Mieszkowski, "Reading, Begging, Paul de Man"

Legacies of Paul de Man

Reading, Begging, Paul de Man

Jan Mieszkowski, Reed College

In a discussion of Edgar Allan Poe's _The Man of the Crowd_ and Heinrich von Kleist's _The Beggarwoman of Locarno,_ Mieszkowski explores Paul de Man's claim that reading is _a praxis that thematizes its own thesis about the impossibility of thematization_. This essay appears in _Legacies of Paul de Man_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.

  1. The opening sentence of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Man of the Crowd" cryptically informs us: "It was well said of a certain German book that 'es lässt sich nicht lesen'—it does not permit itself to be read," a pronouncement that returns in the final sentence of the story when the narrator concludes his comments on the "worst heart" in the world with: "Es lässt sich nicht lesen" (179/188).1 The reading pursued in the tale framed by these two lines certainly has its share of difficulties. The narrator sits in a London coffeehouse, contemplating the crowd on the street. At first able to classify the people he sees, subsuming each one under a type (clerk, gambler, beggar), he is eventually confronted with a unique countenance that "at once arrested and absorbed [his] whole attention on account of the absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression" (183). Almost immediately, he recasts this singular appearance as the external manifestation of an internal text: "'How wild a history,' I said to myself, 'is written within that bosom!'"(184). In an effort to read the physiognomy of this enigmatic man and the soul that lies within, the narrator gets up and follows his prey on a walk through the night and into the next morning. Perseverance, however, is not rewarded. No incident that might somehow clarify the inclinations or intentions of this extraordinary personage ever takes place, and ultimately, the project has to be abandoned. It is from the standpoint of this explanatory-event-that-wasn't that "The Man of the Crowd" begins with the narrator's declaration that there are "secrets which do not permit themselves to be told," "mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed" (179—emphasis in the original).

  2. As the narrator and his object of inquiry travel in tandem through the crowded streets of London, it gradually dawns on us that either one of them may rightly lay claim to the title "man of the crowd." In trying (and failing) to read the stranger, the narrator has to come to terms with what it means to read, or not to be able to read, his own bosom. In a story that begins and ends with a reflexive construction about a book that does not permit itself to be read, the possibility that the Other may turn out to be oneself neither confirms nor denies the authority of self-consciousness as much as it forces us to ask whether the inability to read—either one's own bosom or the countenance of a stranger on the street—is itself legible. In other words, does this allegory of unreadability permit itself to be read, and if so, in what respect, if any, is something genuinely unreadable in play?

  3. The problem is already evident in the first sentence of the story, in which the citation of a remark in German—"es lässt sich nicht lesen"—is followed by a dash that evidently introduces a translation of the preceding words: "It does not permit itself to be read." Superficially, the construction inspires confidence, providing us with an English version of the original so that we can understand the sentence about a book that will not permit itself to be read even if we are not acquainted with the German language and the nuances of the reflexive sich lassen. But is it clear what it means to say that Poe's own sentence does or does not permit itself to be read? If one cannot in some minimal sense decode the German, then one does not actually read the first part of the sentence; rather, one glosses the proposition as an undecipherable clause, the meaning of which may never be clarified. At the same time, this obscurity does not constitute an insurmountable obstacle. Just as one need not know precisely which "certain German book" Poe is referring to in order to proceed to the second paragraph and beyond—again, we do not learn the identity of this book until the story's last sentence—so one does not need to be able to decipher every word or phrase to make headway with the tale. If absolute lucidity were the standard for progress, then many readers would presumably never make it past the epigraph in French from La Bruyère (for which no translation is provided). In this respect, we could say that the sentence about a book that does not permit itself to be read permits itself to be read, but only in a very particular way, only insofar as its unreadably German dimension is revealed to be its most transparent part.

