BWW REVIEW: Jonathan Leaf's DECONSTRUCTION Bravely and Brilliantly Delves Into The Difficulties of Truth
Two-thirds through DECONSTRUCTION, Jonathan Leaf's remarkable play about Paul De Man, Mary McCarthy (Fleur Alys Dobbins) tells Hannah Arendt (Karoline Fischer) that she sees no morality "worthy of the name" in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. "There's a need to find authenticity," McCarthy concedes, "But it seems to me that you can be genuinely and perfectly evil." However one feels about deconstruction as a method of reading--I happen to be a fan--we should all agree that De Man was a bad guy: a thoroughgoing liar, a bigamist, a swindler, a manipulator, and the author of some 200 pieces for the Nazi publication in Belgium, Le Soir.
Following the lead of Kyle Smith, who reviewed the play in the New Criterion, and who (like me) graduated from Yale with a degree in English, I will put my cards on the table. I started Yale three years after the 1987 bombshell about De Man's collaboration with the Nazis (which, again, took the form mainly of art criticism for a publication that toed the Nazi line). I did not read a word of De Man until my senior seminar on Wordsworth's critical reception with Paul Fry and I didn't read Derrida until I started English graduate school in 1996. But to read accounts in the mainstream (literary) press, everyone studying literature at Yale was force fed a steady diet of both, the way geese's necks are stuffed to produce foie gras.
Smith, at least, distinguishes between the literature department, which stressed theory, and English, which was mostly theory-free. But with a mixture of glee and smugness, he recalls the despondency among his "far-Left classmates" in the literature department at the downfall of their hero. He says it was as though they'd all learned that their "puppies had died." This pleased Smith (though the longtime New York Post film critic and columnist was still a liberal during his Yale years) because the lit crowd had "blithely stomped upon the legacies of [his] most cherished authors."
It's as if De Man had been a demonic Gene Kelly in a musical featuring professors tapping on rare manuscripts at the Beinecke Library. Justice--or revenge--had been served. He even calls De Man a "commandant" who led "the leftist war on truth" in this "literary Kristallnacht." That's right. Smith (who just last week moved from the Post to the National Review) compares a literary approach to the mass murder of Jews at the dawn of the Holocaust.
He's not alone. Thomas McArdle, with none of Smith's sophistication (but hysterical rhetoric and blanket generalizations aplenty) accuses De Man of "Blitzkrieg[ing] the study of literature by pioneering the postmodern theory of deconstruction--which, among other things, put morally-relativistic modern man in the place of a murdered God." Dead puppies, a murdered God: who knew Yale teachers of literature were so sinister--and powerful?
For Smith, Leaf's play is valuable because it "remind [s] us [that] something monstrous can begin as a cavalier disregard for truth." I don't know which edition of Blindness and Insight or Aesthetic Ideology Smith read, but "cavalier" is about the last adjective I'd use to describe the theorist's writing or life, which amounted to a long, elaborate scheme to deceive everyone who crossed his path.
I've lingered over this literary-historical context (a fitting irony, given that deconstruction deemphasizes extra-textual material, including authorial intent) because while Leaf's play works beautifully as a story about the (alleged) affair between De Man and McCarthy, the play's real triumph is how deftly it evokes the intellectual minefields on which these personal relationships developed. DECONSTRUCTION is far better, to say nothing of smarter, than most of the ideologically-driven caricatures of the play suggest. This is all the more remarkable given the play runs a mere 75 minutes.
DECONSTRUCTION asks two large, intertwined questions: 1) Who was Paul De Man and what, precisely, was his role in the war?, and 2) What is the relation between his life and his work, and how (if at all) can one separate the two? Because De Man achieved fame as a critic and theorist, not as a producer of art, it's not just a matter of de-linking an artist from his creations. Following Heidegger and Derrida, De Man proposed a worldview within which we respond to art. The stakes were therefore higher than they would be for, say, a filmmaker (Roman Polanski comes to mind). De Man had a Heidegger problem--and so did his colleagues and followers. And the De Man debacle was arguably more destabilizing because his Nazi collaboration didn't come to light until the late 1980s, thus increasing its shock value.
Evelyn Barish's The Double Life of Paul De Man (2014) makes much of De Man's affair with affair, but reviewers were by no means convinced that it took place, much less as Barish imagined it. Nor were they taken by what, in the New York Times, Susan Rubin Suleiman called Barish's "ham-fisted explanations [of] philosophy, or intellectual and literary history."
Louis Menand's fascinating consideration of the book in The New Yorker differs from Robert Alter's equally interesting exploration in The New Republic, but on this much they agree: Barish is out of her theoretical depth (and seems to have a tenuous relationship to the English language, confusing "occupant" with "occupier" to amusing ends). The book seems mainly to have given ammunition to conservatives determined to invalidate deconstruction and open fire on literary theory, academia, Yale, liberals, "moral relativism," and whatever peripherally related concepts they can take out while they're at it.
This gets at one of my biggest pet peeves (as a former student of then-Yale professor Carol Rovane): the failure of the National Review set, most of whom lack relevant philosophical training, to specify which type of relativism they abhor. Also, relativism, as a doctrine Analytic philosophers discuss, has precious little to do either with deconstruction or postmodernism. Do these men (and yes, for whatever reason they do tend to be men) not understand that Donald Davidson or Bernard Williams, Paul De Man, and Jean-Francois Lyotard inhabit distinct intellectual planets, not to mention academic departments?
