Evelyn Barish’s The Double Life of Paul De Manhas received mixed reviews. The NYTBR review cataloged minor errors to build a case against Barish’s reliability. Robert Alter’s review in The New Republic finds Barish’s case compelling. 

The case is moral and not merely intellectual. Alter writes that de Man “assembled a group of investors to create a publishing house called Hermès, which was to bring out opulent art books. From the beginning it was clear that his intent was not to establish a real company but to provide himself with a personal cash-cow. Two weeks before Hermès was officially launched, he paid two authors just half of their promised advances, pocketing the other half, then forging receipts and posting false entries in order to cover up the theft. Hermès published only one saleable book in its two years of existence. By that time de Man had emptied out almost 90 percent of the funds invested in the company. The bilked investors included his father, who after he made restitution to a couple of the others caught in the scam was financially ruined, and de Man’s old nurse, the woman who had cared for him as a child while his depressed mother neglected him and who now lost her life-savings.”

De Man’s ascent to intellectual stardom exhibits the same looseness with truth: “How does a new immigrant without credentials get appointed at an American college? De Man produced a fictitious curriculum vitae in which he claimed to hold the ‘equivalent of your Master’s degree.’ He also said he had been an editor at Editions de Minuit in Paris, a prestigious publishing house with which he had had no contact, and that his grandfather was a ‘founder of the University of Ghent.’ Later, in his Harvard years, he would embellish this fictitious autobiography further: the collaborator did not hesitate to represent himself as a man who had fought in the Belgian army and then joined the Resistance, and he claimed several times, both in conversation and in writing, that he was the illegitimate son, not the nephew, of Henri de Man. This ostensibly odd attribution of paternity worked in two ways for him: he could claim to be the son of one of the leading figures in Belgian politics during the 1930s and into the war; and after his supposed father became Belgium’s Quisling, he could say he was the target of undeserved hostility, which eventually drove him to ?leave the country.”

For many, the big question is whether de Man’s life undermines his theories, whether there is in fact any connection between the two. Alter suggests that there is continuity between “de Man’s mode of operation as a literary theorist and his mode of operation as a con man” that “”has to do with his style”: “In his writing, abstruseness, bristling abstraction, and a disorienting use of terms make his essays often difficult to penetrate. This was part of the key to his success: to his American admirers, with their cultural inferiority complex, it seemed that if things were difficult to grasp, something profound was being said.”

More on: Paul de Man

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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