Paul de Man: the fall and the fallout

Is it time to stop picking over the scandals of Paul de Man’s life and focus on his critical work? asks Martin McQuillan

July 10, 2014

What we need is a de Man reboot for a new generation of readers not hung up on stories of academic rivalries in US universities in the 1960s

Academic life knows no greater pleasure than the fall of one of its own. Perhaps it is because the scholarly pathology depends so much on the forensic scrutiny of detailed evidence that it enjoys scandal so much. It is a form of release, an eruption of the repressed in an otherwise cautious and methodological culture. “We were all thinking it: we knew this guy was too good to be true,” we can say, even though almost no one said anything at the time.

The academic fall is all the more spectacular when it occurs to a high-flyer. Notable, though dissimilar, examples include Anthony Blunt, director of the Courtauld Institute of Art and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures who was publicly exposed as a KGB agent in 1979, and Charles Van Doren, the Columbia University lecturer who was exposed in 1959 as a cheat during his appearances on the television quiz show Twenty One. One of the most sensational cases, though, is the story of Paul de Man (1919-83), the Belgian-born scholar who would become Sterling professor of French and comparative literature at Yale University.

During his public life in the American academy, de Man was a much-admired literary theorist, and his work, along with that of Jacques Derrida, J. Hillis Miller and Geoffrey Hartmann, all of whom were also associated with Yale, helped to popularise the term “deconstruction”. His academic writing is a compelling account of European Romanticism, opening on to a wider set of concerns about how language functions and how this knowledge can be deployed to unpick totalising systems of thought. I have never really recovered from the moment in 1992 when, as a University of Glasgow undergraduate, faced with the only book available from a long reading list given to me by my senior honours tutor, I first encountered de Man’s famous reading of The Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

I had no inkling of the posthumous scandal that had surrounded de Man’s name only four years earlier when it was discovered that as a young man in occupied Belgium, this Yale scholar and public face of the American culture wars had written for newspapers under the control of the German military.

His wartime writing consists mostly of innocuous literary reviews, but a few display an over-eagerness to welcome the occupier; one in particular, “The Jews in Contemporary Literature”, formed part of an anti-Semitic special edition of Le Soir designed as propaganda to promote new pass laws introduced by the military government. It is suspected that he earned his position at the newspaper through the influence of his uncle Henri de Man, who was a leading voice in the pre-war European Left and later adviser to King Leopold III during the occupation, and who was convicted in absentia of treason after the war. This short, inchoate article from 1941 would come to stand in the minds of Paul de Man’s detractors for the whole of his later academic career; complex volumes of dense prose explained through a few hundred words of repulsive juvenilia.

The 1988 rediscovery of de Man’s wartime articles was a pre-internet scandal. Although Derrida and other supporters quickly sought to make the relevant articles available along with an accompanying book of scholarly responses and contextual data, the academic rejoinder inevitably lagged behind media reaction, and any hope of understanding this complex material was lost in the maelstrom of denunciation.

In opinion pieces in the press that followed, the content of de Man’s articles quickly morphed from a handful of indiscreet references into supposed evidence of his raging anti-Semitism, and the smoking gun that exposed the dangerous relativism of deconstruction and the lies of all Post-Modern thought. It did not matter that most of de Man’s detractors could not offer an accurate description of his later academic writing; they seized the opportunity to aim blows at the complexity of deconstruction and to trash critical thinking in the humanities before the publishing efforts of de Man’s academic friends had even got out of bed.

It was a bruising encounter with the media that left many scholars in the field scarred, and unwilling to this day to consider speaking to a journalist about de Man. The academics who responded in a scholarly context did themselves no favours either, bringing detailed textual analysis to the table when a plainer idiom was needed to set the record straight in prominent media outlets. The reputation of literary theory has never really recovered in the US public imagination from this media storm. Moreover, the controversy fed into the neoconservative caricature of the humanities found in Allan Bloom’s best-selling 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, which denounced “tenured radicals” on campus, and would go on to inform restrictions on the federal funding of political science and Fox News-led attacks on President Barack Obama’s imagined “Marxist” academicism.

As an academic scandal, it had the perfect ingredients: an elite university, suspiciously esoteric thought, a secret Nazi past and no shortage of prominent, wounded professors willing to say “I told you so”, speaking with all the gravitas of their office and all the accuracy of a freshman in the college bar. It was also the gift that kept on giving. In subsequent investigation, it emerged that during his early post-war years in the US, de Man had entered into a bigamous marriage with Patricia Kelley, one of his students at Bard College, having abandoned a wife and three children in Belgium.

