Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Ian Balfour reviews Evelyn Barish’s The Double Life of Paul de Man

Barish, Evelyn. The Double Life of Paul de Man. New York, Liveright, 2014. 560 pp. $35.00, hardcover. $21.95, paperback.

Reviewed by Ian Balfour

This partial biography of Paul de Man (up to roughly 1960, decades prior to his death and not covering his career as a professor) is an odd undertaking. The author is a prize-winning emerita professor of literature who admits to not particularly understanding—true, it’s not easy!—nor being all that interested in the mature and influential work by de Man in literary criticism and theory. Yet she spent over 20 years writing a biography of his early(ish) life. Barish seems driven by her fascination with de Man as a figure of fascination, the famous professor who fell posthumously into disrepute when collaborationist writings from his early 20s surfaced. This prompted her further inquiries into his early life and she turns up numerous dubious dealings of a non-political sort. Barish’s interest is itself faintly typical of those taken with the de Man “affair” while having little or no interest in the literary-theoretical work that made him a major figure in the discipline. Lots of bookstores that never carried titles by de Man during his lifetime now display prominently Barish’s biography. Some factual errors, pointed out by reviewers, are dismaying though they don’t add up to undermining her basic case. More troubling are numerous untenable judgments, beginning with the opening sentence which crazily touts de Man as “a cultural giant of epic proportion.”

Barish has done a ton of homework , tracking down archival material and dozens of interviewees over two decades. She has uncovered or rehearsed in greater detail many instances of the young(ish) de Man telling lies in self-serving fashion, not all of which can be chalked up to the often difficult circumstances he found himself in (having his country occupied by the Nazis or finding his mother having committed suicide when he was a teenager). De Man was often rather desperate, without a steady job and with little or no money, but there were almost always morally better alternatives than lying. He altered the details of his not having gained a proper undergraduate degree in wartime Belgium (though it perhaps raises the question: who would one rather have in a Ph.D. program, a brilliant, learned critic without the right credentials, or a less gifted one with the right papers?) Then there’s the notorious incident of de Man not paying his rent at Bard in timely fashion (it was all repaid eventually later in the year) but we find out that his professor-landlord was charging him just under double the rent that professor paid himself. Nonetheless, many of the serious charges cannot be wished away.

I think Barish, with or against her intentions, helps put the putative commitment of de Man to the dubious and noxious principles on the face of his writings in the early war years in perspective as having been overrated and misconstrued. If even Barish cannot find a shred of anti-Semitic behavior before or after the war and we know de Man risked harboring Jews during the war and made some efforts to publish Resistance materials, it does not sound like the profile of an anti-Semite and suggests the figure of a knowing collaborator but not a Nazi or fascist ideologue (in the late 80s he was branded a “gung-ho Nazi”!). In the years before the war, when it was easiest to be a fascist in public, de Man worked for what Barish rightly calls a left-liberal journal. On the occasion of the occupation, he, like many others, left the country and once he tried to arrange to leave occupied Europe altogether. That he, when back in Belgium, then collaborated with and in the ideological machine of the occupiers is the opposite of heroic but Barish’s study also casts serious doubt that he was a believing ideologue in lockstep with the occupying power.

When touching on the later work, Barish sees the lies of the early decades as the psychological origin of the later theory of fictionality, and thus self-serving in a different way. This is too pat though I suspect de Man was ashamed of and felt guilty for especially the collaboration. His writing is haunted. My hunch is he resisted setting himself up as a moral authority not least because he was not one. Neither did he think it was a prime task for a literature professor to teach rather grownup students right from wrong. He did undertake to read, especially in his last “aesthetic ideology” phase, in such a way as to unsettle complacent, self-serving, unquestioned beliefs, and sloppily received ideas. This hardly undoes the damage done in the 1940s but it is remarkable that from roughly 1960 on de Man settles in to decades of being a legendarily good teacher, apparently a loyal, beloved husband and a good father to his daughter, at the same time as he writes distinctively powerful essays, whose depth and complexity still provoke and teach. That part of the life, untold by Barish, is far less sensational and not at all scandalous. Small wonder that she concentrated on only half of his adult life, the double life, just before his life became outwardly rather unremarkable and his writing so distinctive and compelling.