Deconstructing Paul de Man

A former student of Paul de Man reflects on her mentor’s impenetrable ideas and duplicitous life.

In 1969, I said farewell to French literature, having become a critic of its critics.

Abandoning my PhD studies at Johns Hopkins University had nothing to do with the fact that one of the professors who encouraged me to enroll there was a Nazi collaborator, embezzler, bigamist, serial deadbeat, and fugitive from justice in Belgium — credentials that should have made him ineligible to enter the United States or anywhere in academia after World War II.

Instead, my exit had more to do with deconstructionism — the incomprehensible school of literary criticism that my one-time mentor helped pioneer. Paul de Man was an esteemed professor of comparative literature at Cornell and Yale Universities as well as at the University of Zurich, but is now a fallen idol, whose “double life” is the subject of a new biography by Evelyn Barish.

For years, I tried to repress traumatic memories of my abortive academic career. That became harder to do after revelations about de Man’s murky past first surfaced in 1988, five years after his death. It was then revealed that de Man had worked as a book reviewer for the Nazi-controlled newspaper Le Soir (Volé) and had written an anti-Semitic article about the influence of Jews in publishing. News also broke that he was the nephew of — and greatly influenced by — Henri de Man, who was an ardent fascist and served as de facto Prime Minister of Belgium when the Nazis invaded in 1940.

By then, I had become a freelance journalist and author, after fleeing the campus initially for freelancing at The Baltimore Sun and then working as a reporter at United Press International (UPI).

Poring through Barish’s biography of my former teacher, I was both appalled and fascinated. The author is a former colleague of de Man’s — both were professors at Cornell University, where I was one of de Man’s students. She did years of research into his past, ferreting through archives in Europe and the United States, interviewing his wife and ex-wife, children and colleagues, in an effort to discover who de Man actually was. Her biography goes far beyond revelations of de Man’s willing Nazi collaboration.

Right as the war was ending, he formed a publishing company called Hermes, and gathered investors to support his scheme to purchase “the rights to existing publications of high quality, translate, and then sell them to foreign markets.” He did indeed purchase the rights for some books, but didn’t give the money to the authors — he pocketed most himself, then “forged receipts and posted false entries in company books to cover these thefts.” Over the next year, he continued to use various ruses to pay himself without actually publishing any books, stealing money from friends, relatives, even his former nanny.

While, amazingly, he escaped prosecution for his collaboration with the Nazis, the Hermes affair caused his downfall, at least in postwar Europe. The investors eventually discovered his duplicity and the firm collapsed. The Belgian authorities were about to bring him to trial for his criminal conduct, only to find that de Man had disappeared. His father Bob de Man, understanding that his son would soon land in jail, paid for his passage to America.

When in the United States, de Man did not reform. Instead, he reinvented himself entirely. Parlaying his connection to French literary critic Georges Bataille, he contacted American left wing, anti-communist intellectuals in New York. One of these was Mary McCarthy, who befriended de Man and got him his first teaching position at Bard College.

To get the job at Bard, de Man neglected to mention the fact that he had not even obtained an undergraduate university degree in Belgium. He also fabricated a career in the resistance to Hitler. Throughout his life, he skipped out on the rent in one apartment or house after another and abandoned his first family, a wife and two children with whom he’d lived in Belgium, and who immigrated to Argentina after the war, expecting to join him in the States.

Instead of bringing his family to America, or supporting them in Argentina, he quickly fell in love with a Bard student, Patricia Kelly, whom he later married while still married to his first wife, and had two children with Patricia, with whom he lived until his death.

Barish focuses on de Man’s early life and later exploits as well as his spouses, friends, and colleagues, before and after his posthumous fall from grace. But there is little about the bit players in the drama of his “double life” — namely, the undergraduate and graduate students like me who were encouraged to revere de Man as an intellectual giant.

Barish explains that before his fall, de Man was an “academic god . . . To know him was a privilege; to have been his student, even in the professionally lean years of the 1970s and 1980s, virtually assured a candidate of one of the few university jobs available.” His claim to fame came from his creation, along with the French professor Jacques Derrida, of the literary theory known as “deconstructionism.”

Throughout her book Barish, herself a professor of literature, aptly describes de Man’s theories and pronouncements as “impossible to understand,” “impenetrable,” or “incomprehensible” — terms also used to describe Derrida’s theories.

