Biography and Literary Theory

– It’s my pleasure now to introduce the moderator for this second panel. Elisabeth Sifton has been a great friend to the Leon Levy Center. She is a member of our board, she has been one of the wisest panelists in discussing future fellows. Indeed, the number of
fellows who are here today can thank Elisabeth. She is one of the great
editors of her generations. She’s probably best known for
her work with Saul Bellow, but she’s also done a lot of work with great biographers including Richard Holmes and Frederick Brown, and I should mention
that one of the events we’re most looking forward to
is in this coming September when the Leon Levy annual
lecture will be given by Richard Holmes making a
relatively rare appearance in the United States. Elisabeth is also the author
of The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in
Times of Peace and War about the background to the famous prayer
written by her father, Reinhold Niebuhr, and with Fritz Stern she wrote No Ordinary Men: Dietrech, Bonhoeffer,
and Hans Von Dohnanyi. I’m not gonna pronounce this correctly. – Dohnanyi. – [Gary] Yeah, thank you. Resisters Against Hitler
in Church and State published last year by
New York Review Books. Please welcome Elisabeth Sifton. (audience applauds) – Welcome to Biography Chapter
Two, non-musical I think with these fine, intrepid
scholars and women Evelyn Barish and Caryl Emerson, whom you can find out all
about in your biography. In your biographies, listen I can’t think of any other genre. In your fliers. Distinguished teachers
and scholars both of them. We’ll move from the imponderables of music to the daunting complexities
of writing about writers, always tricky and especially
so with the two men these wonderful biographers
or non-biographers as the case may be pay attention to. Both Paul de Man and Mikhail Bakhtin were renowned European men of letters, if I can use the old fashioned term famous for the way they thought about the very purposed meaning
and use of literature. This was their central focus. They shared that. Each of them also faced very
difficult life obstacles which we didn’t hear
about in the last hour, but have to do with the
bloody horror of Europe in the 20th century,
not only two World Wars, but also the hideous
difficulties, tragedies of fascism and Bolshevism. In each case, though for totally
different reasons perhaps, their life and work didn’t come into focus until after their deaths, but maybe that’s true of all of us. (laughing) Professor Barish, I would
like to start with you. May we start with the
double life of Paul de Man? Before you talk, I’d like
to bring the audience up to your level, at least
in the factual matters. You tell us in your book
that you began this biography in the early 1990’s, right? At that point what was
known about Paul de Man? He was a controversial
Belgian born in 1919 who had come to America in 1945, taught briefly at Bard
College up the river, then at Harvard, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, and most significantly for
the last years of his life at Yale where his
interpretive skills and essays became renowned, but then
some years after his death in 1984 a Belgian graduate student uncovered hundreds of articles
that de Man had written in 1941 and 42 after
Germany’s invasion of Belgium, invasion and occupation in Belgium. He wrote these, many of
them, for one of the largest newspapers in the country, Le Soir, which became a collaborationist rag. All hell broke loose when it was learned that de Man was the
author of these pieces, as you can imagine in the
gross of academia at any rate, all hell broke loose. You say in your book that you were haunted by the contradictions that you learned of in the years when people were trying to come to terms
with the contradictions between these early rather fascist pieces and his later broad
ranging and to many people, exemplary humane, humanistic work. Tell us what you did then, though. You were haunted by the contradictions. At first it wasn’t gonna be a biography. What was your plan? And if you would, tell us what
the worst difficulties were. – Okay, thank you. Can I be heard? Is this working? Okay. Well, I think the one thing
I’d like to start out with just as an aside and then to
go onto your real question is his essays whether
or not they were humane they were definitely not humanistic in the sense that we
conventionally mean it. In one of the few brief
exchanges I had with him, he denied the value of that term. – That’s an important point to make. – It is important. I came from that generation
where we believed in humanism and the humanistic effort. I knew him only slightly at Cornell. I was quite junior. I was an assistant professor
for most of five years, and he was already the star
of the faculty and older, and then he moved on first
to Hopkins very briefly and then to Yale. And, your question was
what were the challenges? Is that the essential question? – Basically. Well, in the technical sense. We can get to the intellectual
and spiritual problems. – Yeah, there were profound intellectual and spiritual problems, and those are the biggest ones,
and they remain in your mind because as you grow your take
on your own questions changes, but the technical questions were big and they were kind of fun. Fortunately I like a
