The word deconstruction has entered the lexicon. It can mean anything from dissection or exposure to the use of a wrecking ball. "Laws governing how people deconstruct their marriages differ from state to state," Time reports, as if the 50-cent word made the sentence less trite. Sportswriters admit they spend too much energy "deconstructing" Johnny Football. Susan Sontag is said to have "deconstructed cancer." David Mamet observes a man in a Japanese restaurant "deconstructing his California roll to eat it."
Other recent objects of deconstruction—I keep a file—include Sousa's marches, the tuxedo, the building at 130 Liberty Street in lower Manhattan, the causes of the Great Recession of 2008, "Romeo and Juliet," the boxer Miguel Cotto in his bout with Manny Pacquiao, oyster stuffing, joblessness, New York City's mayoral ballot, and the "whole world." In line with the thinking of actual deconstructionists, the word "deconstruction" has wandered far from its ostensible meaning: the esoteric nexus of French theories that was all the rage in American universities in the 1970s and '80s.
Language, the argument went, has a mind of its own, subverting the intentions of those who speak or write it. Between the word and its meaning falls an ever-lengthening shadow. Every text reduces itself to the same ultimate indeterminacy, and all the world can be treated as a self-referring text. Jacques Derrida, deconstruction's inventive papa, who shuttled often between Paris and the United States, propounded the concept of "différance," according to which the sense of any term is never present but is constantly deferred. "There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of differences," Derrida wrote. There is nothing to keep in check "the infinite play of signification" that marks language in action.
Deconstruction as an academic movement, first in literary criticism but later in other fields, was more than a fad. Inasmuch as it provided a rationale for the busting of canons, the debunking of authority and the rejection of the concept of meaning, deconstruction laid the groundwork for the crisis in the humanities that we face today. English majors, for instance, were once wooed by the prospect of studying life-changing books. Surging to the fore, proponents of deconstruction and related theories wanted everyone to "problematize the text." English is no longer quite so popular a course of study.
The movement found its American champion in Paul de Man (1919-83) of the Yale University English department, at one time considered the nation’s best. De Man’s essays—austere, tightly argued and rigorously skeptical—were a rite of passage for a generation of graduate students. His students revered him. But he was, it turns out, a fraud, a small-time crook, an Ivy League con man in tweed and, before all this, a Nazi collaborationist. Evelyn Barish’s “The Double Life of Paul de Man” is the first full-length biography of its subject, although outlines of his story have been known for two decades.
The Belgian-born professor’s death in 1983 caused great mourning. Barbara Johnson, an apostle who spread the creed to Harvard, said, “In a profession full of fakeness, he was real.” Then came the discovery by a Belgian graduate student that de Man had written pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic articles for Belgium’s newspaper of record, Le Soir, during the occupation. In 1940 and ’41, de Man had written in praise of Hitlerism and opined that deportations of the Jews would entail little anguish or grief for European civilization.
De Man never talked about his days as a Nazi apologist—except to misrepresent himself, when it suited him, as a man of the left, a veteran of the Popular Front. But his critical work rests on the proposition that such rhetorical modes as confession or apology are terminally unreliable. When faculty lounges were abuzz with de Man’s doings in Brussels in World War II, such aspects of de Man’s thinking began to seem self-serving.
One article of the scores that Paul de Man wrote for the collaborationist press received the closest scrutiny when the story broke in 1988. “The Jews in Contemporary Literature,” which ran on March 4, 1941, minimized the value of “the Jews” as writers or thinkers. They “have always remained in the second rank.” They are not “among the most important figures.” The act of expelling the Jews would not have “regrettable consequences.” You would lose at most “some personalities of mediocre worth.” Critics of deconstruction cried “aha!” Fans rushed out to excuse the fallen idol.
Derrida wrote a lengthy essay using deconstructive methods in a vain effort to prove that de Man, his ally and friend, meant the opposite of what he wrote. Yet the disclosures of de Man’s wartime activities raised doubts about his views on language and literature. Those views had long been held suspect by humanists who believe that texts have meanings, albeit complicated and ambiguous ones.
