The Double Life of Paul De Man
A landmark biography that reveals the secret past of one of the most influential academics of the twentieth century.
Over thirty years after his death in 1983, Paul de Man, a hugely charismatic intellectual who created with deconstruction an ideology so pervasive that it threatened to topple the very foundations of literature, remains a haunting and still largely unexamined figure. Deeply influential, de Man and his theory-driven philosophy were so dominant that his passing received front-page coverage, suggesting that a cult hero, if not intellectual rock star, had met an untimely end.
Yet in 1988, de Man's reputation was ruined when it was discovered that he had written an anti-Semitic article and worked for a collaborating Belgium newspaper during World War II. Who was he, really, and who had he been? No one knew. Still in shock, few of his followers wanted to find out. Once an admirer, although never a theorist, the biographer Evelyn Barish began her own investigation. Relying on years of original archival work and interviews with over two hundred of de Man's circle of friends and family, most of them now dead, Barish vividly re-creates this collaborationist world of occupied Belgian and France.
Born in 1919 to a rich but tragically unstable family, Paul de Man, a golden boy, was influenced by his uncle Henri de Man, a socialist turned Nazi collaborator who became the de facto Belgian prime minister. By the early 1940s, Paul, while seemingly only a reviewer for Nazi newspapers, was secretly rising in far more important jobs in Belgium's and France’s collaborationist regimes.
Postwar, barred from the university, de Man created a publishing house, but stole all its assets; then, facing jail, he fled to New York, abandoning his family (his opportunistic, anti-Semitic writing seemed the least of his crimes). Arriving penniless, he quickly rose again, befriending an entire generation of American writers in New York, including Dwight Macdonald, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Mary McCarthy. Barish sketches de Man's renowned careers at Bard and Yale, as well as the circumstances surrounding his loving―but bigamous―second marriage to former Bard student Patricia Kelley, who created the tranquillity he so lacked.
Juxtaposing this personal story to his meteoric rise through American academia, Barish traces the origins of the philosophical deconstructionism that he later created with Jacques Derrida, showing how de Man attracted followers with his attack on the hypocrisy of society that attempts to cover up the "essential alienation" of art from "the system." While focusing on the biographical facts, this commanding and psychologically probing biography reveals as much about human behavior and the cross-currents of twentieth-century intellectual thought as it does about the man who held an entire generation in his thrall.
8 pages of photographs
always afraid of what she would do.”30 When essential facts in a family are repressed and banned from discussion, they do not become invisible to the children, but are felt by them only more deeply. If we look for the roots of Paul’s silence and secrecy, and also his need to penetrate the mysteries of others, they must lie to some extent in these years of distress. It would be years, until he was in his twenties, before he regained the social poise to conceal the obsessive secrecy that governed
own past misdeeds out of sight as merely “factical” history was another benefit existential thought provided its followers. These were not assumptions he could expect Harry Levin or Renato Poggioli to sympathize with; far less could he articulate to them or anyone else the experiences out of which his new intellectual approach to language had sprung. Perhaps not even to himself did he fully acknowledge how much his own experiences—that narrative of his life, precisely that autobiography which he
nécessité de vous voir publié ici et je pense avoir les moyens qu’il faut (relations, etc.) pour que cela se fasse dans les meilleurs conditions—financièrement et du point de vue influence et retentissement.” See also Paul de Man, Critical Writings: 1953–1978, ed. and introduction by Lindsay Waters (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), lxiv, which printed the manuscript in 1989 but gives “peux avoir” for “pense avoir.” Waters credits Alan Stoekl for discovering the letter. 20. Tony
own mental characteristics: There is no question that all this contributed to the newspaper’s attack on the Jews and shared its underlying ideology. In itself, the essay helped Nazi policy makers to prepare the populace for its eventual “Solution” to the “Jewish problem” they had invented. He accepted De Becker’s basic policy: to establish the Jews as a “race” with negative influence on Europe (and Belgium) and one from which the West must be freed. De Man’s anti-Semitic expressions were more
earnings, the young de Man was always in debt. “How can one explain that?” asked his friend Georges Goriély.33 On hearing of de Man’s multiple employers and sources of income, Goriély exclaimed, “But he was drinking from three spouts!”34 Having reached his powerful new post in July 1942, de Man was ready to alter his way of life. On August 20, he and Anne left Gilbert Jaeger behind at the humdrum square des Latins and moved with their little son to a grand address, 151, boulevard Saint-Michel,