little bit of adventure. I like to travel. I like new things. I loved languages. I’ve learned from my work on Emerson that even when someone is very well known if you’re a biographer or
doing that kind of research you should go to the place
where the things happened. You will certainly learn things that you wouldn’t have known otherwise and others did not know. The biggest technical
questions I discovered were kind of foreshadowed by Pat de Man, his very loving widow of 40 years who said to me, first thing she said was, “Paul de Man the private
man was very different “from Paul de Man the public man.” Because he was so iconic, such an austere and consistent figure as we saw him at Cornell,
and I’d gone on elsewhere here to New York essentially,
my vision hadn’t changed, but I’d seen him at lectures
and it still looked the same. He was a great man. My colleagues, one of
whom I respected said, “Evelyn, stay away from the theorists, “except for Paul de Man. “He, I think, is a great man.” That’s where I started. When this news came
out which really shook, and some of you will remember
it, academe to its bottom, and the intellectual and educated world. It was front page news on the Times, and went on and on, and
it was international. I thought, “Gee.” I waited for years, and I said, “Someone is going to write a biography, “or at least someone will do those years “that we don’t know
about, the Belgian years.” And, no one did. I waited for years, and I knew
there were gonna be essays, but the essays turned out
excellent as many of them were to be about that extremely offensive essay and the other things he’d
written, not about the life. – May I interrupt for one second? – Am I not in the right direction? – No absolutely, but I want to say the extremely controversial essay was one that he wrote when he was 20 or 21. Were you gonna mention what it was? – Yes, of course.
– Oh, I’m sorry. It was called The Jews in
Present Day Literature, and all we knew was in it
he said anti-Semitic things, and there were various
takes on what they’d been and some quotations, but not until ’92 was this really very good
collection of all his writings, the French in French, the Flemish ones, Flemish is written Dutch. It was written in Dutch. Flemish is the set of dialects. Those were translated,
the French were not, but it was this thick
and it was photocopies, photo stacks of everything he’d written in his collaborating years, but we didn’t know exactly what he’d said, and when I saw them on the page, it seemed to me that was
a crucial thing to do, but the point was that it was
with all the other essays. It was one of seven or eight. The point was that I thought, it was 1990, I couldn’t get out of my mind. I was haunted by how this person who had represented to
me the highest ideals as a humanist of what my profession was could have written this. – What did you do first? – The first thing I did was
through an intermediary. I was put in touch with
Paul de Man’s widow, Patricia de Man. They’d been married 40 years, and at the same time I
was given some addresses, and I wrote some letters
to Paul’s remaining friends in Brussels, and they agreed to see me. These were the days of mail, post, and when I got there there was a lunch, a luncheon in a wonderful
upper-middle class, or middle class but well
to do academic place with six or eight people,
all of whom had been Paul’s friends in college. A vary of political opinions ranging from ex-Communists
to the right wingers, the right wing son of a
right wing Vichyite general who had not been a Vichyite himself, who had joined the resistance,
but it was this wide range. All of them knew him. All of them had pretty much loved him. One of them had been
part of a menage a trois, the husband in the menage a trois, that his wife had invited Paul to join. I knew none of this, and I
didn’t know how much Pat knew. I knew none of it, but they invited me to
continue to see them to interview them, and from there I went to the archives, and
the hardest technical thing was not just that there
were two languages, technically three, Flemish
and French, in Belgium, and the complicated
history which was difficult but interesting, and I
loved learning about it. I’m no expert, but I
certainly learned a lot, but the difficulty was
there were no archives, at that point, zero. Nothing out in California
which came a few years later. I’m an English literature person who does literary history, and I had to imagine
what the documents were that I had to find before I
could go and look for them, so that was fun but it was scary. – Time consuming, I should imagine. – I had a grant, and I
was trying to get into some of these archives. They don’t open easily. They open only a crack after months, and I remember the cold nights in Brussels waiting to hear from
the head of the archive that I must have, and deciding, “Okay Evelyn, go and do some interviews “before you get to the archives. “Use your time.” Among them the night I waited
to see my first collaborator, which scared me because
I was dumb and innocent, and I don’t know what I expected, but I discovered that the collaboratives who had been to prison and come out and had other careers,
they were ordinary people. I don’t want to quote
anybody in this regard, but they did not have the mark
