The Chronicle Review

Paul de Man's Many Secrets

A biography two decades in the making reveals what the renowned theorist concealed

Patricia de Man

Paul de Man in Nantucket in 1952 with his son Michael, from his second marriage.
October 21, 2013

In 1987, four years after the death of the Yale professor and renowned literary theorist Paul de Man, a graduate student stumbled on an article de Man had written for a Belgian newspaper during World War II. The article, "Jews in Contemporary Literature," argued that Jewish writers were mediocre and that the creation of a "Jewish colony isolated from Europe" would cause literature little if any harm. The effect of that discovery on de Man's legacy was swift and severe, and it also cast a shadow on deconstruction, the method for understanding literature that de Man, along with Jacques Derrida, had put on the map.

A forthcoming biography of de Man, two decades in the making, puts that article into the context of early 1940s Belgium, a time in which de Man's anti-Semitism was comparatively mild if still odious.

Yet The Double Life of Paul de Man, by Evelyn Barish, doesn't rescue his reputation. Far from it: The portrait that emerges from the book is of a deeply dishonest, bizarrely reckless man who manages to charm and bully his way to the pinnacle of intellectual life in the United States, all while covering up a shameful and even criminal past.

Perhaps the single biggest revelation of the book, which Liveright/W.W. Norton will publish this spring, is that de Man was indeed a convicted criminal. In 1951 a judge in Belgium sentenced de Man in absentia (he had fled to the United States by then) to six years in prison for theft and fraud related to Hermès, the publication house he created and ran. De Man had looted the funds of the company to cover his own lavish expenses. In one case, Barish writes, de Man engaged in a "deliberate swindle" of a family friend, fooling him into making a loan that was never repaid. All told, more than a million Belgian francs disappeared—and, before he could face creditors and courts, so did de Man.

His conduct in his personal life was similarly irresponsible. The most heart-wrenching example is the abandonment of his three young sons from his first marriage (a marriage he didn't end before marrying a second time, adding bigamy to his résumé). He did not support or even see the boys—even refusing to take a phone call from one of his sons years later. "I'm still angry about that," Barish says in an interview, calling de Man's treatment of his sons "shocking and unforgivable." The scholar's behavior is so consistently self-serving that, at one point, Barish considered titling the book "Paul De Man: A Life of Betrayals."

Barish, a professor emerita of English at the City University of New York Graduate Center, began the biography in 1990, though she didn't know back then that it would be a book. In the mid sixties, when she was an instructor in English at Cornell, she heard de Man lecture once or twice, didn't really understand his theories—in this she was not alone—but admired him nonetheless. She was shocked when his anti-Semitic writings surfaced. "I couldn't get my mind around it," she recalls. Barish wanted to understand his downfall and thought a couple of articles might come of it. By 1992 it was clear that her project would be either a book or nothing: She was finding a mountain of information, and going through it, much less making sense of it, would take time.

She had no clue back then how much time, and that may have been a good thing. "I certainly wouldn't have done it if I knew what lay ahead," she says. Barish brought back 54 cartons of material from Belgium to her apartment, placed them on a table and covered them with a sheet. It looked like a corpse, she remembers.

The autopsy she performed was meticulous, and it included exploring not just de Man's time in Belgium, during which he wrote fascist-pleasing articles and fleeced friends and relations. That alone could have made a book. She also followed his rise in New York literary society, how de Man the bookstore clerk impressed and befriended the writer Mary McCarthy and then somehow wormed his way into higher education, first at Bard and later moving to Yale, despite his lack of an undergraduate degree (a fact Barish uncovered in her research) and a worse-than-dubious past that, had any of his newfound admirers known the full story, might have dulled his shine.

So what was it about de Man that intrigued and enthralled? "People want a kind of messiah," Barish says. "Most of the time we don't know what we're doing. When someone comes along and seems to have it right or to be very clear and very intelligent and immensely seductive, intellectually and personally, we say 'Right, let's go that way.' It didn't hurt that he cultivated an air of unapproachability and surrounded himself with a "palace guard," in Barish's phrase, of adoring acolytes.

It's one thing to dedicate a couple of decades to a more or less laudable subject. De Man, however, is not that. But while much of what she found was unflattering, Barish says she didn't become disillusioned because she "didn't begin by idolizing de Man." In the end, she maintains some sympathy for him, even though she sees him as a pathological narcissist who was willing to use and discard those closest to him. In one of the book's stranger anecdotes, de Man's second wife, Patricia, admits being puzzled by his habit of staring into the mirror, not just for a few minutes, but for hours.

Barish doesn't delve much into de Man's ideas, but she does point to apparent connections between how he lived and what he wrote. For instance, de Man struggled with details and was incapable of the careful archival research sometimes required of researchers. "A lot of good thinking has come from trying to save labor," Barish said. "I think that, to a large extent, what theory came out of was 'We don't have to bother with the trivia, with the facts. Let's try to rise above that.' I think that's what he wanted to do."

And he mostly did rise above. His success at dodging the consequences of his actions was remarkable, as was his ability to persuade those around him that he was worthy of their trust and esteem. "I would suggest that de Man was the antihero for our times," Barish writes in the epilogue, "and his pattern of secrets, crimes, flights, and self-reinventions is the stuff not just of drama, but of the madness that convulsed his own life and that of Europe in the era of Nazism."

De Man's stance, the stance that made him famous, was that facts were unreliable, language was slippery. For a fugitive running from unpleasant facts, and one for whom lying was second nature, such a worldview was both natural and useful. "The people that love de Man and continue to support him fundamentally say that there is no necessary connection between what a person does or says in his or her private life and what his or her ideas are," said Barish. "I'm not of that position."

Tom Bartlett is a senior writer at The Chronicle.