The Double Life of Paul De Man

DoubleLifeofPauldeManMichael Dirda at The Washington Post:

De Man? Paul de Man? Like the retired Pontius Pilate when asked about Jesus Christ in Anatole France’s story “The Procurator of Judaea,” many readers today would answer, “I cannot call him to mind.” But in his heyday, from the late 1960s through the early ’80s, de Man was — with the possible exception of his Yale colleague Harold Bloom — this country’s dominant figure in literary studies. His critical writing, which is all but impenetrable to the uninitiated, was then regarded as sacred writ, and de Man himself was the object of almost cult-worship, the messiah of “theory.”

But, as Evelyn Barish writes in the first sentence of this riveting, if melodramatic, biography, “Paul de Man no longer seems to exist.” Why? Four years after his death in 1983 at age 64, this ascetic, revered professor of comparative literature was discovered to have been a Nazi collaborator during his youth in World-War-II Belgium. In particular, he worked as — sigh — a book reviewer for an anti-Semitic newspaper.

The “revelations,” as they came to be called, sent shockwaves through the academy. Supporters argued that de Man had only written one truly offensive article — “The Jews in Present-Day Literature” — and was just 21 when it appeared on March 4, 1941. All who knew him in later life agreed that he wasn’t in the least anti-Semitic.

more here.