of Cain on their foreheads. What they did have was their own story, their own explanation, and everybody friend or foe of de Man, the
very first thing they said was, “Paul de Man was not an anti-Semite, “and I was not an anti-Semite”
if they were in that shadow, and of course I didn’t cross question them on that issue. I let them talk, and I
talked as much as I could. Now, I know you probably
have other questions you want to ask other people,
but should I continue? I mean, it was fascinating. I could go on. (laughing) – I do have further questions for you, but before I forget them
I also want to bring Caryl into this conversation
because she is an expert on writing about important people whose archives have
disappeared or never were or are hard to find. Among the books that she has written, not mentioned in the flier is The First Hundred
Years of Mikhail Bakhtin, and one question I could ask you is why is that not a biography? Why is it that it’s hard
to write a biography about Bakhtin? And, there are interpretive,
philosophical issues involved in that question,
but also practical ones. – Thank you, Elisabeth. That’s a very interesting question. Two things have to be said at the outset. First, I’m not technically a biographer. The first biography of Bakhtin was written in English by Katerina Clark and
Michael Holquist in 1984, and they were the ones that
went and did quote-unquote the archival research. Now, when I listen to a wonderful scholar like this biographer of de Man. – Evelyn. – Yes, but I’m trying to think of a way to put it into a category that
isn’t a personal category. You represent for me a Western biographer who was able to deal
with the self-fashioning of a free life, a life that’s
unfree for two or three years, and then those occupied years are, if I understand you properly Evelyn, looked at both by people
in context and by you initially with an enormous
amount of sympathy, and this is what we have to do for Europe in the 20th century. What I do in my line of work which is to deal with creators
who have been occupied since 1921 to 1989, which means that you have not the possibility or
a luxury of a double life, but really a half a life, and what happens when you
come across that half a life? This is what Michael and Katerina did in the early 1980’s. They went to these three cardboard boxes that were the Bakhtin archives that had been resurrected
from a rotting woodshed by three graduate students from Moscow that had gone down and
found out that indeed, here was Mikhail Bakhtin,
written some great books. 1929 was arrested, everyone assumed he was in some way incapacitated or shot, but in fact he was still alive, and he was sitting on
all these manuscripts, and his books could
come out a second time. These three graduate students went down, persuaded him to rework
his sketches of things. This included a dissertation on Rabelais, which he defend in 1946, a huge number of essays on the novel that he attempted to deliver in oral form. Most everything was sitting
in three cardboard boxes because he was, after all, political and therefore not published. Three or four years before his death he did correct page proofs
of his last resurrected work, but this is from both sides, from the sides of the biographical subject who doesn’t think he’s going to survive. When he was interviewed
by these graduate students who became permanent
helpers for him, he said, “I have no life. “What I have is ideas. “I’d like not to die. “Could you help me keep
those ideas alive?” The life we all have undergone,
Stalinist Russia as such, that there really isn’t anything
that we can say about it except if we survive, we
feel guilty and bad for that, so he had quite a bit of survival guilt, and wanted his ideas however to survive, so that was the first
biography, that was 1984. A second biography was
done by two Russians who were very young academics set at Mordovian State Pedagogical Institute where Bakhtin was the head of the Department of World Literature for the last 12 years of his life, and the year after he went
on pension they came in, began to talk to him, and he was sitting in this smoke-filled room
and receiving students and young faculty for nine years until Bakhtin and his wife went to Moscow to a rest home there. He got as much information
as possible from Bakhtin, and he talked freely, but still again felt all that mattered were
his ideas and his manuscripts, and even some of his earlier ones. He said, “A great idea
will come around again, “so you don’t have to worry about “my particular rendition of it.” That was the second biography by SS Konkin that came out in 1993, and then the third big biographical project on Bakhtin’s life was the multi-volume collected works which are still in the process
of being gathered together, but the archives are still not in the Russian State Archives
of Literature and Art which used to be the KGB and KVD archives. Even then it was nationalized, so it’s got all the works of the poets that were shot or repressed. It hasn’t yet gone there. It’s still being held more or less in these big cardboard boxes, but it’s been extremely carefully examined for every shred and scrap, a huge amount still not translated, so how does one approach the
whole biographical project? It’s so different from what Evelyn did, and I find it so interesting
trying to supplement half a life. I think my own work was
