"Stories about charming scoundrels have a built-in appeal"
March 18, 2014 3:52 PM   Subscribe

[Paul] De Man may have been a scoundrel who found a career teaching a certain method of reading, but that method of reading does not turn people into scoundrels. Probably ninety-nine per cent of the people who studied with de Man wouldn’t run a red light—forget about altering a transcript or voluntarily collaborating with Nazis. If there is an ethical takeaway from what de Man taught, it would be self-doubt.
In The New Yorker Louis Menand attempts to find common ground between Paul De Man's methods of literary criticism and his sordid life in a long review of Evelyn Barish's The Double Life of Paul de Man. The biography has been criticized by Peter Brooks, De Man's former student, and was reviewed unfavorably by Susan Rubin Suleiman in The New York Times.
posted by Kattullus (21 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
This was neat - thanks for posting.
posted by Frowner at 4:20 PM on March 18, 2014

If contemporary critics who deny that departments of literature should even exist were to base their claims on the way certain of the most prestigious have fostered, glorified, and given a platform to the likes of Paul de Man, that would be an argument I would find difficult to dismiss.
posted by jamjam at 5:02 PM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Menand sure earns his keep with "digging a hole in the ocean with a shovel made of water". That's a vivid phrase!
posted by thelonius at 5:28 PM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

De Man may have done his later critical work (which has a strong ideology-unmasking component) in repentance for the Nazi-sympathizer opportunism and con-man tactics of his youth. But since to come clean about those early misdeeds would have meant opening all those cans of worms, something he apparently lacked the courage to do, he left it an open question whether his mature work was the continuation or the revocation of his past. We're left putting the pieces together. And I observe: if you like the later work, you are apt to read it as a revocation; if you don't like it or don't understand it or want to cast blame on all kinds of other things with a broad-brush association, you will tend to read it as a continuation. Choose for yourself, but choose wisely!
posted by homerica at 5:46 PM on March 18, 2014

It's my understanding that when these criticisms of de Man first began to circulate in the 80s, the focus was on his collaboration with the Nazis in 1940-2. That's reprehensible, of course, but to me can at least partially be explained by his youth. Frankly, at least as far Barish's accusations can be trusted, what de Man did as an adult after the war in the US comes off far worse. Forging a transcript for admission to Harvard? Promising and failing to send his abandoned wife funds to raise their children? Sending a child of wife #1 to be raised with the mother of wife #2? Despicable stuff.

And boy, these defenders do not do a good job of acquitting de Man, if the best they can come up with is that Barish got the name of a 60s ocean liner wrong and mistranslated de Man's job title back in Belgium. Brooks is perhaps the most unconvincing in his reading of de Man's misidentification of his uncle as his father:

But since Hendrik’s politics were a large part of his problem, why call him his father? I can’t answer that. It’s almost as if he wants, in this rare confessional moment, to take the burden of family guilt upon himself.

What a martyr. Stoically (and very, very privately) bearing the burden of his family's past sins. Definitely in no way connected to the fact that this familial relationship will help get him off in the present.
posted by crazy with stars at 6:53 PM on March 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

> De Man may have done his later critical work (which has a strong ideology-unmasking
> component) in repentance for the Nazi-sympathizer opportunism and con-man tactics of his
> youth.

Also, Pound may have written The Pisan Cantos in repentance for all those wartime pro-Nazi, antisemitic broadcasts he made. Or OTOH maybe not.
posted by jfuller at 7:35 PM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

google search on: (Camille Paglia Paul de Man) fetches some interesting material. She has this theory that the impenetrability of French postwar academic work was calculated to obscure the reality that so many of the writers were in some manner or another Nazi collaborators.

I don't recall who else she accused but Sartre and Derrida weren't in the set.

John Merriman of Yale has great stuff on youtube about France before, during, and after the war. The actors are all dead or very old by now but some of the tension appears to remain.
posted by bukvich at 9:39 PM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

this and Hedigger's recently published black notebooks, it is not a good day to be a Theoretically minded worker.

five things:
a) paglia can be safely dismissed as a serious critic.
b) i think that De Man was a psychopath and a fascist. I think that Althusser killed his wife. I find Foucault sexual ethics deeply problematic, as is his misogyny. I think that stating these things is necessary. They do not get a free pass from the rigours of their own methodology.
c) i have spent a lot of time trying to work out the implications of what this means. I think on my darkest days, the idea that this was an obfuscating technique, startlingly anti-democratic. But I think lots of things--i think that it is useful to see how texts work, i think that new ideas require new language, i have no problem with the technical and sometimes it aids precision, and sometimes a cant is useful. i think that obscurity is not evil, i think that not everyone needs to understand everything, i think that what appears to be clear writing refuses discourse, i think that the polysemic is often a moral good, i think that aesthetic writing, important writing, can come from places that are dark or evil. I also think we have to have a serious chat about why fascism, and antisemitism was such a useful category for european thinkers in the first half of the 20th century--why it was so seductive. Even after the discovery of the camps, I wonder if it has even gone away.
d) I think that often writers lives are messy, and not very complete. I also like that he pushed his way into the academy when the academy would not let him in. I find that post 1970s North American insituites are often for many reasons, more willing to provide refuge for thinkers that might be too toxic elsewhere. Sometimes this is a vice, but more often it is a virtue. (see Said, Bhaba, Derrida, even Strauss)
e) de Man makes me reconsider if the work I do is worth doing. I think there are very few excuses for him. I also find his work less impt than others. The beginning of that Menad essay, when he talks about the work happening elsewhere, or it would have worked elsewhere is a comfort, but he does provide some excellent ammunition.

i haven't read the biography.
posted by PinkMoose at 10:11 PM on March 18, 2014 [9 favorites]

Louis Menand's magazine writing is a pleasure to read.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:50 PM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Did these guys ever get around to the "death of the professor", or did they stop with the Author?
posted by thelonius at 3:54 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Orwell famously said - The deadly sin is to say “X is a political enemy: therefore he is a bad writer.”