  4. Yet what convinces a stranger to the German language that the words following the dash are a translation, much less an "accurate" translation, of what comes before them, particularly since what is under discussion is something that does not allow itself to be read? Do we have any reason to be confident that this German phrase is more accommodating of our investigations than the "certain German book"? Irrespective of one's mastery of English or German, what one needs to read at the beginning of "The Man of the Crowd" is the dash, but if this means rendering the punctuation mark coherent, this happens only by blindly trusting that we can treat it as an expression of equivalence between two statements—rather than, for example, as a sign of contrast or opposition. The result is that even a native speaker of English may omit to unpack the English "translation" on the most basic level. Instead of pursuing the elementary hermeneutic gesture of asking what it means for something not to permit itself to be read (much less inquiring what this "certain book" might be), we are inclined to accept Poe's first sentence passively, following the presentation of obscurity and its subsequent clarification to a speedy conclusion as the foreign jargon is resolved into a more familiar vernacular. Along the way, concerns about the "deeper" meaning of these statements fall to the wayside.

  5. Taking our cue from the motif of the unreadable, we might generalize from this passage and argue that Poe's text hints that we always read in this fashion, i.e., that every foray into even the most unassuming of prose paragraphs is rife with wild leaps of faith across both literal and figurative "dashes," dashes that may or may not coordinate words and sentences in the ways we suppose—or at least in the ways we have to suppose if we are going to impose any semblance of sense on them. In these terms, reading is as much a violent series of positings as a judicious process of decoding. The opening sentence of "The Man of the Crowd" can thus be regarded as a miniature allegory of the unstable relationship between syntactic and semantic paradigms that plagues all literary works. To read the beginning of Poe's story is to confront both the impossibility of knowing how one reads the dash and the impossibility of not doing so. There is, after all, no alternative: "—" is " = "; the German is the English, or at least, we are forced to proceed as if the one says the same thing as the other, even if we truly do not know what we are talking about where one or both of the languages is concerned. In this way, the "unreadability" of the opening sentence ("it does not permit itself to be read") turns out to be entirely commonplace. Any sentence in "The Man of the Crowd" may present similar problems, irrespective of how many references it contains to rare books, and yet it is precisely our ability to identify a particular element of a sentence as (at least provisionally) unreadable that makes our progress through it so easy.

  6. Our discussion of the opening line of Poe's story has identified a potentially disruptive feature in its logic, but it may be that all we have done is to repeat the song-and-dance of obscurity and clarification that the sentence itself stages with its German and English versions of an unattributed quotation. Moreover, the interpretive procedure by which we have arrived at an account of the unreadable dimension of any reading potentially contradicts its own conclusion, since we were able to show that the sentence confounds our ability to articulate a clear difference between the readable and unreadable dimensions of the text only by tacitly presupposing such a difference from the start. In this context, it is important to recall that the main part of Poe's tale, elegantly framed by the two instances of "es lässt sich nicht lesen," speaks straightforwardly about secrets of the human heart that cannot be revealed. Such mysteries are more extreme than a book of prayers whose title needs to be looked up in a reference manual. They point towards something that must by its very nature remain hidden, a secret that is truly secret because to expose it is necessarily to transform it into something else.

  7. The negativity of this self-eliding figure suggests that Poe's story cannot simply be read as a meta-story about the permanent disjunction that obtains between an object and the modality of its representation. The inability to read the secrets of the human heart could be described as an allegory of unreadability, but such a gesture would serve only to dissimulate the fact that we do not know what these secrets are. It is also far from clear whether such a classificatory move would advance our interpretation of "The Man of the Crowd." Confirming the reflexivity of the text with respect to its representational structure leaves us, as it were, on the surface, for the meaning of the story is established with no consideration for its parts. The result is that our allegory of unreadability remains hyper-legible. It is all but independent of the narrative of which it is ostensibly comprised, and this is the case whether this unreadability is characterized with reference to the first sentence of the story, the relationship between the first sentence and its repetition in the story's final sentence, or the mystery of the man the narrator follows through the night. In identifying the allegorical nature of the text, we unexpectedly neutralize our attempts to understand it, and irrespective of how elaborately we construe the dialectical relationship between the readable and the unreadable, we by no means confirm our ability to take seriously the straightforward conclusion of Poe's narrator that there are some things that do not permit themselves to be read. In "reading ourselves reading," we may have done no better than Poe's narrator who in the end can read neither himself nor the singular figure he stalks.

