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.

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.