largely through translation, and I’ll end my comments
with this Elisabeth, but I began as a barely
graduated graduate student to translate that’s that
famous purple paperback, The Dialogic Imagination, which I did barely out of my graduate student years, so I, as it were, attached
myself to Bakhtin’s star with Michael Holquist’s help as a person who was trying to reproduce
this language from within. That’s a fabulous exercise. We didn’t know anything about
where his ideas had come from. His earliest stuff hadn’t
been published yet. His middle stuff had been
translated into French by a bunch of Bulgarians in Paris, and it became famous
because it was carnival and it was 1968, but it was
all backwards and inside out. Nobody knew what Bakhtin was reading. He was a neo-Kantian,
studied with a Marburg, a fabulous guy named Juan
who he knew personally, which was all something
that we didn’t know about. We just knew that he’d been
popularized at a certain point in American and French reception, so in comes carnival
and in comes dialogism, and in comes history and the novel. All of these things appeared
in a strange, inside out way, so nobody knew the actual
genesis of the ideas, but I was trying to translate them in as neutral language as possible. I wouldn’t want to reprint
a lot of the earlier things that I wrote about Bakhtin. In 1990 finally his very
earliest manuscripts were translated into English, and they had only come out in
Russian a few years earlier, and then we got a fabulous
generation of British Marxists, Ken Hirschkop and Craig Brandist who wanted to stitch Bakhtin
into continental philosophy which is where he belongs, and they did so with something like the knowledge base that Bakhtin himself brought to the task, which was enormous. Bakhtin had a completely
photographic memory in six languages and could
recite long pages of prose as well as poetry. He just never forget anything apparently until the very last years of his life, so he just had a fabulous research base even though people could
censor him right and left, exile him right and
left, he could remember because he carried it around in his head. Very hard to be an intellectual biographer of a person with those sorts of talents. So, what I did was try to learn how to speak his language from within. For 12 years I translated Bakhtin, and then began to have
real problems with him because according to Bakhtin’s ideas, you don’t ever get a
voice going inside you that you don’t have
another voice that says, “No, that’s not right.” So, I began to have questions about the whole carnival
dialogism project, and now I’m coming back to try to learn to keep him alive from within again. – Wonderful, wonderful. One thing you said makes
me want to ask Evelyn a question in this way. You talked about how you wanted to know where it all came from, so not until those manuscripts
had been discovered, and if necessary,
translated or interpreted could you really get a sense of what Bakhtin’s intellectual
profile or trajectory was. I think one of the, I don’t know if Evelyn agrees with me or not, but that’s why I’m gonna ask her, that one of the shocking things
about some of these essays that were discovered. Graduate students got a
very good wrap in this, did you notice? They discover Bakhtin and they
discovered de Man’s essays. Trained literary scholars will, if not humans at least
trained literary scholars, will wonder if these essays
that have now just been released with this rather obnoxious
if not just plain noxious material in them is the
beginning of de Man. Is that what we now have to think? We didn’t know what the
beginning of de Man was. – Which are you speaking of, the noxious? – The unpleasant anti-Semitic essays. – Oh that, long ago. – What I’m saying is
that one of the reasons people maybe overreacted
to their publication, this is what another critic
said about the publication, “The interpretation of de
Man’s political writings “urgently raises two questions. “The first is a matter of
historical reconstruction. “What did he mean to say when he wrote “these collaborationist articles? “The second is the question concerning “his subsequent literary
critical writings. “What will the effect
of these revelations be “on the way readers are going to read “those other later works?” Those questions were
immediately questioned (speaking foreign language) and repeatedly when the
early work was discovered in the 1980’s. I would like to know, Evelyn, from you if you felt that one
task of your biography might be to, as it were,
establish the topography of de Man’s intellectual
life in a sane way that would allow people to
make these interpretative, answer these interpretative questions? – That’s a very good question, and I like the word topography. Yes, I did feel that. I set out, in fact, first to write just a couple of articles. I thought 1990 I had a summer and a little bit of money in France, and I’d go up to Brussels which was like going to Washington from New York, and just see what had happened. So ignorant, so innocent, but I learned that it must be a book or nothing, and it was also so interesting because that’s when I
met this group of people who were very hospitable, that it could be the next part of my life. I was by then a full professor, and I could do what I wanted. I intended to write the entire life. I had no idea what de Man’s
