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Paul de Man (December 6, 1919 – December 21, 1983) was a Belgian-born deconstructionist literary critic and theorist.

He completed his Ph.D. at Harvard University in the late 1950s. He then taught at Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Zurich, before ending up on the faculty in French and Comparative Literature at Yale University, where he was considered part of the Yale School of deconstruction. At the time of his death from cancer, he was Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale. After his death, the discovery of some two hundred articles he wrote during World War II for collaborationist newspapers, including one explicitly anti-Semitic, caused a scandal and provoked a reconsideration of his life and work. De Man oversaw the dissertations of both Gayatri Spivak and Barbara Johnson.

Academic work[]

In 1966, de Man met Jacques Derrida at a conference at Johns Hopkins University on structuralism during which Derrida first delivered his essay "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences". The two became close friends and colleagues. De Man elaborated a distinct deconstruction in his philosophically-oriented literary criticism of Romanticism, both English Romanticism and German Romanticism, with particular attention to William Wordsworth, John Keats, Maurice Blanchot, Marcel Proust, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Walter Benjamin, William Butler Yeats, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

While de Man's work in the 1960s is normally distinguished from his deconstructive work in the 1970s, there is considerable continuity. His 1967 essay "Criticism and Crisis" argues that because literary works are understood to be fictions rather than factual accounts, they exemplify the break between a sign and its meaning: literature "means" nothing, but critics resist this insight because it lays bare "the nothingness of human matters" (de Man quoting Rousseau, one of his favorite authors). De Man would later observe that, due to this resistance to acknowledging that literature does not "mean", English departments had become "large organizations in the service of everything except their own subject matter" ("The Return to Philology"), as the study of literature became the art of applying psychology, politics, history, or other disciplines to the literary text, in an effort to make the text "mean" something.

Among the central threads running through de Man's work is his attempt to tease out the tension between rhetoric (which in de Man's usage tends to mean figural language and trope) and meaning, seeking out moments in the text where linguistic forces "tie themselves into a knot which arrests the process of understanding."[1] De Man's earlier essays from the 1960s, collected in Blindness and Insight,[2] represent an attempt to seek out these paradoxes in the texts of New Criticism and move beyond formalism. One of De Man's central topoi is of the blindness on which these critical readings are predicated, that the "insight seems instead to have been gained from a negative movement that animates the critic's thought, an unstated principle that leads his language away from its asserted if the very possibility of assertion had been put into question."[3] Here de Man attempts to undercut the notion of the poetic work as a unified, atemporal icon, a self-possessed repository of meaning freed from the intentionalist and affective fallacies. In de Man's argument, formalist and New Critical valorization of the "organic" nature of poetry is ultimately self-defeating: the notion of the verbal icon is undermined by the irony and ambiguity inherit within it. Form ultimately acts as "both a creator and undoer of organic totalities," and "the final insight...annihilated the premises which led up to it."[4]

In Allegories of Reading[5], de Man further explores the tensions arising in figural language in Nietzsche, Rousseau, Rilke, and Proust. In these essays, he concentrates on crucial passages which have a metalinguistic function or metacritical implications, particularly those where figural language has a dependency on classical philosophical oppositions (essence/accident, synchronic/diachronic, appearance/reality) which are so central to Western discourse. Many of the essays in this volume attempt to undercut figural totalization, the notion that one can control or dominate a discourse or phenomenon through metaphor. In de Man's discussion of Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, for instance, he claims that genetic conceptions of history appearing in the text are undercut by the rhetorical strategies Nietzsche employs: "the deconstruction does not occur between statements, as in a logical refutation or a dialectic, but happens instead between, on the one hand, metalinguistic statements about the rhetorical nature of language and, on the other hand, a rhetorical praxis that puts these statements into question."[6] For de Man, an "Allegory of Reading" emerges when texts are subjected to such scrutiny and reveal this tension; a reading wherein the text reveals its own assumptions about language, and in so doing dictates a statement about undecidability, the difficulties inherent in totalization, their own readability, or the "limitations of textual authority."[7]

