’s death, gets wholly left out of account in its eight lines; only through inference or projection does it sound in the second stanza’s constative utterances.  On the one hand, this could confirm the subject’s removal from empirical reality, from “the actual temporality of experience,” and so from the synchronic division of the self by the reflexive experience of irony.  On the other hand, this lack of human fear perpetuates the error, the “slumber,” whose overcoming de Man affirms, thus troubling the subject’s association with a  “stance of wisdom” (224) and an “ideal . . . temporality” (225). Through this optic, the subject’s “wisdom” can seem like a form of obtuseness to its quasi-Shelleyan fall from one state of slumber to another: the sort of fall that bespeaks the ironist’s division between an empirical self that lives in a state of inauthenticity (expressed by the lack of “human fear” recollected in stanza one) and the self who claims to know that inauthenticity but remains incapable of changing it (expressed by the “stance of wisdom” adopted in stanza two).  The overcoming of irony through allegory that de Man locates in the poem would thus reproduce the subject’s implicit, and still mystified, suggestion that its spirit has fully awakened at last from the slumber of mystification. In that sense nothing could be more ironic than the claim (de Man’s and the subject’s both) that allegorization overcomes irony.

15.        Since de Man, however, refuses “to play [allegory and irony] off against each other” (226), maintaining instead that both give us access to a negative experience of time, why would he insist so emphatically on the absence of irony in the poem? Perhaps his comment comparing the two to each other offers a clue: “The knowledge derived from both modes is essentially the same” (226). This emphasis on “deriv[ing]” knowledge already tips de Man’s hand; it reiterates the primacy of allegorical sequence, narrative, and temporal duration at the expense of irony’s instantaneous explosion and rapid fall.  The former comports with pedagogy; the latter makes it impossible. Allegory’s pain thus expresses the knowledge derived through education while irony’s laughter acknowledges the void to which knowledge as such remains blind. “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” as a text devoted to “historical clarification” (188), undertakes to translate, from its opening sentences, a fall the essay will associate with irony (“Since the advent, in the course of the nineteenth century, of a subjectivistic critical vocabulary, the traditional forms of rhetoric have fallen into direspute” [187]) into the sequential movement of allegory (“It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that his was only a temporary eclipse” [187]).  Critical pedagogy demands an investment in allegorical temporality. Thus even when de Man refuses to see allegory or irony as “superior to the other” (226), he must champion allegory’s duration over irony’s vanishing-point of brevity in order to be able to “derive” such a knowledge in the first place. Even the evenhandedness with which he evaluates allegory and irony in relation to their access to wisdom and error leads him to a telling conclusion: “The dialectical play between the two modes . . . make[s] up what is called literary history” (226). The clash of allegorical and ironic temporalities, the synchronic coincidence of their antagonism (a coincidence characteristic of both irony and dialectic), yields in the end here to “history,” which is hardly a neutral category since it designates one of the two modes in play. History, the very paradigm of allegorical temporality, tendentiously gets positioned as the outcome of allegory’s dialectical relation to irony.

16.        But never count irony out. When de Man nears the point of clinching his case for reading “A Slumber did my Spirit Seal” as articulating the “ideal . . . temporality” of allegory at the cost of the “actual temporality of experience”—at the cost, in other words, of the empirical self’s subjection to error and accident—he writes the following sentences: “The ‘now’ of the poem is not an actual now, but the ideal ‘now,’ the duration of an acquired wisdom. The actual now, which is that of the moment of death, lies hidden in the blank space between the two stanzas.” [7]  Yet most students never read these sentences in this very well-known essay. Though featured in the text as originally published in Interpretation: Theory and Practice, edited by Charles Singleton in 1969, something else takes their place two years later when de Man republishes “The Rhetoric of Temporality” in his own book, Blindness and Insight. Error and accident intervene. The text as republished now reads: “The ‘now” of the poem is not an actual now, which is that of the moment of death, lies hidden in the blank space between the two stanzas” (225). This syntactically unreadable sentence, this unintentional anacoluthon, must surely derive from the copyist or typesetter’s confusion of the two appearances of the same phrase, “actual now” (the first time with “now” in quotation marks and the second time without them). By collapsing the distance between the first and the second instance, the copyist or typesetter omitted everything in between them, consigning the sense of the sentences to the void between the two “now”s. [8] 

17.        Yet this is the version of the sentence reprinted in the major teaching anthologies: a version made unreadable by the fall of historical sequence, of allegorical temporality, into the simultaneity that constitutes irony’s absolutization of brevity. Something indeed “lies hidden” here, but what’s lost in this abbreviated sentence is not the “moment of death” consigned to the space between the stanzas of Wordsworth’s poem, but rather the “ideal ‘now’” in which de Man would situate the subject of that poem: “the duration of an acquired wisdom” by means of which allegory would overcome irony. If irony seems to have its revenge, though, when wisdom gets lost in the gap of a syntax whose illegibility taunts the reader by collocating “death” with what “lies hidden” between the two conflated “actual now”s (and what lies hidden here, consigned to death, is “the duration of an acquired wisdom”), then we have to acknowledge that to read this accident, this “error,” this way is to read it allegorically. Irony may tend to reduce itself to the brevity of a single point, but allegory alone can make the point about irony into a lesson. And it does so by displacing the antagonisms condensed in irony’s single moment into the spacing of narrative, the sequence of history that imposes the “duration of an acquired wisdom” at the very moment it enacts the error that guarantees wisdom’s fall.

