The Magazine

The Fake’s Progress

Reconstructing the deconstructionist’s inventions.

Jul 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 41 • By MATTHEW WALTHER
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This is a biography of a man who disliked, even hated, biographies. Pointing this out is ironic in the contemporary sense of the word, though not cheaply or glibly so. Paul de Man, the Belgian Nazi collaborator, embezzler, bigamist, fraud, and all-around academic snake-oil salesman, insisted that history and context were beneath the attention of literary scholars. You don’t need to have your psychoanalyst’s cap on to see why.

paul de man

When de Man died in 1983, he was at the height of his influence (“fame” seems too strong a word), and his reputation looked all but assured. Deconstruction was an academic orthodoxy, and its high priests—Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman, and Harold Bloom (since then something of an apostate)—were the well-remunerated guardians of its sacred truths. After de Man’s death, appreciations appeared in prominent literary weeklies and left-leaning newspapers, and new volumes gathered together his unpublished and uncollected work. His memorial service in New Haven, where he had been Sterling professor of humanities and head of the comparative literature department at Yale, was the equivalent of a state funeral.

Then, in 1988, a graduate student made an astonishing discovery. Between 1940 and 1942, unbeknownst to any of his academic peers, Paul de Man had written nearly 200 articles, most of them on ostensibly literary themes, for two collaborationist newspapers. These articles, which were soon translated and published in the United States, saw de Man praising generic “Western” writers for their ability to shake off the cultural baggage of Jewish mediocrity and endorsing the idea that all of Europe’s Jews should be deported en masse, through Franz Rademacher’s so-called Madagascar Plan.

Responses ranged from equivocation to outrage, and everything in between. Many of his allies deserve a place in the Special Pleading Hall of Fame. One perverse admirer deconstructed the deconstructer, claiming to show that de Man had been playing a kind of anti-Nazi word game: His airing of anti-Semitic attitudes actually shows him engaging in subversive philo-Semitic activity. To de Man’s detractors, Jacques Derrida himself issued what must surely be the oddest literary putdown of all time: “The concept of making a charge itself belongs to the structure of phallogocentrism.” 

By 2004, Derrida, too, was dead, and deconstruction looked passé. Some of this can be chalked up to academic fortune, ever fickle, which, in the early 1990s, had begun to smile upon the so-called new historicism of Stephen Greenblatt and others. But it is undoubtedly the case that revelations about de Man’s conduct during World War II cast a sinister pall over the landscape of deconstruction. Even before his wartime journalism was ferreted out, critics had noticed something inhumane in passages such as this one, from de Man’s first collection of essays:

It is always possible to face up to any experience (to excuse any guilt), because the experience always exists simultaneously as fictional discourse and as empirical event and it is never possible to decide which one of the two possibilities is the right one. The indecision makes it possible to excuse the bleakest of crimes because, as a fiction, it escapes from the constraints of guilt and innocence.

As Evelyn Barish shows us in this excellent, though not quite flawless, biography, few, if any, of Paul de Man’s contemporaries understood his work, though an absurdly large number of them claimed to have done so. Barish, professor emerita at the CUNY Graduate Center, makes no such claim, and The Double Life of Paul de Man wraps up well before the apogee of her subject’s career, a period during which the facts of his life are well known and by which point he had already become the unsavory character she has sounded up out of years of interviews and archival research.

Paul de Man was born in Antwerp in 1919. His parents’ marriage was a union between the de Mans, a line of wealthy butchers, shipowners, and merchants, and the Van Beers, a Flemish artistic dynasty. Theirs was a bad match: He was a serial adulterer and she responded to her husband’s infidelities by taking a Spanish diplomat as a lover and trying repeatedly to commit suicide, a dark dream that came true in 1937. De Man’s relatives and antecedents were an odd bunch: His paternal great-grandfather, a Freemason, once punched a Roman Catholic priest who had forbidden his wife from eating meat during Lent. His Uncle Henri was a reactionary populist politician, a kind of proto-Mosleyite among the dockworkers of Antwerp.