De Man is also known for subtle readings of English and German romantic and post-romantic poetry and philosophy (The Rhetoric of Romanticism) and concise and deeply ironic essays of a quasi-programmatic theoretical orientation. Specifically noteworthy is his critical dismantling of the Romantic ideology and the linguistic assumptions which underlie it. His arguments follow roughly as follows. First, de Man seeks to deconstruct the privileged claims in Romanticism of symbol over allegory, and metaphor over metonymy. In his reading, because of the implication of self-identity and wholeness which is inherent in the Romantics' conception of metaphor, when this self-identity decomposes, so also does the means of overcoming the dualism between subject and object, which Romantic metaphor sought to transcend. In de Man's reading, to compensate for this inability, Romanticism constantly relies on allegory to attain the wholeness established by the totality of the symbol.[8]

In addition, in his essay "The Resistance to Theory", which explores the task and philosophical bases of literary theory, de Man uses the example of the classical trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic to argue that the use of linguistic sciences in literary theory and criticism (i.e. a structuralist approach) was able to harmonize the logical and grammatical dimension of literature, but only at the expense of effacing the rhetorical elements of texts which presented the greatest interpretive demands. He posits that the resistance to theory is the resistance to reading, thus the resistance to theory is theory itself. Or the resistance to theory is what constitutes the possibility and existence of theory. Taking up the example of the title of Keats' poem The Fall of Hyperion, de Man draws out an irreducible interpretive undecidability which bears strong affinities to the same term in Derrida's work and some similarity to the notion of incommensurability as developed by Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition and The Differend. De Man argues forcefully that the recurring motive of theoretical readings is to subsume these decisions under theoretical, futile generalizations, which are displaced in turn into harsh polemics about theory.

Influence and legacy[]

De Man followed developments in contemporary French literature, criticism, and theory. De Man's influence on literary criticism was considerable for many years, in no small part through his many influential students. He was a very charismatic teacher and influenced both students and fellow faculty members profoundly.

Much of de Man's work was collected or published posthumously. The Resistance to Theory was virtually complete at the time of his death. Andrzej Warminski, previously a colleague at Yale, edited the works already published which were to appear in a planned volume with the tentative title Aesthetic Ideology.

Wartime journalism and anti-Semitic writing[]

After de Man's death, some two hundred articles he wrote during World War II for a collaborationist Belgian newspaper Le Soir were discovered by Ortwin de Graef, a Belgian student researching de Man's early life and work.[9] de Graef contacted Samuel Weber who, in turn, consulted Derrida. Derrida would later arrange for the collection and publication of de Man's war time journalism.[10] In one piece, titled “Jews in Contemporary Literature,” de Man examined the way "[v]ulgar anti-semitism willingly takes pleasure in considering post-war cultural phenomenon (after the war of 14-18) as degenerate and decadent because they are [enjewished]."[11] He notes that "Literature does not escape this lapidary judgement: it is sufficient to discover a few Jewish writers under Latinized pseudonyms for all contemporary production to be considered polluted and evil. This conception entails rather dangerous consequences... it would be a rather unflattering appreciation of western writers to reduce them to being mere imitators of a Jewish culture which is foreign to them."[12] The article continued to claim that contemporary literature had not broken from tradition as a result of world war one and that "the Jews cannot claim to have been its creators, nor even to have exercised a preponderant influence over its development. On any closer examination, this influence appears to have extraordinarily little importance since one might have expected that, given the specific characteristsics of the Jewish Spirit, the later would have played a more brilliant role in this artistic production."[13] The article concluded that “our civilization... [b]y keeping, in spite of semitic interference in all aspects of European life, an intact originality and character... has shown that its basic character is healthy." It concluded that "the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe" as “a solution to the Jewish problem” (probably referring to a suggested Jewish colony in Madagascar, but not to Hitler's Final Solution, which was not widely known at this early period) would lack any "deplorable consequences" for "the literary life of the west."[14]