It's also peculiar that reviewers draw a line from Heidegger to De Man, as though Derrida never existed and De Man alone made deconstruction the literary theory du jour in America. DECONSTRUCTION doesn't discuss the French theorist because the action of the play predates his prominence, but reviewers are so determined to discredit the entire theory that they focus exclusively on the personally loathsome De Man. Such intellectual callowness coupled with shameless indulgence in the biographical fallacy makes one sympathetic to death of the author theories put forth by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, though in practice many critics influenced by De Man acknowledged some form of authorial intent.
Happily, Leaf avoids the reductiveness of his reviewers. Suspense builds with each act, the third and fourth of which do the heaviest philosophical lifting (much of it centering on De Man's reverence for Heidegger). Obviously, Leaf simplifies Heidegger's stance on truth and what De Man takes this to be. His thumbnail sketch is well-done, though with a run time of 75 minutes, the play could easily accommodate another five or ten minutes of philosophical chat between De Man and Arendt.
Some of what Leaf leaves unstated during those exchanges, however, emerges through the emotional texture of the interaction between De Man and Arendt. This is precisely what writers like Iris Murdoch, Stanley Cavell, Martha Nussbaum, and Cora Diamond envisioned when they considered how literature could be or do philosophy. Fictional (or historical) characters can bring abstractions to life. Whether intentionally or not, DECONSTRUCTION therefore makes a case for the philosophical value of literature and the category of the aesthetic.
The play opens in June, 1949 at McCarthy's Rhode Island cottage, with the vivacious and stylish McCarthy in a cream silk robe over a floral camisole and shorts. Jed Peterson plays De Man as an exuberant, fulsome (and often shirtless) young man smitten with the older Irish beauty, who is ultimately more calculating than he appears. The ambitious young writer uses his mother's suicide to seduce McCarthy (who was orphaned young, then beaten severely by her aunt and uncle before being raised by a grandmother), but immediately cops to it. Is this to score points for honesty (so he can deceive her later on)? Or does he actually feel bad?
The scene is somewhat stilted, but it successfully establishes a misconception the rest of the play devotes itself to reversing: McCarthy is deeper and more idealistic than she seems. And Arendt, played with stunning grace and gravitas by the Austrian-born Karoline Fischer--a former medical doctor in Vienna--gets this. McCarthy may have forsaken Catholicism for Marxism, but as Arendt tells De Man, she's a believer at heart. ("If I still believed in Jesus," McCarthy exclaims in exasperation near the end, "I would pray to Him!") It's one of many laugh lines in a play, which in spite of its cerebral and ultimately disturbing content, is quite funny.
By the third scene, which takes place in July of 1949 in McCarthy's Greenwich Village apartment, the play hums along like a high performance vehicle. Peter Dobbins' direction is smooth and Shannon Cavanaugh's scenic design impressively evokes the shabby gentility of the intellectual class. Jeannipher Pacheco does a fine job capturing the fashion of the era. Arendt's neutral colors, tweed, and matronly shoes convey Arendt's austerity, while breezy, feminine florals explain why McCarthy calls herself a "fashion plate flippetygibbet."
The fourth scene, a soulful tete-a-tete between McCarthy and Arendt also in the Village apartment, during which Arendt reveals that she and "Martin" were lovers, proves that a man can write as insightfully and movingly about female friendship as a woman. (With people much exercised these days over who has the authority or right to speak on behalf of whom, it's worth noting how skillfully this male playwright has captured this bond.) The penultimate scene--Arendt's interrogation of De Man at his office, which McCarthy interrupts halfway through--is a tour de force. It's gut-wrenching but also features one of De Man's (and the show's) most delicious lines: "Your manners are spectacularly lacking!" Coming from a world-class liar who wrote for Le Soir, this would be rich regardless of the interlocutor. That Arendt was an Austrian Jew who fled the Nazis makes it all the more outlandish.
Questions about De Man's motives multiply vertiginously, building momentum as philosophical abstractions become frighteningly real in a play that feels increasingly like a philosophical Velveteen Rabbit. Did he hide Jewish friends in his apartment? Does he believe Jews are inferior? Early on, De Man tells McCarthy that Jewish women are rarely attractive. Does this mean he hates Jews? How far does his personal preference extend to political ideology? Why is he so intent never to return to Europe? Is he running away or just trying to avoid excruciating memories? Did he ever love McCarthy?
And even if, as some of the play's critics believe, De Man and others were attracted (consciously or not) to a theory of reading in order to justify dastardly deeds, or at the very least sexual libertinism, does that hold true of all who see value in Derridean theory or Heidegger's parallel rejection of Western metaphysics? Were all devotees of Heidegger, De Man, and Derrida serial philanderers, swindlers, and fascist-sympathizers?
I'm not privy to the sex or financial lives of my Yale English professors but most (including those affiliated with the Yale School of Criticism) were long married Jewish men with families. By the 1990s and 2000s, no one I read or studied with at any university practiced deconstruction in its pure form. It was never, as Sara Suleri put it in lecture one day in 1993, an "ism." It was a tool. The best critics draw on many.
But it's far easier to write off De Man (and Heidegger) with a biographical hat trick than slog through their notoriously difficult prose, or grapple with aporias. Reading, and by extension truth, are hard. And they don't get less hard by wishing they were easy. This was a major takeaway of deconstruction. The response to Leaf's play reminds us that many, even among the intellectual class, would rather avoid the difficulty of truth altogether by shooting down those who acknowledge it.