Family life was a cold, secretive affair. The suicide of an aunt who had hanged herself after being told by a maid that her clothes were dirty had to be hushed up, as did the early death of an institutionalized uncle who probably had Down syndrome. De Man’s father’s best efforts could not stifle village gossip about his elder son, Rik, who raped several women, including a 12-year-old cousin, and was later run over by a train while riding his bicycle.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the antiseptic strangeness at home, de Man excelled at school, especially in mathematics. By age 18 he seemed poised to follow a maternal uncle into the architect’s profession. Like one of our own perpetual students, de Man changed his mind a lot during his stint at the Free University of Brussels: Engineering was a wash; chemistry a nonstarter; social sciences a bore. He left without a degree, and with the help of Uncle Henri, whose far-right politics served him well during the Nazi occupation of Belgium, de Man pursued a literary career. As a publisher’s assistant he failed spectacularly, misplacing manuscripts and losing money. He was much more successful writing Nazi propaganda. According to Barish, “De Man’s anti-Semitic expressions were more suave than the others’, but they had the special strength of giving an upper-class imprimatur to their crudity.” Unlike the work of some of his lowbrow contemporaries, “De Man’s remarks, more nuanced, signaled that there was a respectable way to be anti-Semitic.” 

After the war, he scrounged up enough capital to set up a publishing house. By conventional measures, de Man fared no better during his half-decade at the head of Hermès, his own firm, than he had working for others. But his goal was not to sign bestselling authors or to win coveted literary prizes, but to rake up as much of his investors’ cash as he possibly could: all told, more than one million Belgian francs. He was eventually convicted of multiple counts of embezzlement, fined, and sentenced to prison. But his case was decided in absentia, in 1951, for he had already fled to Argentina.

To Buenos Aires de Man brought his wife and their three children, one of whom had been born before their marriage. (Typically, he had bribed officials in order to have the first child declared legitimate.) Soon enough, he dumped his family and made his way to New York, where, as a bookstore clerk, he befriended Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy, to whom he gave the impression that he had been a Resistance hero. His new friends helped him obtain a teaching job at Bard College. There, he met Patricia, an undergraduate by whom he had another child, and whom he married for the first time in 1950—albeit without divorcing his previous wife. (He married Patricia two more times: once after his divorce went through in 1960, and again later that year, presumably for the heck of it.) The long-suffering Patricia is, in some ways, the heroine of this book; she stood by him through everything. A translation of Madame Bovary, published by Norton and still available on Amazon, has her husband’s name on the cover but is entirely her work.

Before long, de Man was contributing to the New York Review of Books and finding success in a series of prestigious academic posts. For him, the latter was simply a matter of charming the pants off of everyone important and flying the coop when too many people got suspicious. One might be tempted to admire the sheer recklessness of a man who forged his transcripts, coolly failed graduate entrance exams (in German) that he was expected to ace, and massaged university administrators into remaining silent about his academic double-dipping—he accepted tenured posts at both Cornell and the University of Zurich—all while keeping critics and admirers guessing with his anagogic, jargon-ridden prose and lectures that were (as Barish says) “difficult, even impossible, to understand.” De Man ran from unpaid landlord to unpaid landlord, hoodwinked department head to hoodwinked department head, all the way to Yale, lucre, and what once looked like an admiring posterity.

Despite a few oddities of phrasing, and some awkward repetition of information, this is a model biography that can be enjoyed by those with little interest in the history of literary criticism but plenty of curiosity about human nature at its most dissolute. Barish has done for Paul de Man here what Hugh Trevor-Roper did for Edmund Backhouse, the English expatriate sinologist, antiquarian, and pervert, in The Hermit of Peking (1977)—which is to say, she has revealed him as one of the great academic charlatans of all time. The conclusion is irresistible: Narrative has finally taken its revenge on Paul de Man.

Matthew Walther is an assistant editor at the American Spectator