“In his writing, abstruseness, bristling abstraction, and a disorienting use of terms make his essays often difficult to penetrate. This was part of the key to his success: to his American admirers, with their cultural inferiority complex, it seemed that if things were difficult to grasp, something profound was being said.”
That’s critic Robert Alter writing about Paul de Man (1919-83), the lit-crit god who, as we saw last week, came crashing down from Olympus four years after his death when an archivist ran across pro-Nazi articles he’d written during the war. In 2014, a CUNY prof named Evelyn Barish finished off the job, demonstrating, in an excellently researched biography that we examined yesterday, that de Man was not only a wartime Nazi and anti-Semite but a lifelong thief, user, and master of deceit.
As Alter pointed out in his review of Barish’s biography, de Man, famous in his lifetime for the supposed “rigor” of his criticism, was in fact a slippery customer not just in real life but in his work as well,
playing fast and loose with the texts he discussed, misquoting, inventing quotations, and mistranslating. The British Renaissance scholar Brian Vickers has demonstrated in a trenchant article that de Man, discussing Rousseau, at one point inserts a ne absent in the French, thus converting a positive assertion by Rousseau into a negative one that suits his own purposes. Again, as Vickers shows, de Man emphatically claims that “rhetoric” in Nietzsche has nothing to do with persuasion whereas Nietzsche repeatedly says the opposite.
But in 2014, just as in 1987, de Man’s old friends did their best to fudge the facts and kill the messenger in an effort to salvage his reputation. Reviewing Barish’s book in the New York Review of Books, Peter Brooks, an old Yale buddy of de Man’s, played an especially slick game. From the very first sentence of his review and right up until the end, Brooks toyed with the conceit that the de Man of Barish’s book was not unlike Tom Ripley, the brilliantly deceitful antihero of Patricia Highsmith’s famous novel The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Brooks’s point: Barish’s de Man is not the real de Man, but just a character cooked up by Barish in an effort to reduce the complexities of a real man’s life to the crude outlines of the protagonist of some cheap thriller. Brooks’s approach to Barish’s biography was so transparently dishonest – so obviously an effort to avoid the questions raised by de Man’s lifelong duplicity and instead indict Barish herself for deliberate misrepresentation – that David Lehman replied with a splendid letter in which he reminded readers of the objective fact that de Man was, like it or not, “a cheat, a liar, a forger, a thief, a bigamist, a cad, a swindler, a moocher, not to mention an enthusiastic Nazi propagandist, whether out of conviction or opportunism.”
The “sleight of hand” Brooks employed in his review, wrote Lehman, “should fool no one,” although Lehman did express the concern that readers might come away from Brooks’s review “with the opinion that the biographer is the criminal for not recognizing that de Man’s is, in Brooks’s words, ‘a story of remarkable survival and success following the chaos of war, occupation, postwar migration, and moments of financial desperation.’” Lehman added, eloquently:
Those of us who lost family in the Holocaust have the right to insist that actions freely undertaken have consequences; that unquestioned brilliance of intellect does not justify misdeeds of the magnitude of de Man’s; and that special pleading in the face of overwhelming evidence is a species of dishonesty. No one forced de Man to write anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi articles—he did it on his own, and whether out of conviction or opportunism is beside the point.