life was actually like. It turned out, now retrospectively, his life had so many changes. He slipped and changed so often, I began to see that he was,
to me, like a chameleon who would move from one place to another when he had to, change
color, change ideas, change position, and then
I would have to learn that context as well. I wanted to understand
Paul de Man in the context of European history,
Europe between the wars, Belgium World War II. That was a very big
plateful, but I discovered that was only part of it. That was fascinating, and
that was about those essays, but then he became a publisher, who actually only published two books, had close to a million and
a half Francs that he took. As his first wife said, he
went in and took out the money. I couldn’t believe it at first, but one of the first
things that happened to me, the challenges, I went
up to Antwerp to a court, and a man came out, and he
handed me a sheaf of paper stuck together with a piece of string the way they do over there, and he said, “These are the records.” He was tried twice, and found guilty both in what we would call
commercial or criminal bankruptcy court and in criminal court of very significant thefts
from all the people he knew including his wife, excuse me I said wife. I meant his old nurse who had
given him her life savings. He probably didn’t ask for them, but she came to him, and she’d
been the nurse of his family since 1900. I couldn’t believe these things. That was, for me, the greatest challenge. I got the facts, I got it
straight, I worked very hard. I even read the CPA’s reports. I got the numbers in my
mind and on the paper. I could not put it together because I did not believe in him, believe that he was a thief,
that he was this or that. Then he went to the States, and it was a completely
other set of stories. – But, there are common
themes in these stories. – There are. – Evelyn is being extremely polite because she rightly
wants you to understand she wrote this book dispassionately, but the fact was … – It’s not an expose by intention. – But, when she says the context changed what she means is the
context in which he performed the same crimes over and over again, embezzlement, lying. – Leaving women. – Leaving women and marrying other women before he unmarried the first one. – Being seduced by them
by them by the way. – So, it’s as if when you talk about how he kept his own context
going into the new world, it’s also another metaphor might be that with one lie he
cantilevered out to here. – Yes, I used the word piggybacked. – And, then the next lie has to be cantilevered out from there, so that by the time he gets to Harvard, the string of lies that he has effectively and successfully made go way over there, which is what she tells us.
– And, I tried to put together with the man that everybody loved, and the people whom I most respected, he most respected, all of us would have most respected loved him. To this day some of them do,
and I don’t say they’re wrong, it’s just that this was this unbelievably complicated figure, so I didn’t want to write an expose, those that’s what some of the reviews, most of which have been very favorable, take it to be because they are
as shocked as I was in 1992. I see him as a tortured man, and if you read the book please read the first chapters first
because the kind of life he had with a suicidal mother, a
severely disturbed brother, fascinating but strange
Belgian background, he was a brilliant, brilliant student who was derailed very early. Two headmasters looked
with me at his records in his very selective high school because they have the
numbers to the tenth decimal, sixth decimal point. That’s Europe, and they said, “With these grades he
could have done anything,” both in one voice, and
yet he couldn’t pass his college exams. – Or, he didn’t turn up
for them even sometimes. – Yeah, sometimes he failed. Sometimes he got a C or he got a B. He was a brilliant student. When he got to Harvard
he failed his generals, and they got him through the second time by pushing him through, and
yet he wrote brilliantly. He’s a tortured man, and that’s
the picture I have tried, who tried to pull himself together, and who tried to make, I
believe, his philosophy and his life have some kind
of interactive meaning, and I was not able to write
the second part of the life because 20 years was enough. (laughing) As we say, life is what happens to you when you’re trying to write a book. – [Caryl] Oh, that’s so true. – Caryl, you wanted to? – I just wanted to comment briefly on these two wonderful things Evelyn said. The first is this question of treating your biographical subject as a traumatized individual, and I daresay there was nobody of that generation that didn’t have some sort of trauma, so this is a wonderful idea. You really have to try to reproduce the first 20 or 25 years of a person, the most formative and
impressionistic time, and if that happens
then you can understand why people aren’t
collaborators or dissidents. They’re simply survivors. They want to survive,
especially the very young, and I’m all the time confronted with that in my field, of course. The second thing which was mentioned in one of the interesting
and in-depth reviews, the idea that when you
