(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In the summer of 1987, a Belgian scholar and disciple of the late literary theorist Paul de Man made the startling discovery of a series of pro-Nazi essays in Le Soir (“The Evening”) published in the years 1940-1942 during the German occupation of Belgium. Author David Lehman, a poet and academic journalist who covered the story for Newsweek magazine, became convinced that the essays—written for the most widely read newspaper in Belgium (which became a voice of the Nazi regime during the occupation)—cast serious doubts on the motives of de Man’s own later practice of deconstruction in his influential position at Yale University. Persuaded that deconstruction itself is socially harmful, Lehman attempts in Signs of the Times to explain the controversy to the general public by presenting first a spirited account of deconstruction and then a reconstruction of the rather shadowy history of Paul de Man.

Lehman notes that the term “deconstruction” has entered into the general vocabulary as a catch-phrase for “tearing down” or denigrating some concept or argument. Yet the task of accurately defining the methodology known as deconstruction in a way that is both understandable to the reader and not merely pejorative proves daunting. Lehman settles for a range of definitions proposed at various times by other writers. “What all the definitions have in common,” he says,

is the sense of deconstruction as…a negating force, a “debunking” or “dismantling,” the establishment of a “discrepancy”…Everywhere it confronts “hierarchical systems” and systematically takes them apart. The “structures” of our thought are regarded as man-made, artificial, “not natural and inevitable“…There are no truths, only rival interpretations.…”

Lehman takes it that the enterprise of deconstruction begins with suspicion of any neat correspondence between signifier (the physical appearance of a word on a page) and signified (the meaning content of the word). The speaker of a word “privileges” that word for a moment in bringing it out of the background of a given language system from which it receives its meaning. The background, however, is in turn composed of words each of which relies for its own meaning on the meaning of the other words. From the perspective of deconstruction, there are no extralinguistic connections to anchor meanings within the language system. To complicate matters, any subsequent use of a word implies at least a slightly different background context, and thus a difference in meaning. Yet precisely what this difference is can never be pinned down, since even to ask a question about a change in meaning is to change a meaning. What is said to occur is reminiscent of the famous “uncertainty principle” of the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg, which states that the very presence of an observer makes it impossible for that observer precisely to determine both the momentum and position of a given subatomic particle. From deconstruction’s vantage point, says Lehman, no text has a determinate meaning because such singular meaning does not exist.

A similar analysis, first provided by French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida (1930- ) at a conference at The Johns Hopkins University in 1966, ushered in American deconstruction with a bang. As Derrida put it, the “moment” had come to realize that

in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse…that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely.

Yet, Lehman observes, if all conceptual thought is simply another text, as deconstruction maintains, then human beings are estranged from their own thoughts; that is, no thinker or author can appeal to an ultimately stable “transcendental” meaning on which to build further meaning. In fact, since the presence of human thinkers (or authors) can only be distinguished or described by means of a text, the “intent” of an author, for example, cannot “force” a poem to take on a specified meaning. The “author” becomes merely another datum for the deconstructionist, every bit as much a created text as the text itself. History and art as well become indeterminate texts in the deconstructionist world in which signifiers are at “free play,” in Derrida’s phrase. A given historical account (and history is precisely its texts) is always subject to contradictory interpretations. A great novel is merely the product of an aesthetic ideology that assumes that artistic metaphor can somehow connect a reader with a transcendent reality.

Lehman’s characterization seems to capture the most important and controversial assertions made by the...

(The entire section is 1987 words.)