The Double Life of Paul de Man

The Double Life of Paul de Man

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by Evelyn Barish

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A landmark biography that reveals the secret past of one of the most influential academics of the twentieth century.
Over thirty years after his death in 1983, Paul de Man, a hugely charismatic intellectual who created with deconstruction an ideology so pervasive that it threatened to topple the very foundations of literature, remains a haunting and still


A landmark biography that reveals the secret past of one of the most influential academics of the twentieth century.
Over thirty years after his death in 1983, Paul de Man, a hugely charismatic intellectual who created with deconstruction an ideology so pervasive that it threatened to topple the very foundations of literature, remains a haunting and still largely unexamined figure. Deeply influential, de Man and his theory-driven philosophy were so dominant that his passing received front-page coverage, suggesting that a cult hero, if not intellectual rock star, had met an untimely end.
Yet in 1988, de Man's reputation was ruined when it was discovered that he had written an anti-Semitic article and worked for a collaborating Belgium newspaper during World War II. Who was he, really, and who had he been? No one knew. Still in shock, few of his followers wanted to find out. Once an admirer, although never a theorist, the biographer Evelyn Barish began her own investigation. Relying on years of original archival work and interviews with over two hundred of de Man's circle of friends and family, most of them now dead, Barish vividly re-creates this collaborationist world of occupied Belgian and France.Born in 1919 to a rich but tragically unstable family, Paul de Man, a golden boy, was influenced by his uncle Henri de Man, a socialist turned Nazi collaborator who became the de facto Belgian prime minister. By the early 1940s, Paul, while seemingly only a reviewer for Nazi newspapers, was secretly rising in far more important jobs in Belgium's and France’s collaborationist regimes.Postwar, barred from the university, de Man created a publishing house, but stole all its assets; then, facing jail, he fled to New York, abandoning his family (his opportunistic, anti-Semitic writing seemed the least of his crimes). Arriving penniless, he quickly rose again, befriending an entire generation of American writers in New York, including Dwight Macdonald, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Mary McCarthy. Barish sketches de Man's renowned careers at Bard and Yale, as well as the circumstances surrounding his loving—but bigamous—second marriage to former Bard student Patricia Kelley, who created the tranquillity he so lacked.Juxtaposing this personal story to his meteoric rise through American academia, Barish traces the origins of the philosophical deconstructionism that he later created with Jacques Derrida, showing how de Man attracted followers with his attack on the hypocrisy of society that attempts to cover up the "essential alienation" of art from "the system." While focusing on the biographical facts, this commanding and psychologically probing biography reveals as much about human behavior and the cross-currents of twentieth-century intellectual thought as it does about the man who held an entire generation in his thrall.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Paul de Man, a highly respected comparative literature professor whose critical theories laid the foundations for deconstructionism, fell from grace five years after his death in 1983 when it was discovered that he collaborated with the Nazis during WWII and wrote an anti-Semitic article for the Belgian newspaper Le Soir (volé). In this engrossing, meticulously researched biography, Barish (Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy) reconstructs the events of de Man’s life, contextualizing his duplicity. Two major influences were his closed-lip family and his uncle, Henri de Man, a prominent socialist who, following the Nazi occupation of Belgium in 1940, openly advocated collaboration. Without justifying his behavior, Barish, in her vivid recreation of life in war-time Brussels, shows how de Man and many of his colleagues saw writing propaganda as an opportunity for literary advancement, with Germany’s triumph a foregone conclusion. The picture that emerges is that of a charismatic and dishonest opportunist who, after embezzling funds from a publishing house he founded, fled to America and reinvented himself as an academic. Barish lets the facts speak for themselves, but leaves no doubt that a “philosophy of language” built on the innate instability of words and futility of communication provided de Man with an appropriate means for obscuring his past. 8 pages of photos. Agent: Georges Borchardt, Georges Borchardt Inc. (Jan.)
Susan Rubin Suleiman - New York Times Book Review
“The Double Life of Paul de Man revives the man and his fall. This time, we get a story of the professor not just as a young collaborator, but as a scheming careerist, an embezzler and forger who fled Belgium in order to avoid prison, a bigamist who abandoned his first three children, a deadbeat who left many rents and hotel bills unpaid, a liar who wormed his way into Harvard by falsifying records, a cynic who used people shamelessly… Compelling… Picaresque.”
Robert Zaretsky - The American Scholar
“[A] painstaking and probing account… Ultimately, a mark of Barish’s achievement is that, by the end of her story, de Man confounds and eludes us no less than he did his contemporaries.”
Louis Menand - The New Yorker
“[De Man’s] story, the story of a concealed past, was almost too perfect a synecdoche for everything that made people feel puzzled, threatened, or angry about literary theory. Evelyn Barish’s new biography, The Double Life of Paul de Man (Liveright), is an important update on the story… [Barish] has an amazing tale to tell. In her account, all guns are smoking… Fascinating.”
Robert Altar - New Republic
“Impressively researched… Carefully documented… The story Barish tells is riveting. The de Man family closet was so packed with skeletons that they would have had to spill out into the living room.”
David Lehman - The Wall Street Journal
“Barish adds much to our knowledge of this brilliant intellectual counterfeit.”
Robert Alter - New Republic
“Impressively researched… Carefully documented… The story Barish tells is riveting. The de Man family closet was so packed with skeletons that they would have had to spill out into the living room.”
Cynthia Ozick
“Evelyn Barish's necessary, illuminating, and unstoppably addictive biography goads us to ask whether the success of charm and genuine brilliance ought eventually to override one's revulsion at systematic deceit. And beyond this: was de Man's acclaimed theory cut to fit the machinations of the man? And further still: how can an entire generation of the professoriat have fallen into unthinking adulation of a brazen rascal?”