This is the only known article in which de Man pronounced such views. At the time de Man published the article, March 1941, Belgium had passed anti-Jewish legislation that expelled Jews from the professions of law, teaching, government service, and journalism. On August 4, 1942, the first trainload of Belgian Jews left Brussels for Auschwitz. De Man continued to write for the (during the war) Nazi-controlled newspaper Le Soir until November 1942, although it is unlikely he was aware of what was happening to the Jews in Auschwitz.[15] Subsequently, several facts that have come to light rendered any sweeping Anti-semitic allegations questionable: " 1942 or 1943, about a year after the journalistic publication of his compromising statement, he and his wife sheltered for several days in their apartment the Jewish pianist Esther Sluszny and her husband, who were then illegal citizens in hiding from the Nazis. During this same period, de Man was meeting regularly with Georges Goriely, a member of the Belgian Resistance. According to Goriely's own testimony, he never for one minute feared denunciation of his underground activities by Paul de Man."[16]

Posthumous Controversy[]

The discovery of de Man's wartime writing made the front page of the New York Times,[17] and angry debate followed. Jeffrey Mehlman, a professor of French at Boston University, declared there were “grounds for viewing the whole of deconstruction as a vast amnesty project for the politics of collaboration during World War II”,[18] while Derrida published a long piece responding to critics, declaring that “To judge, to condemn the work or the man on the basis of what was a brief episode, to call for closing, that is to say, at least figuratively, for censuring or burning his books is to reproduce the exterminating gesture which one accuses de Man of not having armed himself against sooner with the necessary vigilance. It is not even to draw a lesson that he, de Man, learned to draw from the war.”[19] That seemed to some readers to draw an objectionable connection between criticism of de Man and extermination of the Jews.[20] Derrida, a Jew himself, however, does not refrain from condemning de Man's wartime writings.

In addition to the debate over the significance of de Man’s wartime writings, there was also a debate over the fact that he had not publicly declared his wartime writings throughout the thirty-five years of his life in America. However, it has since come to light that in 1955, while de Man was at Harvard, there was an anonymous denunciation concerning his activity in Belgium during the war. de Man explained himself in a letter to the Head of the Society of Fellows: "In 1940 and 1941 I wrote some literary articles in the newspaper "Le Soir" and I, like most of the other contributors, stopped doing so when Nazi thought-control did no longer allow freedom of statement. During the rest of the occupation I did what was the duty of any decent person. After the war, everyone was subjected to a very severe examination of his political behaviour, and my name was not a favourable recommendation. In order to obtain a passport one had not merely to produce a certificate of good conduct but also a so-called "certificat de civisime" which stated one was cleared of any collaboration. I could not possibly have come to this country two times, with proper passport and visa, if there had been the slightest reproach against me. To accuse me now, behind my back... is a slanderous attack which leaves me helpless."[21]

de Man's colleagues, students and contemporaries attempted to come to grips with both his early writings and his subsequent silence about them in the volume Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism (edited by Werner Hamacher, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Keenan; Nebraska, 1989).

After the war de Man's career took him to the United States. His wife, Anaïde Baraghian, was denied a visa because she had no work waiting for her in America. Instead she and the children sailed to Argentina where her parents had recently emigrated. de Man would remarry in America.[22]

A 1992 newspaper article reports, on the basis of interviews with people who knew de Man and documents which are not publicly available, that de Man married his second wife prior to obtaining a divorce from his first, that this second wife was a student at Bard College (where de Man worked from 1949-1951) and that he was fired from that institution upon accusations of petty thievery and chicanery.[23]


