de Man Overboard!

March 19, 2014

Evelyn Barish's The Double Life of Paul de Man, from Basic Books, is a scandalous volume, in at least a couple of ways.

At the most obvious level there is troubling nature, even after all this time, of the "the de Man affair" -- the discovery, in 1987, that the preeminent figure among the literary theorists at Yale University had published a substantial body of literary journalism in a Belgian newspaper when it served as a mouthpiece for the Nazis during the occupation. It generated much discussion over the next few years, with a very little of it involving people who had ever actually read anything by Paul de Man. It was, in that and many other regards, a formative stage of the culture wars.

Barish, a professor emeritus of English at the City University of New York Graduate Center, offers evidence that his collaboration went further than writing regime-friendly articles on French and German books. Since the early 1990s, she has been digging in archives and interviewing the critical theorist's family members, friends, and enemies. She even tracked down the Dutch translation of Moby Dick that de Man published in his 20s. He reinvented himself quite thoroughly after arriving in the United States in 1948, going from penniless fugitive (with no postsecondary degree) to doctoral candidate in the comparative literature department at Harvard, then on to a role as one of the most sophisticated and influential literary theorists in the era of structuralism and its aftermath.

Barish concentrates almost entirely on de Man's career up to his first appointment, at Cornell University, following completion of his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1960. She doesn't say much about de Man's ideas, which is fortunate; her references to the literary, political, and intellectual contexts of his work seldom inspire confidence. Barish's forte, rather, is as sleuth. And if even half of what The Double Life reports is accurate, de Man picked the wrong Melville novel to translate. The Confidence Man would have been a lot more apt.

That is a problematic "if," however. It is difficult to express the cumulative frustration of reading a book on matters of such importance containing so many careless mistakes, needless repetitions, and dubious leaps of assumption. Their effect is not to shatter the structure of Barish's argument, like volleys of mortar fire hitting a house. It will stand for a while, until someone else does a better job. But it has termites, leaving it shaky in the meantime.

The story in brief: Paul de Man, born in 1919, grew up in a recently prosperous Belgian family (his father ran a company that manufactured x-ray tables) with its full share of neurotic misery. His mother was prone to prolonged spells of clinical depression and made a number of suicide attempts before succeeding by hanging herself when de Man was 17 years old.

His father was a philanderer, and the boy understandably if unfairly blamed him for her death. He took his uncle, Henri de Man, as a more worthy paternal model. Henri was a leading figure in the Belgian labor movement and very well-connected in political and journalistic circles; he was a major theorist of the non-Marxist wing of European socialism and an adviser to Belgian royalty.

Barish understands much of Paul de Man's early career as shaped by this maelstrom of influences. A brilliant student in his early teens, he entered college in the wake of his mother's suicide and flunked out repeatedly; he took up something of the playboy lifestyle enjoyed by his father, despite hating the man. Uncle Henri came rather early to the self-fulfilling conclusion that Hitler was unstoppable and that Belgium would inevitably fall under German domination. He and his followers were prepared to make the best of it -- and his ambitious but aimless nephew, even more than most.

With the benefit of Henri's pull, Paul joined the staff of the newspaper Le Soirée in 1940, a year after the German tanks rolled in, and contributed hundreds of book and music reviews. This paper trail shows him to have been an opportunist rather than a true believer (his article criticizing Jewish influence on European literature was half-hearted at most, especially by contrast with the rants published alongside it) but The Double Life quotes passages from reviews that echo Nazi ideas contrasting the vitality of German culture with French decadence.

Nepotism and scheming also enabled him to carve out a niche as adviser to a major book distributor. By his mid-20s, de Man seems to have been as well-integrated into the collaboration's cultural apparatus as anyone could be; had some of the office-politics skulduggery de Man engaged worked out, he might have climbed even higher. (Blocked career mobility can be a blessing at times: two of the men he worked under were condemned to death after the war.) All the while, de Man maintained contacts with friends involved in the resistance. Once the war ended, of course, it turned out that everyone had fought in the resistance. De Man could even name the unit he had "joined."

His real-life activities in the mid-1940s sound altogether shadier. He started a publishing company in the usual way -- gathering investors, commissioning books and translations, etc. -- but used its assets as his own personal cash machine until there was nothing left but debt. When he departed for New York in 1948 de Man was facing a prison sentence of five years for embezzlement.

The ease with which de Man escaped this past entirely once in the U.S. -- or shook it off  for a while at least -- will astonish anyone habituated to today's norms of surveillance and databanks. His wife and children went to Argentina to await him, but de Man seems to have decided that chapter of his life was closed. He took a job stocking books at a Barnes & Noble store while ingratiating himself with the literary and intellectual circles around Partisan Review and Dwight Macdonald's magazine politics.

With the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy he formed a close friendship (whether or not "with benefits" being a matter of some debate among the biographer's sources) that led to a stint at Bard College, teaching French literature. In front of the classroom, he finally found his element: students were enraptured by how he sounded out the ironies and paradoxes of a poem. He was exceptionally discreet about his earlier history, but much less so about his current behavior: he managed to run up considerable debts and to impregnate a co-ed.

They were properly married, in good time -- but only after a bigamous period, during which de Man's other family, the one that had been waiting in Argentina, showed up on the doorstep one day.

I know it all sounds complicated, but really, this is the streamlined version of the story.  It also involves lawyers, doctored documents, French surrealism, and countless unpaid and otherwise unhappy landlords. There are poison-pen letters and visits from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Paul de Man supplements his stipend by translating articles for a magazine run by a professor named Henry Kissinger. Plus a tree falls on de Man during a thunderstorm. And then there was the difficulty of getting anyone in comp lit at Harvard to take Heidegger seriously in the 1950s. The biographer suggests that de Man's life grew more settled once he became a professor.

