Discussing Rousseau’s Confessions in his work Allegories of Reading, Paul de Man wrote: “It is always possible to face up to any experience (to excuse any guilt), because the experience always exists simultaneously as fictional discourse and as empirical event and it is never possible to decide which one of the two possibilities is the right one.” This was a pregnant comment, though no one knew it at the time.
By 1979, when Allegories was published, de Man had become the toast of American academia, and his “deconstructionism” a staple of humanities departments. The above was the sort of erudite-sounding twaddle to which his acolytes thrilled: the both/and, the neither/nor, the ultimate “unreadability” of a text. The prospect of the indeterminacy of meaning was exciting. “The fall into the abyss of deconstruction inspires us with as much pleasure as fear,” one of de Man’s students would write. “We are intoxicated with the prospect of never hitting bottom.”
In 1987, though, four years after de Man’s death (which was noted on the front page of the New York Times), a sudden sobering occurred. That year, a young Belgian scholar, Ortwin de Graef, revealed that between 1940 and 1942 de Man had contributed some 170 articles to Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land, Belgian daily newspapers, one French, one Flemish, that acted as propaganda arms for the Nazi occupiers. Those revelations (which also appeared on the front page of the New York Times) were explosive, sparking a vicious battle between his detractors and defenders that occupied the pages of prominent academic and literary journals for several years, and prompting a reassessment of his work that included new, darker readings of passages such as the above. The fallout continues. In 2014, City University of New York professor Evelyn Barish published The Double Life of Paul de Man.
De Man is one of three 20th-century notables who share the stage in Jonathan Leaf’s new play, Deconstruction, which premiered in March in New York City, courtesy of the Storm Theatre Company and Christopher Ekstrom Productions. Set in the summer and early autumn of 1949, Deconstruction reimagines the relationship between a young de Man (Jed Peterson), newly arrived in New York City from Belgium, and novelist-critic Mary McCarthy (Fleur Alys Dobbins), by the late 1940s a member in good standing of the celebrated Manhattan literary circle that included Dwight Macdonald, Edmund Wilson (McCarthy’s second of four husbands), and many others. It was through Macdonald that McCarthy met de Man, and she promptly procured for him a temporary teaching position at Bard College. But it has long been rumored that their relationship was not strictly professional, and Deconstruction imagines how that liaison might have unfolded.
The play is a study in sophisticated deception, as were the lives of the principals. Is de Man the bashful prey of a predatory older woman? Or is he the seducer? “There’s something cruel about you,” McCarthy says in the opening scene, and even as de Man acts the ingénu, it’s a clear indication of what is to come. By the end of the play, de Man will have impregnated McCarthy, threatened her with blackmail, and abandoned her for one of his students, whom he has also impregnated.
Peterson and Dobbins handle their roles admirably, particularly as the emotional pitch of events escalates. Dobbins is a convincing McCarthy, shifting seamlessly between vulnerability and icy wit, while Peterson’s amorphous de Man manages to be both repulsive and pitiable. These subtleties are facilitated by Leaf’s smart script and the simple set, constituted largely of scattered books.
In real life, de Man, by the end of 1949 — that is, a semester into his job at Bard — had conceived a child with a student named Patricia Kelley, whom he married shortly thereafter. It seems not to have fazed him that he also had a wife and three children living in Argentina. (They divorced sometime in the 1950s.) De Man and Kelley subsequently moved from prestigious institution to prestigious institution as his profile rose; they remained together until his death.
In Deconstruction, McCarthy is the collateral damage of these lies, which are ultimately exposed by the play’s third celebrity: political philosopher Hannah Arendt (Karoline Fischer). A refugee from Hitler’s Germany, Arendt moved to New York City in 1941. While in fact it would be a few more years before their relationship blossomed, it’s true that Arendt and McCarthy became extremely close friends. When Arendt died in 1976, McCarthy was her literary executor. The quarter century of intimate, sometimes profound, often gossipy conversation that they shared is partly recorded in Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949–1975.
In Leaf’s imagining, Arendt’s cool, probing mind is immune to de Man’s charms, and she acts as inquisitor, hoping to protect her friend from another ill-fated romance. Part of this searching-out is to inquire after de Man’s philosophical convictions, and that conjures up Martin Heidegger and another, even more important 20th-century intellectual scandal.
Almost certainly the most significant philosopher of the century, Heidegger proposed, most famously in Being and Time (1927), a radical reorientation of philosophical thinking — back toward the question of Being, of what it means to be. Heidegger was also a member of the Nazi party, and his philosophy is entwined with the rise of the Third Reich. (To precisely what extent is a matter of fierce debate, renewed recently by the publication of the “Black Notebooks,” private journals that Heidegger kept through much of the 1930s and 1940s. They contain more-explicit anti-Semitism than appears in his previously known work.) Arendt was Heidegger’s student, and his most famous lover.
Leaf’s play requires three actors, but it has four characters. “Martin” looms omnipresent over the unfolding events, and threaded deftly through the plot is an ongoing, increasingly urgent debate about the merits and demerits of his philosophical project, which de Man claims as his intellectual patrimony. Against the background of Heidegger’s Nazism and de Man’s many sins (political and personal), Leaf’s question is clear: How should we evaluate the intellectual achievements of these bad or misguided men? Is it just coincidental, in de Man’s case, that “deconstruction” can be used to pardon the conduct of its founder?
Upon reflection, it should come as no great surprise that deconstruction took hold when it did: following not just the traumas of the Second World War and the Holocaust, but the rebellions of the 1960s (which spanned the United States and Europe). A sophisticated conceptual apparatus that could justify the inversions taking place — of morals, customs, traditions, etc. — was surely a welcome arrival. Undoubtedly, it has been used to great effect.
But that apparatus was, it’s clear now, flimsier than it initially appeared. Neither deconstruction nor any other grand philosophical or ideological project has been able to resolve the originary experience of deep and abiding guilt. For that, Leaf, in Deconstruction, turns to a much earlier tradition. The final, brief scene shows Arendt and McCarthy at the latter’s Greenwich Village apartment on Thanksgiving Day, 1949. They are discussing the events of the last few months. (McCarthy has miscarried; her cuckolded husband, not de Man, was by her bedside.) The conversation prompts from McCarthy a memory, and the stage goes dark with her reciting — at first for Arendt’s benefit, but finally for her own — the words of the “Hail Mary.”
This is a moving conclusion at which McCarthy purists will sniff. The author was raised in the Roman Catholic Church — the period is recalled in her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957) — but shortly before her death she observed to the New York Times that she had been an atheist from the age of 13. Indeed, in 1949, no moral reformation was in the offing. During the Vietnam War, she would offer apologias for the Vietcong, and, in a particularly disgraceful episode, attack an American POW she met during a trip to North Vietnam: Air Force colonel James Robinson “Robbie” Risner, held in captivity and routinely tortured for seven years. McCarthy was a sharp-tongued critic, in print and in person (it was she who said, of playwright Lillian Hellman, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’”), and that sharpness could easily descend into spite.
The fondness with which Mary McCarthy is remembered has less to do with her literary accomplishments — she lavished an extraordinary prose talent on a handful of minor novels, the most famous of which remains The Group (1963) — than with the snobbery and sexual promiscuity that she parlayed into an enduring foothold in high society. Nonetheless, the facts of her life perhaps heighten rather than detract from the drama of Deconstruction’s resolution. The lives that Leaf portrays could have been different. God is not jealous with his grace. But He demands that we call a sin a sin. Dismantling that claim on us was the project of many men and women of formidable intelligence during the last century. Deconstruction displays the wreckage, and suggests a way to begin to rebuild.