  8. Among late twentieth-century critics, Paul de Man offers a unique perspective on the complex demands encountered by even the most elementary investigation into the theory of reading. Wreaking havoc with the traditional paradigms of exegesis and interpretation, his work unsettles the models of causation and development organizing our ideas about history, questions the assumptions about knowledge and representation structuring our aesthetics, and denounces the woefully incomplete understanding of the performative power of language that informs our moral philosophy. Perhaps most remarkably, de Man consistently reveals the degree to which the putative "themes" of a text are at once constituted and undermined by a figural logic in which the authority of linguistic reference is both vital and irreducibly aberrant. In the final analysis, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that his œuvre forces us to confront nothing less than the "impossibility of reading," an impossibility that no hermeneutics or poetics, no science of semiotics or taxonomy of rhetoric, no historical research or speculative logic, can dispel.

  9. De Man possessed an uncanny ability to craft lapidary conclusions for his arguments, pronouncements that with memorable eloquence describe—some would say, prescribe—fundamental disjunctions between grammar and rhetoric or between the phenomenal and the material. If it is rarely so easy to refer to the gist of such difficult demonstrations by citing the author's pithy summaries, the comprehensive quality of these maxim-like utterances can give the impression that there is nothing left for the literary critic to do but reconfirm the relevance of de Man's findings for everything he did not get around to discussing explicitly. The question is whether in striving to honor his achievements by reproducing them we unwittingly contravene them. If both de Man's allies and his detractors tend to evaluate his corpus through expositions of his most memorable synoptic formulations, his work is a testimony to the impossibility of reading becoming a purely synthetic praxis. Writing about Rousseau, de Man argues:

    A text such as the Profession de foi can literally be called 'unreadable' in that it leads to a set of assertions that radically exclude each other. Nor are these assertions mere neutral constations; they are exhortative performatives that require the passage from sheer enunciation to action. They compel us to choose while destroying the foundation of any choice. (245)

    If the Profession de foi compels "us to choose while destroying the foundation of any choice," understanding it cannot merely be a question of identifying the elements of the text that do not fit in perfectly with the rest, as deconstruction is frequently said to do. The unreadability of Rousseau's work is not a factor of obscurity, inconsistency, or the nonsensical; nor is it an effect of the "free play" of the signifier. De Man calls our attention here to a clash—a clear and direct clash—between two demands, a discord that undermines the very coordination of reference and signification that the text presents as its own distinguishing mode. In these terms, reading is an engagement with a strife that never assumes the form of a determinate negation that could be subordinated to a logical hierarchy and subsequently recuperated through further negations. As with Poe's dash, our conclusions about how to evaluate the legibility or illegibility of a particular punctuation mark, sentence, or even an entire work never align with the procedure through which we can and must ascribe meaning to a text. "Reading," writes de Man with characteristic flair, "is a praxis that thematizes its own thesis about the impossibility of thematization . . ." (Allegories 209). Reading never culminates in a coherent set of mutually informing syntheses and analyses. It relates to itself not as a self-determining or self-realizing operation, not as a self-confirming process of trial and error or the testing of hypotheses, but as a dynamic in which readability and unreadability threaten to be at once mutually informing and entirely irrelevant for one another.2 This is why de Man is adamant that no account of the complexities of the allegorical nature of language will ever form the basis for a procedure of meta-reading that could facilitate a stable set of judgments or a reliable system of knowledge. For him, the choice to read is always the choice to undertake the destruction of the grounds for precisely such a choice, hence, it is always the choice to undertake an impossible choice, to undertake the making-impossible of the choice called reading. It is with good reason that many literary critics have been openly hostile to de Man's work and its implications for the status of literary interpretation as a feasible, not to mention teachable, enterprise.

