De Man's Deconstruction

By Merle Rubin. Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction . | The Christian Science Monitor, July 9, 1991 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

De Man's Deconstruction

Merle Rubin. Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction ., The Christian Science Monitor

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. The story came out in 1987, four years after de Man's death.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

De Man's Deconstruction


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?