The talented M. de Man?

“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.”

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De Man (left) with poet Theodore Weiss and Renee Weiss

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.

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Robert Alter

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.

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Peter Brooks

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:

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David Lehman

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.

Defending de Man

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Paul de Man

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.

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Harold Bloom

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.

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Jacques Derrida

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.”

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David Lehman

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.

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George Orwell

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.

signs“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.