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It is inevitable that some readers will take from Evelyn Barish’s biography of the life and misdeeds of Paul de Man the notion that literary theory is a crock. The title doesn’t help. The Double Life of Paul de Man (Liveright, $35) — the wind shrieks as the whip, or the hatchet, comes down. Barish is not the first to take a swing. Once, de Man was renowned with Jacques Derrida for reshaping literary study through deconstruction, a form of extremely close reading, a practice of digging up and pressing down on the oppositions and contradictions of language to generate a “play of signification,” hermeneutics without end. But he was discredited in 1988, when a diligent graduate student uncovered evidence of his anti-Semitic wartime journalism.

Cobwebs © Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

Cobwebs © Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

Barish has spent nearly twenty-five years in the archives and interviewing de Man’s family, friends, and colleagues, and after combing through the rubble she finds that the fallen idol was made of plaster all along. He was a slippery Mr. Ripley, a confidence man and a hustler who embezzled, lied, forged, and arreared his way to intellectual acclaim. (Oh: he was a bigamist too.) Anyone who is inclined to the notion that criticism is a mode of autobiography, as I am, will find provocative the connections between de Man’s cobwebby life and his theoretical vocabulary of aporia, abîme, irony, and instability.

Born into a French-speaking Flemish family in 1919, de Man (it’s “man,” not “mahn”) was the nephew of the powerful socialist-turned-fascist politician Henri de Man. During the war, Henri’s connections landed Paul a job reviewing books for the collaborationist Le Soir as well as posts at two other publishing companies run by the occupiers. Paul was ambitious but reckless, and was fired from all three jobs for sheer incompetence — lost manuscripts, blown deadlines, and foolish purchases, including an order for 12,000 calendars placed too late in the year to be sold. Paul was knowing, savvy, and a skilled manipulator, but never a committed or avid Nazi; like many Belgians, he thought a Germanic Europe was a fait accompli, and he scrambled for protection. And money: his whole life he never had enough, though no one could figure out where it went. In 1946 a postwar prosecutor deemed him too small a fish to fry. If it hadn’t been for his own managerial stupidity, he likely would have attained enough power to have suffered the consequences of it.

During the war he fathered a child with Anne Baraghian, a beautiful spendthrift who happened to be married to someone else. (For a time they all lived in a comfortable ménage à trois, and Paul and Anne’s husband would argue literature while pushing the bastard’s pram around the Square des Latins.) Eventually Anne and Paul married and had two more children, but he was frustrated that the law forbade the adoption of the son sired in adultery. His solution was creative: he used bribes to obtain death and birth certificates, and claimed the oldest child, now on paper a few years younger, as his legitimate issue. It seems to have been a displacement of some kind. Later in life Paul became enamored of the fiction that his father, Bob, was really his uncle, and Uncle Henri his biological parent who had given him up for adoption.

After the war de Man persuaded his father’s wealthy friends to provide him with capital for a publishing company, Hermès, from whose coffers he proceeded to filch every last franc. When things fell apart his humiliated father hustled him out of the country, and just in time: in 1951 he was sentenced in absentia to six years for swindling. Anne and the children decamped to Buenos Aires, and Paul made for New York, where he found work as a stock boy at the Doubleday bookstore in Grand Central Terminal, and friendship with Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy. (They assumed he was a left-wing émigré with a Resistance past; later he would add to his credentials a stint in the Popular Front, an impossibility given his age.) He didn’t get published in Partisan Review, but McCarthy smoothed his way to a job teaching French at Bard. Barish suggests that he also might have been the father of the child McCarthy miscarried.

At Bard he met a student named Pat, who shortly became pregnant. (It was Pat, not Paul, who translated the Madame Bovary that came out under his name.) Paul loved Pat. He loved her so much that he married her in Yonkers in June 1950, then again in New Hampshire in August 1960, after his divorce from Anne was made final, and once more when they arrived in Ithaca later that year.

No one at Bard liked his carrying on with a student, or his failure to pay rent on the house he was subletting. His next stop was Harvard, where he wormed his way into graduate studies in the Department of Comparative Literature. As a student at the Free University of Brussels, de Man had attempted studies in engineering, chemistry, and social sciences, and had been awarded a degree in none, though when Harvard required a transcript he added a line that attested to his passing. He was a golden boy, armed with a European pedigree and an unusual, forward-thinking commitment to philosophical study. The faculty turned a blind eye to his other sources of income, which were generally forbidden to teaching assistants, and which in his case included serving as French tutor to one Henry Kissinger.

Dollar Shred, by Max Shuster. Courtesy the artist and Cumberland Gallery, Nashville

Dollar Shred, by Max Shuster. Courtesy the artist and Cumberland Gallery, Nashville

In 1954 Harvard received an anonymous letter denouncing de Man’s collaboration and his immigration status, forcing him into an extracurricular trip to Europe, supposedly to deal with his passport situation. It was sheer luck that got him back into the States without papers — luck, and a boatload of drunk Hungarian refugees, who diverted the attention of the INS officials at port. When de Man returned to campus, he was, for inscrutable reasons, permitted to forgo two thirds of the formidable general exams, though he failed the one exam he did take, coming up blank on, of all things, German literature. He passed the redo, dismally. Many expected this glistering student to stay on at Harvard, but he was cast out of Eden, first to the wilds of Ithaca, then down to New Haven, where he perfected the famous little shrug with which he wordlessly closed conversations by opening them to interpretation. Barish ends her book by alluding to de Man’s mature career without evaluating the work. This is a mercy, as she herself claims no understanding of, and little sympathy for, it.

De Man was, by all accounts, a magic man — a “great man,” according to his students — in the classroom. Barish describes him as a Svengali, pinning students to their wooden seats with his icy gaze. Mysticism was his pedagogical style, and he came by it honestly. It was Heidegger — a far more committed Nazi and a far more significant philosopher, from whom de Man took so many ideas — who said that the job of the teacher is not to expound but to “let learn.”

He taught, inspired, provoked, and molded a generation of academics, and through their influence he continues to reach further generations, some of whom read texts as closely as the master, though for ends other than signification. (These disciples have filtered into the marketplace as well as the professoriat. They have given ripped jeans a new name, and a new price point: “deconstructed denim.”) The so-called theory wars ended not in a truce but in assimilation. Thus it is odd that Barish begins her biography with the fallacy that “Paul de Man no longer seems to exist.” Paul de Man is everywhere. Mutation is a meaningful form of transmission.

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