Paul de Man Was a Total Fraud
The literary-critical giant lied about every part of his life
BY ROBERT ALTER
Evelyn Barish begins her impressively researched biography by flatly stating that “Paul de Man no longer seems to exist.” This may be an exaggerated expression of frustration by a biographer whose long- incubated work now appears after what might have been the optimal time for it. Yet there is considerable truth in what she says. De Man is now scarcely remembered by the general public, though he was the center of a widely publicized scandal in 1988, five years after his death at the age of 64. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was a central figure, an inevitable figure, in American literary studies, in which doctoral dissertations, the great barometer of academic fashion, could scarcely be found without dozens of citations from his writings. But the meteor has long since faded: over the past decade and more, I have only rarely encountered references to de Man in students’ work, committed as they generally are to marching with the zeitgeist.
Paul de Man arrived in the United States from his native Belgium in the spring of 1948. He would remain in this country illegally after the expiration of his temporary visa, on occasion finding ways to elude the Immigration and Naturalization Service. But that, as Barish’s account makes clear, was the least of his infractions of the law. Eventually he would be admitted, with a considerable amount of falsification on his part, to the doctoral program in comparative literature at Harvard, from which he would receive a degree, in somewhat compromised circumstances, in 1960. He then went on to teach at Cornell, briefly at Johns Hopkins, and most significantly at Yale, where he became a “seminal” scholar and an altogether revered figure.
The revelation after de Man’s death that, in 1941, he had published an anti-Semitic article in Le Soir, a Belgian collaborationist newspaper, understandably came as a bombshell. Although some of his academic intimates vehemently dissociated themselves from him, others—including Jacques Derrida and (sad to say, in the pages of this journal) Geoffrey Hartman—found ways to exculpate him, or at least to write off this hateful act as a youthful indiscretion. Meanwhile information began to surface about certain financial improprieties in Belgium shortly after the war as well as in the early years of de Man’s residence in the United States.
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.
In all that pertains to the facts of de Man’s life, Barish seems entirely reliable, and for this readers should be grateful to her. Unearthing buried facts and sifting through others about which contradictory views have been proposed are Barish’s long suit. Her psychological interpretation of her subject is less impressive. She writes, for example, about the effect on de Man of his chronically depressed mother: “In a way, Paul was not fully Paul for his mother, but someone else, and the aporia he later talked about, the abyss, was his early recognition of the gulf between who he was in fact and the ghostly infant she may sometimes have imagined him to be.” (Besides the shaky etiology of his ideas proposed here, the equation between aporia and abyss is quite wrong.) Elsewhere she plugs in formulas from Freud, Erikson, and Winnicott to explain her subject. This procedure conveys a distinct sense of painting by the numbers, but fortunately it is not very frequent in the book.
The writing is by and large serviceable, but sprinkled through the text is usage in which Barish appears to have an uncertain relationship with the English language. Her most egregious misuse, because it occurs dozens of times, is her designation of the collective Nazi perpetrator of the occupation as “the occupant,” in this way confusing the German occupier with the person who lives in apartment 4D, next to the elevator. Barish also does not always get her literary facts straight. Faulkner appears in a list of “American naturalistic writers.” Moby-Dick is said to be “the tale of another exile afloat on a sea of uncertain identity,” though Ishmael is an American who has signed up on a whaler as an able-bodied seaman and not an exile, nor is identity at issue in his troubled contemplation of mad Ahab and the darkness of creation. Montaigne, who died in 1592, is described as “secure in his mountaintop château in seventeenth-century France.”
I can report that Barish’s portraits of people I myself have known are reliable in broad outline but often a little off in nuance. Harry Levin, de Man’s Doktorvater at Harvard (and mine a few years later), is represented as fastidious and sharp-tongued, but nothing is said of his fragility and his vulnerability, which made him always a little nervous with students and might explain something about his susceptibility to de Man’s beguilement. Renato Poggioli, de Man’s other great protector at Harvard and the chair of comparative literature throughout the 1950s, is accurately described as a warmer person, with an almost comical addiction to chain-smoking, but he was also someone who both as a teacher and an administrator had a rather cavalier attitude toward academic protocol and obligations, which may be the reason that he allowed de Man to dispense with the written part of his comprehensive exams the second time he took them. (The first was a failure.)