  1. de Man, Paul, "Shelley Disfigured", in Bloom, Harold, et al. Deconstruction and Criticism (New York, Continuum: 1979) 44.
  2. See de Man, Paul, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971).
  3. de Man, Paul, "The Rhetoric of Blindness", Blindness and Insight, 103.
  4. de Man, Paul, "The Rhetoric of Blindness", Blindness and Insight, 104.
  5. See de Man, Paul, Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).
  6. de Man, Allegories of Reading, 98.
  7. de Man, Allegories of Reading, 99.
  8. See de Man, "The Rhetoric of Temporality", Blindness and Insight.
  9. For facsimiles of the articles, see Warner Hamacher, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Keenan, eds., Wartime Journalism 1939-1943 by Paul de Man. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.
  10. Jacques Derrida, “Like the Sound of the Sea Deep within a Shell: Paul de Man’s War”, Critical Inquiry 14 (Spring 1988), 597-98.
  11. Paul de Man. "The Jews in Contemporary Literature." Originially published in Le Soir. (March 4, 1941). Trans. Martin McQuillan. In, Martin McQuillan. Paul de Man. USA: Routledge. 2001. pp. 127-129.
  12. Paul de Man. "The Jews in Contemporary Literature." Originially published in Le Soir. (March 4, 1941). Trans. Martin McQuillan. In, Martin McQuillan. Paul de Man. USA: Routledge. 2001. pp. 127-129.
  13. Paul de Man. "The Jews in Contemporary Literature." Originially published in Le Soir. (March 4, 1941). Trans. Martin McQuillan. In, Martin McQuillan. Paul de Man. USA: Routledge. 2001. pp. 127-129.
  14. ”Les Juifs dans la litterature actuelle” appears in ibid., p.45.
  15. See “Paul de Man: A Chronology, 1919-1949”, in Warner Hamacher, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Keenan (eds.) Responses: On Paul de Man’s Wartime Journalism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
  16. Paul de Man's Silence, Shoshana Felman, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 15, No. 4, (Summer, 1989), pp. 704-744
  17. ”Yale Scholar Wrote for Pro-Nazi Newspaper”, New York Times, Dec. 1, 1987, p.1.
  18. Quoted in David Lehman, "Deconstructing de Man’s Life”, Newsweek, Feb. 15, 1988, p.63.
  19. Jacques Derrida, “Like the Sound of the Sea Deep within a Shell: Paul de Man’s War”, Critical Inquiry 14 (Spring 1988), 590-65; quote from 651; see also the “Critical Responses” in Critical Inquiry 15 (Summer 1989, 765-811) and Derrida’s reply, “Biodegradables: Seven Diary Fragments”, 812-873.
  20. See, for example, Jon Wiener, “The Responsibilities of Friendship”, Critical Inquiry 15 (Summer 1989), 797.
  21. Ctd. in Martin McQuillan. Paul de Man. USA: Routledge. 2001. pp. 108-109
  22. Martin McQuillan. Paul de Man. USA: Routledge. 2001. pp. 108-109
  23. DAVID LEHMAN, “Paul de Man: The Plot Thickens,” New York Times, May 24, 1992.


  • Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust, (ISBN 0-300-02845-8) 1979
  • Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (2nd ed.), (ISBN 0-8166-1135-1) 1983
  • The Rhetoric of Romanticism, (ISBN 0-231-05527-7) 1984
  • The Resistance to Theory, (ISBN 0-8166-1294-3) 1986
  • Wartime Journalism, 1934-1943, (ISBN 0-8032-1684-X) eds. Werner Hamacher, Neil Heertz, Thomas Keenan, 1988
  • Critical Writings: 1953-1978, (ISBN 0-8166-1695-7) Lindsay Waters (ed.), 1989
  • Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism: The Gauss Seminar and Other Papers, (ISBN 0-8166-1695-7) eds. E. S. Burt, Kevin Newmark, and Andrzej Warminski, 1993
  • Aesthetic Ideology, (ISBN 0-8166-2204-3) ed. Andrzej Warminski, 1996

Selected secondary works[]

  • Cathy Caruth and Deborah Esch (eds.), Critical Encounters: Reference and Responsibility in Deconstructive Writing
  • Tom Cohen, Barbara Cohen, J. Hillis Miller, Andrzej Warminski (eds.), Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory (essays pertaining to de Man's posthumously published work in Aesthetic Ideology)
  • Jacques Derrida, Memoires for Paul de Man
  • Rodolphe Gasché, The Wild Card of Reading
  • Neil Hertz, Werner Hamacher, and Thomas Keenan (eds.), Responses to Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism
  • Jon Wiener, "The Responsibilities of Friendship: Jacques Derrida on Paul de Man's Collaboration." Critical Inquiry 14 (1989), 797-803.
  • Christopher Norris, Paul de Man: Deconstruction and the Critique of Aesthetic Ideology
  • David Lehman, Signs of the times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man.

See also[]

  • List of deconstructionists

External links[]

cs:Paul de Man de:Paul de Man fr:Paul de Man it:Paul de Man he:פול דה מאן hu:Paul de Man nl:Paul de Man ja:ポール・ド・マン no:Paul de Man ru:Ман, Поль де fi:Paul de Man sv:Paul de Man zh:保羅·德曼