18.        All reading, all critical transmission, all pedagogy inhabits this allegorical temporality, even in laying bare the irony that informs and undoes that structure. The mangled sentence that students have read, teachers taught, and anthologies reprinted for more than forty years may condense, in its own condensation, a vast array of unresolved tensions: between the aspirations of pedagogy and the impossibility of reading, between fantasies of knowing and performances of ignorance, between allegory’s imperative and irony’s resistance, between brevity as narrative duration and brevity as simultaneity, between history and theory, between ideality and accident, and even—why not?—between life and death. But like the failure to recognize allegory as early Romanticism’s “true voice,” de Man’s brief encounter with Wordsworth is also “ironically revealing.” In brief, it is and is not ironic, much like Wordsworth’s poem. Which may (or may not) explain why “The Rhetoric of Temporality” can say so only by way of saying something else. That displacement, that temporal opening onto a continual “something else,” marks the distance between irony’s brevity and the allegorization inherent in reading. If de Man’s encounter with irony—by way of his encounter with Wordsworth’s poem—approaches the limit of reading, the illegible simultaneity that his essay’s truncated sentences enact, then perhaps it is “ironically revealing” that the limit should prove to be one “he neither hears nor sees.” But then again, neither do we.

Works Cited

de Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

---. “The Rhetoric of Temporality.” Interpretation: Theory and Practice. Ed. Charles Singleton. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1969. 173-209.

Jacobs, Carol. “Allegories of Reading Paul de Man.” Reading de Man Reading. Ed. Lindsay Waters and Wlad Godzich. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989. 105-120.

Johnson, Barbara. The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.

Redfield, Marc. “Geoffrey Hartman: A Deviant Homage.” The Wordsworth Circle 37.1 (Winter 2006): 3-8.


[1] Carol Jacobs notes this movement as well in her brilliant essay, “Allegories of Reading Paul de Man”: “The section entitled ‘Allegory and Symbol,’ as we have seen, tells a historical tale that of a transition at the end of the eighteenth century from a concept of allegory as the key rhetorical term to that of symbol. The section on irony displays another narrative strategy, one that we will confront shortly” (113). Her essay, like my own, explores de Man’s claims about temporality and language as his work engages them in the process of conceptualizing allegory and irony and her essay does so, as does mine, by putting de Man’s claims about rhetoric in conversation with his own writing. Jacobs, however, argues that “as de Man’s irony becomes increasingly conscious of itself, it demonstrates the impossibility of being historical” (117). I suggest, to the contrary, that the pedagogical imperative in critical writing makes allegory inevitable. The very possibility of recognizing irony, let alone of its becoming “conscious of itself,” remains, in my reading, suspended. Jacobs, however, is canny enough to recognize this as well. She points to the possibility of reading the ironization of allegory as “an allegorization of sorts” (118) and writes that “the movement of the literary text is restated and repeated on an increasingly conscious level by the critical reading that must, no less than irony, fail to overcome the inauthenticity of its own language” (118). Even here, though, we see in this assertion of an “increasingly conscious level” of insight the (necessary) repetition of a faith in pedagogical possibilities. That faith, and its disturbance, are what my essay seeks to engage. It could not have done so, however, without Jacobs’s powerful example. BACK

[2] We might well ask just what it would mean for irony to become “conscious of itself.” This not only attributes consciousness to irony, but also supposes that irony possesses a specificity, an essence, made “increasingly” evident to itself across time. BACK

[3] Although the anteriority associated with allegory may be unreachable for de Man, that doesn’t stop him from tracing Rousseau’s allegorical depiction of Julie’s garden back to Defoe, by way of Bunyan, and, on the basis of this, declaring with assurance that La Nouvelle Héloïse renounces “the values associated with a cult of the moment, and this renunciation establishes the priority of an allegorical over a symbolic diction” (204). An ability to read the historicity of allegorical temporality thus assists in avoiding what de Man describes as the “near-fatal relapse into former error” (201). BACK

[4] Carol Jacobs makes a wise observation in this regard: “But if the knowledge gained in the language of allegory is painful, the tale about that knowledge often appears remarkably satisfying” (116). BACK

[5] By seeing these two beings as “juxtaposed,” de Man has already introduced the spatialization of allegorical distance that makes simultaneity legible at the expense of irony’s vertiginous madness. That recourse to the spatialization of time in order to be able to conceptualize the simultaneous pressure of antagonistic forces inheres in the critical endeavor as we see when Barbara Johnson traces the etymology of “critical” to the Greek “krinein, to separate, choose” (ix). BACK

[6] When de Man writes that “irony appears as an instantaneous process that takes place rapidly, suddenly, in one single moment” (225), we see brevity invoked as a rapidity that then collapses into the geometrical singularity of a point: a movement in the opposite direction from his reading of brevity as a figure of duration that leads to allegory’s performance of demystification. BACK

[7] Paul de Man, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” Interpretation: Theory and Practice, ed. Charles Singleton (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969), 206. BACK

[8] Carol Jacobs called attention to this error, but without further comment, in a parenthesis contained in a footnote to her essay, “Allegories of Reading Paul de Man”: “(The phrase is inadvertently omitted in the reprinting of the essay)” (120). BACK