De Man's Deconstruction

LONG before the scandalous revelations about Paul de Man's wartime writings for the pro-Nazi press came to light, deconstruction - the school of literary criticism most closely identified with him - was a hotly controversial topic inside and outside academe.Proliferating in the hothouse climate of graduate-school literature departments in the 1970s, deconstruction had spread far beyond academia by the end of the 1980s. It has become the word of moment - in David Lehman's phrase, a sign of the times - applied to everything from new fads in clothing and architecture to the questionable tactics of Wall Street junk-bond dealers. David Lehman, a poet, mystery writer, journalist, and graduate school veteran who covered the de Man story for Newsweek, offers "debunking" as a rough-and-ready synonym for deconstruction. In "Signs of the Times," his spirited, immensely readable guide to "Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man," Lehman also provides a far more complete summary of deconstruction's salient points: First, there's the assumption (derived from linguistic studies earlier this century) of an unbridgeable gap between signs (words) and the things they are supposed to signify. This leads to the supposition that language has a life of its own: It determines what we think and how we see, and not the other way around. We are its prisoners, unable to do without it or get around it. Therefore, when we read a text - be it a sonnet by Shakespeare or an ad for margarine, the United States Constitution or a Gothic romance - we are justified only in watching what the words are getting up to: Any effort to evaluate literary merit or disco ver the author's intended meaning is a pointless exercise. For all the panache he displays in unmasking the pretensions of deconstructionists, Lehman is not entirely hostile to deconstruction. Nor is he the kind of writer who glibly dismisses what he fails to understand. His discussion of deconstruction in particular - and of literary criticism in general - is lively and well-informed. He even makes a good case for the value of "soft core" deconstruction as distinct from the "hard core" variety: The former is free-spirited, playful, creative, open-ended; the lat ter is a pseudo-religious cult that thinks it has all the answers and brooks no rival schools. If the first half of Lehman's book is a shrewd, enlightening, witty, often entertaining look at the academic politics of literary criticism, the second half has the dramatic impact of a suspense novel. The deconstructionists' hubristic dismissal of biography and history met its nemesis in the form of incontrovertible biographical and historical facts. De Man, a Yale professor regarded by his colleagues and students as the most honest, intellectually rigorous, and disinterested of scholars, was discovered to have concealed the facts about his past. The silence he maintained to his death in 1983 was as disturbing as the transgressions themselves. Ironically, it was a young Belgian graduate student - an admirer of de Man's work looking for more of the master's writings - who came across de Man's youthful contributions to Belgian collaborationist newspapers. The story came out in 1987, four years after de Man's death. De Man's colleague, Derrida, to his credit, advised full disclosure and publication of these wartime writings. But the elaborate contortions into which he and other die-hard deconstructionists twisted themselves to make excuses for de Man's pro-Nazi writings and his concealment of his past constitute what really amounts to a third scandal. For a two-year period ending in November 1942, the young (20- and 21-year-old) Belgian-born deconstructionist-to-be contributed some 180 articles on literary and cultural topics, mostly to the French-language collaborationist newspaper Le Soir (popularly dubbed "Le Soir Vol - the stolen "Evening after the occupying Nazis took it over six months before de Man signed on to write for them) and for a pro-Nazi Flemish-language paper. As Lehman points out, these articles were written at a time when the outcome of the war was in doubt, when the Nazis were out to win the "hearts and minds" of conquered Europeans, and when European Jews were being fired from their jobs, deprived of their property, and sent off to concentration camps. Set in the context of history, de Man's pompous pronouncements on the "centrality" of Hitlerian thought in European culture and the "marginality" and second-rate nature of Jewish contributions are hardly difficult to interpret. Some of de Man's defenders, however, as Lehman shows, came up with some ingenious - and utterly implausible - defenses: De Man may have meant his articles to be read ironically, they claimed. Since de Man never discussed his wartime activities (beyond allowing people to mistakenly assume he had been involved in the Resistance), his former colleagues were left to ponder whether young de Man had written these pro-Nazi pieces out of genuine conviction or mere opportunism. Colleagues like Geoffrey Hartman (a Jewish refugee from Hitler's Germany) had little doubt that de Man's wartime writings were morally wrong. But Hartman and others saw in de Man's later deconstructionist writings a kind of "atonement a way of dissolving his former smug certainties in a thoroughgoing outlook of skepticism. More strident - and bizarre - defenses took the line that "journalists" and others now condemning de Man for his past were themselves in the position of Nazis condemning Jews! But, in the final analysis, it is very hard not to agree with Lehman's conclusion: "[F]or a thinker ... whose hard-core brand of deconstruction stressed the 'indeterminacy' of texts - surely there was some relation between the texts he was intent on forgetting [his collaborationist articles] and the texts in which he campaigned to forget the 'author,' his 'ideas,' and his conscious 'meaning.' Deconstruction had long given people pause because it makes no provision for moral action and dismisses the historical dimension in literature. These omissions seemed all the more disquieting, and perhaps the more intelligible, in the light of the de Man disclosures." Beneath the dispassionate, disinterested tone that magisterially commends tradition on the one hand, post-modernity on the other, one senses the same motivating force: opportunism.

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