Finally, near the end of the book, which concludes with de Man’s departure from Harvard, Barish betrays a misunderstanding of the institution itself. She asserts several times that Harvard showed bad judgment in “letting de Man go.” But de Man was teaching as a graduate student. In the later phase, he may have been called a lecturer, but this is little more than a fancy label for a teaching assistant, a category of instructor not part of the so-called ladder faculty. It is the fixed expectation at most American universities that graduate students, once they have completed their degree, whatever teaching they have done on the way, will move on to a regular position at another institution. Harvard did not “let de Man go.” Both Levin and Poggioli, moreover, were not especially happy with de Man’s dissertation, however much they had championed him earlier when he seemed to them the perfect embodiment of the polyglot European intellectual.
All this notwithstanding, the story that 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. One great-aunt committed suicide at the age of nineteen for unclear reasons. De Man’s mother made several attempts to do away with herself and finally succeeded when he was sixteen—it was he who discovered her hanging body. His older brother was a serial rapist; among his victims was a twelve-year-old cousin whom he violated when he was eighteen. Other suspicions of mental instability lurk in the family background. I am not sure if any of this explains de Man’s character or the themes of his literary theory, but one might say that he emerged from the family in relatively good shape as merely an unprincipled opportunist.
Despite the claims of his defenders after 1988, “The Jews in Present-Day Literature” was not an isolated misstep. He wrote many dozens of articles for the fascist Le Soir, at least one other with an explicitly anti-Semitic emphasis. At the same time, he was deeply involved in two other collaborationist publishing enterprises, managing to put together through all three an income far exceeding that of the editor of Le Soir. He was given entrée to Nazi social circles by his uncle, Henri de Man, once a socialist but during the occupation Belgium’s most prominent collaborator. After the war, de Man was interrogated by a Belgian anti-Nazi commission that judged some of his close associates guilty of treason, but this proved to be the first of many bullets that he would nimbly dodge with false statements about himself.
In 1946, de Man moved on from treason and race-hatred to financial skullduggery. He assembled a group of investors to create a publishing house called Hermès, which was to bring out opulent art books. From the beginning it was clear that his intent was not to establish a real company but to provide himself with a personal cash-cow. Two weeks before Hermès was officially launched, he paid two authors just half of their promised advances, pocketing the other half, then forging receipts and posting false entries in order to cover up the theft. Hermès published only one saleable book in its two years of existence. By that time de Man had emptied out almost 90 percent of the funds invested in the company. The bilked investors included his father, who after he made restitution to a couple of the others caught in the scam was financially ruined, and de Man’s old nurse, the woman who had cared for him as a child while his depressed mother neglected him and who now lost her life-savings.
De Man left Belgium for the United States because he was fleeing the authorities. Eventually he was tried in absentia, found guilty of fraud and embezzlement, and sentenced to six years in prison. One understands that he could not return to his homeland. He did so only once, years later, in 1962, a brief and perhaps surreptitious visit (Barish offers no details here) that he was never tempted to repeat. In America, he would use the skills he had deployed to his advantage in the Hermès caper for ends that were not financial.
He had studied chemistry and engineering for two years at the University of Louvain in Brussels, dropping out when he failed to take some exams and flunked others. But his writing for the collaborationist press gave him a sense of himself as a literary critic, and it is in this guise that he introduced himself in New York. He went to meet William Phillips, the editor of Partisan Review, who proved immune to his charms. Dwight Macdonald, on the other hand, was altogether taken with him, introducing him to his friends and putting him on the invitation list for parties where New York’s intellectual elite gathered. He claimed to be friendly with several prominent Parisian thinkers whom in fact he did not know. One of the New York intellectuals who was dazzled by de Man was Mary McCarthy. They quickly became intimate friends—perhaps sexually, though the evidence on this is uncertain. She invited him to spend three weeks with her and her complaisant husband at their Rhode Island home during the summer of 1949. She wrote a glowing recommendation of de Man for Bard College, where she had taught two years before, and managed to get him a one-year appointment there as the replacement for a professor of French who was about to spend a sabbatical in Europe. Later, after he had made no effort to see her on Thanksgiving and Christmas, when she learned that he had become involved with a Bard undergraduate (who would become his second wife), McCarthy was infuriated and remained hostile toward him for the rest of her life.
