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appeared in prominent literary weeklies and left-leaning newspapers, and new volumes gathered together his unpublished and uncollected work.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.