The Return to Philology

Paul de Man

Paul de Man, The Resistance to Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 21-26

    My own awareness of the critical, even subversive, power of

literary instruction does not stem from philosophical allegiances

but from a very specific teaching experience.  In the 1950s,

[W.F. Jackson] Bate's colleague at Harvard, Reuben Brower,

taught an undergraduate course in General Education entitled "The

Interpretation of Literature" (better known on the Harvard campus

and in the profession at large as HUM 6) in which many graduate

students in English and Comparative Literature served as teaching

assistants.  No one could be more remote from high-powered French

theory than Reuben Brower.  He wrote books on Shakespeare and on

Pope that are models of sensitive scholarship but not exactly

manifestos for critical terrorism.  He was much more interested

in Greek and Latin literature than in literary theory.  The

critics he felt closest to, besides Eliot, were Richards and

Leavis, and in both of them he was in sympathy with their

emphasis on ethics.

    Brower, however, believed in and effectively conveyed what

appears to be an entirely innocuous and pragmatic precept,

founded on Richard's "practical criticism."  Students, as they

began to write on the writings of others, were not to say

anything that was not derived from the text they were

considering.  They were not to make any statements that they

could not support by a specific use of language that actually

occurred in the text.  They were asked, in other words, to begin

by reading texts closely as texts and not to move at once into

the general context of human experience or history.  Much more

humbly or modestly, they were to start out from the bafflement

that such singular turns of tone, phrase, and figure were bound

to produce in readers attentive enough to notice them and honest

enough not to hide their non-understanding behind the screen of

received ideas that often passes, in literary instruction, for

humanistic knowledge.

    This very simple rule, surprisingly enough, had far-reaching

didactic consequences.  I have never known a course by which

students were so transformed.  Some never saw the point of thus

restricting their attention to the matter at hand and of

concentrating on the way meaning is conveyed rather than on the

meaning itself.  Others, however, caught on very quickly and,

henceforth, they would never be the same.  The papers they handed

in at the end of the course bore little resemblance to what they

produced at the beginning.  What they lost in generality, they

more than made up for in precision and in the closer proximity of

their writing to the original mode.  It did not make writing

easier for them for they no longer felt free to indulge in any

thought that came into their head or to paraphrase any idea they

happened to encounter.  The profession is littered with the books

that the students of Reuben Brower failed to write.  Good readers

often are spare writers and in the present state of literary

studies, that is all to the good.

    Here was a course, then, utterly devoid of subversive

intentions as well as of theoretical objections.  The conceptual

and terminological apparatus was kept to a minimum, with only a

few ordinary language terms for metalanguage.  The entire stance

was certainly not devoid of its own ideological and

methodological assumptions, yet they managed to remain implicit

without interfering with the procedures.  Reuben Brower had a

rare talent, not out of respect for the delicacy of language, for

keeping things as tidy as a philosophical investigation ought to

be yet, at the same time, entirely pragmatic.  Mere reading, it

turns out, prior to any theory, is able to transform critical

discourse in a manner that would appear deeply subversive to

those who think of the teaching of literature as a substitute for

the teaching of theology, ethics, psychology, or intellectual

history.  Close reading accomplishes this often in spite of

itself because it cannot fail to respond to structures of

language which it is the more or less secret aim of literary

teaching to keep hidden.