The story of de Man’s life would seem to be the stuff of fiction, and it has, indeed, captured the imagination of several novelists. In John Banville’s Shroud (2002), a professor of literary theory and Romanticism, Axel Vander, travels to a conference in Turin to be challenged about his wartime past by a young woman he ends up taking to bed. Banville gives his de Manian narrative a twist when we learn that Vander is in fact a Jew who assumed an Aryan identity to escape deportation. Gilbert Adair’s The Death of the Author (1992) is the story of Léopold Sfax, another European literary theorist with a secret past. In Bernhard Schlink’s 2006 novel Die Heimkehr (later published in English as The Homecoming), he offers us the character John de Baur, an admired deconstructionist who is said to have “studied under Leo Strauss and Paul de Man” and who is later revealed to be an ex-SS officer and Nazi ideologue called Volker Vonlanden. A 1995 TV series Signs and Wonders starred Donald Pleasence as Cornelius Van Damm, a philosophical guru with a Nazi past. Meanwhile, de Man’s early years in America are the subject of at least two novels. Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe (1952) is a thinly disguised portrait of Joseph McCarthy-era Bard College, in which the protagonist, Henry Mulcahy, like de Man, has his contract of employment stopped.

Paul de Man

Henri Thomas’ 1964 novel Le Parjure (Perjury or The Perjurer) is a fictional account of de Man’s bigamous marriage to Kelley. (Derrida wrote at length about this novel; de Man suggested he read Thomas “if you want to know a part of my life”.)

It was in this context that, 25 years after the scandal broke, Evelyn Barish, an emeritus professor of English at the City University of New York, published a long-awaited biography, The Double Life of Paul de Man. The scene of such a scholarly biography had been over-determined in advance by the fictional versions of de Man’s life, the media event that has defined his reputation and all the other secretive, scandalous professors of literature, including David Lurie in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) and Coleman Silk in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000).

Barish was first commissioned to write the book by W. W. Norton at the height of the de Man affair. After years spent trawling through archives in Belgium and the US, she has discovered some papers of genuine note that add to our understanding of the de Man story, including the transcript of his interrogation in 1946 by the chief prosecutor for the Épuration (post-war trials to identify collaborators at which de Man was exonerated).

Reviewed in all the most significant US publications since its launch earlier this year, Barish’s book has divided opinion. In March, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by its critic at large, Carlin Romano, a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College, which stated that Barish “puts the last nail in the coffin of de Man’s inflated reputation”. Back in the late 1980s, David Lehman, the Conservative scholar and poet, had been the most prominent of de Man’s detractors (his Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man was published in 1991); and he reviewed Barish favourably in The Wall Street Journal. Reviews by Harvard University scholar Susan Suleiman in The New York Times and Peter Brooks (who encountered de Man as a student at Harvard and was later a colleague at Yale) in The New York Review of Books were more circumspect, pointing out a number of “small” errors and questioning whether Barish’s narration is reliable. Meanwhile, The New Yorker carried a lengthy feature by Louis Menand, Robert M. and Anne T. Bass professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University, that attempted to do justice to both Barish’s archival endeavours and de Man’s complex thought.

Rather than being a scholarly estimation of a complex life from the cool distance of a quarter of a century, Barish’s biography is the final belated salvo in a culture war that has long since fizzled out. While she makes several significant new claims to add to the de Man rap sheet, some do not bear scholarly scrutiny. For example, she claims that de Man, far from being a junior book reviewer at Le Soir, was “at the heart of the collaborationist publishing world during the occupation” as the driving force behind a pro-Nazi journal, the Cahiers Européens. Barish says that as “secretary of the editorial board” he was to be “editor in chief” of the journal – which never got off the ground – but as The New York Times points out, these terms do not correspond in French, the former being a far less central role.

In what one review described as the book’s biggest revelation, she reports that de Man’s post-war publishing venture at Éditions Hermès collapsed because of fraud, earning de Man a jail sentence in absentia. Yet it feels as though Barish is in a rush to condemn as she gathers evidence of de Man’s all-round devilry rather than pausing to unpick which bits of the collapse of the company are attributable to the financial incompetence that characterised de Man’s life and which parts were deliberate wrongdoing.

