Revisiting a Scholar Unmasked by Scandaltags: World War II, Holocaust, collaboration
When the Yale literary theorist Paul de Man died in 1983, he was hailed as a brilliant teacher who had helped turn deconstruction, the critical approach originated by Jacques Derrida, into an insurgent force in American intellectual life.
Four years later, though, the discovery that as a young man in Nazi-occupied Belgium de Man had written some 200 literary articles for a collaborationist newspaper — including a 1941 essay musing on the impact on European literature if the Jews were relocated to an isolated colony — landed like a bombshell.
De Man’s photograph appeared in Newsweek, juxtaposed with images of Nazis on the march. And critics of deconstruction, inside and outside the academy, pounced, arguing that a school of thought long dismissed as cultish “critical terrorism” was something even more sinister.
Those battles may seem like a distant memory. But now, the first full-length biography of de Man threatens to reopen the debate over his legacy, weaving together old and new charges to paint him not just as a collaborator, but also as a swindler, forger, bigamist and deceiver whose philosophical ideas grew out of “lifelong habits of secrecy.”...
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