Deconstructing Paul De Man


Carlin Romano in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Did Paul de Man and Martin Heidegger ever meet? If so, they could have compared notes on how to bamboozle de-Nazification officials after, well, one’s side loses.

No matter. Now de Man has joined that august cultural club that includes Caravaggio, Wagner, Céline, Pound, Heidegger, and a slew of other accomplished artists, thinkers, and intellectuals who were also no-goodniks. The nasty ethics in the personal lives of those cultural heavies force us to ask two tough questions that are simpler than many pretend:

(1) Is there an inevitable link between a person’s ethics and his creative and intellectual work?

(2) Is it morally acceptable to honor or enjoy the work of artists and intellectuals whom we condemn for their nonprofessional, unethical actions?

Even when a cultural figure simply bears accusations of ethical misdeeds—as in the case of Woody Allen over the years, a matter reopened after Hollywood’s Golden Globes tribute and an Academy Awards nomination—the questions, when retriggered, produce frenzied media meditations. Now, with the long-awaited publication of Evelyn Barish’s The Double Life of Paul de Man (Liveright), a two-decades-in-the-making investigative biography of the Yale literary theorist whose version of “deconstruction” shook up English and comp-lit departments in the 1970s and 80s, the high literary and intellectual worlds face their own revisiting.

According to Barish, de Man (1919-83) committed fraud, forgery (16 separate acts), swindling, embezzlement, and theft as a postwar Belgian book publisher. For his sins as head of the Hermes publishing house, he was, in 1951, “found guilty in absentia and sentenced to six years in prison with heavy fines.” Apparently de Man played fast and loose with more than a million Belgian francs to fuel his lifelong luxury spending. Cornered, he skipped out to the United States on a visa probably obtained illegally by his father.

More here.