  10. In following de Man in his efforts to contend with the problems we inevitably face when we use language to talk about language, it will be helpful to consider in greater detail how his work does or does not "assist" us with the practical exegesis of a text. To this end, we will now turn to Heinrich von Kleist's "The Beggarwoman of Locarno." Written in 1810, this twenty-sentence prose piece is often referred to as the shortest Novelle in the German canon. The plot, such as it is, is simple: A Marquis is rude to a beggarwoman who ends up dying in the corner of one of his castle's rooms; some years later, she appears to return in the form of a ghost who rehearses the unfortunate woman's last steps at midnight; this paranormal phenomenon is investigated on successive days, and when it seems to be genuine, the Marquis goes berserk and burns down his castle, dying in the process. Although E.T.A. Hoffmann praised the tale for its unique treatment of the experiences of horror and shock (Schreck), it is quite unlike Hoffmann's own work, lacking an uncanny dimension or a feeling that intrigue or evil lurks just out of sight. Indeed, the tone of Kleist's text has often been compared to that of a legal brief. The couple of details it provides about its characters' emotions come across as functional premises rather than glimpses into individual psyches. The Marquise is said to assist the beggarwoman out of pity; the Marquis is described as oddly horrified when he hears the story about a ghost, although he does not understand why—but rather than rounding out the representation of a situation, these points serve to give us the impression that we are being provided with just enough information to facilitate the most formal of links between sentences.

  11. As in all his prose works, Kleist creates dramatic tension in "The Beggarwoman" with extraordinary brevity. As is also typical for his writing, however, it is difficult to attribute the effects that the various scenes create to the relations between the characters or between the characters and their actions. Kleist begins:

    At the foot of the Alps near Locarno in Upper Italy, there was an old castle, the property of a Marquis; as you go southward from St. Gotthard, you see it lying now in ruins. In one of its tall and spacious rooms, on a bundle of straw that had been thrown down for her, an old, sick woman who had come begging (bettelnd) to the door was once given a bed (gebettet) by the mistress of the house out of pity.3

    If the study of literature is concerned, as de Man once noted, with letters rather than with people, these first sentences provide considerable food for thought. As the story begins, the beggar has been put to bed—in German, the Bettelweib has been gebettet. From an etymological perspective, the Grimms' Dictionary confirms that the letters (b-e-t-t) these words share are significant: the two have a common root in the Gothic bidjan("to ask for") with its sense of "supplication." On some level, the connection should be obvious: In begging, one metaphorically throws oneself before a potential benefactor just as one might lie down to go to sleep. Of course, we have been told that the castle now lies in ruins, so the fact that the beggarwoman is lying on a bed of straw on the floor may not be altogether a good thing. As we further pursue the collusion between the content of the sentences and the lexical properties of the words, it may turn out that connecting things that share letters is not an entirely risk-free undertaking, either. Kleist continues:

    Returning from the hunt, the Marquis happened to enter the room (zufällig in das Zimmertrat) where he customarily kept his guns, and he angrily ordered the woman to get up from the corner where she was lying and move behind the stove. As/Because (Da) she rose, the old woman slipped on the polished floor with her crutch and severely injured her back; as a consequence of which she did stand up, though with unspeakable difficulty, and went across the room as she had been told, but behind the stove, with groans and sighs of pain, she sank down and died.

    Virtually every aspect of this story is structured as a series of movements and postures that take place in relation to horizontal and vertical axes. One rises, one sinks, one lies—ruined. In this strange pose-prose, every sentence is riddled with words that reinforce the emphasis on spatial coordinates and vectors. Ultimately, even time itself comes to be subordinated to the layout of the haunted room—things happen in the middle of this space in the middle of the night, and so on.

  12. Parallel to this language of lying down and standing up is a logic of orders and entreaties, i.e., the Marquis enters the room and commands the beggar to move. In this manner, he attempts to confirm both that one can get up and lie down when and where one pleases and that people will get up and lie down when and where they are so instructed. In the shift from one Bett to another, the Bettelweib, or at least her ghost, somehow goes astray, which is to say that the Marquis fails in his effort to get begging permanently bedded in a bed behind the stove (that is, to get Bettelngebettet in a Bett). Like the beggarwoman, the Marquis's command slips as he tries to keep her begging out of sight. Ironically, this means that begging will not be seen but will be heard as the ghost repeats the beggarwoman's efforts to do as she was told and become invisible.

