Deconstruction seeks to turn coherence into incoherence. Paul de Man‘s own variation on it can fairly be described as outright nihilistic, systematically taking statements that have explicit meanings and dissolving them (as a murderer dissolves a corpse in quicklime) until the statements are utterly barren of even the slightest hint of signification.
So it was that when de Man, who died in 1983, was exposed four years later as a wartime Nazi, defenders sought to take his newly discovered pro-Nazi wartime writings and deconstruct the Nazism – and anti-Semitism – out of them. At the same time, they did their best to twist the arguments of de Man’s critics out of all recognition.
One example. When it was announced that a symposium would be held to discuss de Man’s Nazi articles, The Nation quoted an anonymous critic described as being “close to de Man” (and widely assumed to be another Yale eminence, Harold Bloom) who expressed disgust: “Paul must have known the Jews of Belgium were being carted away. We are discussing the butchery of the Belgian Jewish community, down to the babies. To treat this as one more item about which to have a symposium is outrageous.”
In response to this statement, Jacques Derrida, deconstruction’s founder, professed outrage, pretending that the unnamed critic had sought “to forbid the right to assembly and discussion.” (“What,” he asked, “does that remind you of?”) In other words, forget de Man’s Nazi past – Bloom (if Bloom it was) was acting like Hitler himself! Of course, the critic “close to de Man” had never proposed forbidding anything.
That was only the beginning of Derrida’s dubious, desperate defense. In the spring 1988 issue of Critical Inquiry, he published a 62-page essay that, as David Lehman put it, oozed “slithering elusiveness.” Employing a wide range of slick rhetorical devices, Derrida sought to prove that de Man’s written words don’t necessarily mean what you think they do – and/or that he may have written one thing even as he was thinking something else. Had de Man, asked Derrida, articulated anti-Semitic views even as he criticized “vulgar antisemitism” in the very same piece? Well, then, didn’t criticizing “vulgar antisemitism” amount to criticizing “the vulgarity of antisemitism” itself? Was he not, in fact, condemning the very anti-Semitism he had pretended to profess?
It was by means of such lame language games that Derrida sought to get de Man off the hook. “Borrowing Derrida’s logic,” commented Lehman dryly, “one could deconstruct Mein Kampf to reveal that its author was conflicted on the subject of the Jews.”
Other champions of de Man were even more brazen than Derrida. One critic named S. Heidi Krueger actually tried to sell the case that de Man’s most offensive wartime piece, entitled “The Jews in Contemporary Literature,” was, like Jonathan Swift’s famous essay “A Modest Proposal,” meant ironically. In other words, it was one big joke. De Man may have assumed the voice of someone who hated Jews, but his underlying point, maintained Krueger, was to mock anti-Semitism.
Then there was deconstructionist Richard Rand, who, by means of a truly audacious example of rhetorical sleight of hand, claimed to establish that de Man could not be anti-Semitic because, in a very important sense, de Man was himself Jewish. Huh? Rand went on to acknowledge that de Man was not Jewish “biographically speaking,” but explained that this didn’t matter: what counted was that those who were now accusing de Man posthumously of anti-Semitism were themselves, in reality, anti-Semites, who were displacing their anti-Jewish bigotry by charging de Man with the offense that they themselves were actually guilty of.
As Lehman observed, Rand’s argument illustrated “the eerie similarity” of deconstruction to the totalitarian up-is-down, yes-is-no rhetoric that George Orwell dubbed doublethink.
“Happy the deconstructor,” wrote Lehman, “who can prove, or at least get himself to believe, that black is white, that the four raised fingers of a hand make five, and that those who excoriate Paul de Man’s anti-Semitism reveal themselves to be anti-Semites.”
The whole 1987-88 de Man dustup is recounted at length in Lehman’s excellent 1991 book, Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man. In the end, despite the brilliant efforts by the Yale crowd to spin them into non-existence, the plain facts about de Man could not be shot down. And they destroyed his image forever.
As it turned out, however, there were even more revelations to come – years and years later. We’ll get to that next week.