Barish also suggests that de Man was Mary McCarthy’s lover and may have made her pregnant. This is pure supposition, but the sort of thing that can become sedimented as scholarly fact if repeated often enough. Barish admits that an account of de Man’s academic writing is beyond her abilities, yet insists that her Talented Mr Ripley version of de Man’s life explains everything about that writing. Rather than the austere Ivy League professor of collective memory, she wants de Man to be a blond, blue-eyed charmer like Patricia Highsmith’s manipulative anti-hero, or Leonardo di Caprio’s recent film performance as Jay Gatsby, the cheat who got away with it all his life thanks to luck and the credulity of others.

In the end, Barish’s book is another exposé, a repeat performance of a tired old format, when what we need is a de Man reboot that reinvents the challenge of his thought for a new generation of readers who are not hung up on stories of academic rivalries in US universities in the 1960s.

In part, the de Man affair endures because all academics secretly fear that they will one day be exposed as frauds. In de Man, the academy has the perfect scapegoat: a “real fraud”. In the fictionalised de Man, Blunt and Van Doren we have “genuine fakes”, who we can all point at as being nothing like us. We might ask which humanities department, from California to Thessaloniki, is without skeletons in its cupboard. Whether it be sex or politics, if most of us had the contradictions of our private lives strung out and dissected as a running media event, few of us would emerge from our own histories with much credit.

Perhaps the controversy persists because in its heyday 25 years ago, it made the humanities headline news. Today, when the crisis for the humanities is the risk of irrelevance in a higher education market driven by employability outcomes and the economic impact of research, the de Man affair reminds us of the good old days when academic writing mattered enough to make the front page of The New York Times. Yet, in fact, critical thought, represented by the likes of de Man, offers a horizon beyond the instrumentalism of governments. In an age of economic crash and social uprising, full-spectrum surveillance, annexation and occupation, it is time the humanities found a new story, one that affirms their continuing relevance.

Divisive character: no unanimous views on the work or on the man himself

At the height of his influence, Paul de Man was the US’ “dominant figure in literary studies”, “the messiah of ‘theory’ ” and “the object of almost cult-worship”, according to The Washington Post in its recent review of Evelyn Barish’s biography, The Double Life of Paul de Man.

Yet it is not only de Man’s life that has ignited controversy. His ideas and his critical works have been divisive, attracting criticism from prominent intellectuals such as Edward Said, Terry Eagleton and Richard Poirier. The Washington Post describes de Man’s critical writing as “all but impenetrable to the uninitiated”.

De Man had a difficult childhood. His father was an unfaithful businessman; his brother had learning difficulties and committed rape; and his mother committed suicide. He also had relatives with political clout: his uncle Henri de Man led the Belgian Labour Party.

One of the articles that de Man produced for a leading pro-Nazi newspaper in occupied Belgium was “The Jews in Contemporary Literature”, written when he was 21. This spoke of a “solution” to “the Jewish problem” that would entail “the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe”. Were that to be done, he claimed, European culture “would lose, in all, a few personalities of mediocre value”.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Barish paints an image of a Nazi collaborator who was “deeply dishonest” and “bizarrely reckless” yet “manages to charm and bully his way to the pinnacle of intellectual life in the United States, all while covering up a shameful and even criminal past”, and “despite his lack of an undergraduate degree”. Although he excelled in his postgraduate studies at Harvard University, he may have falsified his University of Brussels transcript to get in and have taken “credit for a translation of Madame Bovary done by his second wife”.

The New York Times said that Barish depicts de Man as “a scheming careerist, an embezzler and forger who fled Belgium in order to avoid prison [and] a bigamist who abandoned his first three children”.

Questions about his character have provided ammunition for those who dismiss his ideas about linguistic ambiguity and view deconstruction as “dangerous relativism”. As The Chronicle observed, “deconstruction ‘asks how we can know anything and answers that we can’t…’ For de Man, a master obfuscator in regard to his own autobiography, it seemed a convenient theory.”

Writing in The Washington Times in March, Emmett Tyrrell Jr, editor-in-chief of the American Spectator, went so far as to argue that deconstructionists “who are not out-and-out frauds are obviously mental defectives”. He said he would propose Barish for a Presidential Medal of Freedom “once we get a proper president”.

But de Man has also been described as a kindly figure, and The Washington Post reports that those who knew him in later life all agree that he “wasn’t in the least” anti-Semitic. Asking whether Barish’s account presents “the truth” about de Man, it concludes, is “an impossible question”.

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Reader's comments (1)

Good to see you've got your impact narrative sorted; just a different kind of instrumentalization of de Man's life, we're all working for the da man.

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