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  • Schlegel, Brecht and the Jokes of Theory
  • J. E. Elliott

Joking with the rope around your neck is a feeble way of transcending your oppressors, but it is a sort of transcendence all the same, which someone else may always find a use for.

—Terry Eagleton

Philosophie ist, wenn gelacht wird.

—Hans Blumenberg


Paul de Man, as the works of mourning themselves attest, is dead; some would say, very dead. And death, as we are told, is no laughing matter. That which lacks the possibility of comparison lacks the occasion for humor, the latter assuming, wherever one pitches one’s comic tent, an inevitable promise of dialectic. Laughter takes shape as the reflex of recuperation, its practice of allotting names to the nameless a progressive domestication of the Other. In humor, all things ultimately happen on time; for the dead, as for the voiceless living—the colonized, deracinated, disenfranchised—an untimely remainder exists as the imbalance of accounts, an incommensurability of rule with the representation it comes to ensure. Death is therefore not only excessive but settles beyond the designation of excess, beyond what Yeats called the casual comedy of the quotidian [End Page 1056] to remind us of the supplementary power of its irreducible idiosyncracy. In refusing to “play along,” its recalcitrance outflanks even the most scrupulous attention to form.

In such a reading—and it could have been a de Manian reading, radicalized from its existential-phenomenological sources in Heidegger or Blanchot—theory inherits the title of high seriousness carried over from modernism’s fictional narratives of vigilance: sober, attentive, uncompromising. In fact, of the original Yale School hermeneuts, de Man was arguably the most ascetic, the most unyielding in his commitment to critical rigor, the most High Church in his adherence to the canon of the serious. There is little comedy, at least in the traditional sense, to be found in the figures de Man returned to again and again as benchmarks of the modern—Proust and Benjamin, Rousseau, Keats, Rilke and Blanchot—nor in his treatment of them as precursors to a fully demystified elucidation of aporia as the cleft between word and world. Allegory, finally, as the incommensurability of grammar and rhetoric, “a suspended uncertainty . . . unable to choose between two modes of reading,” is a notoriously somber trope, cutting us off from the comforts of linguistic mediation, historical dialectic, and the narratives of community in playing constant witness to the arbitrariness of culture and our debt to the finer knowledge of criticism in the wilderness. 1

It is thus doubly odd that Paul de Man should be selected as the target of a kind of aesthetico-cultural prank, his identity posthumously retooled to fit the designs of another warden of theoretical high seriousness—the current Warton Professor of English at Oxford, Terry Eagleton. To be sure, Eagleton is not a complete stranger to the modes of comedy, his Benjamin book containing an extended and highly enlightening discussion of Brecht’s treatment of dialectics as joke. 2 Any reader of Marx, moreover, will recall the peculiarly Juvenalian temper of The German Ideology and various other pre-Capital works, where scorn is repeatedly poured upon “St. Bruno” and his fellow Young Hegelians for misunderstanding the “true” nature of materialist emancipation. 3 Yet insofar as dialectical materialism has been forced to define itself in the last century and a half as dialectics unfulfilled, its tenor is sooner tragedy than comedy, the jokological impulse finally out of sync with the high social office of overthrowing World Capitalism. On this logic, Terry Eagleton would seem as unlikely a perpetrator, as Paul de Man a victim, of comic defacement.

But there it is nonetheless. The scene is quickly described: Terry Eagleton, in the opening chapter of his Ideology of the Aesthetic, [End Page 1057] identifies Antonio Gramsci, in a remark collected in his Prison Notebooks, as referring to Paul de Man as an “ideologue”—not, perhaps, as the quote runs, the “last of the Ideologues” (an honor reserved for Sigmund Freud), but ideologuish enough to make the “enthusiasm,” as Gramsci puts it, “of Croce and the Croceans for de Man even more curious.” 4

Curious indeed. A glance at the...

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