  13. The sense that the effort to dismiss begging and its accompanying postures may be futile is heightened in the story's next section, where it is explained that some years later poor financial standing forced the Marquis and Marquise to try to sell their castle. A prospective buyer, a knight, is invited to spend the night in the very room where years before the beggarwoman had fallen, although nobody seems to recall anything about the incident. Just after midnight, the guest appears and announces "that his room was haunted, for something invisible to the eye had risen up from the corner with a sound as if it had been lying on straw, and slowly and feebly, but with distinct steps, crossed the room and sank down moaning and groaning behind the stove." Having tried to lie down in the room in which the beggarwoman was once to be tucked away, the would-be buyer pleads to be allowed to spend the night elsewhere. Kleist's word for pleading is bitten, which is etymologically related to both betteln and Bett.

  14. Lest there be any doubt about the semantic authority of these b-t-t associations, it should be observed that the Marquis's first step upon being confronted with this report about the specter is to place a bed in the room in question and to spend the night there himself. In this regard, it might be said that the whole story stands (or lies) under the shadow of a German proverb, Wie man sich bettet, so liegt man—You've made your bed, now lie in it. If the point, however, is that nobody in this story can stay in bed, this may be because the Marquis's initial order to the beggarwoman was only made because he happened to walk into the room by "chance" (Zufall). The beggarwoman happens to fall because he happens to drop by. One happenstance leads to another, or rather, to a "missed stance."

  15. For even the casual reader of Kleist, this question of Zufall will sound decisive. Virtually every text Kleist wrote seems to stand (or fall) by the German word Fall—whether the crucial connotation is a physical event, the biblical fall, or the standing of words or conditions themselves, since Fall also means "case" in the sense of grammatical case as well as "event" or "instance." In the case (Fall) of this tale, a Fall occasioned by "accident" (Zufall) leads to an unhappy "incident" (Vorfall) with a prospective buyer and so ultimately to the entire castle falling down.

  16. Yet falling is only part of the story, for Kleist's narrative proves to be curiously inconsistent in its statements concerning accidents. At the outset, we are informed that the Marquis just happened to walk in on the beggarwoman, but the detail is immediately mitigated by the further qualification that this was the room in which he usually kept his guns, as if it was only "somewhat" accidental that he went there after having been hunting. In the broader context of the story, the notion that things take place by accident is belied by the insistent return of particular words and expressions. Just as the ghost echoes the demise of the beggarwoman, retracing her journey across the room, so almost every other detail turns out to have a prior verbal analogue, as if even a text this short could do little more than re-quote itself. The beggarwoman slips when she rises up, and the same phrase describes the way in which a rumor rises up among the servants that there is something strange afoot in the bedroom. No matter how much falling may be going on, there is always another form of language to rise to the occasion, the Vorfall, which is of course also a word for what the Marquis is trying to do, namely, to return things to the way they were before the beggarwoman's fall, vor dem Fall.

  17. Of course, not everything permits of repetition. Although the beggarwoman's slip is potentially the most ordinary event in the tale—the floor is slick; she falls—it is also the paradigmatically singular event. Night after night, the ghost rehearses her movements after she takes her spill, but it never repeats her initial tumble. Unlike the story's other literal and figurative falls, the beggarwoman's blunder occurs only once, a point reinforced by the phrase that characterizes the incident. Kleist writes that the beggarwoman slipped "da sie sich erhob"—meaning either "as she rose up" or "because she rose up"—heightening our sense that even the most precise exposition of the text's language cannot provide us with a clear causal chain. The beggarwoman slides—sie glitscht—but the fall never becomes the kind of glitch in a system that could be corrected or expelled as something foreign. 4

  18. It is precisely this aspect of the beggarwoman's fall that has prompted some critics to view the story as a moral parable in which the Marquis is punished for a crime. From this angle, the plot takes on an almost tragi-comic quality, as if one casual act of rudeness could lead, through a series of freakish steps, to total devastation. In fact, a sense that the various elements of the story are almost preposterously difficult to coordinate with one another pervades the entire narrative. Immediately following the statement that the beggarwoman sank down and died, the narrative jumps forward several years. No reader of the tale has any trouble associating the second section with the first; it never occurs to us that it is merely coincidental that the ghost should appear in this room and haunt it in this way. Yet almost as if to cast doubt on this assumption, neither the Marquis nor any of the other characters ever makes reference to the connection between the specter and the uninvited guest of a few years earlier, and when the ghost makes a direct appearance as an agent in the narrative, it is as an impersonal "he" rather than a "she." Lamenting the failure of Kleist's characters to connect the past with the present or the visible woman with the invisible ghost, one commentator has argued that it is as if Kleist's imagination was paralyzed the day he wrote the story.5 The result is a text in which nothing can be put together with anything else, a sort of nightmare of the Kantian mind in which synthesis, in particular the synthesizing power of time, is no longer possible and experience has become a chaotic pastiche of discrete elements.

