WHY DE MAN?

Paul de Man died of cancer in 1983 at the relatively early age of sixtyfour. Towards the end of those sixty-four years he had begun to emerge as a literary critic and philosophical thinker of international standing. At his memorial service the French philosopher Jacques Derrida described his friend’s achievement as a transformation of ‘the field of literary theory, revitalising all the channels that irrigate it both inside and outside the university, in the United States and Europe’ (Derrida 1989, vxii). The literary critic and colleague of de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, described his death as a ‘tragedy’ (Waters and Godzich 1989, 4), while in an essay written shortly after de Man’s death the renowned American literary critic J. Hillis Miller asserted that ‘the millennium of universal justice and peace among men … would come if all men and women became good readers in de Man’s sense’ (Miller 1987, 58). In 1999 the post-colonial, Marxist critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak dedicated her book A Critique of Postcolonial Reason to Paul de Man, who had died sixteen years earlier. Despite these testimonials, de Man is a controversial figure whose work inspires devotion and denunciation in equal measure. His theoretical work is variously described as ‘incomprehensible’, ‘anti-human’ or ‘apolitical’, while wartime journalism rediscovered shortly after his death has led to de Man being branded a ‘Nazi sympathiser’ by several of his critics.

However Paul de Man is judged, he is a key figure in the history of

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