BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Double Life of Paul De Man’

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By Evelyn Barish
Liveright, $35, 534 pages, illustrated

The posthumous tumble of stellar literary critic Paul de Man, Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale at the time of his death in 1983, was a uniquely shocking event in the academy, a personal scandal with immediate ramifications.

In the late 1980s, it became known that far from being the refugee scholar Belgian-born De Man was widely assumed to be, he had spent World War II in his native Nazi-occupied land penning vile screeds, at least one openly anti-Semitic, in collaborating publications. However, what made this even more piquant was the professorial credo that had made him so famous in his reinvented life: deconstruction.

It just somehow seemed so fitting — and so obvious after the fact anyway — that the arbiter of a “philosophy” that denied the very existence of truth, should himself have been such a phony. Once the lid was off, shocking revelations came thick and fast.

Even so, there are new ones revealed in Evelyn Barish’s lengthy, prodigiously researched account of De Man’s life that shows it to be a veritable house of cards, his credentials an elaborately constructed Potemkin village. She presents instance after instance of his chicanery and outright criminality — fraud, forgery, bigamy, thieving — and lying on a scale so massive and habitual that the only thing more remarkable than its extent is its lifelong success.

Much that came his way did so by sleight of hand, achieved by the skin of his teeth. Not just in academe, either: His passport and visa status and how he duped the Immigration and Naturalization Service, among others, are detailed here.

This “brilliant” scholar failed his qualifying exams as a graduate student at Harvard, and when he retook them, passed with mediocre grades. His doctoral dissertation was endlessly delayed.

However, none of this prevented prestigious support and generous stipends. Yale was so keen to recruit him to their Department of Comparative Literature that two of its senior faculty cobbled together a collection of his essays and arranged for them to be published.

The university had a supposedly inflexible requirement that a full professor should have published a book, but this eagerly sought prodigy had never done so; hence, the extraordinary efforts on his behalf.

What makes Ms. Barish’s account of all this so fascinating is not just the unmasking of a high-level confidence trickster, but what it shows about the hothouse academic world. As presented here, all this is not a testament to loyalty, but rather to inflexible stubbornness and egotism directed toward someone anointed one of the elect.

Ms. Barish has rich rifts loaded with ore for her material, and she makes her case with energy and dedication. However, there are problems with her book. It is flabby and repetitive: the story of his Yale appointment is a doozy and a telling climax to his rascally career, but does it really have to recur so much?

She can be sloppy and inaccurate. She repeatedly identifies the Normandie as his favorite ship, captions a photograph of him as taken on it in 1964. Quite a trick since it was destroyed by fire during World War II, before he ever left Europe.

There are lots of footnotes, many of them packed with fascinating material, but sometimes the speculative is bolstered with something more akin to yet more speculation than proof.

A case in point is her highly colored ruminations on whether De Man had an affair, possibly leading to a pregnancy and miscarriage, with novelist and critic Mary McCarthy, who helped him get a position at Bard College early on. The text has far too much of the conditional — and not just in its tense.

Moreover, why, despite those repetitive flashes forward, basically end the biography with the appointment to Cornell nearly a quarter-century before De Man’s death, leaving his meteoric rise to be telescoped into a few pages at the end?

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