In deconstruction, the critic claims there is no meaning to be found in the actual text, but only in the various, often mutually irreconcilable, “virtual texts” constructed by readers in their search for meaning; there is no clear presence or unmediated access to reality or intrinsic meaning. As de Man always told us, there is no truth, language is always slippery, and we should always be suspicious of the text.

I entered the Alice-in-Wonderland world of lit crit in 1963, just as old modes of criticism were being supplanted by these new ones. I was a naïve eighteen-year-old from Scarsdale who found herself in the upstate hamlet of Ithaca. De Man began his literary ascent high above Cayoga’s waters after he had been rather ignominiously rejected for further promotion at Harvard. The Romance Language program at Cornell was reputed to be the best in the land.

During my first two years there, I only heard stories about the great man in our department. Finally, as a junior and senior, I actually got to sit across the seminar table from him. Forty-plus years later, I cannot remember a single notable thing he said (or even how many of his courses I took). But all of us invariably left his classes convinced that we had just been in the presence of someone truly profound.

I do remember, with lingering embarrassment, the kind of “literary criticism” we produced, with his inspiration and that of other professors. One A+ paper of mine for another professor explored the use of “. . .” and “etc.” in the work of Stendahl, a French literary master certainly deserving of more expansive deconstruction than I was being trained to engage in.

When it came time to choose a graduate school, de Man’s opinion was highly valued. He and several other influential professors were themselves preparing to leave Cornell for Johns Hopkins, so they encouraged us to join them. Hopkins boasted connections to the Paris-based Ecole Superieur des Hautes Etudes. This held out the promise of lectures from visiting lit crit luminaries like Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. I was accepted into the PhD program at UC Berkeley but, with such stars in my eyes, I spurned the Bay Area in favor of Baltimore.

Our professors, including de Man, who had encouraged us to come to Hopkins took note of the unpleasant circumstances of Baltimore at the time — a city of dying factories and steel mills, a depressed downtown, poverty, little life on campus or off — and quickly decamped. De Man, for example, snagged a well-endowed chair at Yale and spent the rest of his career there. What followed were two of the most depressing years in my entire life. (So depressing, I even enlisted in a left sect group merely for the companionship.)

It was the late 1960s and the Vietnam War was raging. Anti-war activity in Baltimore was stirring and feminism’s radical second wave was doing its share of local consciousness-raising.

But all was quiet on the Hopkins front. Our professors were in their library carrels, not at anti-war protests. In 1968, the war finally came home to our department. Our faculty chair, Rene Girard, notified four teaching assistants, of which I was one, who had volunteered to take on more than the mandatory load, that we would not receive the $500 per semester stipend we had been promised because of “belt tightening” by the university that was supposedly related to cutbacks in some kind of funding due to the Vietnam War.

After reading this absurd memo from a senior professor, I promptly consulted a lawyer, who called the university and threatened legal action if Romance Language TAs were not paid as promised.

In that era of few graduate student unions, one of my Marxist-leaning professors expressed disapproval that we had chosen such a “bourgeois” response. Cornering me in the hallway, he lectured me on the proper kind of protest we should have engaged in against the faculty chair: a sit-in at his office. This, of course, would have netted no financial settlement, which was why we had called a lawyer in the first place.

Such gratuitous advice by armchair radicals was indicative of a deeper disconnect between students and professors in our field.

Both at Cornell and at Hopkins, our reigning literary experts were aloof from anti-war protests, unlike like their left-leaning colleagues in history, politics, and economics at Cornell. When any question about contemporary political events was raised in a seminar, de Man would give us his best ironic, cynical, world-weary look. Taking a stand against authority via public action or protest was all folly, stupidity, an exercise in absurdity, he seemed to be saying.

The professorial message of his brand of literary criticism — then morphing into deconstructionism — was that there was no such thing as truth, no stable reality; that we should be suspicious of any text. This meant, of course, that there was no “truth” about the good and evil that was happening around us — whether it was the war in Vietnam, female oppression, or segregation.

The not-so-subtle message was that we should not delve too deeply into politics, since life was lived in the quiet carrels of the library or in the seminar room where we were supposed to parse the “the text” and its signs, signifiers, signified, absence, presence, negativity — who knew, since so much of what was passing for criticism was almost incomprehensible.