But then, it would have to be.

A ripping yarn! Convoluted as the story is, it's somehow easier to believe than was the news about de Man's wartime writings when it first broke,  more than 25 years ago. People who spent a significant part of the 1980s reading and rereading Blindness and Insight and Allegories of Reading -- the two books de Man published during his lifetime -- thought of him as being like his prose: both magisterial and sublimely ironic. It was painfully difficult, almost impossible really, to understand how a thinker so canny about the implications and complications of literature could ever have lent his support to a system of such brutal simple-mindedness.

One strategy of response was exemplified by Jacques Derrida, who stood up for his friend in an essay suggesting that de Man's article on the Jews in European literature was actually a very subtle -- a very, very subtle -- deconstruction of Nazi discourse. This was an example of the procedure known as "polishing a turd." It did not prove helpful.

The Double Life of Paul de Man cuts through the knot by seeing his life and work as a response to his family and milieu. He grew up with an emotionally fragile mother who clung to him desperately, then left him to find her lifeless body hanging in the attic. He absorbed all of his father's vices but none of the bourgeois virtues; money ran through his fingers like water. The family member he admired most (and, we learn, repeatedly claimed was his real father) was a political opportunist with fascistic leanings who taught by example that career advancement by any means necessary was acceptable.

He learned these lessons all too well. His later work in critical theory, in the biographer's estimation, rationalized the idea that words have no meaning and you can interpret things just about any way you want.

Except, he didn't. Besides relying on clueless polemics as a substitute for reading his work Barish has cultivated some strange ideas about de Man and his influence.  We read that de Man created "a new philosophy, a way of looking at the world that redefined America's point of view." She calls him a "linguistic philosopher," and says that he was "known by some as the 'father of deconstruction,' although he said the term was coined by Jacques Derrida." (Actually she makes the same point about the patrimony of "deconstruction" again later, as if there were some ground for doubt in the matter, which there isn't. Derrida came up with it.)

As if afraid we'll drop the book unless it is about a titan, the biographer reaches to the heights of overstatement. "Influential in both the academic world and the broader social one," she also states, "de Man wielded more influence on intellectual ideas than any other voice here or abroad."

Barish is, of course, quite right that de Man's influence made him influential. (And even vice versa.) But the statement is otherwise not even remotely true. At the peak of his renown, de Man's readership consisted almost entirely of professors and graduate students in literature programs (comparative and otherwise) along with the occasional ambitious undergraduate. He played no role at all in non-academic sectors of the public sphere. In part that is because, after his early journalism, he avoided discussing contemporary political matters of any kind. He made no grand pronouncements about Society or Truth -- not even to deny that it was possible to make grand pronouncements about them. Nor was he a "linguistic philosopher." He was a critic of romantic and post-romantic literature. He wrote about what language does, or can do, when it operates in certain specific locations known as literary texts.

To find such confused statements about de Man's role at the start of a book about his life does not inspire trust. I kept on reading but found it impossible not to be distracted by countless examples of what can only be called outright sloppiness. The author repeats descriptions or characterizations of people repeated almost word for word from one place to the next. We learn of the newspaper Le Soir ("The Evening") that during the occupation, German patriots called it Le Soir volé ("The Stolen Evening") and from that point on every single mention of the paper calls it Le Soir (volé), as if that were its actual title.

It's eccentric at best. Thoughts are not always developed: Erick Erickson's discussion of "alienated man" had some effect on the biographer's understanding of de Man, since she nods in their direction a number of times, but whatever insight it offered as a key to de Man is never worked out. Her references to Bourdieu's sociology of culture are equally murky, and not a little compromised by her apparent belief that his term "habitus" means something like "social network."

Much more disappointing from a professor emeritus is her attribution of Keats's phrase about the world as a "vale of soul-making" to Milton. I didn't keep track of all the book's anachronisms, but here's one memorable example: When de Man lies about having written a master's thesis on Henri Bergson's understanding of time, Barish explains that Bergson's work became fashionable in the 1940s because Heidegger and Sartre wrote about it. (Just explaining why that's wrong would take another couple of paragraphs).

We get many, many references to what de Man "must have thought" about something, and also confident statements about what others would have known, or not known, about de Man himself. A little of that sort of thing goes a long way. It is a fair guess that, in 1948, not many people in the U.S. would have made a connection between Paul de Man and Belgian political history, since Belgium ranks somewhere behind Romania in the American awareness of Europe -- slightly ahead of Liechtenstein, though that's arguable. But she is on shaky ground in making the same assumption about the New York intellectuals de Man met. Many had been radicals during the depression and were perfectly well aware of his uncle Henri.

By the time the biographer speculates that Mary McCarthy expected de Man to marry her after getting her pregnant -- for which there is simply no evidence -- it's not altogether clear what genre The Double Life of Paul de Man falls into.

It's readable, but is it reliable? About innumerable small things, no, it isn't; that leaves me dubious about the author's judgment regarding larger matters. Some years back, Ortwin de Graef, the scholar who unearthed de Man's collaborationist writings, published a book covering the same period called Serenity in Crisis: A Preface to Paul de Man 1939-1960, but it's a monographic study. A definitive biography of Paul de Man would combine de Graef's depth of understanding with Barish's narrative zip, but it will probably be a long time before that happens.

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