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The Strange Case of Paul de Man

Wartime Journalism: 1939–1943

by Paul de Man, edited by Werner Hamacher, by Neil Hertz, by Thomas Keenan
University of Nebraska Press, 399 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Critical Writings: 1953–1978

by Paul de Man, edited and with an introduction by Lindsay Waters
University of Minnesota Press, 246 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Reading de Man Reading

edited by Lindsay Waters, edited by Wlad Godzich
University of Minnesota Press, 312 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Paul de Man was born in Antwerp on December 6, 1919, second son of Robert and Magdalena de Man. They were a comfortable, upper-middle-class family. Robert was a manufacturer of medical instruments, and especially of X-ray machines. So far as we know, Paul’s childhood and adolescent years were fairly placid until June 20, 1936, when his brother Hendrik was killed in an accident. On the anniversary of his death, a year later, Magdalena hanged herself. In October 1937 Paul enrolled in the Ecole Polytechnique at the Université Libre de Bruxelles as a student of engineering. In 1938 he switched to chemistry. But his main interests were in philosophy, politics, and literature.

In the spring of 1939 he started writing articles for Jeudi, a left-liberal student newspaper. When the war broke out, he wrote in favor of Belgian neutrality, a policy nullified when the Germans invaded Belgium on May 10, 1940. De Man and his wife Anaïde fled the country, making their way by train to Bagnères de Luchon in the French Pyrenees, where they spent the summer waiting for permission to cross the border into Spain. Refused permission, they went back to Brussels in August, presumably because they had nothing better to do and Paul had heard that the German forces occupying Belgium were behaving themselves decently.

Besides, he may have been acting on the advice of his uncle, Henri de Man, an influential socialist politician in Belgium who persuaded himself that a German victory in the war would offer new opportunities for socialism and a new order in Europe. Henri de Man advised King Leopold to surrender the Belgian army to the Germans unconditionally, and he urged Belgians to collaborate with the new regime. “For the working classes and for Socialism,” he wrote on June 28, 1940, “this collapse of a decrepit world, far from being a disaster, is a deliverance.”

It was probably Henri de Man who arranged for Paul to write for Le Soir, a Belgian evening newspaper under German control. He began contributing to it on December 24, 1940, and continued until November 28–29, 1942. Beginning on March 29–30, 1942, he also wrote for Het Vlaamsche Land, a small Flemish-language newspaper sponsored by the German authorities; and, from February 1942, for Bibliographie Dechenne, a publication evidently designed to show that civilized intellectual life was thriving under the Occupation. His writings ceased, for whatever reason, in March 1943. In December he and his wife took their family to his father’s house in Antwerp, where they lived, so far as we know, until the end of the war. On September 4, 1944, two days after the liberation of Antwerp, a student socialist magazine in Brussels denounced de Man for having collaborated with the Germans, but in May 1945, after an examination by the Auditeur Général in Antwerp, he was released without charge.

De Man lived out the last years of the war, it appears, doing odd jobs of translation and editing. In the summer of 1947 he spent two months in the US trying to arrange for the distribution of illustrated art books, the work of Editions Hermès, a short-lived publishing firm. In New York he met various editors, art critics, and writers, including Mary McCarthy, who helped him to get a job at Bard College, teaching French. Thereafter, except for a few years in Zurich, he made his career in the United States, teaching in Boston and later at Harvard, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, and Yale. In his last years he became one of the most formidable literary theorists in America, a remarkably forceful teacher, and an indelible presence in the lives of his many pupils and colleagues. He published many essays but only two books, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (1971) and Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (1979). He died of cancer in December 1983. Since his death, several further collections of his essays have appeared: The Rhetoric of Romanticism (1984), The Resistance to Theory (1986), and now the books under review. At least two further collections have been promised, one of them to be called Aesthetic Ideology.


In the summer of 1987 Ortwin de Graef, a graduate student working at the Catholic University of Louvain and researching for a doctoral dissertation on Paul de Man, came upon the articles and reviews which de Man had published in Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land between 1940 and 1943. The discovery of these articles, as reported on the front page of The New York Times and carried further by many news magazines in the United States and Europe, has resulted in the expression of divergent emotions: consternation among de Man’s friends, and something like satisfaction among his enemies. The consternation is sufficiently explained by the fact that Paul de Man was revered, indeed venerated, by his associates. It was widely felt, especially during his last years, that de Man’s essays were so difficult, so ascetic in their refusal to take pleasure in literature, as to seem a mark of personal sanctity. The satisfaction is harder to explain: it has been expressed by critics who, during de Man’s lifetime, were not noted for their attacks on the theory of reading that he put into practice.

