Deconstructing De Man

By Wiener, Jon | The Nation, January 9, 1988 | Go to article overview

Deconstructing De Man


Wiener, Jon, The Nation


Deconstructing de Man

A scandal has erupted in the powerful school of literary criticism known as deconstruction. Recent relevations that Paul de Man, the Yale professor who founded the school in America, wrote more than one hundred articles for anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi newspapers in Belgium during World War II, has generated a great deal of comment about both the author and the politics of deconstruction. De Man, who died in 1984 at age 65, had concealed his political past from colleagues and students, who were shocked and dismayed by the relevations. In the month or so since his past was brought to light de Man has become something of an academic Waldheim.

In one of the articles in question, "Jews in Contemporary Literature,' which appeared in March 1941, de Man examined the argument that "the Jews' had "polluted' modern literature. The article argued that "our civilization' had remained healthy by resisting "the Semitic infiltration of all aspects of European life.' In another, he proposed that the Jews of Europe be sent to an island colony.

De Man's defendants acknowledge the seriousness of the revelations, but argue that the content of his collaborationist articles has been distorted. Neil Hertz, who teaches literature at Johns Hopkins University, points out that, of the ninety-two articles de Man is known to have published in the collaborationist Belgian newspaper Le Soir, only two were explicitly anti-Semitic. However, Jeffrey Mehlman of Boston University, a practitioner of deconstruction as well as the author of an influential book on anti-Semitism in French literature, explains that the rest included explicit calls for collaboration and numerous book reviews that "plugged the Nazi hit parade.' An article of de Man's titled "Testimony on the War in France,' published in March 1941, concluded that "no abyss separates the two peoples [French and German]. When a common task is presented, their agreement has been perfect. That is the principal teaching to be drawn from this beautiful book.' The author of the book in question, Benoist-Mechin, later proposed that the French take up arms against the British and Americans. De Man's other wartime articles included references to Hitler's war as "the current revolution' and a statement that "the necessity of immediate collaboration should be obvious to every objective mind.'

De Man, who came to the United States in 1947, successful concealed his pro-Nazi past except for one or two incidents. In 1953, when he was a member of the prestigious Society of Fellows at Harvard, he was denounced, anonymously, perhaps by his ex-wife, as a former collaborator; Harvard asked him for a response. De Man then told a few friends, and apparently Harvard as well, that the charge was false and that he had in fact been a member of the Belgian resistance. The friends, who have asked not to be identified, accepted his response; today at least one of them describes that response as "a lie.' De Man clearly told other people different things about his past. Juliet MacCannell was a student of his at Cornell in the mid-1960s; she now teaches comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine: "I asked him what he did during the war. He said, "I went to England and worked as a translator.'' There was also the matter of de Man's relationship to the German literary critic Hans Robert Jauss. He wrote about Jauss in Blindness and Insight and brought Jauss to Yale as a guest lecturer in the mid-1970s; Jauss is now known to have served in the S.S.

De Man wrote very few blurbs for other authors' books. One of the few, MacCannell points out, was for Julia Kristeva's Powers of Horror, published in 1982, not long before de Man died. "That book looks like an apology for Celine's anti-Semitism,' says MacCannell, who reviewed the book in the journal Semiotica. Kristeva's study "is very anti-Semitic itself.' A chapter of Kristeva's is titled ""Ours to Jew or Die''; in it, the author repeats Celine's anti-Semitic discourse in detail: that the Jew is "a fecalized, feminized, passivated rot. …

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