As de Man Goes

Interesting piece in the LARB overviewing the madness that followed the publication of Evelyn Barish’s The Double Life of Paul de Man.

Barish’s bill of indictments is long, detailed, sometimes overwrought, sometimes startling. But it also seems oddly beside the point. Her demystification has a tenuous relation to de Man’s actual critical work, which Barish claims not to really understand — which is an excuse our students might give but which few of us (from them, at least) would accept. The book, in any event, ends in 1960, before de Man’s most important work, so the extension to his actual achievement needs to be made inferentially, if at all.

This has, it should be said, not stopped reviewers and commentators from making it: such a linkage was the focus of the Times coverage, for example, and of an evisceration of de Man by Carlin Romano in the Chronicle of Higher Education, of a defense of deconstruction by Louis Menand in The New Yorker, and so on. And at first, the case seems clear: deconstruction à la de Man posits that there is no such thing as truth, that the figurative nature of language creates systematic patterns of misrecognition that engender the delusion that there is such a thing, that an enabling condition of our insights is our blindness to the conditions that frame them, and vice versa. What theory could be an easier alibi for a liar, a cheat, a bigamist — much less a moonlighting Berlitz instructor!

Perhaps this is the case with de Man, perhaps not, but the focus on de Man has limited the case to deconstruction tout court. . . .

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