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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.

As with de Man, everything W. G. Sebald wrote circled around the war — a black hole that gave shape to his thought. Sebald taught at the University of East Anglia until his sudden death in an automobile accident in 2001. When de Man recited a stanza by Yeats, Harvard undergrads spontaneously burst into applause, but a Sebald lecture seems more likely to have been met with hushed reverence. Because what would one be applauding? Modernity’s march into the abyss?

Sebald has always been suspicious of significance; it consigns a thing to oblivion. “It is precisely the most extraordinary things which are the most easily forgotten,” he writes in A Place in the Country (Random House, $26) in an essay about Robert Walser, who would have sunk to the bottom of the Lethe had it not been for Walser’s friend the writer Carl Seelig. When it comes to Johann Peter Hebel’s stories, “a seal of their perfection is that they are so easy to forget.” Only what has been lost is available to be found.

“Traveler LXXXVII at Night (Between Too Much and Me),” by Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz. Courtesy the artists and P?P?O?W Gallery, New York City

“Traveler LXXXVII at Night (Between Too Much and Me),” by Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz. Courtesy the artists and P?P?O?W Gallery, New York City

Sebald describes these essays — first published in German in 1998 — as “extended marginal notes and glosses.” In fact these sketches of five writers and a painter are notes on notes; more than one figure ends his life scrawling obsessively on secret scraps of paper. The country home is a private library, and we are here for the tour of curiosities.

Of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s exile, Sebald writes, “The Île Saint-Pierre must truly have appeared . . . as a paradise in miniature.” Of Eduard Mörike’s era, he observes, “The ideal world of the Biedermeier imagination is like a perfect world in miniature, a still life preserved under a glass dome. Everything in it seems to be holding its breath.” Under the dome writers struggle, and fail, to protect the possibility of meaning without going mad. There is relief in the immortal point of view:

Ultimately it is this cosmic perspective, and the insights derived from it into our own insignificance, which is the source of the sovereign serenity with which Hebel presides in his stories over the vagaries of human destiny.

Sebald characterizes Walser’s “pencil method” — the Swiss writer covered scratch paper with a minuscule code of letters — in terms of “fortifications,” by which “the smallest and most innocent things might be saved from destruction in the ‘great times’ then looming on the horizon.” It takes little imagination to grasp A Place in the Country as one such fortification. If history is registered in words and images, then it is as readers and observers that we stand to profit from its tiny relics.

Sometimes the past teaches false lessons that we have to overturn; sometimes the lessons are true ones but the evidence is false. The latter is the premise of Kevin Cook’s Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America (W. W. Norton, $25.95). You’ve heard of Kitty Genovese. She was on the news, and Phil Ochs wrote a song about her and about the people who stood by and said nothing while a nice white girl from Brooklyn was hacked to pieces in the middle of the street. But what happened on March 13, 1964, in Kew Gardens, Queens, was not that thirty-eight witnesses looked out their windows and silently watched Kitty Genovese die. What happened was much worse, because — and this is a teaching from Sebald — the truth is always worse than anything we can make up in its place.

It was three o’clock in the morning. Kitty Genovese, a twenty-eight-year-old lesbian who lived with her girlfriend, Mary Ann Zielonko, had just gotten off her shift at Ev’s, the bar she managed in Hollis. A disturbed man named Winston Moseley, who had gone out looking for a woman to kill and rape — in that order — saw her get into her red Fiat. He trailed her to the Long Island Rail Road lot where she parked the car, and attacked her as she walked down Austin Street. A neighbor across the way saw what looked like a domestic spat and yelled down to break it up; Moseley took off. Kitty stumbled around the corner, out of view. A different neighbor heard screams and called the police, but at the time there was no central emergency hotline. You had to call the local dispatcher. Sometimes they came. That time they didn’t.

Kitty couldn’t make it to her own front door, but she got to the building where a friend lived, a closeted homosexual named Karl Ross who was terrified of the police and everything else. Moseley found Kitty on the staircase that led to Ross’s apartment and was stabbing her on the stairs when Ross opened the door, and was still at it when Ross slammed the door shut again. Ross was drunk. First he did nothing, then he made a call to a neighbor. That neighbor called another neighbor, who called another neighbor, Sophie Farrar, who came running, and cradled her gasping friend in her arms while she died.

Kevin Cook has done as much research as anyone could stomach. We learn that Moseley’s mother abandoned him, that he was obsessed with grasshoppers and his ant farm, that he was disgusted by, and drawn to, the smell of menstrual blood. Twelve days before finding Kitty, he had shot in the stomach and raped a twenty-four-year-old African-American woman named Annie Mae Johnson, then stuffed a scarf into her vagina and lit it on fire. He tried to rape Kitty too, and used the knife inside her. Moseley, when caught, confessed quickly and coolly, and the trial was short, if memorable; one nervous psychologist defecated in his pants under cross-examination. After the jury found Moseley guilty, Judge J. Irwin Shapiro — a known opponent of the death penalty — didn’t permit any additional testimony that might mitigate the sentence. Some think this was a strategy designed to open a backdoor to appeal while sating the public’s rage; in 1967, an appellate court commuted the death sentence to life.

Moseley is currently the longest-serving inmate in the New York State prison system, prisoner 64A0102 at Clinton Correctional Facility, where he regularly appears at parole hearings and is just as regularly denied. How did the story of the murder get spun into a case study? The short answer is that it was fed to the New York Times city editor Abe Rosenthal by the police commissioner. He wanted to distract the papers from the fact that Moseley, in addition to honestly confessing to two crimes, had falsely confessed to a third. So the commissioner threw the mud in Rosenthal’s eyes, and Rosenthal smeared it all over the front page.

We have the Kitty Genovese case to thank for 9-1-1, as well as for the state policy that requires convicts be transported in handcuffs. (In 1968 Moseley escaped from the hospital, where he had gotten himself sent by sticking a meat tin up his rectum, and raped two women during his four days on the lam.) We also have the bystander effect, a standby of law and psychology classes that has been corroborated time and again: The more people who witness an act of violence, the more diminished is each person’s sense of moral responsibility — like children we do nothing, assuming a grown-up will take care of the job. Moseley has acknowledged this group behavior. In 1977 he published an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that his crime had done a service by highlighting the problem of urban anomie: “It is necessary to sometimes get involved,” he wrote, insanely.

The bystander effect does fairly describe one witness to Moseley’s attack on Kitty Genovese. He was the assistant superintendent in the building across the street. He saw the knife go into the girl’s back, gave a little shrug, and went to sleep. His name was Fink.

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