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The Ghost of Heidegger and the Sex Lives of the New York Intellectuals

Deconstruction, by Jonathan Leaf. The Storm Theater Company, at The Theater at Grand Hall (St. Mary’s Parish), March 3 through March 25. Directed by Peter Dobbins.

Jonathan Leaf’s new play Deconstruction deserves wider attention. It is an ambitious conflation of the philosophical and the personal, intertwining the personal and ideological life of the Belgian Deconstructionist Paul de Man. Along with Jacques Derrida and a few others, de Man persuaded the academy to abandon the quest for objective truth.

Every writer speaks from an agenda which has no more claim to verity than any other, and which agenda prevails is strictly a matter of power. This is a trivial thought, but de Man invoked the influence of Martin Heidegger, the most prominent 20th century Existentialist. That was appropriate in a number of ways; after de Man’s death it was discovered that he had written nearly 200 articles for the Belgian puppet government’s press during the German occupation of World War II, including some anti-Semitic ones. He had also been convicted of embezzlement in absentia by a Belgian court. Heidegger joined the Nazi Party with enthusiasm and, although he did not find Hitler quite up to his expectations, he never repudiated this vile action.

De Man was revealed to be a rotter, but the damage was done. Deconstructionism encouraged every group to devise its own narrative and assert its own will. If the Western Canon simply expressed the will to power of dead white men, then minorities of various kinds could invent their own narratives and assert their own putative truth.

Leaf’s drama encounters de Man in 1949, when the novelist Mary McCarthy aided his career. Leaf imagines an affair between the 30-year-old Man and the older McCarthy in which the former conducts himself contemptibly, using McCarthy’s influence to obtain an academic post while dumping her for a young student while she carried his child. De Man was a devotee of Heidegger, and understood his Existentialism to encourage absolute individual autonomy and egotism, and Leaf draws the connection between Heidegger’s ideas and de Man’s behavior. This is done heavy-handedly through the appearance of McCarthy’s real-life friend Hannah Arendt, who explains that the flaw in Heidegger’s system is the absence of human empathy, just the quality that the sociopathic de Man lacks.

McCarthy and Arendt were part of the circle known as the "New York intellectuals," which is something of an exaggeration.

Explaining Heidegger to a modern theater audience is something of a challenge, and a general audience surely would have difficulty with the capsule summary that de Man’s character provides. It was effective theater in significant part due to the bravura work of Fleur Alys Dobbins, whose portrayal of McCarthy seethed and sparkled. Ms. Dobbins would have rescued a much worse play. The sexual and intellectual tension between Dobbins and Jed Peterson as de Man did its work of suspending disbelief. Hannah Arendt (Karoline Fischer) by contrast seemed an instrument of Brechtian alienation, announcing the moral of the story.