The Chronicle Review

Deconstructing Paul De Man

David Plunkert for The Chronicle Review

March 03, 2014

Did Paul de Man and Martin Heidegger ever meet? If so, they could have compared notes on how to bamboozle de-Nazification officials after, well, one’s side loses.

No matter. Now de Man has joined that august cultural club that includes Caravaggio, Wagner, Céline, Pound, Heidegger, and a slew of other accomplished artists, thinkers, and intellectuals who were also no-goodniks. The nasty ethics in the personal lives of those cultural heavies force us to ask two tough questions that are simpler than many pretend:

(1) Is there an inevitable link between a person’s ethics and his creative and intellectual work?

(2) Is it morally acceptable to honor or enjoy the work of artists and intellectuals whom we condemn for their nonprofessional, unethical actions?

Even when a cultural figure simply bears accusations of ethical misdeeds—as in the case of Woody Allen over the years, a matter reopened after Hollywood’s Golden Globes tribute and an Academy Awards nomination—the questions, when retriggered, produce frenzied media meditations. Now, with the long-awaited publication of Evelyn Barish’s The Double Life of Paul de Man (Liveright), a two-decades-in-the-making investigative biography of the Yale literary theorist whose version of "deconstruction" shook up English and comp-lit departments in the 1970s and 80s, the high literary and intellectual worlds face their own revisiting.

According to Barish, de Man (1919-83) committed fraud, forgery (16 separate acts), swindling, embezzlement, and theft as a postwar Belgian book publisher. For his sins as head of the Hermes publishing house, he was, in 1951, "found guilty in absentia and sentenced to six years in prison with heavy fines." Apparently de Man played fast and loose with more than a million Belgian francs to fuel his lifelong luxury spending. Cornered, he skipped out to the United States on a visa probably obtained illegally by his father.

He practiced bigamy, marrying his second wife without telling her he’d never divorced his first. Despite lacking an undergraduate degree, he lied his way onto the faculty at Bard College, which eventually fired him. He also lied repeatedly to his mentors in graduate school and at the Society of Fellows at Harvard, where he moonlighted for years illegally as a full-time Berlitz instructor and failed his general exams the first time he took them. Harvard eventually found him out on multiple counts and it, too, pushed him out.

He abandoned three of his children when they became inconvenient. He grew well known among intimates, writes Barish, for "a lifelong series of evictions or disappearances for nonpayment of rent." He took credit for a translation of Madame Bovary done by his second wife. He developed a "practice of misquoting or distorting his sources," which, Barish reports, was "noticed early by some of de Man’s bemused students." He lied throughout his life about personal and career matters (publications, degrees, past jobs) the way most people breathe—regularly and constantly.

All that news, of course, comes on top of his previously exposed pro-Nazi journalism in Belgium during World War II—an activity on which Barish sheds further light—and the discovery of which, in 1987, began the descent of de Man from his posthumous high status. Barish reports that de Man planned to "create an entirely Nazi journal, one dedicated to promulgating Hitler’s ideology," and was "at the heart of the collaborationist press" during Belgium’s occupation, rather than just a "mere book reviewer." She argues that de Man’s "anti-Semitic expressions"—not limited, as some thought in 1987, to one article—"were more suave" than those of others, "but they had the special strength of giving an upper-class imprimatur to their crudity." De Man’s book reviews, she adds, supported "all the prevalent ethnic and racial stereotypes and prejudices of the day."

Is there an inevitable link between a person’s ethics and his creative and intellectual work?

Even before Barish’s book, as Marc Redfield observed in his introduction to Legacies of Paul de Man (Fordham University Press, 2007), a largely pro-de Man collection of essays, "the temperature of a discussion" could "still rise precipitously" at the mention of de Man’s name. Aside from his personal history, de Man’s professional work infuriated critics who saw him as more guru than intellectual, "a charismatic leader of ‘disciples,’" in Redfield’s own words. Redfield candidly acknowledged "a certain kind of student" that de Man was "famous for producing—the graduate student who imitates the teacher’s style, writes again and again about the bits of Rousseau or Wordsworth that de Man himself wrote about, and so on."

