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The Double Life of Paul De Man Hardcover – March 17, 2014

ISBN-13: 978-0871403261 ISBN-10: 0871403269 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright; 1 edition (March 17, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0871403269
  • ISBN-13: 978-0871403261
  • Product Dimensions: 0.7 x 0.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #189,577 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* When Mary McCarthy recommended the young Paul de Man for a position at Bard College in 1949, she characterized him as intelligent, cultivated, modest, and straightforward. In this stunning biography, Barish exposes a man who devoted his remarkable intelligence and cultural knowledge to constructing a reputation so deviously deceptive that it completely fooled McCarthy and many others. With its posthumous 1988 discovery, an anti-Semitic wartime article by de Man scandalized the academic world. Barish probes beyond that article, adducing evidence that de Man served as an executive in Nazi publishing, then exploited his postwar circumstances to embezzle from his own company, violate immigration laws, falsify his academic record, contract a bigamous marriage, and abandon his children. In the indictment Barish proffers, de Man also bent, even flouted, the policies of the prestigious universities where he made his degree. Readers will marvel at how successfully de Man hid his misdeeds behind the luminous persona of a brilliant critical theorist, repeatedly using the plausibility of past lies to leverage yet larger new prevarications. Barish indeed raises unsettling questions about the self-serving congruence between de Man’s egregious duplicity and his influential literary theory of deconstruction, premised on radical skepticism about the very possibility of truth. An astonishing exposé. --Bryce Christensen

Review

The Double Life of Paul de Man revives the man and his fall. This time, we get a story of the professor not just as a young collaborator, but as a scheming careerist, an embezzler and forger who fled Belgium in order to avoid prison, a bigamist who abandoned his first three children, a deadbeat who left many rents and hotel bills unpaid, a liar who wormed his way into Harvard by falsifying records, a cynic who used people shamelessly… Compelling… Picaresque.” (Susan Rubin Suleiman - New York Times Book Review)

“In this stunning biography…readers will marvel at how successfully de Man hid his misdeeds behind the luminous persona of a brilliant critical theorist, repeatedly using the plausibility of past lies to leverage yet larger new prevarications…An astonishing exposé.” (Bryce Christensen - Booklist, starred review)

“Evelyn Barish tells us exactly why Paul de Man, a pioneer of Theory, should have favoured notions about the impossibility of an objective narrative or a fixed personality. Viewed objectively, the narrative of his own life was the story of a cheat and a liar; and he made up his personality as he went along. Yet he fooled one high-level American college after another into treating him as a genius. This is one of the most daunting portraits of a literary charlatan since A.J.A. Symons wrote the life of Baron Corvo.” (Clive James, author of Cultural Amnesia)

“A page-turner, The Double Life of Paul de Man is a brilliant piece of writing—dispassionate in its analysis, moving in its vision of a tortured man.” (Diane Jacobs, author of Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sister)

“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…. An extraordinary story of a complex personality presented with a wise dose of irony and respect.” (Kirkus Reviews, Starred review)

“[De Man’s] story, the story of a concealed past, was almost too perfect a synecdoche for everything that made people feel puzzled, threatened, or angry about literary theory. Evelyn Barish’s new biography, The Double Life of Paul de Man (Liveright), is an important update on the story… [Barish] has an amazing tale to tell. In her account, all guns are smoking… Fascinating.” (Louis Menand - The New Yorker)

“Impressively researched… Carefully documented… The story Barish tells is riveting. The de Man family closet was so packed with skeletons that they would have had to spill out into the living room.” (Robert Alter - New Republic)

“[A] painstaking and probing account… Ultimately, a mark of Barish’s achievement is that, by the end of her story, de Man confounds and eludes us no less than he did his contemporaries.” (Robert Zaretsky - The American Scholar)

“Barish adds much to our knowledge of this brilliant intellectual counterfeit.” (David Lehman - The Wall Street Journal)

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Customer Reviews

2.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Ellen Wertheimer on March 11, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
To say that I liked this biography would not be correct. Its primary attribute for me was that it was thought-provoking, causing me to return (if only briefly) to the academic life of my long-gone youth. Some of these thoughts follow. Even if some of the claims made in the biography are dubious, the biography more than did its job of leading me into critical thought about its subject.