Knowing what Barish and others have revealed about de Man, that elaborate intellectual dodge, and all its accompanying hodge-podge, makes a lot more sense. De Man’s whole life, it appears, was a presence that was, in fact, absence — of anything remotely resembling the truth. Given his past, which Barish catalogues in extensive detail, it was clearly in his interest to blind us with his insight — to convince us that there were no eternal truths, that political activity to oppose oppression was useless.

Had I known what was discovered about de Man in the 1980s, perhaps that would have been the straw that broke this particular camel’s back. Instead, the final insult came during a seminar with Jacques Derrida. Then in his late thirties, the French philosophe already had a reputation for inscrutability, which he proceeded to live up to for the purpose of graduate student humiliation and abasement.

During a visit to Hopkins, Derrida showed up for class one day with a mimeographed sheet for each of us containing passages from Plato in classical Greek — untranslated. We assumed, of course, that he would be translating the material himself before switching to our lingua franca, French, because none of us could understand Greek.

Instead, Derrida read Plato to us in Greek, without translating a word of it into French. He then explained the insights from Plato that had not been shared with us. We sat and listened, like a group of polite non-English speaking foreign businessmen who can only smile and nod during a presentation in English.

As the visiting Frenchman nattered on, I felt furious and then ashamed at myself, at all of us. What kind of ass kissing cowards were we? Why didn’t we protest? At the end of his lecture, Derrida looked around the room and asked if we had any questions. Not a single hand went up. He cast a disdainful glance our way and walked out of the room.

If there was a classroom communication problem, it was obviously our fault. He was, after all, Jacques Derrida, and we were just a bunch of idiots. This was my breaking point. After that semester, I bid French literature a not very fond adieu.

I abandoned my quest for a PhD, becoming a freelance journalist and author, freelancing at The Baltimore Sun and then working as a reporter at United Press International (UPI). Several years later, I decided that I deserved some kind of consolation prize for the two years I’d spent at Hopkins. The school seemed a bit befuddled by my request. There was no formal MA program in the Romance Literature department but, after some discussion, it was decided that I could write and submit a fifty-page paper that, if approved by the faculty, would earn me a masters’ degree.

Like a good newspaper scribe on deadline, I cranked out a very readable and, if I may say so, rather original feminist analysis of Madame Bovary. Unfortunately, the paper only cited the novel itself and an essay about Flaubert’s work by Charles Baudelaire, the French poet. The faculty reception was frosty, but one sympathetic professor did slip me a marked up copy of my thesis. Scrawled in the margins were the critical comments of the various male intellectual heavyweights who had once held my professional future in their hands.

Apparently, any unoriginal grad student reading of Flaubert, through a prism other than mine, would have been perfectly acceptable. But feminism? How dare she!

At the bottom of each numbered page, my faculty readers found a signifier from the lower orders of journalism: the word “more,” which in those days indicated to the copy desk that there were additional pages to come.

In his comment on my paper, one prof deconstructed this typewriting tic of a working journalist as follows: “She must have done this to provoke us.” Needless to say, my MA degree was not forthcoming.

Meanwhile, in Barish’s book, the reader discovers that Paul de Man neither published nor perished. He managed to ascend to great heights in academia despite lacking an undergraduate degree, barely managing to pass his general exam at Harvard, and writing a thesis which was supposed to be a study in writers of three different languages but had only two.

Critics will once again debate, as Barish does, what de Man’s life says about his theory. But what is there to debate? A propagandist for the Nazi occupation of Belgium and then embezzler from a publishing house gets caught, absconds before he’s put in jail, comes to America, and reinvents himself on campus.

There, he discovers he can charm people who believe that what is incomprehensible must be deeply meaningful and, in some sort of semi-compulsion to confess, warns them that no one should believe anyone and that language conceals more than it reveals. No one bothers to wonder whether this man is speaking about himself.

Can anyone believe that de Man’s theory can be divorced from his practice throughout his life? It is commonly held that academic controversies are so fierce because there is so little at stake. That is definitely not true of l’affaire de Man — and the posthumous debunking of a world-class faker who never should have had a following to begin with.

De Man’s story should serve as a lesson for students in the twenty-first century, particularly those graduate students still beavering away under the tutelage of someone with a big campus reputation but feet of clay. The Double Life of Paul De Man should be widely read for what it could reveal about similar intellectuals today, some of the ideas they propagate, and their relation to the students whose tuition pays their salaries.