Jonathan Leaf’s Deconstruction centers on the story of Paul de Man, a native of Antwerp who came to America after World War II, told everyone he met that he had served in the Belgian resistance, launched himself on a dazzling academic career as a literary theorist—eventually landing a professorship at Yale—and became a leading figure in the “deconstructionist” approach to literature. It focuses on de Man’s rumored romance with the novelist Mary McCarthy, who had given him his entrée into academic and literary circles, and his relationship with her friend Hannah Arendt, who was among the first to doubt his story about his wartime activities. In an appreciative review, Thomas McArdle writes:
In Leaf’s telling, McCarthy would eventually find herself expecting de Man’s child, [allowing] her third and current husband to think the child was 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 twenty-one-year-old Bard College student whom he had also impregnated.
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” and then continue in greatness. De Man’s legion of deconstruction disciples would proclaim the revelations overblown. . . . .
[In the play, faced with Arendt’s accusation about his wartime activities, de Man replies], “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.” 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. . . . [W]riting on Rousseau, de Man had [once] claimed we can never distinguish between “fictional discourse and empirical event,” which “makes it possible to excuse the bleakest of crimes.”