When I was studying English in graduate school in the early ‘90s, deconstruction theory was big. Despite its abstractness, deconstruction—which eschewed stuff like history on the grounds that the language through which we access it is intrinsically unstable—was blithely referred to as a “practice,” as if you could get it done at a law office or massage parlour.
The theory was then almost exclusively attached to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In 1988, five years after his death, Paul de Man—aka “the father of deconstruction”—with whom Derrida developed the concept (by way of German philosopher Martin Heidegger) was in the process of being expunged from the indices of academic anthologies following revelations he’d written anti-Semitic propaganda during the Nazi occupation of his native Belgium in World War II.
Nearly two decades in the making, The Double Life of Paul de Man represents almost a career’s work for New York professor Evelyn Barish who, despite having once been a colleague of de Man’s, keeps herself out of the mix. She relies instead on hundreds of interviews and assiduous archival research conducted in several countries.
De Man was a true “lit crit” star during a time when such things existed (it’s interesting but not at all auspicious that their Age, along with that of the supermodels, seems to have died with the last century). Instead of giving us the tale of a big fish in a tiny, esoteric pond, however, Barish has wisely avoided the details of de Man’s theories and universalized her book into a riveting character portrait of a master liar, cheat, and opportunist—an ivory tower Tom Ripley. The book also brings to vivid life de Man’s “unique social context”: wartime Belgium and Paris and New York’s post-war intellectual circles.
The papers that discredited de Man turned out to be the tip of the iceberg; almost everything he ever achieved, Barish learned, was based on lies and deception. During the war he wrote hundreds of reviews for journals whose publishers would later be sentenced to death for treason. The publishing house he set up a Paris after the war was a blatant fraud for which he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to six years in prison. When he made his way to America, de Man penetrated a series of Ivy League schools by lying about his citizenship and credentials (he had no degree) in what amounted to “an autobiographical Ponzi scheme.” He serially skipped rent, used a dissertation grant to trip around Europe and neglected his three children from his first marriage.
Barish cuts de Man a good deal of slack, suggesting that his failings had roots in a newly middle class but fraught upbringing. De Man’s beloved but depressed mother made multiple suicide attempts before a teenaged Paul eventually found her hanging in the attic. De Man’s brother was a convicted serial rapist who died young. De Man’s uncle, Henri, a minister of state whom he often claimed was his father, was vilified after the war as a notorious Nazi collaborator.
Blond and handsome with piercing blue eyes, it’s easy to see how a cult of personality developed around de Man; he was the kind of person others made exceptions for, including, for a time, the writer Mary McCarthy. Students found his lectures riveting even while being hard pressed to explain what they were about.
But the most compelling aspect of this book is its central irony: that the man who developed a theory based on the unreliability of the past was hell bent on obfuscating his own, leaving open the possibility that a generation of students weren’t just beguiled by a theory, but an alibi, too.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor