Yale Scholar’s articles found in Nazi paper, read the headline in the New York Times for December 1, 1987. Paul de Man was a prolific member of the Yale Hermeneutical Mafia, which made the term “deconstructionism” an academic byword. By the time he passed away in December 1984, he was Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale. Now a young Belgian scholar, Ortwin de Graef has unearthed hundreds of articles de Man contributed during World War II to the Nazi paper Le Soir, including a piece in a special edition of Le Soir devoted to the Jewish Question. De Man’s uncle had been a minister in the Nazi puppet government of Belgium during the period he had been writing these pieces, 1941-42. They are slated to be published in the Oxford Literary Review next year with comments from some 50 writers.

“The articles appear to go to the heart of the ethical debate still raging over Dr. de Man’s work at Yale,” pontificated the Times. R.W.B. Lewis of Yale thought deconstructionism removed the ethical aspect from literature.

The Times tried and failed to give a one-sentence definition of deconstructionism, and we shall not attempt one here. Its quarrel with traditional literary interpretation goes back many centuries, to the disagreements of Plato and Isocrates in the fourth century, B.C., as the master Jacques Derrida knew. Traditional literary studies are logocentric. In them the word, especially as found in great masterpieces, reveals an author, a subject, and a vision of reality. So we read to meet Thucydides, Pericles, and a vision of war or St. John, Jesus, and a beatific vision or Camus, Meursault, and Existentialism. For the deconstructionist, what matters in literature is the interaction and interrelationship of the words on the page. There are no “Great Books” and the idea of an author and his intention, of an objective metaphysical system. That words can reveal another person or reality is part of the Platonic and Christian conspiracy, a nightmare from which we are beginning to awaken. The author is not a creative hero, the interpreter is not a brilliant discoverer. As Denis Donogue phrased it, “the enemy is the bourgeois state . . . its language is a program for making unofficial language impossible.”

The issue is not the abolition of the ethical from literature, as the New York Times and Professor Lewis pretend. It is the relation of current literary currents to the Nazi Big Lie. For the advocates of the Big Lie in politics and literature do not favor the false per se. They do insist that the person with the proper theory is preferable, more sophisticated than a simpleminded 19th-century obsession with facts. “Alles Faktischesist nur Theorie,” Goethe once observed. Some of us think that fact and theory live in a mutual relationship of control and discovery. Theory opens up new areas to interest and investigation, but facts check, modify, and perhaps even refute theory.

The theoreticians of literature and politics, Nazis and Marxists, feminists and deconstructionists have learned that we are all limited by biases and presuppositions. They therefore conclude that there are no objective checks or controls on the play of the imagination. I do not exaggerate. I attended a day-long conference on Derek Freeman’s discussion of the inadequacies of Margaret Mead’s dissertation. It was considered sufficient refutation that he was a man and an Australian attacking an American woman. Evidence of disastrous ignorance of Greek in feminist scholarship in classics is met with the reply that the work is theory and the reviewer a man and a conservative. When the new editor of the American Journal of Philology, a European with many commentaries and critical editions to his credit, opined that it was still interesting to discover what a word meant in a specific context, there was a special open session held at the annual professional meetings where some 50 people mocked the idea that “in 1987 anyone could still believe that a word has a particular meaning in a specific context.”

It is wrong to deny that these people are taking the ethical element out of literature. They are out to overthrow false authority and liberate the reader from submission to dubious claims to reverence and respect. For them there is only an ethical aspect. All objective evidence that could refute their claims are denied ex hypothesi. Mead’s dissertation must be adequate because she became a role model for feminists, just as the Communists must have burned down the Reichstag. Our theory is the final adjudicator of truth and so-called objective evidence, even historical documentation or the rules of Greek grammar are rejected a priori.

Here there is complete agreement among liberals, Marxists, and Nazis. The enemy is the traditional view that there is a reality, open to investigation, outside of ideology. Even among “conservatives” there are ideologues who share the theorist view.

There are practical consequences. Why does the American Civil Liberties Union oppose local communities setting up Christmas creches but support the right of Nazis to stage provocative marches in Skokie, Illinois? In my opinion, for the same reason that Yale president Bartlett Giammati wrote letters to freshmen warning them against Jerry Falwell, while granting the highest academic honors to a Nazi. It is the reason, by the way, that tenure in the humanities is usually awarded without any substantial, refereed publications and that some humanities scholars of international reputation never hold a tenure track position. These, of course, are facts. If they do not fit with our theories, we are free to ignore them.

The de Man affair deserves more discussion than it will receive. The significant issue in education today is whether high school principals should have the power to censure their students’ newspaper, not whether our academic intellectual life is permeated by the Nazi Big Lie. At least, that is the theory.