(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Culler, Jonathan. The Literary in Theory. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007. This book by one of the great expositors of deconstruction and postmodernism in the United States focuses on the theoretical salience of what de Man famously called the linguistics of literariness.

Hoeveler, J. David, Jr. The Postmodernist Turn: American Thought and Culture in the 1970’s. 1996. Reprint. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. Places de Man’s thought in an American milieu from which it is too often excluded on account of its European origin.

McQuillan, Martin. Paul de Man. New York: Routledge, 2001. An accessible, balanced introduction to de Man’s thought. One of the best books for the beginning student of de Man and his works. Part of the Routledge Critical Thinkers series.

Melville, Stephen W. Philosophy Beside Itself: On Deconstruction and Modernism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. Places de Man in the broader context of literary and philosophical thought in the twentieth century. Part of the Theory and History of Literature series.

Redfield, Marc, ed. Legacies of Paul de Man. New York: Fordham University Press, 2007. A look at whether—and if so, how—de Man’s theories have survived the comparative eclipse of his reputation in the 1990’s. Also includes fascinating appendices concerning de Man’s teaching of literature at Yale in the 1970’s.

Waters, Lindsay, and Wlad Godzich, eds. Reading de Man Reading. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989. This book of essays examines de Man’s critical procedures and the vertiginous implications of his strategic acts of reading. Part of the Theory and History of Literature series.