Magazine article Salmagundi

The Descent of De Man

Magazine article Salmagundi

The Descent of De Man

Article excerpt

"In a profession full of fakes he was real... "

- Barbara Johnson1

"I look forward to seeing what I will produce and know as little about it as anybody else. "

- Paul de Man2

During the fall semester of 1987, the news of an unfolding scandal passed like a shudder through the body of American humanist scholarship. Through word of mouth and the haphazard circulation of a few xeroxed pages, the rumor quickly spread that something deeply disturbing had been unearthed about the background of one of the most distinguished and influential figures in our intellectual life, a figure who still cast a long shadow four years after his death in December, 1983. The subject was Paul de Man, the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale and for many years the dominant presence in the so-called Yale School of literary criticism, which had initiated a generation into the intricacies of deconstruction. The revelation concerned his initial writings, composed when de Man was still in his early twenties in his native Belgium. Thanks to the research of a young Belgian scholar from Leuven, Ortwin de Graef, a cache of some hundred or so articles were discovered that had appeared in the newspaper Le Soir in 1941 and 1942. Much to the dismay of their discoverer, who is an admirer of de Man, they gave clear evidence of his fascist and anti-semitic sympathies. On December 1,1987, The New York Times forced the underground rumor to surface with a sensational, unsigned essay entitled "Yale Scholar's Articles Found in Pro-Nazi Paper." Within a very short time, other journals like The Nation rushed to comment on the scandal. Any thought that the disturbing story could somehow be kept only local knowledge quickly was dissipated.

As this is being written, the full import of the materials is still uncertain and even more so are their implications for the ideas de Man so effectively promulgated. "Effectively" is the right word here, for there can be few scholars who so spontaneously and fervently engendered the praise of his colleagues and students. As Frank Lentricchia noted back in 1980, "Reading the prefaces and acknowledgments of Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller (the other Yale School critics), one is struck by the tone of respect, even reverence, with which the name of Paul de Man is mentioned."3 What Lentricchia called de Man's "rhetoric of authority" was even more strikingly evident in the tributes that followed his premature death at the age of 64. In the memorial statements gathered in a special issue of the Yale French Studies as "The Lesson of Paul de Man" and in the deeply felt encomium written by Jacques Derrida to his late friend,4 the remarkable power of de Man's intellect, personality and pedagogical talent was clearly acknowledged.

Although de Man was a master of irony - Derrida once called him 'Tironie meme"5 - it is difficult to believe he would have taken much joy from the ironic undercutting of his reputation at precisely the moment when his admirers were paying him such heartfelt homage. They themselves must doubtless feel a mixture of shock, chagrin, sadness, and anger as the result of what may well seem a kind of posthumous betrayal. When so much is invested in the personal stature of a master thinker, when his own warnings against such a deeply transferential relationship go unheeded, the consequences can indeed be devastating. Whatever those of us who were never under his considerable spell may think about his intellectual legacy, it is impossible not to empathize with the traumatized victims of these disclosures.

With hindsight, however, it is possible to wonder if certain questions might have been asked before about the roots of de Man's thought that were not. No secret, after all, had been made of his relationship to another de Man, his uncle Hendrik, whose political attitudes and actions were part of the public record. Yet, when it was treated by his supporters, its sinister implications were unexplored. …

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