Yet even fellow heavyweight literary theorists who declined to demote de Man to mere guru often excoriated his work: Edward Said contended that de Man sacrificed history to textuality, Terry Eagleton denounced him for sacrificing reality altogether, and Richard Poirier regarded him as a "showboat" and "sort of fake." John Guillory, in his powerful Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon-Formation (University of Chicago Press, 1993), suggested that "theory" promoted "the charisma of the master teacher as a methodology."

In light of Barish’s stinging indictment, a fair assessment of de Man requires four components. First, as outlined above, an account of what Barish adds to the ugliness revealed in the late 1980s about de Man’s pro-Nazi journalism. Second, an appreciation of de Man’s peculiar academic status up to 1987, and the upshot of that year’s scandal. Third, an understanding of de Man as thinker and theorist. And fourth, an explanation and evaluation of how Barish links the two, and whether her judgments make sense.

The chief synthesis of de Man’s public diminution in 1987 came in poet and journalist David Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (Poseidon Press, 1991). As Lehman reported, Belgian doctoral student Ortwin de Graef, in the course of researching a doctoral dissertation on de Man, came across de Man’s 1940-42 journalism in German-occupied Belgium—including his 170 articles for the pro-Nazi newspaper Le Soir. The news exploded in academe, sparking sharp pro- and anti-de Man barrages. The worst Le Soir article by de Man, titled "The Jews in Contemporary Literature," amounted to an anti-Semitic invective that even his fiercest supporters declined to defend.

In the article, de Man dismissed the importance of Jews to European literature in cowardly, paint-by-the-Nazi-numbers style. Speaking of "Western intellectuals," de Man wrote:

That they have been able to safeguard themselves from Jewish influence in a domain as representative of culture as literature is proof of their vitality. We would have to give up hope for its future if our civilization had let itself be invaded by a foreign force. By keeping, in spite of Semitic interference in all aspects of European life, an intact originality and character, it has shown that its basic nature is healthy. Furthermore, one sees that a solution of the Jewish problem that would aim at the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not entail, for the literary life of the West, deplorable consequences. The latter would lose, in all, a few personalities of mediocre value and would continue, as in the past, to develop according to its great evolutionary laws.

Right to his death, de Man, like Heidegger, never apologized for his pro-Nazi behavior. On the one occasion in America when he confronted a challenge about it—an anonymous letter to his Harvard mentors during his graduate-student years, denouncing him and detailing a host of his sins—he largely lied his way out of it.

That many in the field of literary theory regarded the mature de Man as an upstanding, austere, even heroic character only added to the furor, which mixed with the larger conflict of the "theory wars" given that de Man, as Redfield put it, functioned for many as "a stand-in for ‘theory’ per se."

It’s worth remembering the panegyrics offered up to de Man. Derrida, at his colleague’s memorial service, credited him with "revitalizing all the channels that irrigate" literary theory "both inside and outside the university, in the United States and Europe." J. Hillis Miller, a fellow member of the Yale Critics, declared that "the millennium of universal justice and peace among men … would come if all men and women became good readers in de Man’s sense." The literary scholar Jan Mieszkowski, bewitched by de Man’s aphorisms, wrote, extraordinarily, that "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 didn’t get around to discussing explicitly."

Yet even de Man’s nearly godlike status as a Tier 1 intellectual couldn’t survive as further ugly yet vague tidbits tumbled out about his earlier life. Lehman’s book loudly sounded the bell about echoes between de Man’s character and his work. Barish now turns that into a symphony. Lehman observed that deconstruction "asks how we can know anything and answers that we can’t—nothing can be known." For de Man, a master obfuscator in regard to his own autobiography, it seemed a convenient theory.

What, then, did de Man believe? His work centers on one activity above all—reading—and one profound insight about language that time and other researchers (such as linguist George Lakoff) have only corroborated. The insight is that all language is originally metaphorical or figural, from supposed abstractions and concept-words such as "theory" and "idea" to the "legs" of a chair.

