Deconstructing Paul de Man. Reports of early Nazi leanings overshadow his literary criticism. ACADEMIC DEBATE
BOSTON — OF the Paul de Man affair, Lindsay Waters of Harvard University Press says, ``It's a good mouse trap for professors.'' The scandal caused by the news that de Man may have furthered the Nazi cause during World War II has focused long-established discontent over the influence of de Man's esoteric literary theory called deconstruction. This theory seems to shift the focus from author to text - a move some critics feel reflects de Man's own uneasiness about his first writings. In a breakfast interview, Dr. Waters explained that the possibility that de Man supported the Nazis is forcing people to take positions on key issues, and to look again at de Man's subsequent influence as a teacher and literary scholar in the United States.
But, Waters adds, taking sides isn't enough. Gerald Graff of Northwestern University hopes the debate takes a philosophical turn. To go beyond de Man's theory of deconstruction one must see it from all sides, says Dr. Graff; one must debate it. ``This is not it for deconstruction,'' he says.
At the time of his death in 1983, de Man was chairman of the Comparative Literature Department at Yale University. He was widely mourned by students and friends.
Now it appears that de Man wrote for a Nazi-controlled daily newspaper Le Soir in his native Belgium in 1941 and '42, when he was in his early 20s. His writings reflect anti-Semitic and other Nazi themes. This information, revealed by the New York Times last April, came as a surprise to his students and close friends.
In December, the University of Nebraska published ``Wartime Journalism, 1939-1943,'' a facsimile collection of de Man's columns. For spring, it has scheduled a large volume called ``Responses,'' which includes essays by 35 writers ranging from the French poet Yves Bonnefoy to Palestinian-American Edward Said.
The climate of opinion has become violent. In a phone interview, Graff said the de Man affair has brought out the worst in academics today. The defenders are too defensive, the attackers too aggressive, Graff feels. What they should be debating, he says, is not the person of Paul de Man, but the theories.
Graff thinks the situation calls for his ``teach the debate'' approach to humanities. Graff's plan puts issues in the framework of an intramural debate and removes from the professors the impossible burden of a universal objectivity.
But it is the person who is in question. Or rather, the person helps focus what some have suspected about contemporary literary theory all along - that it is highly political, even when it seems purely literary. No one, not even de Man's friend Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher whose ideas about language supply the foundations for deconstruction, denies the appearance of evil in de Man's wartime journalism.
Ironically, some of de Man's defenders and critics resort to de Man's ``deconstructive'' approach. They focus on the language of the text, not the author, as if the language controlled the author.
Following his teachings in his important book ``Blindness and Insight,'' they view his journalism in terms of ``blind spots'' - the blindspots, that is, he shared with those who went along with the Nazis. A few have concluded that de Man ``deconstructed'' Nazi propaganda, revealed its blind spots, its prejudices.
To judge de Man, what's needed is sound historical context. Alice Yaeger Kaplan of Duke University writes in ``Responses'' that de Man's work in Le Soir is ``at once a brilliant and banal example of all the clich'es of fascist nationalism....''
Dr. Kaplan notes that de Man stopped writing on the eve of liberation, ``in time to avoid assassination.'' She says that when, after the war, journalists were called in for questioning, the interrogator assigned to Paul de Man exclaimed, ``You were but a child.'' Unlike many of his colleagues, Paul de Man was not convicted.
Kaplan studied with de Man. She sees continuities between his wartime journalism and his later teaching. Not anti-Semitism (only one of his literary columns was clearly anti-Semitic, she says) but the elitist attitude toward literature as a realm separate from politics. De Man's ``disdain'' didn't change, Kaplan says. As a teacher de Man required his students to impersonalize their criticism. Some have reacted.
Lindsay Waters is concerned lest the de Man affair give an opening to ideologues left and right - both the ``Calvin Klein Marxists'' and the followers of Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch Jr.
Friends of literature, Waters says, have reason to honor the name of Paul de Man. Waters argues that de Man's journalism reflects the ``cultural despair'' and ``antidemocratic, elitist aestheticism'' widespread among intellectuals then.
But Waters argues in ``Responses'' that de Man's real theme makes him relevant to the '60s generation. Opposite goals notwithstanding, de Man addresses the problem faced by those who, after the collapse of the radical student movement, tried to carry on radical politics ``in however sublimated a form.''
``The privileging of art and aesthetics,'' writes Waters, ``as if a revolution in taste would transform politics, was a mistake, but a mistake of a sort we failed to understand.'' De Man helped a whole generation understand the mistake, he says.
The nonpolitical generation of the '80s may have other ideas. A junior faculty member of a major English department seemed unconcerned by the flap over de Man's journalism. He said he is thinking about leaving academics for law.
The de Man generation has come of age. Both Graff and Waters work in publishing. Northwestern University Press, where Graff is special projects manager, and Harvard University Press, where Waters is an editor, plan to publish materials connected to the de Man affair. Stay tuned.