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 he claimed several times, both in conversation and in writing, that he was the illegitimate son, not the nephew, of Henri de Man. This ostensibly odd attribution of paternity worked in two ways for him: he could claim to be the son of one of the leading figures in Belgian politics during the 1930s and into the war; and after his supposed father became Belgium’s Quisling, he could say he was the target of undeserved hostility, which eventually drove him to leave the country.
De Man was a great success with the students at Bard. But his new girlfriend, Patricia Kelley, became pregnant by him, which triggered one of two spectacular reversals that he experienced at Bard. De Man had married in Belgium in 1944. His first wife had borne him three sons, the oldest while she was married to someone else. (She and her husband and de Man ended up in a ménage à trois.) When he fled the country, he sent her and the boys to Argentina to stay with her parents, who had immigrated to Buenos Aires. Now, of course, he wanted to divorce her. She responded to his demand by showing up unannounced on his doorstep at Bard with their sons. Three months of painful altercations ensued, until finally she agreed to a divorce on the condition that he pay her a lump sum of $5,000 (about double his annual salary) and monthly alimony of $250, which would have been almost all his gross salary. Needless to say, he did not have the $5,000 and never paid a penny of it, nor was he able to make more than a token gesture toward the monthly payments. There was, then, no divorce. But the baby was soon to arrive, so de Man married Patricia Kelley anyway, adding the new crime of bigamy to the old crimes of treason and fraud. A decade later, his first wife would find a rich businessman to marry and so would agree to a divorce. De Man and Pat then went through a legal wedding ceremony.
His other great problem at Bard was rent. In New York he lived in five different apartments in fifteen months, running out on the rent when he was dunned by landlords. He did the same thing at Bard, where he was renting the house of the man he was replacing for the year. When his landlord returned from abroad, he demanded full payment of all the back rent owed him. This was a scandal that could not be concealed. Since de Man did not have the money, the Bard administration decided to deduct payment from his salary, though it is highly unlikely that the full amount could have been paid in this way. Bard had been poised to extend his appointment, but now he was asked to leave.
And so de Man took his more-or-less wife and their infant son, packed up their belongings in his rickety car (as one might expect, he had not bothered to obtain a driver’s license), and headed east for Boston. There he supported himself as an instructor at a Berlitz School. Before long, he managed to get accepted as a non- matriculated student in one of Harry Levin’s seminars, and then was admitted to the doctoral program in comparative literature at Harvard. Like any American university, Harvard required a transcript of the applicant’s previous academic record. The university in Brussels sent a document couched in the jargon of French academic bureaucracy that indicated that he had dropped out of its program but in language by no means clear to American eyes. At the bottom of the page was a handwritten note stating that de Man “took and passed the actual ‘Licence’ exam [the equivalent of an M.A.] before a State Board in 1942.” Barish concludes that the handwriting is de Man’s own. If you forge receipts, why not forge transcripts? In fact, as she notes, the University of Louvain was closed throughout 1942 in protest against the occupation, and no such entity as the State Board existed.
De Man’s other close call at Harvard came in 1954, when he was a member of the prestigious Society of Fellows, an enviable position that Levin and Poggioli had secured for him. The Society received an anonymous letter of denunciation, which was fielded by Poggioli. The author of the letter is unknown, though it is at least possible that it was written by de Man’s first wife. It spelled out his collaboration with the Nazis and his financial chicanery through the dummy publishing house, not mentioning the bigamy. De Man categorically denied everything in a written response. He was never a collaborator, never the sort of person who aspired—as in fact he did—to become minister of culture in a Nazi European empire. “During the rest of the war,” he asserted, “I did what was the duty of any decent person.” Poggioli bought the story. De Man’s Teflon was once again unscratched.
His imposing academic career over more than two decades beginning in 1960 is not part of Barish’s narrative. The big question is, how did he do it? For a start, it must be said that on a personal level de Man appears to have been a kind and considerate man—in this realm, to borrow his own words, he was a “decent person.” His friends from Yale and elsewhere would continue to speak of him with affection and admiration. He was a devoted husband to Pat and as unswervingly faithful to her as she was to him. In contrast to the years of extravagant living and sexual freedom in Belgium during and after the war, he and his wife lived modestly, rarely entertained, and enjoyed the quiet pleasures of domestic life. It should also be said that he was never an anti-Semite, not even during the war years (at one point he sheltered a Jewish couple in his apartment for a few days); the infamous article was pure opportunism. He was not at all the sort of person who would poison your dog out of meanness, though if he thought he could turn a profit he might steal your dog and sell it.