I read de Man before any of these allegations were ever made public (in the days before the internet). He was a very interesting writer indeed. All I knew of his life back then was that he had had an unconventional route to an academic career - he had been a publisher and a bookseller. It sounds as though he was a thorough rogue. So what? So were Pound and Malory. He remains a brilliant essayist.
posted by Major Tom at 5:51 AM on March 19, 2014

Wow, I've just looked at Toekneesan's Inside Higher Ed. link.

The author, Scott McLemee, also joins the chorus knocking the Barish biography for its many, many small factual mistakes and strange assumptions. But he doesn't appear to believe that de Man has been unfairly maligned, and goes further to show exactly WHY we should be leery when literary critical theory gets its mitts on politics.

I loved this par:

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.

posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:43 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

OK I finally got to the end of the Menand article. It's not journalism like in my high school class. His last sentence is the best one in the article.

“He is a connoisseur of nothingness,” Hartman wrote of de Man the critic. De Man took the train to the end of the line. It may be that he was able to write what he did, both the chillingly deplorable things and the chillingly inspiring ones, because he believed in nothing.

Finding your mom's body hanging in the attic at age seventeen would probably do a number on anybody. Are there multiple sources on that item or is that something we might suspect de Man of inventing?
posted by bukvich at 8:19 AM on March 19, 2014

the fact that this familial relationship will help get him off in the present.

Why would it?
posted by yoink at 9:35 AM on March 19, 2014

yoink: "the fact that this familial relationship will help get him off in the present.

Why would it?

According to Menand (I haven't read Barish's work):

De Man explains that he is being persecuted because he is the son of the “controversial” Henri de Man, and his advisers buy the story.

That is, according to de Man, he is being attacked for his activities in Belgium because of his association with Henri de Man. To me at least, that claim gains credibility the tighter the connection between de Man and Henri de Man. That is, if I didn't know anything else, I would be more likely to believe that enemies of Henri de Man would attack his son than his nephew.
posted by crazy with stars at 10:19 AM on March 19, 2014

De Man explains that he is being persecuted because he is the son of the “controversial” Henri de Man, and his advisers buy the story.

Leaving aside the fact that that's a rather tendentious description of De Man's letter, I don't see why De Man couldn't have made exactly the same case based on his real relationship to Henri De Man. I mean, why would "Henri De Man was my uncle, godfather and mentor" seem like some laughably distant relationship which would necessitate the lie "he's my father"?
posted by yoink at 10:54 AM on March 19, 2014

I have been inspired to read de Man again. As it happens I was reading Rilke and had forgotten that de Man had written on Rilke in Allegories of Reading. Two very great writers. Don't both reading the biography. Read the man himself.
posted by Major Tom at 5:20 AM on March 20, 2014

this and Hedigger's recently published black notebooks, it is not a good day to be a Theoretically minded worker.

I guess this means: not a good day to be a literary critic nor suchlike...who is sympathetic to de Man and/or Heidegger.

There are a lot of philosophers and similar folk out there who are very critical of those fellows, and it's a pretty good day to be them... Or at least, not a bad day.

Me, I'm torn, since I'm pretty traditional on this score, so I think--most of the time, anyway--that a person's scholarship ought to be evaluated independently of their character. Frege was an anti-semite, but that isn't an objection to his logic...

OTOH, there's a pretty big difference between Frege's logic and Being and Time... What Frege wrote about logic is extremely transparent and has nothing to do with anything deep about how one ought to view one's life. I'll have to admit that one reason I've never put a lot of effort into Heidegger is that I'm hesitant to wade into a big, difficult, famously opaque work--where opportunities for being led down the garden path seem to exist at almost every turn--and which does have implications for how I view my life...and which was written by a person whose moral character I very much do not admire...

If I thought I was smart enough to never be tricked, that would be different. Or if there weren't plenty of other things to read...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 2:26 PM on April 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Frege was an anti-semite, but that isn't an objection to his logic...

Thank you for this, Fists O'Fury, because I have always felt a pang of sympathy for poor old Frege, receiving Russell's letter detailing the paradox of the set of sets which are not members of themselves on the eve of publishing his book on set theory as a foundation for arithmetic, and thinking that the ground had been cut from beneath him and his work dashed into the abyss, and it relieves me to reflect that Russell based his paradox on Cantor's diagonal argument showing the existence of transcendental numbers and their non-denumerability, and that Cantor's father was a Jew, so that Frege might possibly have spared himself a great deal of anguish and embarrassment, and substantially enhanced his reputation and his legacy to boot, if he hadn't been such a bigot and contemptuous of the work of Jewish mathematicians.

Therefore I'm not so sure being an anti-Semite doesn't constitute a kind of objection to his logic, after all.
posted by jamjam at 5:47 PM on April 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

lol not bad, jamjam.

And, in general, I guess: to the extent that being an asshole prevents you from being objective about such things, it's always a kind of a wee objection to your thinking...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 12:50 PM on April 8, 2014

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