“Considerations of the actual and historical existence of writers are a waste of time from a critical viewpoint”—so wrote Paul de Man, the distinguished Yale professor and literary critic who, at the time of his death in 1983, was widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in American academic criticism. His several volumes—especially Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (1971, revised 1983) and Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (1979)—did as much as any other such theoretical work to install deconstructionism as the regnant critical methodology in American universities.

Deriving his approach from the contemporary French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who had posited an absolute gap or fissure between language and the objects and events of the world it...


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