That metaphorical pedigree, according to the deconstructionist tradition, undermines what it labels the "logocentric" belief in stable, fixed meaning. In de Man’s view, a "text"—a term that can extend to far more than a literary text—possesses no core of fixed meaning. To the extent that a person and his or her actions might be seen as a text, the same applies.

De Man, however, extrapolated from that observation to absurd lengths. In Blindness and Insight (Oxford University Press, 1971) and later works, he began to assert, and attempt to illustrate with readings of major writers such as Rousseau, Shelley, and Yeats, that such instability of meaning meant that all readings were misreadings, and that misreadings piled up on one another. Reading, so to speak—or accurate reading—became impossible, and that circumstance, de Man wrote in Allegories of Reading (Yale University Press, 1979), "should not be taken too lightly."

De Man saw his approach as a recognition of language’s rhetorical nature, with a text’s metaphorical aspect barring both authors and readers from any triumphant achievement of a true interpretation. Within the hothouse atmosphere of Ivy League graduate studies in literature, the paradoxes he promoted, resembling but not identical with Derrida’s own deconstructionist forays, caught on.

What could be more nervy and radical than asserting that "what we usually call literary history has little or nothing to do with literature"? Declaring, as de Man did, that "the main theoretical interest of literary theory consists in the impossibility of its definition," or that "death is a displaced name for a linguistic predicament," or that "the translator, by definition, fails," could make aspiring deconstructionist hearts swoon. Such shocking positions separated literary "theorists" from run-of-the-mill critics and reviewers, leading some observers of the "theory wars" to view the whole "theory" movement as a kind of job-protection program for the besieged disciplines of English and comparative literature.

To those able to resist de Man’s charismatic ability to draw literary intellectuals into absurd, nihilistic positions, his argument that some instability of linguistic meaning produces utter instability of meaning is a classic non sequitur. The sensible judgments of better-educated philosophers gainsaid it, as did the stable world of linguistic meaning experienced by virtually everyone outside of elite literary studies—journalists, lawyers, musicians, athletes, engineers, actors. Umberto Eco, for instance, recognized the "openness" of texts in his seminal works, but, unlike de Man, Eco paid equal attention to structures of pragmatic authority and convention in human practice that often shrink semantic instability to insignificance, and limit it further by public debates about meaning (as in, "What do we mean by ‘terrorism’?").

So, too, Wittgenstein, with his crisp observation that "blurred" concepts remain concepts, and his ultimate endorsement in Philosophical Investigations of linguistic usage as the creator and stabilizer of meaning, showed even believers in the figurality of all language the way out of de Man’s fly bottle.

It didn’t help de Man among his critics that his celebrated readings frequently made little sense except as flamboyant shock treatment administered to literary traditionalists. Concluding his reading of Shelley’s "The Triumph of Life," de Man wrote 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."

The ascription of such a preposterous view to the poet who believed himself among the "unacknowledged legislators" of the world leaves Shelley with no recourse, since one cannot libel the dead.

In short, for those not mesmerized or rendered hypomanic by de Man’s bold irrationalities—such as Terry Eagleton, with his sarcastic observation that de Man thought everything from famines to soccer matches "yet more undecidable text"—de Man’s theoretical forays resembled Dadaist performances, attempts to épater la bourgeoisie more than it did any serious philosophy of language.

De Man’s paramount philosophical flaw remained his resolute refusal to concede that we socialized humans—operating in various cultures and languages, establishing various hierarchies of authority—decide what things mean, and when a reference and referent stick together with no gap. The literal exists because we decide that it exists and make it exist by reducing metaphors to dead metaphors. For a thinker and person who’d resolutely defied authority throughout his life in order to hide his unethical choices, the weakness was understandable. But it also points us back again to de Man’s life.

Barish, a professor of English at City University of New York’s Graduate Center and winner of a Christian Gauss Award for Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy, turned into Robert A. Caro for The Double Life of Paul de Man. Beginning her research in 1990, she tracked down people in de Man’s early life over more than two decades.