come to this country, and I’ve worked on one person who did come from Petersburg to Berlin to Paris to New York, it’s the standard European trajectory for intellectuals, when you do come, you
do feel you have a right to self-fashion yourself a bit in America. Of course, de Man said that. He said, “I’ve got to get away.” This is perhaps again what a
traumatized person would say. There are brave people who don’t say that, and they die on the cross
they find themselves on, but this is also something
that the new world as held open to emigres
and immigrants always, and therefore one has to filter that hope or perhaps even that conviction into it, but I want to throw one
other question to the hopper which I think is also related, Evelyn. If you’re a writer writing about writers or a writer writing about philosophers, you’re pretty much in the word camp. Words on words on words,
and then you review, and it’s words on words on words on words. If you’re another sort
of creative professional, say you’re a midwife,
you’re considered successful if your babies don’t die,
or if you’re an engineer you’re successful if your
bridges don’t fall down. But, if you deal in the word arts, and especially in the
interpretive word arts, do you have to pledge
to always stand behind that which you develop as a
theory or interpretive logic? I find this exceptionally
hard to respond to. I’ve also worked on Leo Tolstoy, and he was famous enough to be
biograph-ied a billion times, well eight times during his life, and it was very hard as
he was preaching chastity within marriage and his wife was burying their 13th child. Everyone said, “How
dare you talk about that “even as an ideal if you
can’t restrain yourself “from impregnating your own wife?” Tolstoy said the smart thing which is that’s what ideals are for. You posit something you can’t do. If you posit what you could
do it wouldn’t be an ideal, but you try to live for it. (laughing) You shouldn’t laugh, folks. You try to live for it,
better than just floundering in the sea, and he posited it as an ideal, and he did try to live by it. He couldn’t always
succeed, but does that mean the ideal is bad? To some mentalities it
does, but not to his, and I think one does have to separate the system of the work
and the system of the life because after a certain
number of lived years life is a system, and
you have to answer for it as a mournful individual. Whether or not the body of the work can be aligned absolutely to that life, that I think is the real
test for biographers. – I like what you say very much. It’s very intelligent,
and it’s deep I think, and it does relate to things
I’ve thought about de Man. It makes me think. Some of it I’ve thought before, but I suddenly see a connection. In fact, when he was
writing about literature, and the vast majority
of his 200-odd essays were reviews, they were always written about books that had passed the censors, but nevertheless they were
about German literature, and he took literature seriously. He was very young, 22, 23. He wanted to believe at that age that there was, not
the word he used later, but that there were rules, that literature expressed
things about life’s culture that it had its own developmental process from era to era. The Germanic ideology
dominated those concepts, but nevertheless that it was a thing in and of itself, and I don’t think he wanted it to be used
for political purposes. I really don’t. I do think he wrote that essay because it was gonna get him ahead. He was certainly an opportunist, and I’m not sorry to say, it’s realistic, he really was about money. That will shock you probably
more than anything else. The last thing he said to his son, “If I’d have it to live over again “it would be as a rich man,”
but it wasn’t just that. Later on as we know,
or as many of you know, who perhaps may be theorists here, he was seeking a Grand
Theory, capital G, capital T. He always was after
that kind of overarching way of understanding the literary culture or the culture in which he and we live, and I would not separate that completely from the fact that he in high school, which was superb, it was like Choate, Groton, Stubhuset,
and science put together. It was the very best in Belgium and similar in it’s own
way to the best in France. He did not study literature. He did it on his own, and he
read and remembered everything. He was first in physics and first in math. I counted how many years
of math he studied. It was enormous, eight, 10, 15 courses. People say, “How do you explain
the rigor of his arguments?” I see them as QED, quod
erat demonstrandum. Here’s what I have to
demonstrate, I’m gonna do it. Everything else, the elegant solution, is what I’m aiming for, and
if you look at his theories, his essays, they start this
way, like an inverted pyramid, and come down to the point he’s making. He’s always looking for the grand theory or for the theory that explains culture even when he’s writing about how wonderful German literature is and how decadent the French is
when he’s writing philosophy. – One of the things you have to decide if you want to answer these questions about what do you really mean by these is to what degree was he genuinely aware of the political repercussions of the words and phrases he was using. Among some people, some students,
some critics, some writers to be casual about Nazism