De Man’s defenders thought his transgressions were limited to one flagrantly anti-Semitic piece. Not so. In “The Double Life of Paul de Man,” Ms. Barish provides details on “how far and actively Paul de Man had entered into collaboration, how creatively he sought to support Nazism.” In addition to writing for Le Soir and a similarly tainted Flemish-language journal, de Man worked for two other publishing concerns committed to Nazi propaganda, starting at a low level but rapidly reaching positions of prominence. After the war, Ms. Barish notes, “each institution was tried and found guilty of treason.”
Ms. Barish also adds to our understanding of the shady financial dealing that precipitated de Man’s escape to the United States in 1948. De Man was a bad businessman as well as a dishonest one. As the head of a publishing house that called itself Hermes—fittingly, since Hermes in Greek myth is the patron of thieves—de Man signed advances he never paid, forged receipts and, in the common parlance of the genre, cooked the books. For swindling and embezzling he was found guilty in absentia in Belgium in 1951 and was sentenced to five years that he never served.
For by then the politically and financially bankrupt young man had fled Europe and his irate creditors, and charmed his way into a temporary job at Bard College. He shipped his European wife and their sons to Argentina and started another family in upstate New York without bothering to deconstruct the first marriage. His bigamy has long been known, though Ms. Barish has uncovered other misdeeds. It was not de Man, who took the credit, but his American wife who translated “his” version of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.” (“Paul’s English wasn’t good enough,” she explained.) The author also adds to the record of a “lifelong series of evictions or disappearances for nonpayment of rent.”
De Man usually talked his way out of trouble—at a tribunal in Belgium in 1946 convened to mete out judgment to suspected collaborators and again nine years later at Harvard where, in Ms. Barish’s alliterative phrase, “a detailed and deeply damaging denunciation” of de Man reached the higher ups at the ultra-elite Society of Fellows. Can we trace de Man’s concept of language as slippery to the point of indeterminacy back to his own rhetorical mastery of what Ms. Barish calls “concealment and invention”? Maybe. But his skill as a liar, and command of the academic vernacular known to insiders as “Fog,” do more to convict him of bad faith than to locate a loophole in the nature of language itself.
Though “The Double Life of Paul de Man” adds much to our knowledge of this brilliant intellectual counterfeit, Evelyn Barish’s book disappointed me. At times she doesn’t seem quite attuned to the way deconstructionists use language. She explains at one point that de Man punned on the name Archie Bunker to toast Derrida, deconstruction’s ultimate guru and “archie Debunker.” What made the lead character of “All in the Family” relevant? The answer: Archie’s response to his wife, Edith, when she asks whether he likes his bowling shoes laced over or laced under: “What’s the difference?” Ms. Barish treats the anecdote as a mere “fleeting comment,” but the pun’s wit lies in its complexity. It salutes Derrida’s concept of “différance” by turning it into a rhetorical question that can’t or shouldn’t be answered.
There is also at least one place where Ms. Barish ought to have checked her facts. Early on, she brings up a much-discussed Newsweek article about de Man that made waves in February 1988. According to Ms. Barish, the scandal so rocked the academic world that “Newsweek put the story on its cover, together with a picture of a Nazi prewar march.” This is untrue. It wasn’t a cover story. I should know: I wrote it.
Finally Ms. Barish persists in regarding de Man as the hero of his life, “an iconic figure” (how I hate that adjective) of the kind that is slipping away—like ocean-liners, three-martini lunches, and “perhaps, much of our trustfulness concerning assertions of ‘greatness.’ ” The de Man affair has little to do with the “greatness” in that last phrase. This linguistically gifted con man favored the Nazis when the Nazis were winning. After they lost, he endeavored to erase his past at a time when literary gamesmanship in the form of deconstruction bedazzled the professoriate.
“America is deconstruction,” Jacques Derrida once pronounced. But largely because of the de Man affair, the movement’s prestige has gone the way of all flesh and most theory, while things it thought to displace or bury—such as the belief that language and truth-telling are not utterly incompatible—cling stubbornly to life.Read Lehman's "Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man."