Paul de Man

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Paul de Man (December 6, 1919 – December 21, 1983) was a Belgian-born deconstructionism literary critic and theorist. He completed his Ph.D. at Harvard 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 almost 200 essays he wrote during World War II for collaborationist newspapers, including some explicitly anti-Semitic articles, caused a scandal and provoked a reconsideration of his life and work. He was accused of promoting relativism and the arbitrary nature of communication as a means of covering up or excusing his past actions. Whether that charge has any merit, de Man and other deconstructionists have taken Ferdinand de Saussure's insight into the arbitrary nature of the relationship between sound and image in language and promoted a thorough-going cultural relativism.

Academic work

In 1966, de Man met Jacques Derrida at a Johns Hopkins conference on structuralism at which Derrida first delivered 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 and German, with particular attention to William Wordsworth, John Keats, Maurice Blanchot, Marcel Proust, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, GWF Hegel, Walter Benjamin, William Butler Yeats, and Rainer Maria Rilke, among others.

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 shows up "the nothingness of human matters" (de Man quoting Rousseau, one of his favorite authors, with echoes of Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness, which would be a seminal, if uncredited text for much of twentieth century French theory, including Derrida). 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 which these critical readings are predicated on, 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 stand…as 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 Romatic ideology and the linguistic assumptions which underlie it. In his argument de Man seeks to deconstruct the privileged claims in Romanticism of symbol over allegory and metaphor over metonomy. 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. Taking up the example of the title of John 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, almost 200 articles he wrote during World War II, for a collaborationist Belgian newspaper were discovered by Ortwin de Graef, a Belgian student researching de Man's early life and work.[9] In one piece, titled “Jews in Contemporary Literature,” de Man examined the argument that “the Jews” had “polluted” modern literature. The article argued that “our civilization” had remained healthy by resisting “the Semitic infiltration of all aspects of European life.” It endorsed sending the Jews of Europe to a colony “isolated from Europe” as “a solution to the Jewish problem.” 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 train load of Belgian Jews left Brussels for Auschwitz. But de Man continued to write for the Nazi-controlled newspaper, Le Soir, until November 1942 (although it is unlikely he was aware of what was happening to Jews in Auschwitz).[10]

The discovery of de Man's anti-semitic writing made page 1 of the New York Times,[11] and an 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,”[12] while Jacques Derrida published a long piece responding to critics, declaring that “to judge, to condemn the work or the man … is to reproduce the exterminating gesture which one accuses de Man of not having armed himself against sooner.”[13] Some objected to what seemed to be an objectionable parallel between criticism of de Man and extermination of the Jews.[14]

In addition to the debate over the significance of de Man’s wartime writings, there was also a debate over the significance of the fact that he had hidden his collaborationist past and his anti-Semitic writing during the entire 35 years of his life in the United States. De Man's colleagues, students, and contemporaries attempted to come to grips with both his early anti-Semitic writings and his subsequent secrecy about them in the volume Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism (edited by Werner Hamacher, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Keenan; Nebraska, 1989).


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


  1. Paul de Man, "Shelley Disfigured," in Harold Bloom, et. al., Deconstruction and Criticism (New York, Continuum: 1979), 44.
  2. Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971).
  3. Paul de Man, "The Rhetoric of Blindness," Blindness and Insight, 103.
  4. Paul de Man, "The Rhetoric of Blindness," Blindness and Insight, 104.
  5. Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).
  6. de Man, Allegories of Reading, 98.
  7. de Man, Allegories of Reading, 99.
  8. de Man, "The Rhetoric of Temporality," Blindness and Insight.
  9. Warner Hamacher, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Keenan, eds., Wartime Journalism, 1939–1943 by Paul de Man (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988).
  10. Warner Hamacher, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Keenan, eds., Responses: On Paul de Man’s Wartime Journalism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).
  11. "Yale Scholar Wrote for Pro-Nazi Newspaper,” New York Times, Dec. 1, 1987, p. 1.
  12. David Lehman, "Deconstructing de Man’s Life,” Newsweek, Feb. 15, 1988, p. 63.
  13. 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.
  14. Jon Wiener, “The Responsibilities of Friendship,” Critical Inquiry 15 (summer 1989), 797.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Caruth, Cathy and Deborah Esch, eds. Critical Encounters: Reference and Responsibility in Deconstructive Writing. Rutgers University Press. 1995. ISBN 9780813520865
  • Cohen, Tom, Barbara Cohen, J. Hillis Miller, and Andrzej Warminski, eds. Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Memoires for Paul de Man. Columbia University Press. 1989. ISBN 9780231062336
  • Gasche, Rodolphe. The Wild Card of Reading. Harvard University Press. 1998. ISBN 9780674952966
  • Hertz, Neil, Werner Hamacher, and Thomas Keenan, eds. Responses to Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism. University of Nebraska Press. 1988. ISBN 9780803272439
  • Lehman, David. Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man. Poseidon Press. 1991. ISBN 9780233987415
  • Norris, Christopher. Paul de Man: Deconstruction and the Critique of Aesthetic Ideology. Routledge. 1988. ISBN 978-0415900805
  • Wiener, Jon. "The Responsibilities of Friendship: Jacques Derrida on Paul de Man's Collaboration." Critical Inquiry 14 (1989), 797–803.


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