David S. Reynolds
“Evelyn Barish's revelatory and compulsively readable biography proves that Paul de Man, once considered America's foremost literary theorist, had been an active Nazi collaborator in Belgium during the war and was also a convicted embezzler, a bigamist, and a narcissist who stared at himself in the mirror for hours…Barish's gripping book is everything de Man's writing is not; it sticks to real facts gained through painstaking research, facts that disperse nebulous theorizing like a nail puncturing a balloon.”
Blanche Wiesen Cook
“Evelyn Barish's profoundly researched and vividly written biography of Paul de Man is stunning. It tells us much about ourselves, our contradictory culture, and that mysterious flight from facts into the distractions of deconstruction. Everybody interested in our ongoing political divideswill be fascinated by this triumphant work.”
Bryce Christensen - Booklist
“In this stunning biography…readers will marvel at how successfully de Man hid his misdeeds behind the luminous persona of a brilliant critical theorist, repeatedly using the plausibility of past lies to leverage yet larger new prevarications…An astonishing exposé.”
Clive James
“Evelyn Barish tells us exactly why Paul de Man, a pioneer of Theory, should have favoured notions about the impossibility of an objective narrative or a fixed personality. Viewed objectively, the narrative of his own life was the story of a cheat and a liar; and he made up his personality as he went along. Yet he fooled one high-level American college after another into treating him as a genius. This is one of the most daunting portraits of a literary charlatan since A.J.A. Symons wrote the life of Baron Corvo.”
Warner B. Berthoff
“A rigorously researched probe into a life of systematic duplicity and into the mystery of a strangely flawed, charismatic personality. Evelyn Barish's book is in no sense a polemic; her accounting of Paul de Man's character and career is evenhanded in its judgments and cumulatively devastating.”
Diane Jacobs
“A page-turner, The Double Life of Paul de Man is a brilliant piece of writing—dispassionate in its analysis, moving in its vision of a tortured man.”
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-12-14
A riveting biography of master confidence man Paul de Man (1919–1983), manipulator of the facts and influential literary instructor--a character both preposterous and irresistible. Barish (English/City Univ. of New York Graduate Center; Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy, 1989) leaves de Man's deconstructionist contradictions mostly off to the side and concentrates on the wildly chameleonic personality and the upbringing of this charismatic character who eluded justice from Nazi-occupied Belgium and later fabricated his academic reputation at Harvard and elsewhere by wily connections and sheer boldness. The tale of de Man is not only the tangled trajectory of a psychically scarred young man from a deeply problematic family who saw an opportunity to advance himself through Nazi collaboration, but also the story of the striking gullibility of an American elitist intellectual milieu that never questioned his credentials due to its own postwar sense of inferiority compared to European literature. Barish gets underneath the objectionable journalistic pieces de Man wrote during the war and his skein of publishing embezzlements in Brussels by exploring the pattern of secrecy and shame in his own upper-middle-class Antwerp family: a depressed mother who hanged herself; a troubled older brother who was killed by an oncoming train; an uncle who was a high-ranking minister in Belgian government, advocating appeasement and anti-Semitism and whom Paul highly revered and passed off later as his father. De Man became an "intellectual entrepreneur," autodidact, university dropout and superb bluffer who saw his chance to "take a place" in the new Nazi order. While his collaborationist colleagues were imprisoned after the war, de Man fled to the United States. His entry into intellectual circles, thanks to Mary McCarthy and Henry Kissinger, among others, allowed him immunity and a disguise as he forged a brilliant academic career. An extraordinary story of a complex personality presented with a wise dose of irony and respect.
Library Journal
Paul de Man (1919–83), a Belgian journalist who had worked for the Nazis, found himself in May 1948 in New York working in a bookshop. He made influential friends, including Mary McCarthy, took a job at Bard College, entered graduate school at Harvard (although he lacked an undergraduate degree), took a job at Cornell, and won a chair in literature at Yale. With Jacques Derrida, he became known as the inventor of "deconstruction." The intellectual world shuddered when de Man's wartime journalism first emerged. Now Barish (English, CUNY Graduate Ctr., Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy) reports a history of criminal financial fraud in Belgium and raises deeply troubling questions about the American academic world. She even speculates about Harvard doctoral examinations. De Man came from a Europe weary from two world wars, where it seemed to some that history could not be made to make sense and that the great narratives like those of the believers in progress were finished. Some, such as de Man, decided that the best understanding of language undermined claims to universal moral truth and that the Platonic eternal form of the good was the ultimate delusion. VERDICT A gripping, careful—and terrifying—narrative.—Leslie Armour, Dominican Univ. Coll., Ottawa

Product Details

Liveright Publishing Corporation
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)

Meet the Author

Evelyn Barish is a professor at City University of New York’s Graduate Center and its College of Staten Island, and the author of Emerson:The Roots of Prophecy, for which she won the Christian Gauss Award. She lives in New York City.

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The Double Life of Paul de Man 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had high hopes for a good documentary of Paul de Man, who is considered one of the best Literary Theorists in North America. Unfortunately, this was a huge disappointment, since Barish takes on a more tabloid style affront to de Man's past. Moreover, I spent a lot of time reading a roughly 500 page book only to find that he could hardly be accused of anything that other academics are also equally guilty of. I think this book is seeking to denigrate an important thinker, and I find it a sort of cheap shot. I do NOT recommend this slander piece. Also, the academic jargon is elitist to say the least.