Newspaper article International New York Times

Reconsidering Paul De Man: The Deconstructionist Deconstructed

Newspaper article International New York Times

Reconsidering Paul De Man: The Deconstructionist Deconstructed

Article excerpt

In "The Double Life of Paul de Man," Evelyn Barish develops old accusations about the literary scholar and adds new ones.

The Double Life of Paul de Man. By Evelyn Barish. Illustrated. 534 pages. Liveright Publishing. $35.

Stories about charming scoundrels have a built-in appeal, especially if the scoundrel is young and handsome -- and of course he must be very smart. Think of Leonardo DiCaprio in "Catch Me if You Can," or of Thomas Mann's comic con man Felix Krull. How do they fool so many people for so long?

A similar question underlies the story told by Evelyn Barish in "The Double Life of Paul de Man." Ms. Barish, a retired professor of English at the City University of New York Graduate Center, has devoted many years to tracking the elusive trail of the noted literary scholar who made headlines posthumously in 1988, after a researcher in Belgium discovered the trove of literary criticism he had published in that country's leading pro-Nazi newspaper during World War II. De Man, who had emigrated to the United States in 1948, earned a doctorate at Harvard in 1960 and went on to a dazzling academic career, forming a generation of devoted disciples. When he died in 1983 at age 64, he was a revered figure. The author of brilliant if difficult essays on modern literature, he had been among the first to embrace deconstruction, the influential theory elaborated by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Deconstruction focused on linguistic ambiguity, infuriating critics who viewed it as a dangerous relativism.

The discovery of de Man's collaborationist past (he had never spoken about it even to close friends) became an occasion for heated debates. How could one square the writings of the erudite scholar with those of the brash young collaborator whose opinions, viewed today, look appalling? Defenders of de Man argued that his early and late writings were worlds apart (figuratively and literally), indeed that the later theories implicitly repudiated his early views. Detractors maintained that despite obvious differences, the two were cut from the same intellectual cloth: The ideas about "undecidability" in language were an elaborate cover-up for past sins. The most hostile critics seized the opportunity to strike a decisive blow against deconstruction, as a doctrine with unavowable antecedents in Nazism.

Now, almost 30 years later, when the theoretical avant-garde has moved on, "The Double Life of Paul de Man" revives the man and his fall. This time, we get a story of the professor not just as a young collaborator, but as a scheming careerist, an embezzler and forger who fled Belgium in order to avoid prison, a bigamist who abandoned his first three children, a deadbeat who left many rents and hotel bills unpaid, a liar who wormed his way into Harvard by falsifying records, a cynic who used people shamelessly. Some of these accusations have been made before (and documented), but Ms. Barish develops them and adds new ones. Her conclusion is somber: She places de Man not among the charming scoundrels but among the false "new messiahs" of history.

Admirably, she has consulted far-flung archives, pored over unpublished documents, conducted interviews with dozens of de Man's relatives, friends and acquaintances. Her account of his chaotic childhood and adolescence, marked by his older brother's death and his mother's suicide, is compelling. Her story about his early adventures in New York is picaresque: The penniless, handsome young immigrant (his blond good looks are mentioned repeatedly) ascends, in the space of a few months and at the price of a few lies, into the inner circle of one of the city's most exclusive intellectual salons (Dwight Macdonald's), where he meets the powerful older woman who sponsored him (Mary McCarthy, who got him a temporary teaching job at Bard College). But when Ms. Barish starts to speculate that the young adventurer may have made McCarthy pregnant (she had a miscarriage), basing the speculation on slim circumstantial evidence (he was visiting her and her husband during the summer when the child was probably conceived, then stopped seeing them; a year later, McCarthy wrote a nasty letter about him to a professor at Bard), the reader's hackles go up. …

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