“Colleges and books only copy the language
which the held and the work yard made.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is mention in the English annals of the 14th century of syphilis as “the malady of France.” Inevitably, blame was bilaterally distributed and the French of the same period called the disease “la maladie d’Angleterre.”

A new malady of France, in the form of a disease of culture, reached across the Channel some twenty years ago but could not take hold in England. Instead it found a breeding ground in the humanities departments of American universities. Deconstruction has, since then, become epidemic in the intellectual world of the United States, and it persists long after it has been put aside in France by still fresher forms of conceptual derangement.

Rather like the theory of relativity, deconstruction has both a “special” and a “general” form. The special theory of deconstruction was intended as a method for the interpretive reading of “texts.” Jacques Derrida, the founding provocateur of deconstruction, has taught a generation of academic acolytes to consider texts to mean everything from Sophocles and Flaubert to rock lyrics and cereal box inscriptions. All, according to Derrida, have no intrinsic meaning and they differ neither in artistic merit nor in moral worth. These qualities reside merely in the eye and mind of the reader, and finally the proper function of criticism is not to elucidate, evaluate, or appreciate, but to deconstruct—that is, to destroy. Thereby one destroys not only the authority of the work in question but also the delusional sense that we command our language (in fact it “speaks us”) or that such mistaken standards as reason, truth, or beauty have any possible claim upon us.

In its general form deconstruction, when placed in intellectual history, comes to look very much like a reconstruction of nihilism, that older philosophy which regards the concept of meaning as meaningless and the idea of truth as an utter lie. Thus the broader deconstructionists—who now fill and often dominate the humanities departments of our universities—raid far beyond mere literature as they flail away at the graphic arts, at science, at law, and at philosophy itself. And in these forays, as they pull apart yet other “texts,” they continue to proclaim that objectivity, reason, and meaningful moral purpose are all and always vain illusions. Well—almost all and almost always: for in their voraciousness the leading deconstructionists have, in recent years, attempted to gobble up Marxism and feminism. The purpose has not been to deconstruct their texts but rather to demonstrate a great new insight: that the significant literary and intellectual works of Western civilization, whether in literature, law, or philosophy and ranging from classical antiquity to the middle of this century, are all in fact merely doing the work of repressive capitalism by keeping women, workers, homosexuals, and non- Westerners entrapped in a sense of unworthiness.

As they have frollicked in their newly opened neo-Marxist playground, American deconstructionists have enjoyed the added delights of attacking the traditions of the institutions that house and pay them. Assaulting the “canon” of significant authors, shifting the work of English departments away from Shakespeare, Dickens, or James and toward Spillane, Madonna, and 2 Live Crew, burdening half-literate undergraduates with the opacities of Derrida, De Man, and their American imitators, they have, in the humanities departments of our universities, made a desolation and called it “victory.”

While scholarly argument about deconstruction has, in recent years, begun to emerge in the academic journals and intellectual reviews, it has hardly been reported to the broad public. David Lehman’s new book is a welcome contribution. In vivid reportage it brings to the general reader the bad news from Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Duke, Berkeley, and kindred scholarly enclaves. Lehman, who has apparently spent his time as an indentured academic in the English department at Ithaca College, has been a close observer of this scene. His stance is amusement at the follies of his peers, but just behind his puckish persona one senses deeper reserves of disgust and rage.

Anyone who has toiled in the rotting vineyard of contemporary literary studies but has stood apart from the avid deconstructors, post-structuralists, new Marxists, vindictive feminists, and homosexual polemicists is rich with horror stories. The ones Lehman has to tell are as instructive and devastating as any: they feature once eager young scholars driven out of the academy by the maddening obfuscations of their tenured seniors; authors central to the shaping of the Western literary and philosophical traditions removed from the curriculum and replaced by vociferous enemies of our common culture; and the rise of a species of critical prose so willfully dense and neologistic as to be essentially incomprehensible.

