Revisiting de Man

As we saw last week, Paul de Man was a revered literary critic – a pillar of the pretentious theoretical approach known as deconstruction – who died in 1983 only to have his reputation destroyed four years later when a young Belgian academic uncovered his pro-Nazi wartime writings.  

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Evelyn Barish

The blow that de Man’s image suffered in 1987 was bad enough. But things got even worse in 2014, when Evelyn Barish, a professor at City University of New York, published a comprehensive and deeply researched biography of de Man that provided further proof of his moral bankruptcy – not only in wartime, but throughout his life.

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Paul de Man

For one thing, he was, as it turned out, a bigamist. In occupied Brussels, he and his first wife lived in an apartment that had most likely been appropriated from Jews. He was very close to his uncle Henri de Man, a top Nazi collaborator and member of the cabinet in Hitler’s puppet Belgian government, through whom he met a number of top-flight Nazis. In addition to writing for two Nazi papers, de Man worked at a Nazi publishing house and tried to get support for an art magazine that would “promote the entire range of the most bizarre Nazi ideologies.” During the war, and in the years immediately afterwards, de Man took out loans and never repaid them, accepted advances for books he had no intention of writing, and committed embezzlement. In the process he bankrupted his father, who never spoke to him again.

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Mary McCarthy

It was when the heat started getting too hot in Belgium that de Man fled to the U.S. He entered the country on a temporary visa, which he overstayed. Three years after his big move, a Belgian court sentenced him to five years in prison for forgery and other crimes. Somehow, word of this verdict apparently didn’t make its way to the appropriate authorities in the U.S. In any event, de Man didn’t look back – and didn’t change his ways. When a new friend, author Mary McCarthy, recommended him for what would be his first teaching job in America, at Bard College, he presented the administrators with an entirely fictitious CV, including a made-up master’s thesis and a position with a prestigious Paris publishing house. He also pretended to have been in the Resistance.

Living in New York, de Man kept moving from flat to flat because he had a bad habit of never paying rent; when he pulled the same scam at Bard, where his landlord was on the faculty, Bard fired him.

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Robert Alter

From Bard he went to Harvard. To get in, he proffered a new set of fake credentials: on the bottom of a legitimate document from the University of Brussels that identified him as a dropout – but, notes critic Robert Alter, “in language by no means clear to American eyes” –  de Man forged a handwritten addendum stating that he’d “passed the actual ‘Licence’ exam before a State Board in 1942.” The folks at Harvard had no way of knowing, apparently, that there was no such thing in Belgium as the State Board.

When he finished his work at Harvard, de Man failed the written part of his comprehensive exams, but his doctoral advisor passed him anyway. Eventually the INS got his number and showed up in his life, from time to time, like Inspector Javert in Les Miserables; but de Man was luckier than Jean Valjean, managing each time to talk his way out of getting taken into custody.

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Paul de Man with Jacques Derrida

As Alter put it in his review of Barish’s book, the “full picture” of de Man’s life “is actually far worse” than even his severest critics had thought back in 1987. Describing de Man as “a person who flagrantly disregarded rules and obligations, shamelessly and repeatedly lied about himself, and had a criminal past,” Alter praised him as “an extraordinarily gifted con man, persuading the most discerning intellectuals that he had credentials he did not possess and a heroic personal history, rather than a scandalous one, while he worked his charm on generations of students.”

Once, in his youth, De Man told a relative: “Principles are what the idiots substitute for intelligence.” He seems to have lived his whole life by this precept.

More tomorrow.

De Man’s deceptions

They were called the deconstructionists, and a few decades ago they were the stars of academic literary studies in the United States. Based largely at Yale University, the critical school was founded by Jacques Derrida, whose fame and influence were almost matched by the group’s second most important member, Paul de Man.

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Paul de Man

During his lifetime, this is what was generally known about De Man’s background: born in Belgium in 1919, he moved to America in 1948, taught at Bard, studied at Harvard, then joined the faculty at Cornell. At a 1966 conference he heard a speech by Derrida, whom he befriended and whose critical approach he began to adopt in his own work. His star rose steadily during the last years of his career, which he spent as chair of Yale’s department of comparative literature.

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Ortwin de Graef

He died in 1983, fêted and respected around the world. And then the roof caved in. In 1987, a Belgian grad student and de Man devotee, Ortwin de Graef, was poking through some old archives when he ran across two hundred or so articles that de Man had written for a couple of Nazi-run newspapers, Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land, during the war. Now, it had never been entirely clear what de Man had done during the war. He had led people to believe that he’d belonged to the Resistance, but the details had always been sketchy. De Graef’s discoveries showed that de Man, far from standing up to the Nazis, had worked for them, written for them, and supported them. Although his topics were mostly literary, he managed to bring to them a political – which is to say a consistently pro-Nazi – approach. As lliterary critic and Harvard professor Louis Menand has put it, de Man “championed a Germanic aesthetic, denigrated French culture as effete, associated Jews with cultural degeneracy, praised pro-Nazi writers and intellectuals, and assured Le Soir’s readers that the New Order had come to Europe. The war was over. It was time to join the winners.”

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Louis Menand

The New York Times reported on de Graef’s findings in December 1987. The mainstream press, for the most part, crucified de Man. But many of his friends, colleagues, and fellow practitioners of literary theory tried to find a way to declare de Man innocent. To do so, they employed the slippery “logic” (which is anything but le mot juste here) of deconstruction itself, which revels in complexity, obscurity, and incertitude, and is eager to find ambiguity everywhere – even (or perhaps especially) in flat-out, perfectly clear statements that contain no real ambiguity whatsoever. In some cases, indeed, deconstruction essentially goes so far as to turn day into night, up into down, and wrong into right. We’ll look at a couple of those cockeyed defenses tomorrow.