The idea of this work’s title, Blindness and Insight, is a paradoxical one. For Paul de Man, the qualities of blindness and insight are not polar opposites but qualities that strangely work together in exemplifying the mysteries of a complicated critical text. Often, de Man argues, critics will seem to have a blind spot and to willfully not notice aspects of a text that do not accord with the fixed ideas they bring to a text; and, he continues, these critics see some details of a literary work only to negate others. De Man does not suggest, however, that this “blindness” should be altered; instead, this blindness enables the critical insight in the first place. Insights are arrived at through the “cost” of blindness.
Blindness and Insight is de Man’s first book, published when he was fifty-two years old. Like other influential works of literary criticism, such as Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1950), Blindness and Insight is a book of essays, not written as a unified volume. Furthermore, some of the essays appeared in scholarly journals, and others in popular media such as The New York Review of Books. The essays have a wide following in critical and literary theory circles. Also, Blindness and Insight, in large measure, led to de Man’s acceptance of a professorship at Yale. He finished his career there and soon became one of the most influential literary critics of the twentieth century.
For all the complexity of de Man’s thought, Blindness and Insight is a peculiarly accessible book. De Man did not have a conventional academic career. When young in his native Belgium, he became involved in writing for literary journals that expressed a collaborationist viewpoint—a willingness to cooperate with the Nazis, who were then occupying Belgium. (This collaboration was discovered posthumously in 1988.) While in his mid-twenties, de Man emigrated to the United States and worked in a bookstore in New York. It was there that he met writer Mary McCarthy, who helped him get his first teaching position. He then did graduate work at Harvard, where he was a member of its Society of Fellows.
De Man, influenced by European philosophy and poetics, also knew of the then-dominant American critical and pedagogical method of New Criticism, which he learned from one of its finest exponents, Reuben A. Brower. New Criticism stressed the independence of the literary text from social, historical, or biographical contexts. De Man agreed with this foregrounding of literariness and its emphasis on close, attentive acts of reading what was actually on the page. He felt stymied, however, by the inertness of New Criticism, its tendency to be content with stable, well-rounded resolutions to intellectual questions.
In the essay “The Rhetoric of Blindness,” de Man further explores the metaphor of blindness as insight. Although in general sympathy with...
(The entire section is 1212 words.)