“With him the love of country means Blowing it all to smithereens And having it all made over new.”

—Robert Frost

Paul de Man’s life was “the classic immigrant story” (according to James Atlas). He arrived in New York in 1948 from his native Belgium and worked as a clerk at the Doubleday bookstore in Grand Central Station, He met Mary McCarthy, who helped him to a job teaching French at Bard College. He fell in love with one of his students, and they got married. By 1955 he was a member of the prestigious Society of Fellows of Harvard University. He ended his career as Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale. At the time of his death in 1983 he was considered one of the most influential of the Yale “Hermeneutical Mafia,” which had made “Deconstruction” and “Literary Theory” terms to conjure with.

In 1987 a young Belgian named Ortwin de Graef uncovered in Belgian newspapers De Man’s wartime journalism, written under the Nazi occupation. Jacques Derrida brought the news to the United States. The University of Nebraska Press agreed to publish the many articles in French and Flemish (the latter with Fnglish translations) that De Man had published from 1939 to 1943, and the editors asked a number of literary critics and scholars to comment on the publications.

Paul Adolph Michel de Man was born in 1919 in Antwerp, the son of Robert de Man, the prosperous head of l’Establissement de Man, which manufactured medical instruments and X-ray equipment. Young Paul de Man was a student of chemistry at the University of Brussels. His uncle, Hendrik de Man, was the head of the Belgian Workers Party and an important socialist. When Germany conquered Belgium in 1940, he dissolved the party and joined the collaborationist government. “For the working classes and for socialism, this collapse of a decrepit world, far from being a disaster, is a deliverance,” he proclaimed. By 1941 he had changed his mind, left the government, and fled to Switzerland. After the war he was convicted of collaboration and died in exile.

His nephew, Paul, wrote many articles for Le Soir, Belgium’s most popular newspaper, which was controlled by the Nazis after their victory. He wrote in French and Flemish for other papers and journals. Most of his articles were on the arts, especially contemporary literature. The young Paul was a Flemish nationalist who argued that Germany’s victory was essential to freeing the German element in Belgian society from French influence. He reviewed seriously modernist and philo-Fascist writers. He wrote an article on “Jews in Contemporary Literature” . . . for an anti-Jewish issue of Le Soir. When the Allies started to win, he reestablished contact with anti-Nazi Belgians. Although investigated by the victors in 1945, he was not convicted of war crimes, unlike others who had worked for Le Soir. He started a publishing house with his father’s money, and when it began to fail, he emigrated to the United States.

He left behind more than an aging and broken father. In 1939 he had met Anaide Baraghian, the Rumanian wife of fellow student Gilbert Jaeger. Anaide and Paul fled together to the Pyrenees before the German invasion and later returned to Belgium to live together. They had three children from 1941 to 1946. By 1948 De Man had moved to New York, while Anaide went to South America with their three sons. In 1949 De Man procured a position as instructor of French at Bard College, where he soon “fell in love with” a young student. It is not clear from my research whether he was divorced from Anaide when he married Patricia Kelley, but this marriage was essential if he were to obtain permanent resident status in the United States. In order to change his status, however, De Man had to exit the United States and return. When he applied for a new Belgian passport, word of his past reached America and Harvard.

Years later his friends at Yale insisted that they had had no idea about his past. If they had said that they had heard rumors, but had dismissed them as idle gossip, we might believe them. Stories of De Man’s past had reached the Society of Fellows at Harvard, and he wrote a letter, dated January 26, 1955, to professor of comparative literature Renato Poggioli. Most of what can be checked in the letter is false. He calls Hendrik de Man his father and says that he contributed “some literary articles” to Le Soir in 1940 and 1941 (in fact, there were 170), which he stopped doing “when nazi thought-control did no longer allow freedom of expression.” He implies that he was married to an American citizen when he entered the country in May 1948 and, oh yes, he had no idea how his family business was doing. “Since 1950 or 51 I have not heard from the firm. This made me assume that things were not going well but, since I had other things on my mind, I did not give it much thought.” The firm went bankrupt in 1949. That Paul’s real relationship to Hendrik was known at Yale is clear from an article Stanley Corngold, De Man’s student, wrote about De Man in 1982. In it Corngold gives a very misleading description of Hendrik’s career, with no hint of his collaborationist activities. . . . There need be little doubt that the ignorance of De Man’s past at Yale was what De Man called in a Le Soir article of March 16, 1942, an ignorance factice, an artificial or made-up ignorance.

Is there a connection between De Man’s wartime collaboration and his later literary theory? Jon Wiener, in a 1988 piece for the Nation, has a simple answer. He is sure that a number of prominent theorists are antisemites and Nazis. For Deconstructionist J. Hillis Miller, De Man’s now famous discussion of “Jews in Contemporary Literature” is neither antisemitic nor Nazi, but an attack on “vulgar anti-Semitism.” Christopher Norris and Geoffrey Hartman have explained De Man’s later work as an implicit attack on his 40’s attitudes. The question arises, in a world where all sorts of innocent people are smeared as Nazis and Fascists, why is one person for whom there is documentary evidence for his Nazism defended in places like the New Republic?

