A riveting biography of master confidence man Paul de Man (1919–1983), manipulator of the facts and influential literary instructor—a character both preposterous and irresistible.
Barish (English/City Univ. of New York Graduate Center; Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy, 1989) leaves de Man’s deconstructionist contradictions mostly off to the side and concentrates on the wildly chameleonic personality and the upbringing of this charismatic character who eluded justice from Nazi-occupied Belgium and later fabricated his academic reputation at Harvard and elsewhere by wily connections and sheer boldness. The tale of de Man is not only the tangled trajectory of a psychically scarred young man from a deeply problematic family who saw an opportunity to advance himself through Nazi collaboration, but also the story of the striking gullibility of an American elitist intellectual milieu that never questioned his credentials due to its own postwar sense of inferiority compared to European literature. Barish gets underneath the objectionable journalistic pieces de Man wrote during the war and his skein of publishing embezzlements in Brussels by exploring the pattern of secrecy and shame in his own upper-middle-class Antwerp family: a depressed mother who hanged herself; a troubled older brother who was killed by an oncoming train; an uncle who was a high-ranking minister in Belgian government, advocating appeasement and anti-Semitism and whom Paul highly revered and passed off later as his father. De Man became an “intellectual entrepreneur,” autodidact, university dropout and superb bluffer who saw his chance to “take a place” in the new Nazi order. While his collaborationist colleagues were imprisoned after the war, de Man fled to the United States. His entry into intellectual circles, thanks to Mary McCarthy and Henry Kissinger, among others, allowed him immunity and a disguise as he forged a brilliant academic career.
An extraordinary story of a complex personality presented with a wise dose of irony and respect.