In any case, personal decency hardly explains the immense magnetism that de Man exerted in the academic world. Barish repeatedly invokes notions of charm, charisma, and aura as the source of de Man’s appeal to colleagues and students. Since there are many who attest to this quality, it must have been real. It is not, however, anything confirmed in my own experience. In the spring of 1959, I took a course with de Man on French Symbolist poetry. He struck me as rather cold and remote, and by no means charismatic. Barish frequently speaks of the effect on others of his physical beauty (and all his women, according to her, were beautiful). My visual recollection of him is closer to that of the eminent Germanist Stanley Corngold, who was his student at Cornell in the early 1960s: “I remember his very bright, slightly bulging eyes, wide, gap-toothed smile.” To which I would add that there was something sallow and vaguely unhealthy-looking about his appearance. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder enchanted by charisma, and I have always had a kind of allergy to gurus and charisma. As to the course itself, the first half, on Baudelaire, seemed to me useful; but when we turned to Mallarmé, a very difficult poet, the difficulties were compounded by de Man’s explaining him in terms of Hegel. I was not tempted to become a disciple.
Charisma, of course, does not translate to the printed page, so how did de Man have such success in his writings? (One should note that he never wrote a real book, only two collections of articles, the first assembled with the editorial assistance of Geoffrey Hartman, with more collections to follow posthumously. De Man was not inclined toward sustained effort.) First, there was the matter of perfect timing. In those Vietnam years, many people in departments of literature were coming to feel that the old humanistic scholarship was shallow, bankrupt, perhaps somehow even indirectly complicit in the American involvement in Indochina. “They order ... this matter better in France,” as Laurence Sterne famously wrote in A Sentimental Journey. Continental philosophy, imported into literary studies, seemed to offer literary scholarship a depth and a conceptual penetration that it had egregiously lacked, and de Man came to be the leading proponent in America of this new way. “Deconstruction” was the most prominent emphasis of the new literary theory, and by the beginning of the 1970s, Yale was its undisputed center. But of the four scholars who made up the so-called École de Yale, Harold Bloom was never really a Deconstructionist, and Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller never entirely cut their ties with the excellent conventional scholarship on which they had founded their careers, Hartman on Romantic poetry and Hillis Miller on the Victorian novel. De Man was the one entirely uncompromising Deconstructionist in the Yale group and was widely admired as such.
Was there any continuity between his early entanglements in crimes and lies and the literary theory that made him famous? Barish, like others before her, proposes a link between his negation of history and his career of deception, between his denial of the continuity of the self and his suppression of his own past (he even forgot his native Flemish!), between his insistence that the written or spoken word never tells anything about the intention of its originator and his assumption of a new identity. 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. Again, as Vickers shows, de Man emphatically claims that “rhetoric” in Nietzsche has nothing to do with persuasion whereas Nietzsche repeatedly says the opposite. In fact, de Man uses such terms as “rhetoric,” “allegory,” “metaphor,” and “trope” in ways that no one before him had used them, for good reasons, and in this way he conveys to his readers the illusory sense that they are somehow participating in an intellectual breakthrough. 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. And from the same essay: “This connection between metaphor and guilt is one of the recurrent themes of autobiographical fiction.” When you contemplate all the autobiographical fictions that are neither driven by guilt nor much concerned with metaphor, the resonant proclamation about “one of the great themes of autobiographical fiction” collapses.
Evelyn Barish, though she has assiduously exposed a scandalous life, concludes her biography with a pious gesture, proposing that despite it all de Man provided “ideas that became vital and generative to those who ... followed in his stead [usage sic], seeking to challenge the conventions that surrounded them and make their convictions real.” I do not see how convictions can be made real out of false or conceptually incoherent propositions. Though de Man in his later years was living a life of personal probity, he was still writing bad checks, not on invested funds but on intellectual discourse and on the work of the writers he took up. He got away with it because of the gullibility of American scholars, their confused sense that they needed a guide, preferably European, who could show them how to break the chains of convention and think deep thoughts. What they actually were doing was replacing old terms and concepts with spurious new ones, and embracing a new conventionality underwritten by the rampant conformism of the academic world.
Robert Alter is Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, and the author, most recently, of Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings: a Translation with Commentary(Norton).