Paul de Man (1919-83) - Key Figures in Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Paul de Man (1919-83)
Key Figures in Literary Theory

Paul de Man was born in Antwerp, Belgium, and came of age during a time of invasion and occupation by Nazi forces. During the war and for a time afterwards, he worked in journalism and publishing. He found his way to the US just after the war and received his doctorate from Harvard in the late 1950s. He taught at Cornell University and Johns Hopkins University before taking a position at Yale University in 1970, where he held the position of Sterling Professor of the Humanities at the time of his death.

Like many European theorists of his generation, de Man was steeped in the phenomenological tradition of philosophy and literary criticism. He met Jacques Derrida at a symposium on structuralism at the Johns Hopkins University Humanities Center in 1966. De Man came be known as one of the founders of Yale school Deconstruction. Although de Man's style was quite different from Derrida's, the two shared similar methods and objects of study. His preferred subjects were aesthetics, rhetoric, Romantic literature, especially the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Nietzsche’s philosophy. In his first major work, Blindness and Insight (1971), he argues that criticism, due to a gap between its theoretical assumptions and its practice, is blind to its own insights. Blindness of the sort that de Man investigates often develops when rhetorical statements are mistaken for literal ones, and vice versa. In Allegories of Reading (1979), he uses this deconstructionist mode of analysis to explore the works of Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. In this volume, de Man emphasizes the vertiginous possibilities offered to the critic when confronted with a text that will not let the reader clearly decide between literal and figural (or rhetorical) readings. These two volumes of essays established de Man as a formidable and influential critic, despite his tendency to write essays rather than monographs. In his posthumously published Aesthetic Ideology (1992), he furthers his critique against universalist and idealist conceptions of aesthetics by applying his deconstructionist method of rhetorical analysis to the works of Kant, Hegel, and Schiller.

In 1987, four years after de Man’s death, a Belgian researcher uncovered important information about de Man’s war-time journalism career in Belgium. During the period 1940-42, de Man had published nearly 200 book reviews and short articles on literature and culture for Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land. These periodicals had come under the control of Nazi occupying forces and were therefore collaborationist and antiSemitic in orientation. It was damaging enough simply to have written for such periodicals, but in at least one article, “Les Juifs dans la littera- ture actuelle,” de Man takes an anti-Semitic position when he argues that European literature will survive negative Jewish influence. The reaction among critics and scholars was complex and ambivalent, in part because it was difficult to reconcile de Man’s tainted past with his brilliant academic career. Many readers, in and out of the academy, saw this episode as evidence of the nihilism and amorality of Deconstruction. Others, especially some of de Man’s colleagues at Yale, sadly pointed out the irony of the situation, noting that his mode of Deconstruction, especially his critique of aesthetic ideology, was designed precisely to uncover the dangers of language when it is used to champion UNIVERSALIST ideals and social and cultural TOTALITY. De Man’s life, tempered after death by the irony of his own past, exemplifies the very problematic nature of language and experience that his work strove to understand.


De Man, Paul. Aesthetic Ideology. Ed. Andrzej Warminski. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

---- . Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

---- . Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

---- . The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.