and casual about Bolshevism is a simple thing. You should not mess around
with these political comments unless you really are serious about them. For such people, to say that
de Man really didn’t care about the fascism, which
is frankly my view of this, that he was rather more
opportunistic than heartfelt about his pro-Nazi
inclinations in these essays, is a red flag because you’re not supposed to be that way about politics. – I’ll be glad to respond, unless you … – Also when Caryl is
talking about half lives you have to realize that the option to be casual about politics was not open to any of her subjects. Life was politics, right? Or, had to be. – [Caryl] Written life was. – Written life was, yes. Go ahead, Evelyn please. Go ahead. – The first thing that
everyone said to me, and I found it to be true when I met his friends and colleagues, who were very erudite people, I think I told you that the
man into whose house he moved, did I say this, became the head of the Refugee Division of UNRRA which in the 1950’s was
an extremely important and influential and profound position. That was Gilbert Jaeger. It was his wife who brought
de Man in as her lover. These were wonderful people, or I would say they were people I would have been very happy to have been a part of their group. Most of us I think would have been. Every one of them said,
“By 1940 the war was over. “You don’t understand. “You Americans don’t understand.” They don’t say it quite like that. “You didn’t come in until 1941.” The war was lost, and it had
been coming for a long time. His uncle was the leading
intellectual socialist who turned fascist, and there were many. He was the Belgian Mussolini
except much smarter and more subtle and more classy, and Paul de Man was his quasi son, so he really was a fascist of that order, and it was fascism of opportunism because the Nazis kicked
everyone else out, and put in very young
people who were talented in the place of the old corrupt Democrats. Every time I hear the New Order I shudder because they called
themselves the New Order. It was the New Order of
how to run the world, and you do it with young, Nazi people. It wasn’t even fascists,
which isn’t a party as you know, Nazism was. He was completely committed to it, but he was not a Hitler-ite, and that’s the big difference I noticed. They never used the word Hitler
until the end of the war, and they didn’t use the word Nazi. They did talk about
Germany and its superiority and superior culture
and mysticism and depth and the French decadence, so
he was completely about that, and he was very much
about becoming a power in the literary world. He had three jobs. The most important was invisible. He became secretary which
was next to the president of the biggest book
distributor of Belgium, and they controlled
every book and magazine that was distributed, and he
made a great deal of money. His boss, who went to jail,
told me what his salary was on my asking. Paul made more money than his boss did, and his boss was annoyed 50 years later. (laughing) He was on of he fellows
without the mark of Cain. He was a very elegant,
rich man, cultivated. He said, “We went into
it because we thought “there was a better kind
of political position “that we could take, and
we could influence it.” Paul expected to be, and
his wife said this twice, Minister of Culture under the Pan-European thousand year Reich, Minister of Culture, Foreign Ambassador. It was opportunism with a capital O. The people I respected and liked most withdrew from Brussels and did nothing. He made that choice. I do not say you cannot blame him for it. Is that an answer to your question? – It’s a fine answer, and I think it also
brings out another point that should be made. In the musical session we
talked about the differences between Mississippi,
Chicago, New York, London. The differences between Belgium and other occupied countries in Europe is also extremely important. The deal with themselves
that they could strike, these quasi collaborationists in Belgium who never used the word Nazism was unthinkable in Italy or in France, and would not have gone down well in the Scandinavian countries. There is something about the
Belgian situation in 1940. – See I love Belgium. It happens to you when
you live in a country. – In 1940 Belgium was
in a very special place. – It was, it was. – And, so was the Netherlands, but where the calculations
were rather different actually, but in any event we have to take these national
characteristics into account. – See, they see themselves
as a very small country which they are. I think the coastline is 30 miles. They’re squeezed on the north
by Holland, the Netherlands, on the south by France,
on the east by Germany and Luxembourg, and they theoretically have four languages I think, but we know that a little
part of it is German. Nobody pays attention to that. It’s French and German. They think they are different races. That was one thing I really
had to button my lips about because Americans of our
generations, and I hope later, don’t believe that there are races in the sense that they mean it. We believe that of
course there are cultures and big differences among
our cultures everywhere, but not races. Sorry. – Belgium was also a young country. It hadn’t been Belgium for very long. – 1830, younger than we.
