How Intellectuals Cover for Evil: Deconstruction
Alongside its unprecedented mass violence, the 20th century saw the rise and reign of the secular intellectual as false prophet and would-be führer. For such men, as historian Paul Johnson wrote:
The collective wisdom of the past, the legacy of tradition, the prescriptive codes of ancestral experience existed to be selectively followed or wholly rejected entirely as his own good sense might decide.
Enter the villain of Stream columnist Jonathan Leaf’s powerful new play, Deconstruction, running through March 25 at the Theatre at Grand Hall (St. Mary’s Parish), 440 Grand Street, New York, N.Y., produced by Storm Theatre.
The Antwerp-born Paul de Man came to America after the Second World War and Blitzkrieged the study of literature by pioneering the postmodern theory of deconstruction — which, among other things, put morally-relativistic modern man in the place of a murdered God.
Pretending to be a Hero of the Anti-Nazi Resistance
De Man ultimately reached the zenith of academic prestige at Yale, becoming the single most influential literary critic in America — whose theories still deeply influence English classes at colleges today. But at the outset of Deconstruction, it’s summer 1949. He holds a menial job at a Grand Central bookshop, and finds himself the pitied guest of Catholic-turned-Marxist novelist and critic Mary McCarthy in her Rhode Island beach cottage.
Leaf’s drama speculates about the two married academics’ rumored affair. McCarthy would secure de Man his first academic post at New York’s Bard College, an hour’s drive north of Vassar, where she was teaching. De Man doesn’t quite seduce McCarthy; it’s mutual. As she later admits, “anyone who strokes my ego after a few drinks too often can stroke other places.” He compliments her literary talent. She praises his conversational cleverness, and his brave service in the Belgian Resistance – except that, as we discover, the latter was a lie. Quite the contrary.
Jed Peterson as de Man is a fascinating near-reincarnation of Paul Henreid playing the sly, covert Nazi in Carol Reed’s 1940 thriller Night Train To Munich. De Man apes sincerity quite effectively, as he professes shame for seducing other women, then dwells on his tragic youth. At 17, he found his mother hanged on the anniversary of his brother being struck dead by a train. Yet soon after telling the tale, he does indeed lead McCarthy to bed.
In Leaf’s telling, McCarthy would eventually find herself expecting de Man’s child, leaving her third and current husband to think the child is his. After her miscarriage it would be her husband, not de Man, at her side. De Man would by this time be busy with a 21-year-old Bard student whom he had also impregnated.
No, de Man had not fought in the Resistance. In fact, he had served the Nazis.
Inventing New Forms of Relativism to Explain Away His Crimes
But this is the tip of the iceberg. No, de Man had not fought in the Resistance. In fact, he had served the Nazis. Some four years after de Man’s 1983 death, a Belgian scholar would discover more than 100 pro-Nazi articles de Man had published under his own byline in occupied Belgium during the war in the country’s leading newspaper, Le Soir. In one, he recommended a forced exodus of the Jews, remarking that Europe “would lose, in all, a few personalities of mediocre value” then continue in greatness.
De Man’s legion of deconstruction disciples would proclaim the revelations overblown. Literary scholar James Atlas noted in the New York Times in 1988, while the truth about de Man was still hitting the fan, that de Man’s Yale colleague Geoffrey Hartman minimized de Man’s offenses because they “didn’t begin to compare with the ‘vulgar anti-Semitic writing’ in other newspapers of the day.”
De Man would quit the pro-Nazi paper, but not necessarily for the right reasons. Two months after de Man’s departure Le Soir’s other literary critic was assassinated by the Resistance for being a Nazi collaborator.
Interrogated by Hannah Arendt
The play twists the knife when Leaf’s last character arrives — McCarthy’s friend, political theorist Hannah Arendt. A German Jew who grew up in Koenigsberg, she’d escaped death in the Holocaust thanks to falsified papers from a U.S. diplomat. To an audience, Karoline Fischer’s stern, straight-talking Arendt may be the least enchanting of the three characters, but that suits her harsh message of truth.
“That I managed to get out of Germany, then out of a detention camp — it’s because I’m not cowed. By anyone.” So she informs de Man in an unwelcome visit to his Bard office. “I want to know: who are you?”
But this far-and-away more honest intellectual already knows, having “made some inquiries in Belgium.”
“Tell me, did you deliver bombs for the Resistance? Is that true or a lie?” Arendt demands of de Man.
“If we cannot prove God’s existence or the moral laws taken from antiquity, then what place is there for traditional morality?”
His blood-curdling response: “As a student of Heidegger, you of all people should know that the notion of objective truth is a philosophical concept. An abstraction. Neither more, nor less.”
“What Is Truth?”
De Man was taunting Arendt, aware that she’d once been both Heidegger’s student and his lover. (Heidegger’s blatant, public support for the Nazis even after the war has since dimmed his intellectual star a little.)
If there is no real truth, then why be good? Or, as de Man earlier asked McCarthy, “If we cannot prove God’s existence or the moral laws taken from antiquity, then what place is there for traditional morality? You do see the logic at least?”
The logic she sees – indeed keenly feels – is the soul-destroying vacuum of love and beauty that de Man leaves in his wake. As Mary McCarthy, Fleur Alys Dobbins, in the performance of the night, shifts jarringly from a feathery hedonism to ravaged victimhood.
“You know, Paul, I spent hours thinking of baby names, painting the child’s room different colors in my mind. Wondering: a girl or a boy, which would you like?” she cries in her pain. When de Man claims, “I’m ashamed,” Arendt counters, “You have no shame,” then reveals, “one of the inquiries I made told me something that didn’t entirely surprise me: you wrote for a Nazi newspaper.”
The real difference between de Man and McCarthy? She admits, “I know I’m a fraud,” but “I want to be good.”
The year he died, de Man would write, “’I am not given to retrospective self-examination, and mercifully forget what I have written with the same alacrity I forget bad movies … although, as with bad movies, certain scenes or phrases return at times to embarrass and haunt me like a guilty conscience.” Atlas noted that, writing on Rousseau, de Man had even claimed we can never distinguish between “fictional discourse and empirical event,” which “makes it possible to excuse the bleakest of crimes.”
Leaf’s deconstruction of the de Man myth ends with McCarthy (“some Marxist, I am!”) repeating aloud a prayer to the Virgin Mary. In the words of Whittaker Chambers, the Communist spy who turned Christian, Deconstruction’s audience discovers that “man without mysticism is a monster.”
Thomas McArdle is based in New York.