  19. Further scrutiny of the story's syntax bears this out. As Emil Staiger has observed, the tale's first fourteen sentences are organized by a hypotactic grammar in which the responsibilities of the comma, the semi-colon, and the colon are pushed to the limits of what the German language will allow (5). Far from creating a clear hierarchy of cause and effect, this peculiar prose contributes to the sense of a shaky edifice held together by very little. The more precise the articulations become, the less evident it is that they facilitate meaningful juxtapositions between agents or events, as if the conjunctions and punctuation marks joining the clauses are more important than what they connect.

  20. In this space in which neither what is prone nor what is standing holds sway, the Marquis remains vigilant. Three nights in a row, he tries to bed down in the haunted room in order to put the rumors to bed. Unfortunately, the more determined he and his wife become to make a thorough evaluation of the situation, the more it appears as if the very acts of standing up and lying down have themselves become ghostly fictions—less physical phenomena than something one assumes must be happening because it sounds as if it were the case. It may be that the Marquis and Marquise fail because they are determined to attribute this phantom incident, this Vorfall, to some "unimportant and accidental (zufällig) cause." In never really trying to escape the logic of falling, they unwittingly remain within the space of standing and slipping inaugurated by the beggarwoman's initial actions. It comes as no surprise, then, that Zufall again has a role to play as the Marquis and Marquise lie down for the last time in the haunted room. For better or worse, on this occasion their dog happens to be present to serve as another witness—we are told that he finds himself before the door of the haunted room exactly as the old woman found herself before the castle door several years earlier. At this point, the story switches from the past to the present tense, as if to indicate that we are now at a decisive juncture and that everything prior has only been a set-up for what is about to happen. Finally, it would seem, the beggarwoman's singular slip is to be followed by another unique event. If the syntax of the story has to this point been hypotactic to an almost absurd degree (even for German), the sentences suddenly become simpler, even paratactic. The grammar now mimics the "tap tap" of the ghost's crutch rather than the elaborate weaving of premises and conclusions that distinguished the first part.

  21. In this final encounter with the ghost, the specter is for the first time described not simply by association—that is, in the thrice-repeated "it sounded as if someone lying on the floor got up…"—but with the facticity of agency: "Someone human eyes cannot see rises on crutches in the corner of the room." The emphasis on what human eyes cannot see necessarily turns our attention to the canine witness, inviting us to regard him as the substantial link that had previously been missing between the visible and the invisible, the natural and the supernatural. Once again, however, we have been baited into a conclusion for which the necessary details are not available. Nothing in the scene makes it clear that the dog is reacting to something he sees rather than hears. We moved easily from Bett to betten and from betteln to bitten, but dog—in German, Hund—never resolves itself into the Grund, the ground or explanation, for the peculiar noises sought by the Marquis and Marquise. Like the other sleepers in the haunted room before him, the Hund wakes up at the witching hour, the Geisterstunde, but his behavior remains just another confirmation of something that cannot be confirmed, a gesture towards a connection that joins nothing. In this sense, the true significance of Hund may lie in its last three letters, u-n-d, und, the most ordinary of German conjunctions and, as it so happens, the most ubiquitous word in Kleist's story.

