The De Man Case

By Menand, Louis | The New Yorker, March 24, 2014 | Go to article overview

The De Man Case


Menand, Louis, The New Yorker


THE DE MAN CASE

BY LOUIS MENAND

Does a critic's past explain his criticism? Paul de Man became the symbol of what made people anxious about literary theory.

The idea that there is literature, and then there is something that professors do with literature called "theory," is a little strange. To think about literature is to think theoretically. If you believe that literature is different from other kinds of writing (like philosophy and self-help books), if you have ideas about what's relevant and what isn't for understanding it (which class had ownership of the means of production, whether it gives you goose bumps, what color the author painted his toenails), and if you have standards for judging whether it's great or not so great (a pleasing style or a displeasing politics), then you have a theory of literature. You can't make much sense of it without one.

It's the job of people in literature departments to think about these questions, to debate them, and to disseminate their views. This is not arid academicism. It affects the way students will respond to literature for the rest of their lives. But it's also part of an inquiry into the role of art in human life, the effort to figure out why we make this stuff, what it means, and why we care so much about it. If this is not the most important thing in the world to understand, it is certainly not the least.

Twenty-five years ago, literary theory went through a crisis, and it has never really recovered its reputation. The crisis would have happened even if Paul de Man had never existed, or had never left Belgium, from which he emigrated to the United States, in 1948. But de Man became its symbol. His story, the story of a concealed past, was almost too perfect a synecdoche for everything that made people feel puzzled, threatened, or angry about literary theory.

Evelyn Barish's new biography, "The Double Life of Paul de Man" (Liveright), is an important update on the story. Barish worked in Belgian archives, and she interviewed many people who knew de Man, including both of his wives. She's not a hundred per cent reliable on the historical background; she is a little over her head with the theoretical issues; and she sometimes characterizes as manipulative or deceptive behavior that might have a more benign explanation. Her book is a brief for the prosecution. But it is not a hatchet job, and she has an amazing tale to tell. In her account, all guns are smoking. There are enough to stock a miniseries.

Starting in 1960, de Man taught at three American universities whose literature departments were industry leaders: Cornell, Johns Hopkins, and Yale, where he was a professor in the departments of French and comparative literature from 1970 until his death, in 1983, at the age of sixty-four. Within the profession, de Man had a mystique. There were doubters and dissenters, of course, but he was generally admired as a thinker, esteemed as a colleague, and idolized as a teacher.

Faculty found him erudite but ironic, cool but not aloof; students found him intimidating and charismatic. "Rigorous" is the word people used to describe the work; "austere" is one of the ways people described the man. Several of his articles became celebrated and much studied texts, and a number of his graduate students went on to have distinguished careers at Yale and elsewhere.

It's common to exaggerate--I think Barish exaggerates a little, even though she is a retired English professor--the extent to which the kind of criticism de Man wrote and taught permeated American literature departments. Literary studies is a very big tent. A small number of professors were drawn to the criticism that de Man and his colleagues were writing, and a number probably equally small actively animadverted against it. But it was not the only game in town. You did not need to pass a quiz on "Semiology and Rhetoric" to have an academic career in literature in the nineteen-seventies. …

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