Paul De Man Biography
(1919–83), Blindness and Insight, Allegories of Reading, Resistance to Theory
Belgian scholar and critic, born in Antwerp, educated at the University of Brussels and at Yale; he became Professor of Humanistic Studies at Johns Hopkins University and Professor of Humanities at Yale. His work on German, French, and English literature had a special emphasis on irony and rhetoric. He came to prominence with his book Blindness and Insight (1971), which offered English-speaking readers their first developed introduction to Deconstruction and the work of Jacques Derrida; it argued that critical insights are characteristically accompanied by a matching blindness, and that all literary texts anticipate their own misreading. A literary text is one ‘that implicitly or explicitly signifies its own rhetorical mode’, and rhetoric is what makes interpretation indispensable and uncertain. Rhetoric is therefore language made visible, a revelation not only of strategy but of our deep entanglement in a medium we may think is at our service. De Man's later book, Allegories of Reading (1979), extended this idea through close commentary on works by Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust; and de Man himself, in his later years, became America's chief apologist for Deconstruction, although fully aware of the ironies involved when a work of dismantling becomes a monument, when scepticism becomes a certainty. He was surprised by Deconstruction's academic success, and sought to correct the growing impression that the movement, or the practice, was unhistorical, or against history. De Man's posthumous Resistance to Theory (1986) sought to understand what had happened to literary study in the wake of modern critical and philosophical developments. He himself, or rather his memory, became the subject of a considerable controversy when it was discovered after his death that he had contributed many articles, some of them anti-Semitic, to a collaborationist journal in Belgium during the Second World War. Did this discovery discredit his later work, as his traditionalist opponents wished to think? Most readers thought not, but many deconstructive defences looked distinctly shaky.