Paul de Man - Biography
Paul de Man, Ph.D., (1919 - 1983) was a celebrated literary critic and theorist. Throughout much of Paul de Man’s work is an attempt to plot the borders between rhetoric and meaning. Paul de Man was born in Antwerp, Belgium. Although his father was an x-ray equipment manufacturer, Paul de Man was aware of his culture heritage. de Mann was a descendant of Jan van Beers, a renowned Flemish poet. Although the Free University of Brussels awarded Paul de Man a degree in science and philosophy, de Man socialized with members of the arts and literary community.
Twin tragedies struck Paul de Man when he was about eighteen-years old. de Man’s mother committed suicide after his brother was killed in a train accident. The loss of these two members of his family led to a disintegration of his remaining family. These personal tragedies were compounded with the German invasion of Belgium in 1940. Fleeing the Nazi troops, Paul de Man and his future wife Anaide Baraghian traveled south into France and finally arriving at the Spanish border. Spanish authorities denied the couple a visa and forced them to return to German-occupied Belgium.
Despite being returned to Belgium, Paul de Man and Anaide Baraghian married and had started a family. Paul de Man’s uncle, who actively collaborated with the Nazis, was able to procure de Man a position with the newspaper Le Soir. Paul de Man’s articles from the period of the occupation are controversial at best. de Man praised the Nazis as “civilized invaders.” In 1941, Paul de Man’s article Les Juifs dans la litterature actuelle claims that Jewish writers had negligible impact on the development of European literature. Also in this article, Paul de Man envisioned the deportation of the Jewish population to a colony far removed from Europe.
Paul de Man’s journalism from this period played lip service to the occupying forces political position. However when the Nazis ordered Jewish Belgians to wear yellow armbands and began the deportations to Auschwitz in 1942, Paul de Man resigned from Le Soir. At one point during the occupation, de Man gave shelter to a Jewish pianist and his wife who had inadvertently missed curfew. For the remainder of the occupation and war, Paul de Man translating works. Notably his translation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was published in 1945.
Paul de Man created Editions Hermes, a publishing business, which focused on publishing books on art. Paul de Man and his father put significant amounts of money into the business. When Edition Hermes closed in 1947, Paul de Man and his father were financially devastated. His wife and children relocated to Argentina to stay with her relatives during this period of instability. Desperate to mitigate his financial losses, Paul de Man illustrated the opportunism he had shown during the war and engaged in questionable business practices. The legality of these practices were serious enough for the Belgian authorities to arrest Paul de Man on charges of fraud before he could travel to New York.
In 1948, after Paul de Man had come to New York, the Doubleday Bookstore hired him as a clerk. In this position, Paul de Man awed the author Mary McCarthy with his vast knowledge of literature. Mary McCarthy advocated that Bard College hire him as a lecturer. From 1949 until 1951, Paul de Man worked in this capacity.
No stranger to controversy, Paul de Man scandalized the community when he entered into the realm of polygamy in 1950. de Man married Patricia Kelley, a former student. But he had never divorced his first wife. When Anaide de Man and a child visited Bard, Paul de Man fled. He took a position at Berlitz in Boston, before studying comparative literature at Harvard University. At Harvard, Paul de Man studied under Harry Levin. de Man completed his Ph.D. in 1960.
After completing his doctoral studies, Paul de man was employed as a professor at Cornel and Johns Hopkins. Eventually, Yale employed him as a Sterling professor of French and comparative literature from 1970 until his death in 1983.
Despite Paul de Man’s reputation as an important literary critic, his first academic book was not published until 1971. The books that followed were from a scant number of essays compiled into four collections. However, de Man advocated deconstruction as a method for approaching literature. Paul de Man used Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl and Friedrich Nietzsche as inspiration for his work.
Despite deriving an intellectual impetus from Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man has some essential disagreements with Jacques Derrida. de Man’s essay The Rhetoric of Blindness examines Jacques Derrida’s reading of Rousseau in Of Grammatology. The two thinkers find common ground in the assertion that Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Language destabilizes Rousseau’s concept of metaphysics. However, de Man attempts to show how texts have the agency for self-deconstruction whereas Jacques Derrida illustrates how the critic deconstructs texts. In The Rhetoric of Blindness, Paul de Man attempts to show the subtleties of the differentiation by saying:
Of course, if Rousseau does not belong to the logocentric “period,” then the scheme of periodization used by Derrida is avowedly arbitrary. If we argue, moreover, that Rousseau escapes from the logocentric fallacy precisely to the extent that his language is literary, then we are saying by implication that the myth of the priority of oral language over written language has always already been demystified by literature, although literature remains persistently open to being misunderstood. None of this seems to be inconsistent with Derrida’s insight, but it might distress some of his more literal-minded followers.
Another difference between the two thinkers can be seen in the writing styles of the two men. Derrida opted for a punning and playful prose, but de Man opted for a straightforward approach to writing.
After Paul de Man’s death, his early writings for Le Soir during the Nazi occupation of Belgium came to light. Jeffrey Mehlman, a professor at Boston University, argued that the advocates of deconstruction were ex post facto collaborators with the Nazis. Mehlman claimed that anyone espousing deconstructionist views excused and sheltered Nazi collaborators. Jacques Derrida condemned the writings of Paul de Man from the period of occupation. However, Jacques Derrida also argued that the entire body of de Man’s work in particular, and the entire of project of deconstruction could not be judged by this collection of writings. Author Richard J. Evans condemned Derrida and argued that any defense of de Man was to ignore de Man’s activities during the occupation.
Ironically, though Paul de Man’s writings from this period undoubtedly contained anti-Semitic elements his actions were at worst gray. In 1955, Paul de Man had been denounced while at school in Harvard. In his letter of defense to the School, Paul de Man said,
In 1940 and 1941 I wrote some literary articles in the newspaper Le Soir and I, like most of the other contributors, stopped doing so when Nazi thought-control did no longer allow freedom of statement. During the rest of the occupation I did what was the duty of any decent person. After the war, everyone was subjected to a very severe examination of his political behaviour, and my name was not a favourable recommendation. In order to obtain a passport one had not merely to produce a certificate of good conduct but also a so-called "certificat de civisime" which stated one was cleared of any collaboration.
Essentially, the Belgian government cleared Paul de Man of any charges of collaboration, which was the only way he was allowed to leave the country. This controversy like the one surrounding Martin Heidegger represents an attempt to silence those thinkers who lived under but who were not incarcerated by the Nazi government.
Paul de Man was the author and contributor to many books including Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust, , Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, The Rhetoric of Romanticism, The Resistance to Theory, Wartime Journalism, 1934–1943, Critical Writings: 1953-1978, Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism: The Gauss Seminar and Other Papers, Aesthetic Ideology.