  22. "The Beggarwoman of Locarno" begins with a castle lying in ruins and ends with the Marquis's bones lying there, too. In this triumph of the horizontal over the vertical in which whatever gets upright and walks is at some point doomed to take a spill, even the language of orders—Stand up! Go to bed!—is confronted with a circum-stance in which no one, including the person who gives the orders, is able to maintain his or her stance. As elaborate as the hypotactic constructions they facilitate may be, Kleist's conjunctions never turn into substantives, and und in particular never assumes a coherent form—as, for example, a Hund. Like every other conjunction in this story, und remains in a haunted space in which one is never quite sure of its purpose. Does it link events in causal relations, or does it simply juxtapose statements with one another, setting them disjointedly side by side? In these terms, the hypotactic grammar of the first section of the story is eventually brought low by the tap tap of a paratactic specter that reduces everything to ruinous confusion. The story's ghost is the phantom of sentence constructions that are never substantial enough to build a hierarchy that could get, or perhaps stay, off the ground.

  23. From this perspective, we could invoke de Man's conclusion to his reading of Percy Shelley's "The Triumph of Life" in which he argues that the poem "warns us that nothing, whether deed, word, thought, or text, ever happens in relation, positive or negative, to anything that precedes, follows, or exists elsewhere, but only as a random event whose power, like the power of death, is due to the randomness of its occurrence" (Rhetoric 122). Kleist's twenty-sentence novella would therefore be an allegory of events, a tale in which no occurrence—the slip of the beggarwoman, the death of the Marquis—can be understood by situating it within a deterministic logic that would purport to explain what it means by referring it to something else. The point is not that an event generates its own narrative or that the narrative creates an event as a retrospective excuse for the act of storytelling. Nor is it sufficient simply to speak of a tension between what occurs and the act of representing what occurs. The ghost plagues the castle not by demonstrating that the original fall of the visiting beggar had consequences for the future, but by revealing that the initial tumble was already haunted by a randomness that could never fully be integrated into a story cleansed of the specters of chance or accident. The event of Kleist's ghost is the event of events because it at once sets up and brings down the stances and circumstances of time and place in virtue of which we would customarily locate something and identify it as meaningful by describing when and how it takes place. From this standpoint—although it is precisely not a standpoint—all events are spectral because all events call into question their own capacity to happen.

  24. In what sense, then, are we to speak of language "taking place," or to put it another way, would it be correct to conclude on the basis of our reading of Kleist that all words are irremediably fallen? In the final sentence of the story, the Marquis's bones are said to lie "in that corner of the room from which he once ordered the beggarwoman of Locarno to stand up" ("von welchem, er das Bettelweib von Locarno hatte aufstehen heißen"). These last phrases present the command to stand with a German expression based on the verb heißen, "to be called" or "to mean." In this manner, the story concludes with a demand that language addresses to itself—perhaps with authority, perhaps only as an act of supplication. This is language's plea to itself that it stand up and make a name (heißen) for itself, or at least in some respect establish itself as meaningful. Following Poe's "The Man of the Crowd," the question is whether Kleist's story permits itself to stand or fall, or even to try. The irony of "The Beggarwoman of Locarno" may be that language is never certain to answer its own entreaty, which is to say that the word Fall can never be as good as its name and become one case of falling, one Fall des Falls, among others. All language, we might say, is ghost-speak, although it is we, not ghosts, who speak it.

  25. As a consequence, our interpretation of Kleist's story cannot take refuge in any particular figure of falling—whether it be the shape of a moral allegory ('the Marquis got what he deserved') or a constellation of lexically related words ('u-n-d binds the collapse of the Grund via the presence of the Hund').6 The language of begging happens, or rather "happen-stances," in the space opened up by the beggarwoman's singular slip, hovering between the horizontal and the vertical, between a logic of commands and a logic of pleas, between cause and accident. This is a language that places a demand upon itself for a standing that it can never realize because it is a language that will stand for no demands whatsoever. Neither synthesis nor analysis, this discourse confronts us not with the positing or negating power of the word, but with a linguistic force that will no longer permit us to characterize it in terms of what it does or does not allow to take place.

