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The Double Life of Paul De Man by Evelyn…

The Double Life of Paul De Man

by Evelyn Barish

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While one might wonder if the author is troweling on the negativity too much in regards to the life of the once-renowned intellectual, at a certain point the mind begins to boggle at the glittering but dishonest life that the subject of this book led before becoming a settled professor. Most damning is not De Man's collaborationist past, as due to the accidents of family and class it was the logical political stance to take. No, the utter pit of betrayal for De Man would have been his post-war activities as a publisher, which appear to have been wholly a confidence scheme from the start, and which severely damaged his family and led to his exile from Belgium one step ahead of the hand of the authorities.

From there the story told is one of De Man's cobbling together his persona of the austere & inscrutable thinker, largely when at the end of available options and having no place left to fly. One can only speculate then on the worth of theories coming from an individual who seems to have betrayed just about every personal and professional confidence in their life before that point. About the only thing that explains (if not excuses) this series of dubious adventures is the whiff of mental illness that hung over De Man's family. I respond to all this rather strongly in as much as there used to be someone very important in my life who also seems on the verge of losing a glittering career and desirable life due to mental illness; while I regard this as a tragedy I also care more about the people who they have hurt.

As for whether there is anything to be salvaged from the academic contributions of De Man, while Barish is reluctant to give the man any benefit of the doubt she suggests in her epilog that his skepticism about language and meaning was liberating to a generation desiring racial and gender liberation and who were seeking weapons against cant and prejudice. The difference is that these people fighting for the recognition of their humanity redeemed De Man's thought through a conviction and commitment that De Man displayed little of in the first half of his adult life; one suspects that Barish finds this to be insufficient recompense for what were at least major systemic errors in judgement.

The one thing that gives me some pause is, as has been suggested elsewhere, that the author seems to have a major issue with De Man (they were colleagues at one point), as if being angry over having been taken in by the man's undoubted charisma. I could have also passed on some of the neo-Freudian imagery Barish deploys at some points in the book. ( )
  Shrike58 | Aug 19, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0871403269, Hardcover)

An explosive biography, decades in the making, reveals the secret past of the Svengali-like academic who held an entire generation in his thrall.

Thirty years after his death in 1983, Yale University professor Paul de Man remains a haunting figure. The Nazi collaborator and chameleon-like intellectual created with Deconstruction a literary movement so pervasive that it threatened to topple the very foundations of literature and history itself. The revelation in 1988 that de Man had written a collaborationist and anti-Semitic article led to his intellectual downfall, yet biographer Evelyn Barish apprehended that nothing appeared to contextualize the life he assiduously sought to conceal. Relying on archival research and hundreds of interviews, Barish evokes figures such as Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Jacques Derrida. Reexamining de Man’s life, particularly in prewar Europe and his reincarnation in postwar America, she reveals, among other things, his embezzlement schemes, his lack of an undergraduate degree, and his bigamous marriage. The man who despised narrative, particularly biography, finally gets his due in this chilling portrait of a man and his era. 8 pages of photographs

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:16 -0400)

Describes the life of the Yale University professor behind the deconstruction movement, who at the time of his death was one of the most influential literary critics in America but was later revealed to be a Nazi collaborator and anti-Semite.

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