Reading, Begging, Paul de Man

Focusing on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Man of the Crowd" and Heinrich von Kleist's "The Beggarwoman of Locarno," this essay explores Paul de Man's claim that reading is "a praxis that thematizes its own thesis about the impossibility of thematization." In Poe's story, the cryptic assertion that a particular book does not allow itself to be read becomes part of a larger structure of self-reference in which legibility is no longer a factor of clarity or obscurity. In Kleist, the notion that language can tell a coherent story about its own signifying capacities is unsettled as even the most rudimentary distinction between form and content proves to be at once too specific and too abstract. In the final analysis, Kleist's work confronts us with an event of language that is governed by neither a representational nor a lexical logic. From this perspective, de Man's understanding of allegory helps us to see why textual reflexivity cannot be modeled on a figure of historical self-consciousness.