  26. The term for such a language can only be Locarno. In a story in which there are no proper nouns following the opening sentence, it is striking how precisely the castle's location is mapped out, "near Locarno." Etymologically, the name is Celtic, Loc-ar-on, meaning a town situated beside a river or a lake. Of course, it is an Italian town, so we can also read it as Loc-Arno, the Arno being the river running through Florence. Arno itself has a Celtic or Ligurian, i.e., pre-Latin, etymology meaning "river," as a result of which we might also imagine it as the Locus-Arno, a (Latin) place by a (Celtic) river. On the other hand, Loc may come from the Celtic (Gaelic) Loch, water, in which case the story would be called "The Beggarwoman of Water by Water"—the locative designation of "a city by a river" now replaced by the paratactic parallelism of the ghostly crutch: water, water / tap, tap. The spectral Locarno is the place where the belief that nothing can take place without a reason (Grund) is qualified by the curious detail that everything takes place, again and again, without ever thereby acquiring a place, a Grund, of its own. In this sense, the story's title names the effort—the inherently untenable effort—by which language attempts to stop begging and stand up.

  27. Poe's "The Man of the Crowd" is distinguished by a phantom event, an act on the part of the man with a singular countenance that will explain his mysterious nature but that never happens. Paradoxically, it is this very absence of a clarifying incident that confirms Poe's narrator's decision to judge a book by its cover and conclude that the man he is following is intrinsically unreadable. In Kleist's story, it is in the very process of effecting numerous aftershocks that events destroy their own standing as meaningful occurrences to the point of severing their links to the incidents they bring about. In this regard, "The Beggarwoman of Locarno" must be read as an example of the failure of language to exemplify either readability or unreadability—the failure, if you like, of language to do our begging, much less our bidding.

  28. To his credit, Paul de Man was one of the few literary critics who never expected any more or less. If his legacy remains, like that of the beggarwoman, tenuous, it is because he offers us a lesson about the inability of our allegories of intellectual history to account for the linguistic structure of the events they strive to depict. De Man bequeaths us not a stance from which to pontificate about the ineluctable tensions between grammar and rhetoric or performance and constation, but a challenge to the reflexivity of analysis, a challenge, that is, to the belief that being able to describe the dynamic interaction of form and content or subject and object is tantamount to being able to identify what does and does not permit itself to be read.


Works Cited

De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981.

---. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.

Gasché, Rodolphe. Inventions of Difference: On Jacques Derrida. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Deutsches Wörterbuch. Leipzig : Hirzel, 1965-.

Hamacher, Werner. "LECTIO: de Man’s Imperative." Reading de Man Reading. Eds. Lindsay Waters and Wlad Godzich. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989. 171-201.

Kleist, Heinrich von. The Marquise of O— and other stories. Trans. David Luke and Nigel Reeves. New York: Penguin, 1978.

---. Sämtliche Werke und Briefe. Ed. Helmut Sembdner. Munich: DTV, 1987.

---. Selected Writings. Ed. and Trans. David Constantine. London: J.M. Dent, 1997.

The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings. Ed. David Galloway. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Schroder, Jurgen. "'Das Bettelweib von Locarno': Zum Gespenstischen in den Novellen Heinrich von Kleists." Germanisch-Romanische Monatsschrift 17 (1967): 193-207.

Staiger, Emil. "Kleist's 'Bettelweib von Locarno.'" Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift fürLiteraturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 20 (1942): 1-16.


1 Only in the last sentence of the story is it (at least apparently) revealed that this "certain German book" refers to the Hortulus Animæ, a prayer manual that was popular in both its Latin and German editions in the sixteenth century. This clarification is offered indirectly, when the narrator says of the text that the "worst heart of the world is a grosser book" than it (188).

2 From this perspective, we would have to question Rodolphe Gasché's statement that in de Man "literariness, writing, and the text are understood according to the model of a conscious subjectivity, that is, of a self-reflexive presence" (55). Werner Hamacher moves in this direction when he writes,


3My translation is based on the German original (Sembdner 2: 196-98) with extensive reference to the English versions provided by Constantine (Selected Writings 351-53) and Luke and Reeves (The Marquise 214-16).

4 Although the OED states that the etymology of "glitch" is unknown, it probably comes from the Yiddish glitsh ("a slip, lapse"), which derives from the Middle High German glitschen ("to glide").

5 See Schroder 195.

6 In his reading of Shelley, de Man argues something similar: "The undoing of the representational and iconic function of figuration by the play of the signifier does not suffice to bring about the disfiguration which The Triumph of Life acts out or represents" (Rhetoric 114—emphasis added).

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