LONG before the scandalous revelations about Paul de Man's wartime writings for the pro-Nazi press came to light, deconstruction - the school of literary criticism most closely identified with him - was a hotly controversial topic inside and outside academe.
Proliferating in the hothouse climate of graduate-school literature departments in the 1970s, deconstruction had spread far beyond academia by the end of the 1980s. It has become the word of moment - in David Lehman's phrase, a sign of the times - applied to everything from new fads in clothing and architecture to the questionable tactics of Wall Street junk-bond dealers.
David Lehman, a poet, mystery writer, journalist, and graduate school veteran who covered the de Man story for Newsweek, offers "debunking" as a rough-and-ready synonym for deconstruction. In "Signs of the Times," his spirited, immensely readable guide to "Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man," Lehman also provides a far more complete summary of deconstruction's salient points: First, there's the assumption (derived from linguistic studies earlier this century) of an unbridgeable gap between signs (words) and the things they are supposed to signify. This leads to the supposition that language has a life of its own: It determines what we think and how we see, and not the other way around. We are its prisoners, unable to do without it or get around it. Therefore, when we read a text - be it a sonnet by Shakespeare or an ad for margarine, the United States Constitution or a Gothic romance - we are justified only in watching what the words are getting up to: Any effort to evaluate literary merit or disco ver the author's intended meaning is a pointless exercise.
For all the panache he displays in unmasking the pretensions of deconstructionists, Lehman is not entirely hostile to deconstruction. Nor is he the kind of writer who glibly dismisses what he fails to understand. His discussion of deconstruction in particular - and of literary criticism in general - is lively and well-informed. He even makes a good case for the value of "soft core" deconstruction as distinct from the "hard core" variety: The former is free-spirited, playful, creative, open-ended; the lat ter is a pseudo-religious cult that thinks it has all the answers and brooks no rival schools.
If the first half of Lehman's book is a shrewd, enlightening, witty, often entertaining look at the academic politics of literary criticism, the second half has the dramatic impact of a suspense novel. The deconstructionists' hubristic dismissal of biography and history met its nemesis in the form of incontrovertible biographical and historical facts. De Man, a Yale professor regarded by his colleagues and students as the most honest, intellectually rigorous, and disinterested of scholars, was discovered to have concealed the facts about his past. The silence he maintained to his death in 1983 was as disturbing as the transgressions themselves.
Ironically, it was a young Belgian graduate student - an admirer of de Man's work looking for more of the master's writings - who came across de Man's youthful contributions to Belgian collaborationist newspapers. …