Derrida and Paul de Man: The Dishonesty of Derrida’s Critics

It has recently again come to my attention that many anti-Derrideans, including ‘Anti-Postmodernist’s (who either don’t know or don’t care that Derrida did not describe himself in this way) have asserted as a fact that Derrida excused his friend the Yale literary critic Paul de Man for writing in a collaborationist journal in his native Belgium during the Nazi occupation. Derrida is accused of ‘deconstructing’ a passage in de Man’s journalism and of not condemning de Man. All of thsi is supposed to prove two things about Deconstruction: 1. It allows a text to be interpreted in arbitrary ways; 2. Deconstruction excludes moral responsibility. Let us quote the key passage (‘Paul de Man’s War’ which can be found in Memoires for Paul de Man, Columbia University Press, 1986 and 1989)

First quoting from de Man (pages 203-204)

The observation is, moreover, comforting for Western intellectuals. That they have been able to safeguard themselves from Jewish influence in a domain as representative of culture as literature proves their vitality. If our civilization had let itself be invaded by a foreign force, then we would have to give up much hope for its future. By keeping, in spite of semitic interference in all aspects of European life, an intact originality and character, it has shown that its basic nature is healthy. What is more, one sees that a solution of the Jewish problem that would aim at the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not entail, for the literary life of the West, deplorable circumstances. The latter would lose, in all, a few personalities of mediocre value and would continue, as in the past, to develop according to its great evolutive laws.

By common consent in all sides of the war on de Man’s war, this is the worst passage of his collaborative journalism. While the toying with the idea of deporting European Jews and the sneery remarks about Jewish influence, and achievements, are extremely unacceptable, it must be said that by the standards of Nazi rhetoric this hardly registers on the scale. That is in no way to excuse it, but it is wrong to latch onto a playful (and of course still extremely unacceptable anti-semitism) as if it was a direct affirmation of Nazi ideology and exterministic anti-semitism.

What does Derrida say?: (page 204)


Derrida does put the passage in context, a context which he believes MITIGATES the offence, but of course mitigation is not the same as excusing. It leads to a reduced sentence for a crime, it does not excuse a crime. There isn’t space on what is already a long blog entry to go through Derrida’s argument, but i,t begins ‘page 205)

Yes, on the other hand and first of all the whole article is organized as an indictment of “vulgar anti-semitism.”

Derrida points out that de Man puts antisemitism into question by criticising ‘vulgar antisemtism’ and never giving an example fo correct antisemitism. There is nothing tortuous about this argument, it’s based on normal reading and interpretative processes. The discussion draws to a close with the following quotation from the same article by de Man

one might have expected that, given the specific characteristics of the Jewish spirit, the latter would have played a more brilliant role in this artistic production. Their cerebalness, their capacity to assimilate doctrines while maintaining certain coldness in the face of them, would seem to be very precious qualities for the work of lucid analysis that the novel demands

Derrida’s comment

One can hardly believe one’s eyes: would this mean that what he prefers in the novel, “the work of lucid analysis,” and in theory, a “certain coldness” of the “Jewish spirit”

Derrida DOES NOT excuse the antisemitic elements in the article, but he does point out that what de Man says about Jews links them to himself as possessing the qualities for literature and literary analysis, even if not as well developed as one might expect.

Though Derrida uses the language of Deconstruction in this text, the argument can easily be put in very common sensical terms:

1. de Man was wrong to use antisemitic expressions.
2. His use of antisemitic expressions raises questions about all concrete examples of antisemtism.
3. While it is necessary to condemn de Man for employing antisemitic expressions, his use of them does not support Nazi ideology, and is even self-undermining.
4. DE Man’s game playing was morally flawed but criticism is inevitably restrained if we look at the context even in the most immediate and obvious ways.

Let us remember the following points, which confirm the ugliness of the ant-Derrida ranters
1. Derrida was a Jew who emphasised Jewish identity in many of his texts.
2. Derrida was imprisoned, though only briefly in Prague while visiting Charter 77, an anti-totalitarian group persecuted by the Communist regime. Clearly Derrida was capable of bold action in defence of principle sand sometimes endured rough consequences (though of course mild consequences compared with what many people living under totalitarian regimes endure.


2 thoughts on “Derrida and Paul de Man: The Dishonesty of Derrida’s Critics

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