De Man’s wartime articles, and the few Jeudi articles of 1939, are reprinted as Wartime Journalism in photocopies hard but not impossible to read. The Flemish pieces are translated into English, the French ones not. In Responses, thirty-eight critics have commented, some at arduous length, on various aspects of these writings, concentrating upon two essays of an anti-Semitic character. Some critics have dealt with the wartime writings as a whole, trying to explain them or explain them away. Others have declared de Man guilty not only of a fairly commonplace anti-Semitism but of publishing his prejudicial views at a time when he knew that Jews were suffering gross and hideous persecution. Jacques Derrida, in one of the longest essays, tries to write the episode to a standstill by practising a rhetoric of “on the one hand…and yet on the other.” Both volumes were conceived of as an attempt to provide a forum for comment, whether friendly or hostile, on the articles in question.

The essays in Reading de Man Reading were written, except for one by Geoffrey Hartman, before de Man’s wartime journalism was discovered: they are examples of work-in-progress in the steps of their master. Critical Writings: 1953–1978 is a gathering of de Man’s occasional writings, several of which were first published in The New York Review: they show, by the way, that he could write just as lucidly as the next critic, when he chose to. I do not imply that when his style was obscure the opacity is sufficiently explained by his having something to hide: the themes in hand were often intractable.

The essays in Responses turn upon two main questions. The first is: Are de Man’s wartime writings reprehensible as a whole or only in certain aberrant parts? Can they be explained on any grounds, even if not condoned, and somehow eased out of our minds so that we may proceed to read de Man’s entire work and learn from it? Or must they remain to disfigure him? The second question is: If we have to find the wartime writings, or some of them, unpardonable, must we also find that they reflect badly, perhaps disablingly, upon the theory of reading that he practised in his mature work? Has his early behavior lethally compromised his later theory?

It seems clear that in 1939 Paul de Man was a brash young student; intellectually precocious, his head swollen with notions, sentiments, and prejudices that a German victory might have seemed to confirm. He collaborated with the Germans from the first day on which he wrote for Le Soir: what he wrote is secondary to the fact that he wrote there at all. He knew that Le Soir had been appropriated by the Germans and used to give Belgian readers a reassuring image of normality. De Man supported the Occupation by saying that there was no need to resist it: daily life would continue, he implied, free of intimidation. Several times, and as late as March 29, 1942, he referred to the war as “the contemporary revolution,” and he maintained that “the necessity of action which is present in the form of immediate collaboration is obvious to every objective mind.”

Week by week, de Man wrote as if the literature currently deemed acceptable by the German regime in Belgium and France provided an entirely adequate setting for intellectual life. In his columns, he promoted, by reviewing, several writers who were named for favorable mention by Bernhard Payr, the German propaganda officer in charge of French cultural affairs: the list includes, as Alice Yaeger Kaplan notes in Responses, Alfred Fabre-Luce, Sieberg, Chardonne, and Benoist-Méchin. De Man evidently thought, from 1940 to late 1942, that the war was over, Germany had won. There was no point in waiting to see: “L’attentisme est donc condamné,” he paraphrased Fabre-Luce with approval as saying, “non d’un point de vue moral, mais de celui de l’impérieuse réalité.” The force of events was irresistible, de Man added, “aux nécessités inscrites dans les faits.” Besides, it was the historic destiny of Germany to exercise hegemony in Europe. Hitler and Germany were one and the same:

The War will only have united more closely the two things that were linked from the start, the Hitlerian soul and the German soul, and it will do so to the point of creating a single unique power.

There would now be a new Europe, led by Germany with Mussolini’s Italy in faithful attendance. France, Belgium, Flanders, and other peoples would play their destined roles: “The present war, besides being an economic and national conflict, is the beginning of a revolution that aims at a more equitable organization of European society.” None of the European nations would be required to give up its identity: in each case, the spirit of the nation would be clarified and would embody itself in social organization as in art and literature.

Two of de Man’s articles are overtly anti-Semitic. One of them strikes Jews a glancing blow, but the other is a direct assault. In “Les Juifs dans la littérature actuelle” (Le Soir, March 4, 1941) de Man undertakes to elucidate “l’esprit juif,” refers to the “cerebral character” of Jews, and to their “capacity to assimilate doctrines while maintaining a certain coldness in the face of them.” Besides, he asserts, Jewish writers are second-rate, and fortunately they have not succeeded in contaminating a fundamentally healthy civilization:

If our civilization had let itself be invaded by a foreign force, then we would have to give up much hope for its future. By maintaining an originality and a character intact, in spite of semitic interference in all aspects of European life, it has shown that its basic nature is healthy. What is more, one sees that a solution to the Jewish problem which would envisage the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not entail deplorable consequences for the literary life of the West. The latter would lose, in all, a few personalities of mediocre value, and it would continue, as in the past, to develop according to its great evolutionary laws [selon ses grandes lois évolutives].

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