SubStance 32.3 (2003) 6-18
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Revisiting A New History of French Literature
interviewed by Richard J. Golsan and Ruth Larson
R.J. Golsan: A New History of French Literature was published in 1989, when the effects of the de Man and Heidegger affairs were challenging not only the prevailing critical formalism, but were paving the way for a more ideological or "engaged" criticism in the 1990s (postcolonialism, gender studies, etc). If you were to undertake or even reconceive your New History, what impact, if any, would these developments have?
Denis Hollier: Contrary to a commonly held American assumption, de Man has never been a key figure in the genealogy of French literary studies, not in this country, and even less so in France. Before moving to the States in the early seventies, I read a few articles by him, like the one in the special issue of Critique devoted to Blanchot, and another one about Montaigne, but that was almost by chance. He was really not a very important reference—his name was never mentioned by students, and to my knowledge that's still the case. There is still not much de Man translated into French, and the pieces of literary criticism coming from France that I read do not quote him very often, to say the least. De Man for me became a reference when I moved to the States, yet even there he did not really have a central influence in French departments, but more in adjacent fields, especially in Comparative Literature. In any case, the "crisis" prompted by the discovery and dissemination of de Man's wartime articles was really not central to the way the book was conceived.
On the other hand, to go back to the second part of your question, about post-colonialism and gender studies, I think that the book as it stands is already rather clearly engaged in that direction. I am not the author of the book, I was its general editor. It was really conceived by a diverse group of scholars and all the concerns you mention—those post-literary theory ways of approaching literature and culture—were quite present in the minds of the majority of our team.
As for the way I would organize New History today, the very form of the book would allow one to conceive of other organizations, other selections [End Page 6] and so on, but in terms of its basic principles, I don't think it would be done in a radically different way. In my view it's already, in its own way, strongly engaged in post-colonial and gender studies, especially if you take into account the fact that it covers the entire span of French literature, from the Oaths of Strasbourg to the date of the publication of the volume itself. So there might be little changes here and there, twelve years later, but not in the general conception of the volume.
RJG: To return to the de Man affair: I know your reaction is at least mixed to the interest in fascist writing and the retrieval of "fascist cultural artifacts," and this is clear in your review of David Carroll's book. 1 Would you say then that the net effect of the de Man affair, in terms of French literary studies, was much more profound in this country than in France, and that in a certain sense the de Man affair derailed French studies in this country in a direction that ultimately you don't feel is particularly productive?
DH: Yes, I think that a lot of scholars in America felt a kind of post-de Man guilt by association. It was a deeply disturbing stain on a figure who had been highly admired and respected, and it generated an attempt at focusing on and interrogating retrospectively those very blind spots that had been those of a certain American formalism. I have nothing against such a historical self-criticism—quite to the contrary—but concretely, I think that it is not possible to...