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The Paul de Man Case: An Exchange

In response to:

The Strange Case of Paul de Man from the April 3, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

Evelyn Barish’s biography of Paul de Man has its faults, but she deserves a better—and more nearly disinterested—review than the despicable treatment she suffers at the hands of de Man’s old crony Peter Brooks [“The Strange Case of Paul de Man,” NYR, April 3].

Brooks insinuates that Barish’s book found its inspiration in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, a novel (later adapted into a movie) about an amoral confidence man. He lays this conceit at Barish’s door, but Barish is writing not about a fictional character but about a flesh-and-blood personage. As she shows (and as others of us have pointed out and documented over the years), de Man was a cheat, a liar, a forger, a thief, a bigamist, a cad, a swindler, a moocher, not to mention an enthusiastic Nazi propagandist, whether out of conviction or opportunism. Barish is writing about Paul de Man; by substituting “Mr. Ripley”—e.g., “but to Barish, it is all Mr. Ripley” and “she is stuck with her Mr. Ripley conceit”—Brooks is undertaking a sleight of hand that should fool no one.

At one point Brooks remarks that “one could do a review of Barish’s footnotes.” Yes, that is the deconstructive way: ignore the body of the text in favor of a peripheral element. But if Barish is vulnerable on some of her sources, what are we to make of Brooks’s belated introduction of himself into his review?

He tells us that when the de Man scandal broke in the late 1980s, he—an admitted friend and admirer of the deceased de Man—heard from his former Harvard professor, Harry Levin, to the effect that de Man “had made a ‘clean breast’ to him and [his colleague] Professor Renato Poggioli concerning his [de Man’s] past” when, in 1955, a letter arrived from Belgium denouncing de Man for his disgraceful activities.

Why has Brooks not revealed this information before? Could it be that the “clean breast” was the letter to Harvard de Man crafted that has been quoted and analyzed and that is aptly characterized as a tissue of lies, evasions, half-truths, and ambiguous locutions? Why should we credit what Brooks says Levin wrote to him? Does he not realize that it is in Levin’s interest to claim that de Man had cleaned his breast? After all, the stunning disclosures reflected very badly on Levin and his associates, who overlooked the collaborationism, anti-Semitism, and all the rest, and let de Man assume his place in that most elite of intellectual clubs, the Harvard Society of Fellows?

Barish gives de Man the benefit of the doubt wherever she can and risks the opinion that de Man was not a vehement anti-Semite but rather “one of the lukewarm, whom Dante condemned to sit eternally at the gates of Hell, men without principles or convictions who compromised with evil.” Brooks’s conclusion: “It would seem a general principle of the biographical art that one should avoid assigning positions in Hell to one’s subjects.”

To this typically haughty ex cathedra pronouncement I would respond: it would seem a general principle of the book reviewer’s craft to summarize accurately the contents of the book under review and not to use the occasion as the pretext for an apologia. Readers of Brooks’s review may well come away with the opinion that the biographer is the criminal for not recognizing that de Man’s is, in Brooks’s words, “a story of remarkable survival and success following the chaos of war, occupation, postwar migration, and moments of financial desperation.”

Those of us who lost family in the Holocaust have the right to insist that actions freely undertaken have consequences; that unquestioned brilliance of intellect does not justify misdeeds of the magnitude of de Man’s; and that special pleading in the face of overwhelming evidence is a species of dishonesty. No one forced de Man to write anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi articles—he did it on his own, and whether out of conviction or opportunism is beside the point.

David Lehman
Author, Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man
New York City

Peter Brooks replies:

I didn’t expect that David Lehman would like my review of Evelyn Barish’s biography, since he is already on record as a vehement de Man detractor. His book, Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man, characterizes de Man as a “scoundrel” and his literary criticism as “a con game.” His charge that I ignore “the body of the text in favor of a peripheral element”—that is, the footnotes, which typically identify sources of assertions given in the body of the work—demonstrates the same careless attitude toward accuracy that seriously compromises Barish’s account. Even prosecutors need evidence.

Lehman writes: “Unquestioned brilliance of intellect does not justify misdeeds of the magnitude of de Man’s.” As I said very clearly, I did not seek to “justify” de Man’s misdeeds. But before leaping to judgment, it is important to know and to weigh the “magnitude” of those misdeeds. Barish’s breathless rhetoric of imposture doesn’t help in that task. Nor does Lehman’s anger.

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