Lehman is not only a teacher of literature in whose courses one would be happy to have one’s son or daughter enrolled, but is a poet of considerable accomplishment and commendation. To the descriptive task of limning the brave new world of some of his nihilistic and intellectually disordered fellows he brings the poet’s saving graces of wit and multi-shaded wordplay, and also the consoling hope that the waves of cultural destructiveness that have flooded over university shores will inevitably ebb. Indeed, the reaction against the new nihilism has been rising: Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind struck it a glancing blow; Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals drew the battle line intelligently and persuasively; and Lehman has now advanced the struggle in a distinctive way. He has given back to his colleagues a witty, informed, and detailed indictment of the new barbarism that could tilt some confused minds back toward reason and the reasonable uses of tradition. At the same time he has provided the general reader, who has heard the distant rumbles of these new academic wars, with a coherent account of who has been doing what and with which and to whom. All of this he has done in the first half of his fervent but paradoxically good-humored volume. The second half shifts to the central scandale of the whole affair: the case of Paul de Man.

De Man was to Derrida as St. Paul was to his greater mentor. From Yale University—and in his peregrinations to the English departments of the Western world—he proselytized deconstruction while transforming it into something even more veiled yet more severe and more destructive of moral intelligence than was the case with Derrida. He became, in the general estimation of the ever-growing deconstructionist movement, the perfect exemplar of their doctrine.

Born and raised in Belgium, he came to this country only after World War II and completed his graduate education at Harvard. It was generally understood that during the war he had been “in the resistance” or perhaps had been a refugee. Beyond such vague hints he never spoke of his past. Indeed, after his fateful encounter with Derrida, and his transformation into the leading American deconstructionist, he often argued that no “text” (including the text of a human life) can or should be understood historically. Nevertheless, his own history, as it was revealed after his death in 1983, shook and appalled his many deconstructionist colleagues and disciples. In effect, the truth about the man De Man, once it was revealed, propelled deconstruction into a basic crisis in which the faith was to be tested.

What was discovered was that during the war he had been a Nazi collaborator. As a literary and cultural critic for both the major collaborationist French-language and Flemish newspapers of occupied Belgium he had commented with consistent enthusiasm on the new Nazi order. Furthermore, he had welcomed the expunging of Jewish influence from the cultural life of Europe, and had endorsed the plan to ship all Jews off to some distant African location. In general, he had, in his wartime journalism, been a major voice in the attempt to sell Nazism as a revivifying resource for the new Europe that he expected would emerge, racially cleansed and culturally purified by the inevitable German victory.

In addition to the uncovering of his collaborationist journalism it came to light that De Man was a bigamist: he had abandoned his European wife and children without a divorce and had started a new American family. He had also been a shady, probably larcenous, businessman until 1948, when he managed to slip into the United States.

Deconstruction does not stand or fall on the private moral failure of one of its major proponents—no more than the aesthetic quality of Wagner’s operas can be judged by reference to the monstrous aspects of his personality and life story. But the De Man case does illuminate deconstruction (and the related, newer forms of critical theory that it has spawned) in two ways. It, like the nihilism from which it arose, is a doctrine particularly useful in freeing the guilty from their guilt. By destroying continuity and meaning in any narrative, including real human lives as they have been lived, it freed not only De Man but his enthusiasts from that moral responsibility that is the anchoring condition of civilized existence.

The larger illumination shed by the De Man case comes not from his story but from the pitiful efforts of his apologists. Reviewing the rush of essays that flowed from the deconstructionists after the revelations, Lehman shows that in their exculpations of De Man, his followers were in almost all instances lame, evasive, morally incompetent, and, in some instances, demonstrably dishonest as well.

By their works shall ye know them. The real scandal of the De Man case is that his doctrine was used by his disciples to avoid the claims of truth and moral judgment. But that, of course, is what the movement has always been about. One ends the book grateful to Lehman for his efforts and for his skilled and valuable achievement, but wondering whether the new nihilism will continue to prosper, or whether the voice of reason may again come to prevail in the academy.


[Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man, by David Lehman (New York: Poseidon Press) 318 pp., $21.95]