One place to start looking for an answer is with a quotation from “Criticism and Crisis,” the first essay in Blindness and Insight. . . . In it De Man castigates an essay written in 1935 by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl and comments on “the numerous sections in which philosophy is said to be the historical privilege of European man.” He ends by noting,

Husserl’s claim to European supremacy hardly stands in need of criticism today. Since we are speaking of a man of superior good will, it suffices to point to the pathos of such a claim at a moment when Europe was about to destroy itself as center in the name of its unwarranted claim to be the center.

What is the meaning of the language used? Conventional Nazi rhetoric talks about the Master Race as being the highest stage in human evolution—vocabulary that pretends to superiority in time and quality, but that says nothing about “centrality.”

In Le Soir for March 16, 1942, De Man discussed an exhibition on “Germany’s Greatness” (the translation here is mine).

There is another reason why Germany’s historical destiny, past and future, cannot leave us indifferent. We depend on it directly. First of all because there exists between Germany and Belgium a profound interpretation [sic; relationship?) that reveals itself through the centuries by constant political and artistic contacts. Besides that, because no one can deny the fundamental significance of Germany for the life of the West taken as a whole. We must see in that stubborn refusal to let herself be conquered more than a simple proof of national faithfulness. The entire continuity of Western civilization depends on the unit}’ of the people who are at its center. That is why the facts that determine the course of German history touch us twice: because we are Belgians, since they affect rile values we share with it, and because we are Europeans, since Europe’s strength depends on it. . . .

Now we know where the language of the “center” comes from in De Man’s review of Husserl. It was De Man’s memory of the way he and other young Quislings used to talk back in the 40’s. Why did no one question this language when “Criticism and Crisis” was first published in 1967? For the same reason that Geoffrey Hartman quotes this passage as part of his defense of De Man in the New Republic in 1988. It sounded to him like the kind of thing that a good, non-Eurocentric leftist should say—though I know of no reason why leftists should feel that the defeat of Nazism and the introduction of constitutional government into more than half of Europe was a defeat, even a destruction of Europe. Why did no one at the University of Texas (where the talk was first given) ask De Man why he said “Europe” when he meant “Germany”? Why did no one ask De Man why he saw the defeat of Nazi Germany as the destruction of Europe “as center”? I know why a Nazi would say such a thing, but who else would? . . .

It is striking that the De Man of the 40’s admires Germany for coming back from defeat. He had no such ambitions for himself. He wanted to be with the winners at all times and at all costs. When Germany was winning, she was the center. When Germany lost, it was time to emigrate to the United States. There were no regrets for Europe.

De Man’s Critical Writings, 1953-1978 was reprinted in 1988 by the University of Minnesota Press. What are called his books are reprints of earlier essays with some new material. He never edited a text or wrote a commentary on a work of literature. His essays typically take a small part of an author’s work and discuss it from a narrow perspective. Nevertheless, the literary-critical establishment has drawn the wagon train into a circle around De Man’s accomplishments.

The question of De Man’s lack of substantive publication is serious. One of the most common myths about the academy is that “good teaching” is rejected in favor of scholarly publication. Whatever may be true in the physical sciences, for the humanities this is arrant nonsense. Two thirds of tenured faculty in the humanities publish nothing but their dissertations, if they publish that. Some of what appears consists of literary criticism or theory, with no historical or textual base, often setting the words of the text completely at naught. . . . Most faculty are tenured on the basis of a few unrefereed or virtually unrefereed articles and their reputations as Great Teachers. The more cynical look for administrative posts or become chairmen of their departments, where they get much better raises than serious publication brings and whence they can fight off the hiring or tenuring of serious scholars.

Few of De Man’s articles appeared in prestigious refereed journals. Of the essays in Blindness and Insight, one appeared in Modern Language Notes. The rest appeared first in Festschriften, special issues of journals, unrefereed journals, or in the Acta of conferences. One piece of the newly reprinted Critical Writings appeared first in Comparative Literature; the rest in foreign reviews, literary journals, or the New York Review of Books. A good scholar will appear in such places, of course, but he will also appear in refereed journals and presses. None of De Man’s articles concerned the kind of historical and textual questions for which adequate standards have been developed over the years. His style is a mush of obfuscating jargon, about which his disciples boasted. (Attempting to show the influence of Sartre on De Man, Stanley Corngold wrote in 1982, “Here is Sartre’s deliberate antibourgeois refusal to write well. . . that has proved congenial to De Man.”) If Yale was not only tenuring and promoting De Man, but giving him its most prestigious chair of the humanities, it was for reasons other than publication.