While the detail with which Barish recounts de Man’s early family life in Belgium may suffocate all but fanatical devotees of her "smart, talented, good-looking" subject—a case in point being her treatment of his powerful, collaborationist uncle, the scholar-­official Henri de Man, who "inducted" Paul into "the fascist social network of Brussels"—those facts undergird her interpretations of de Man’s personality, and her confident assertions of the links between his life and work. Even though Barish announces at the outset that the "subject of de Man’s later, academic theories goes beyond the scope of this study," her declarations of the linkages are many.

From the beginning, she writes, the secrecy with which his family treated a variety of misdeeds and embarrassments taught young Paul that "to prosper, one must lie and conceal." Taking what she labels a Lacanian stance, viewing the young de Man as damaged early by a philanderer father and a cold, isolated mother, who committed suicide when Paul was 19, she accuses de Man of a lifelong narcissism marked by (Barish learned from his second wife) his peculiar habit of looking at himself in a mirror for hours. "One may venture to guess," Barish writes, "that what was unstable in himself, which he called the abyss, or abîme, would become the instability of language."

Barish’s other judgments issue from the most déclassé of stances in high academe—the school of common sense. She says de Man "came to attack the notion that there is a stable self or any stability to language itself. … In view of his personal history, his theory, or philosophy, became a rational explanation of the life process."

"In later years," she further observes, "when de Man had become what he called a ‘theorist,’ he drew attention to the suspicious nature of all narratives, the need for the reader to examine them closely for the lies they told and the underlying motive or character they inevitably revealed for what was ‘at stake.’ That emphasis stemmed at least in part from his own intimate knowledge of how successful one could become at constructing plausible tales, how gullible most people were in the face of them, and how much one could profit by telling the right story, in the right way, to the right people."

As the biography rolls to its close, Barish reiterates in multiple formulations her stern judgment that character is intellectual fate. "By the late 1950s," she writes of de Man, who authored a famous essay titled "Autobiography as De-Facement," he "knew that he could not repair his past life and writings, but he could adopt another position toward history," one that would allow him "to sweep his own past misdeeds out of sight."

Barish submits that de Man’s later ideas "were born not only out of a desire to penetrate and disturb false notions about the sufficiency of discourse, but also to allow himself the ability to deny—to himself above all—the stability not just of words but of character, of history, and of personal responsibility."

"Perhaps not even to himself," she concludes, "did he fully acknowledge how much his own experiences—that narrative of his life, precisely that autobiography which he would later dismiss as impossible and merely a fiction—had shaped his intellectual and philosophical point of view." Barish does not apologize for being an old-fashioned realist who believes that "one must know the facts and the contexts from which lives and ideas spring as we seek to understand them." She puts the last nail in the coffin of de Man’s inflated reputation, revivifying a rare genre of exposé—the academic as con man.

And what of the two questions raised earlier about morally flawed cultural achievers? One can enjoy the work of a scholar such as Paul de Man, if his prose fits one’s taste, because taking pleasure, as in the everyday notion of "guilty pleasures," implies no serious judgment, moral or otherwise. One can also use such work if there is special justification—its indispensability, say, to an art form or philosophical movement or our shared flourishing. Dead-ender theory types may see de Man as comparable to a scientist, unethical in his private life, who discovers an important vaccine (deconstruction) that cures a disease (logocentrism). But to honor de Man for work whose roots begin in immorality—and any realistic assessment of Barish’s evidence suggests that they do—makes us complicit in the immorality.

Who, however, can best judge the link between life and work? The no-goodnik himself? Friends, family, and intimates? The scholar-biographer who devotes decades to research? Intellectuals on the outside looking in? Famous fraudsters in a different arena?

According to Barish, the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy, on her deathbed in a Maine hospital, laughed with her friend Elizabeth Hardwick about how de Man—whom she had befriended and possibly slept with before judging him a wily scoundrel—had made it to his position of fame at Yale.

It’s good, however, to have a mix of views. Perhaps David Remnick or Robert Silvers can ask Bernard Madoff if he’d care to review the Barish.

Carlin Romano, critic at large of The Chronicle and a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College, is a 2013-14 Guggenheim Fellow. His book, America the Philosophical (2012), is now out as a Vintage paperback.