First, based on points made in the biography, it occurs to me that someone with a background like de Man's would particularly love the idea of deconstructionism, because it enabled him to separate from his own past far more effectively than anything else could. If the context of work or thought is irrelevant, he could proclaim his own probably reprehensible background irrelevant to the words he spoke or wrote, something that should not be taken into account in judging the scholar that he became. This view makes his development of deconstructionism utterly self-interested, hypocritical and almost evil: he can completely dissociate himself from who he became from anything he had done. He had to invent deconstructionism to protect himself from his Nazi past.

Second, the book courageously points out the regrettable habit of academe of confusing brilliance with incomprehensibility, something the book courageously points out. All the brilliance in the world is worthless if the one mantled with the status cannot communicate with his or her fellow man. In any event, those who sit at the feet of the brilliant one may believe that he or she is brilliant, but how can they know? Where is the evidence? If you can't tell whether the emperor has anything on, how do you know he's brilliant?
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13 of 19 people found the following review helpful By J. Miller on March 29, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"It is time to start questioning the explicit, declarative statement of the text in terms of its own theatricality." Paul de Man.

Evelyn Barish's unsettling biography of American literary theorist Paul de Man should be essential reading for anyone who wonders what has led to the sad decaying state of the liberal arts in higher American education. Since Barish seems to have left no stone unturned in her chronicle of de Man's morally questionable and often criminal behavior, she will no doubt be accused of mounting an extended ad hominem attack against de Man. On the contrary, to fully place Paul de Man's theories in context, Barish provides an exhortation long needed in the halls of the academy. A brief sketch of de Man's theories will be useful in understanding the man who was once the critical darling of the American intelligentsia and the East Coast media establishment.

Paul de Man built his academic career debunking, assaulting, the idea that the biographical narrative of an individual and the historical facts of an individual's personal relation with the world had any relation to "truth." In the deconstructionist's view, the personal narrative of a particular artist or theorist is not only irrelevant, it is in fact unknowable, as reality itself is unknowable.

De Man claimed that biographical narratives, indeed, any attempt at narration or reading comprehension, is but an illusion: there is no truth, there is no subject, there is no author. Causality, objectivity, identity, personhood itself, are all unknowable. All such systems of "texts," such rhetorical tropes, are inherently contradictory. Language itself is akin to a closed labyrinth of blind rabid rats competing for supremacy over the other.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Matthew L Cohen on July 23, 2014
Format: Hardcover
A rather shoddy work. If you want to read trash, buy the National Enquirer. It's cheaper and rather more entertaining.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Val Wolf on July 23, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I normally am skeptical about academics who are elitist and seek to separate themselves from the masses, but honestly, Paul de Man does not merit this attack by Evelyn Barish. This makes me think that most academics only care about fighting with each other. I regret having spent the time to get through over 400 pages where the connections between the illustrious life and the work was meager to say the least. I haven't read Paul de Man, I'm a non-academic. But this seems to me more an ego contest than anything of substance. I wish academics could bring back the merits of debate rather than attack — after all, the country in which they work is a democratic one.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Laforge on July 25, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I recently read an excellent biography of Adorno, and I was eager to read a biography of another thinker I like, Paul de Man.
But the book o fEvelyn Barish is terribly disappointing, because it turns into a vulgar tabloid which seems to have been written by someone who envies him. Moreover, the author oversimplifies a lot of concepts - deconstruction, for instance...
Not a good biography (it's full of inaccuracies) not an academic book (Barish never substantiate her claims...), there is absolutely no reason to loose one's time to get through those horrible 400 pages.
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8 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Christopher Sharrett on April 25, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I write this not as a conservative angry about the dangerous liberal ideas within academe. I write it an academic long disheartened by the damage inflicted on the university by the nonsense called "theory" that overtook discourse in the last thirty years, to a point that literature and film were not examined for their value, but as "opportunities for theory." The central theory referred to--deconstruction--was not theory in any meaningful sense, since it could not be tested and defied testing. But the deconstructionists and other postmodernists insisted on their nihilism, reducing therefore the humanities to a rubbish heap.

Barish's important book provides the opportunity not only for a careful revisiting of the criminal and Nazi collaborator de Man, but a meditation on how deconstruction became an emblem of intellectual bankruptcy, deceit, and corruption on a vast scale. Here is de Man, ensconced in an endowed position at Yale University, without credentials, and most importantly without criticism as he chaired a program in criticism. The issue here is far less about academe letting itself be gulled by a con artist than our willingness to see art spat upon by cynics. It is no surprise that an arch-criminal like de Man insisted on the "slipperiness of meaning"; it is something else to confront our own complicity in the devaluation of that which should be most significant to us.
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