The Strange Case of Paul de Man

Bard College Library Archives/Hamilton Winslow
Paul de Man with Renée and Theodore Weiss, Bard College, circa December 1949

In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith created high drama from imposture: the almost unbearable tension of suspense that comes with living a double life. That novel seems to have inspired Evelyn Barish’s notion of how to write the biography of Paul de Man. “With every passing year,” she tells us of de Man in the 1950s, “he felt a little more safe, but the stakes were high and the anxiety never left him.” That’s a good novelistic premise. A biographer has to earn it.

What sets Barish in pursuit of the “double life” of the impostor is of course the revelation that came four years after de Man’s death in 1983—he was then Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale—that he had as a young man in occupied Belgium written for periodicals under the control of collaborators with the Nazis: journalistic pieces that seemed to reflect a favorable view of the “New Order” brought by Hitlerite Germany, and in one instance expressed explicitly anti-Semitic views. These pieces, essentially book and cultural reviews, were published in Le Soir (known to Belgians as Le Soir volé, the Stolen Evening, when it fell into collaborationism) and a Flemish periodical, Het Vlaamsche Land, between 1940 and 1942, when the editors with whom he worked were dismissed from Le Soir, which lost even the simulacrum of independence. There were other brief notices in the Bibliographie Dechenne. De Man after that seems to have withdrawn to his family’s country home and ceased writing for publication (except to translate Moby-Dick into Dutch).

The young de Man (he was born in 1919) presumably gained access to Le Soir, the most prominent Belgian daily, because his uncle, Hendrik or Henri de Man, was the most important political figure at the time the Nazis, ignoring Belgium’s declared neutrality, overran the country. Hendrik was the leader of the Belgian Labour Party, a socialist who believed that European parliamentary democracies had become corrupt and irresponsible, and he made the grave mistake of looking to the German occupier as a force to revive the national spirit. With the official government gone into exile, he became a close adviser to King Leopold III. Originally “Belgicist” in policy, and convinced of the “duty not to abstain” from public life under occupation, he fell from favor, fled the country in 1941, and following the war was found guilty in absentia of treason.

As for his nephew Paul de Man, one has to conclude that he did collaborate, no doubt from opportunism, as a young man seeking to make his way as a cultural journalist, and from conviction as a Fleming that German culture offered “moral regeneration” in contrast to French decadence. I think one must also recognize that he espoused some of the anti-Semitism endemic to the European…

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