Was it because of crypto-Nazism in literary academia, as Jon Wiener hinted? On the surface the idea is not absurd. Liberalism, communism, and fascism are all revolutionary movements that developed out of opposition to traditional European values and norms. They are not the same, but they share many ideas and instincts. An intelligent Nazi would not easily give himself away in an American university, any more than smart communists betrayed themselves in the State Department of the 40’s. J. Hillis Miller claims that Deconstruction helps to undermine “totalizing and totalitarian thinking.” Gerald Graff tells us that Marxist New Historicists and feminists have seized upon Deconstruction as an essential tool in their attack on America. Miller cites no evidence to support his claim, while Graffs statement is easy to confirm. The fact that Marxists use a method does not of itself prove that the method is totalitarian. If, however, we then discover that one of the founders of this method was in his youth a Nazi, can we honestly act surprised?

What about De Man’s antisemitic article? This is what Jacques Derrida called the “open wound.” J. Hillis Miller tells us that the article is a defense of Jews and literary modernism against “vulgar anti-Semitism.” Then one reads the article. “Vulgar anti-Semites” think that Jews are intelligent and aggressive and run modern culture. De Man thinks, au contraire, that Jews are second-rate as thinkers and mediocre as writers. If they were all shipped off to Madagascar, Europe would lose some mediocre talents. In his later academic life, De Man’s colleagues included Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, and Jacques Derrida. Did their thinking and writing give him cause to change his mind? We have many statements that he did not go around Yale making openly antisemitic remarks. In other words, he was not stupid, which no one accuses him of being. The issue is, did he ever change his mind from his clearly expressed opinion of 1941, that shipping, for example. Hartman, Bloom, and Derrida off to “a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not involve, for the literary life of the West, deplorable consequences”?

It is clear from a reading of the essays on De Man that the only aspect of De Man’s past that bothers most theorists is his contempt for Jews. There is not a single attack on De Man because he was a Quisling, because he betrayed his country for an ideology. The normal, healthy person loves his country as he loves his family, not because they fit into a theory, but because they are his. If your son fails an examination or your country loses a battle to Germany, you do not abandon him or repudiate it. That is what Stephen Decatur meant when he made his famous toast: Our country, right or wrong. Most Americans know this instinctively, just as they know what kind of man deserts his wife and children or flatters brutal dictators for self-advancement. We begin to understand De Man’s obsession with Rousseau, to whom he attributes his own views. They were the same kind of person, although even Rousseau never managed to achieve De Man’s triple of Quisling, bankrupt, and deserter of his family.

Totalitarianism has lost, when it has lost, because of the existence of the United States of America. The American way of life represented in the 40’s, as it still does, a profound commitment to the traditions—political, ethical, and religious—that have developed out of ancient Greece, Rome, and Israel; traditions that helped form Europe. It stands as the great alternative to the deracinated ideologies that almost destroyed Europe during World War II. These European traditions survive in many ways, in memory’ and in practice, but one of the most important ways they survive is in books. . . . Within English literature, from the poet of Beowulf to Walker Percy, these traditions are presupposed and represented. They live there, among other places. If young people read these great works, these traditions will seize on their minds as they have on so many other generations.

The genius of Deconstruction is that it allows the teacher, the transmitter of society’s values, to concentrate on what is not talked about. Is Pamela frigid? Is Jim in love with Huck Finn? Why are the works of the canon permeated with Platonism, or Christianity, or patriarchy? What is the feminist perspective on Shakespeare? . . . The teacher may spend class time, and the student may pass hours writing papers, exorcising these demons. In one essay, De Man showed that Derrida falsely attributed to Rousseau a simplistic view of progress that was clearly and explicitly rejected in Rousseau’s text. It does not matter, though, De Man tells us. Derrida’s attitude is still the right one. The critic’s blindness, what we lesser breeds without the Law call his blunders, are essential to his genius. The point is not to enter into a sympathetic relationship with the author. That implies a false metaphysic of presence. The truest criticism is to interrupt the Great Conversation with our own concerns and to shout down, or deny tenure to, the reader, philologist, or historian who would let the authors speak for themselves. . . .

The dream of the literary theorist is the final solution to our country’s history (which is only “a written text,” according to De Man) and literature and culture and religion. It is the way for us to free the world from “totalizing thinking,” from learning from literature how to make sense of our own lives and our culture, from the delusion that wise men have distilled their wisdom for us in the honey of words.

The irony of human life lies hidden in the mystery that in order to reach out to speak to or to understand someone else, we have to be firmly rooted in family, in nation, in religion, in culture. Without that there is no creativity and no comprehension, no art and no criticism. “You must not think that living according to your country’s way of life is slavery,” says Aristotle; “it is the way home.” By betraying home and family Paul de Man cut himself off from ever understanding great literature.


A longer version of this article first appeared in the September 1990 issue.