Nazism, Bigamy, and the Problem of Paul de Man

By Seth Studer

It’s time to beat up on Paul de Man again.

And yes, he probably deserves it.

In Monday’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Bartlett revealed the juicy details of Evelyn Barish’s new biography The Double Life of Paul de Man (due out in March 2014). Barish suggests that de Man emigrated from Belgium in 1947 to escape embezzlement charges. He was eventually convicted in absentia of stealing one million Belgian francs (roughly US$300k today) from his own publishing house. Barish also discovered that de Man never held an undergraduate degree, and that in his interactions with friends, family, and colleagues, he was sometimes a total dick.

This in addition to what we already knew: de Man was a deadbeat dad, a temporary bigamist, and the author of several blatantly anti-Semitic articles for a pro-Nazi newspaper during the German occupation of Belgium. The articles were disclosed in 1987, three years after de Man’s death. English professors across the nation responded with horror (or schadenfreude) because, throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Paul de Man led the vanguard that introduced deconstructionist theory into American universities[1]. He was a big deal.

deconstructionExcept he wasn’t.

Unlike his friend and fellow deconstructionist, Franco-Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida, de Man’s scholarship focused narrowly on literary language. He argued that literary texts, through their own internal tensions and oppositions, effectively read themselves. (Your copy of Moby Dick is reading itself, even as it sits dusty on your shelf!) Derrida, meanwhile, wrote about everything from semiotics and political philosophy to his pet cat. Derrida’s writing was difficult, but often in a fun way – weird, cheeky, playful.

Also: if you’re a layperson, you’ve probably heard of Derrida. His obit appeared in the New York Times[2]. He was one of several influential French thinkers who emerged alongside 1960s anti-de Gaullist radicalism. You know them by their surnames: Barthes, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida. De Man was the Belgium to their France; he is virtually unknown outside literature departments. But he, more than any other figure, set the hermeneutic agenda for U.S. literature departments in the ’70s and early ’80s.

The news that de Man had authored Nazi propaganda could not have emerged at a worse time for his students (by then major scholars in their own right) or for deconstruction in general[3]. By 1987, cultural studies and politico-ethical concerns were pushing deconstruction out of the humanities. Deconstruction was too apolitical, too textocentric. This was a sideshow in the Culture Wars: as many professors adopted radical politics, ardent deconstructionists appeared reactionary and insular. Meanwhile, deconstruction’s apparent nihilism was being attacked by positivists, scientists, traditionalist lit scholars, and even social conservatives outside the academy. The de Man-Nazi revelation offered proof of what many already suspected: that deconstruction was nefariously closed-off, vapid repressive, even quasi-totalitarian. By the ’90s, deconstruction had lost its cache.

The problem is that Paul de Man was so good.

blakeDerrida was unfairly dismissed as an emperor without clothes, but he also reveled in appearing to waltz through the kingdom naked. For a certain type of student (e.g., me), de Man was much more satisfying. De Man explained heady concepts without Derridean playfulness. He wrote heavy, dense, substantive prose. He reads like a serious scholar applying a theory rather than performing or practicing it. My favorite of his essays is “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” an account of how representations of time are the basis of literary language. He describes how well-known devices – allegory, symbolism, irony – interact with time. He slowly develops an argument that slippage occurs between allegory and symbolism in Romantic poetry, despite the Romantics’ best effort to keep them separate. On this premise, he introduces two “modes” of representing time in literature: “allegory” (which partially includes symbolism) and “irony.”

Toward the end of the essay, de Man writes:

The dialectical play between the two modes [allegory and irony]…make up what is called literary history.

Deconstructionist jargon like “play” aside, de Man’s declaration is downright old-fashioned. Here is an account of literary history premised on literary analysis. When I read this in graduate school, it felt ballsy and refreshing. No hedging, no contextualizing, no whining, no kidding around, just straight-up confidence in his own system: “this is literary history.” I was floored.

So as deconstructionists went, de Man was a straight shooter, on the page if not in his life (perhaps he viewed his two wives as “two modes of dialectical play”). Unlike Derrida or even Barthes, de Man wasn’t messing with me, wasn’t trying to fool or trick me. Even if he believed (along with his intellectual kin) that “everything was a text,” he generally confined himself to literary or rhetorical analyses. I continue to find him useful, which I can’t say about most of his contemporaries. De Man’s work represented deconstruction at its best.

Fractal_swastika_(IFS)But try as I may, I can’t help but detect a bit of the Nazi in it all: the exegetical totality, the confusion (or manipulation) of text and meaning, the all-encompassing instability. And yeah, the biography.

It matters little whether a good physicist was a Nazi, because Nazism probably didn’t contaminate his work. You can kill the Nazi physicist or hire the Nazi physicist, but the physics itself will contains no traces of Nazism. This is slightly less true of a Nazi biologist, who may have covertly adopted Nazi theories of race. For a philosopher, however, the possibility of cross-contamination is so great as to warrant quarantine. Indignant defenders of de Man who separate his scholarship from his anti-Semitic writings are denying this obvious reality. (Derrida’s defense of de Man was better than most because it allowed for cross-contamination[4].)

De Man was a crook and a cheat and a Nazi collaborator. For most literary scholars today, de Man is interesting but irrelevant: deconstruction happened thirty years ago. It had a good run and probably outlasted its expiration date. Meanwhile, those who, like me, find de Man’s insights useful can argue that his political beliefs are functionally irrelevant to his scholarly work. A Chinese wall exists between the Nazism and “The Rhetoric of Temporality.” To reject or to deny? Neither option is good, and Paul de Man isn’t going anywhere, as Barish’s biography proves.

Literary scholars don’t sever Barthes or Foucault from their social, historical, and ideological roots. De Man should be no exception. It’s naive to believe that, before de Man, the humanities weren’t already poisoned by the ugliest ideologies, but it’s impossible to ignore his collaboration with Nazism. So what would it mean to accept both the scholarship and the potential evil attached to it? To not only refuse to let ourselves off the hook, but to actively get on the hook? De Man offered a compelling and useful explanation of literary language, and he also used the written word to collaborate with Nazis. Does deconstruction have Nazi roots? I don’t trust anyone who says “no” reflexively.

C’mon, let’s not be dismissive or defensive or squeamish! Let’s not be afraid of a little blood on our hands!


[/1]  You might think you know what “deconstruction” is, and you’re probably wrong. But you’re also probably correct, more or less. From a literary standpoint, deconstruction holds that a poem (or whatever) consists of oppositions that differ and defer to each other in a process Derrida called “play.” This play both creates and subverts the meaning of the poem (or whatever). For de Man, this meant that a poem (or whatever) is self-interpreting.

[/2] Derrida’s obituary was a minor literary event in humanities programs. I’ve seen it assigned on English syllabi, as an instance of productive misreading or something.

[/3] My favorite student of de Man is the late Barbara Johnson, who applied his theories of literary language with intelligence and clarity to topics ranging from Melville’s Billy Budd to the rhetoric of abortion. Her 1994 book The Wake of Deconstruction describes the de Man scandal.

[/4] Derrida, who as a Jewish child was persecuted by the Vichy French government, defended his friend in typical Derridian fashion: he tweaked the anti-Semitic language and found differing oppositions. The full defense is not available online as far as I can tell, but its substance can be gleaned from Jon Wiener’s intelligent, and disapproving, analysis.


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