On December 1, 1987, a piece of leftover World War II ordnance suddenly exploded. The unexpected location was the Literature department of Yale University: Belgian literary theorist Paul de Man, the champion of the deconstructionist movement at Yale and its Sterling Professor of the Humanities before his death in 1984, was unmasked as an anti-Semite who had written for Nazi newspapers during the occupation. The news was carried on the front page of The New York Times, where it so badly dazed every young leftist student of the literature department that it was as if each of them had simultaneously learned his puppy had died. I was at the time a Yale English major (we read, appreciated, and discussed the meaning of literature) sunk in the toxic quagmire of the one and only course I ever took in the literature department (where authorial intent was ignored and every “text” was considered solely on how comfortably it nestled within the shackles of Marxism). I remember chuckling heartily at my classmates’ despondency: Although I was a liberal at the time, I was beginning to chafe as my far-Left classmates blithely stomped upon the legacies of my most cherished authors. De Man had been a commandant during this literary Kristallnacht, and now it turned out he had been a likely fan of the original.
For decades de Man had been an avatar not just of leftist politics but also of the leftist war on truth, the never-ending campaign to recast objective fact as subjective and open to question. And here he was, proven to have written 200 pieces for a collaborationist newspaper. Not for the first time, fascism and the far Left found themselves inconveniently linked.
Considering the question in hindsight, it ought not surprise us that a man who questioned the existence of truth turned out to be a champion liar—a “total fraud,” in the words of The New Republic, “who lied about every part of his life.” The meaning of that career in dissembling has not received the scrutiny it deserves because the embarrassed Left simply fed de Man into the memory incinerator. In that same 1987 piece the Times noted that “Venerated as a teacher and scholar, he was the originator of a controversial theory of language that some say may place him among the great thinkers of his age.” “Some” then. No one today. “De Man is now scarcely remembered by the general public,” The New Republic noted in 2014.
De Man’s rumored affair, as a young man, with the author and critic Mary McCarthy is the jumping-off point for an exploration of his character and influence in Jonathan Leaf’s powerful and astute new play Deconstruction (through March 25 at Grand Hall on the Lower East Side). I make no claim to be impartial about the work; I count both Leaf (a contributor to The New Criterion) and the play’s producer Christopher Ekstrom among my friends.
Leaf does a public service in exhuming de Man and reminding us of how something monstrous can begin as a cavalier disregard for truth. Leaf and the director Peter Dobbins’ first amusing surprise is that, as played by Jed Peterson, the literary lion emerges as a playful cub, a warm and tender young thing working as a clerk in a bookstore in Grand Central Terminal who could make a splash in the world of criticism if only some eminent figure would give him a break—an eminent figure such as McCarthy (Fleur Alys Dobbins), then celebrated for her writing in Partisan Review, the New York Review of Books, and other esteemed journals. Peterson’s de Man carefully conceals his ambition behind a winsome facade, and his bold sexual advances appeal to McCarthy, who is stuck in a dull marriage (to Bowden Broadwater, her third husband).
The play derives much of its narrative energy from the arrival of a third giant of the era: the public intellectual Hannah Arendt (played with a grave, slightly ironic mien by Karoline Fischer). Arendt, who fled Germany in 1933, is instantly suspicious of a detail from de Man’s past that McCarthy finds most attractive: his supposed role in the Resistance. But instead of grilling him about details of his biography, she challenges de Man from an oblique angle. The two spar about their competing interpretations of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Arendt’s former professor and lover and a onetime member of the Nazi party.
The play becomes, then, an erudite detective story, an inquiry into a man’s personality wrapped up in an in inquiry about philosophical concepts. By probing de Man’s views on Heidegger, Arendt gradually uncovers the young man’s hostility to truth, and this in turn leads to a devastating reckoning. Leaf strikes a rare balance between narrative and thesis, between action and thought. Running a brisk seventy-five minutes, Deconstruction is a skillfully wrought and unusually weighty play.