– Younger than us! Which makes their longing
for a national zeitgeist all the more intense, perhaps. – Part of it was that the better educated and richer people were the
Francophones from the south, and they had more than lorded it over. They had literally
oppressed the less educated Flemings from the north. I mean, Holland is very
rich and strong country, but the Flemings who are
all dialects of Dutch whose really from the Burbant on north, they were suppressed. They could not be officers
in the war in World War I, and their officers could
not speak to them directly because the officers had to be Francophone and they did not speak
Dutch, they could not, so now the country is
almost breaking apart because as it’s happened
the Flemings seem to be more active and have more money. They’re doing the
technical, electronic stuff. The mines and the heavy industry that the southern part depended
on, like northern France, that’s gone, and what’s called Wallonia, southern Belgium, that’s poor, and there’s tremendous internal conflict. Thank god I don’t have to deal with that, but I do love the country. Can I tell one tiny episode
of what they’re like? They’re very friendly I found
on both sides to Americans. When I was looking for
those first documents I went to the Antwerp court
where I found these documents. I didn’t know what to do with them about this court case that came up 10 years after I started, and a man stood up, he handed
me this sheath of papers, and said, “Do you read Flemish? “Do you read Dutch?” I said, “No.” He said, “Let me translate for you.” He did a sight translation,
I had my computer with me, we did that for four or
five hours in his office. His wife kept calling. He was a young man, 20 or
30 years younger than me, and then he said, “Come
home with me to dinner,” which we did and we
continued after dinner, and at 11:00 I went home,
not yet quite finished. That became a long
friendship, a wonderful man. In his living room, as I walked into this small, tidy, very
sweet house what did I find where a sofa might have been? A Wurlitzer jukebox. – Worship of American culture. – Because he knows more
about American music than anyone I’ve ever known except perhaps the men
assembled here today, so that’s my experience of Belgium, and I love France, but
it’s quite different. – I just have to say a single word. This is so wonderful this, how can I say, person whose able to go back to a country, sit down, have the entire
country your archive, talk to living people
who won’t be arrested 25 or 30 minutes later
when it’s discovered that you’ve had contact with them, have a bit of American culture that isn’t immediately a criminal offense, so this is another world. I think Evelyn is absolutely correct in saying that 20th century research in this part of the world, Belgium was perhaps only
under terrible shadow for a small time, but still
these are complicated countries, and their citizens have
complicated biographies and personal ambitions. Nevertheless, Europe in the 20th century really has to be looked at as an archive that must be examined and seen to. – Absolutely. – And, this is why I think
your work is so heroic. – Thank you. Well yours is too, and what
we need is more languages. – I can’t help telling a Belgian joke that has nothing to do with the theme. (laughing) But, it does have to do
with national identities, and it does have to do with
what many people thought was offensive about
some of de Man’s writing about Jews and their pernicious
effect on European culture. The story is that the Wehrmachts goes into a Belgian town,
and orders all the Flemings in that corner of the square. Do you know this? You can guess it. And, all the Walloons over here, but there a bunch of people
who stay in the middle. They are all Jews, and they say, “Where do the real Belgians go?” (laughing) So, who is Belgian and who is not? Who is Paul de Man and who is not? – By the way, may I just say because we’ve got a big audience
and you will all go out with this new important fact. Because it’s a Flemish
name, it’s a Dutch name. It isn’t French, and he wasn’t crazy about the French, although he know an enormous
amount about it and taught it, his name is Paul de Man,
M-A-N, just like ours. Man, and it just means the man, and the way it became the
man is because his uncle rose so high socially that
they turned the particle de into the genitive de because
that was the snobbery the French speak in court. Excuse me. Now we know it’s Man, and you will know more than anyone else. (laughing) – I’ve learned so much from these two. I hope you have too. Thank you. (audience applauds)

6 Replies to “Biography and Literary Theory

  1. Our interview of David Lehman about his book "Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Life of Paul de Man".

  2. Imo de Man was possibly a spy working for Gehlen org or Otto von Hapsburg inside US ed system, probably monitoring recruitment patterns of CIA white shoe sullivan and cromwell skull and bones scroll and key etc at Yale. Was funneled in via free masonic networks around Georges Bataille/Lacan et al; was considered useful at first since the German/euro system had been very transparent to the du Pont controlled US intel group around paperclip, but the brits germans and other euro powers [forerunners of current EU, take note [also brainchild of otto von hapsburg]] had few on the ground assets in US. hence his easy entrance into US, cover up of his past by US State Dept et al. The deal was, we give you this, in return he spews relativistic/irrationalistic garbage for take down of US intellectuals ie impressionable naive grad students, hence paving way for relativistic cess pool of current US publishing/media/academia — run by jews, take note: "anti-semitic" meme [deliberately manipulative and meaningless term, likewise "fascist" typical "throws" to distract from real issue — intel agencies taking down US ed system. ] Was de Man's training in chemistry a useful aspect, since many aspects of north german paperclip targets had to do with chem warfare? did de Man operate to facilitate further paper clip assets' entrance and establishment in US academia? de Man: link between Paperclip and MKultra?

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