The Double Life of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish
“It’s easy to see how a cult of personality developed around Paul de Man,” said Emily Donaldson in the Toronto Star. Handsome and charismatic, the Belgian-born intellectual enthralled a generation of students and academic colleagues with his talks and papers about a new way to read literature. So in 1987, when a graduate student in Belgium uncovered anti-Semitic articles that de Man had written in the ’40s for a Nazi-run newspaper, many academics rushed to defend the recently deceased icon of literary deconstruction. Yet once scholar Evelyn Barish started digging, de Man’s past never ceased yielding ugly secrets. “Almost everything he ever achieved, Barish learned, was based on lies.”
“To read The Double Life of Paul de Man is to be swept up in the story of a smooth-talking operator as boldly daring as Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley,” said Michael Dirda in The Washington Post. Barish’s de Man had designs on becoming the Nazis’ minister of culture before the war turned against Germany. He then borrowed money to launch a Paris publishing house that he used as a personal slush fund before exposure forced him to flee to the U.S. There, he fabricated credentials—and serially skipped rent—as he finagled his way into posts at Cornell and later Yale. But a question arises: “Is this really Paul de Man?” Barish ends her story as her subject is just starting the career that won him both acclaim and stellar character reports from peers. Isn’t it possible he changed?
Barish’s book is no hatchet job, though, and “she has an amazing tale to tell,” said Louis Menand in The New Yorker. If she’s right in the main about the biographical details, de Man was a sociopath outside the lecture hall. But knowing as much tells us very little about his intellectual legacy. Deconstruction was widely ridiculed even before it fell out of style, but de Man was merely encouraging us to question every assumption we make as we interpret the meaning of a text—which turned out to be a productive way to read more attentively. In de Man’s hands, the exercise could be “chillingly inspiring.”