Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Paul de Man and the Intellectual Con of Deconstruction

Rather too late, there is finally a biography of literary theorist Paul de Man that exposes the scandal of his life and the astonishing cover-up he perpetrated to regain respectability. Robert Alter has a review. De Man died in 1983, which time he was a famous literary critic and perhaps the foremost Deconstructionist on this side of the Atlantic. Born in Belgium in 1929, de Man entered the literary world as a writer for various collaborationist magazines during the Nazi occupation and he briefly aspired to become the Minister of Culture in the Nazi-installed regime. He wrote at least two nastily anti-Semitic articles, apparently for purely careerist reasons, since he had no special feelings about Jews -- nor, it seems, anyone else other than himself. The story of these articles was first publicly aired in 1988, along with other unsavory details, but everything remained in dispute. But now biographer Evelyn Barish has followed up on that case and many others:
The full picture is actually far worse than any of these initial condemnatory reports, as Barish demonstrates in carefully documented detail. What she shows is that from the beginning, de Man was a person who flagrantly disregarded rules and obligations, shamelessly and repeatedly lied about himself, and had a criminal past. A Belgian cousin reports that the young de Man once said to him, “Principles are what the idiots substitute for intelligence.” One should add that he was an extraordinarily gifted con man, persuading the most discerning intellectuals that he had credentials he did not possess and a heroic personal history, rather than a scandalous one, while he worked his charm on generations of students.
One detail from a long, sordid list that includes serial bigamy and financial fraud:
How does a new immigrant without credentials get appointed at an American college? De Man produced a fictitious curriculum vitae in which he claimed to hold the “equivalent of your Master’s degree.” He also said he had been an editor at Editions de Minuit in Paris, a prestigious publishing house with which he had had no contact, and that his grandfather was a “founder of the University of Ghent.” Later, in his Harvard years, he would embellish this fictitious autobiography further: the collaborator did not hesitate to represent himself as a man who had fought in the Belgian army and then joined the Resistance.
And what does this have to do with his career as a literary critic? Plenty. The essential point of Deconstruction is that by taking a text apart one shows that it actually has, not one message or point of view, but many different ones that undermine each other. Who better than a monstrous charlatan to proclaim that texts are not what they seem on the surface? Alter acknowledges this but prefers to focus on de Man's style:
This is certainly plausible, but I would also like to suggest a different kind of continuity between de Man’s mode of operation as a literary theorist and his mode of operation as a con man. It has to do with his style. In his writing, abstruseness, bristling abstraction, and a disorienting use of terms make his essays often difficult to penetrate. This was part of the key to his success: to his American admirers, with their cultural inferiority complex, it seemed that if things were difficult to grasp, something profound was being said.

De Man became famous for his “rigor,” but in fact his treatment of concepts is often highly dubious and the terms he conjures are decidedly questionable. It is also now widely recognized that he frequently played fast and loose with the texts he discussed, misquoting, inventing quotations, and mistranslating. The British Renaissance scholar Brian Vickers has demonstrated in a trenchant article that de Man, discussing Rousseau, at one point inserts a ne absent in the French, thus converting a positive assertion by Rousseau into a negative one that suits his own purposes. . . . This strategy is combined with an inclination to aphoristic formulations that have the ring of authoritative truth but not its content. Thus, in an essay on Proust and reading, he instructs us that “narrative is the metaphor of the moment, as reading is the metaphor of writing.” This might at first sound profound, but the more you think about it, the more it dissolves into nonsense, with “metaphor” proving to be meaningless.
Exactly. De Man's writing sounds impressive but usually signifies nothing, and if this is not immediately apparent that is because it is so obscure. It is intellectual fraud.

So why was de Man so successful? Well, what is it that professors of literature do?

For those of us who are susceptible, literature is extremely powerful, shaping how we view the world and ourselves. How does this work, and is this power good or bad? These are, for thinking readers, important questions. But they are very hard to answer in a way that is both interesting and grounded in reality. Professors of literature are always searching for new ways to explore texts and their impact that are neither dull nor fanciful, and this makes the field particularly subject to fads. Deconstruction came along when American professors were feeling increasingly irrelevant -- outside their windows the campus was erupting with protests against Vietnam, racism, and sexism, and inside they were teaching Shakespeare and Milton. Deconstruction seemed to offer new ways to approach the political message of old texts, and its Hegelian difficulty made it seem like a serious endeavor. Plus, it was new and sort of fun.

I don't begrudge professors the fun they had putting slashes into words, but I think that Deconstruction and allied fads have done real damage to America's universities. Nothing has done more over the past 40 years to make Americans even more suspicious of the academic world, and even more contemptuous of the work that academics think is important. For that, Paul de Man and those who lionized him deserve much of the blame.

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