A Surplus of Meaning

Article excerpt

A Surplus of Meaning

Morris Dickstein

Morris Dickstein directs the Center for the Humanities at the CUNY Graduate School. His most recent books are The Revival of Pragmatism (Duke) and a study of postwar fiction for the latest volume of the Cambridge History of American Literature.

A Critic's Journey: Literary Reflections, 1958-1998, by Geoffrey Hartman. Yale University Press, 1999.

Reading this rich and generous selection from Geoffrey Hartman's work, I found myself caught up in the whole history of literary criticism in the last four decades. Hartman's essays, harvested from seven different collections along with some recent uncollected pieces, touch on virtually every movement in postwar academic criticism: from the New Criticism that instilled habits of close reading in the Fifties to the European phenomenology and hermeneutics that altered the literary landscape in the Sixties through deconstruction and its postmodern successors in the Seventies to later explorations of history, culture, and group identity. But this book also includes an essay on Hitchcock, a study of mystery novels, an idiosyncratic discussion of Freud, and some keenly perceptive work in Holocaust commentary and biblical criticism.

With another critic this assortment might suggest a mixed itinerary with no firm center or clear commitments. But Hartman, far from being seduced by every wisp of academic fashion, brings his distinctive voice to every subject he writes about. In part this arises from his background. It would scarcely be accurate to describe him as an emigre intellectual, since he left Germany on a Kindertransport in 1938 at the age of nine, spent the war years in England, and went to college and graduate school in the United States. As a graduate student in comparative literature at Yale he studied with emigre scholars like Rene Wellek, Henri Peyre, and Erich Auerbach, to whom he pays warm tribute in this book. Influenced by their depth of knowledge of European literature, language, and philosophy, and especially by Auerbach's philological approach to literary texts, Hartman became their second generation, an heir to the tradition of cosmopolitan humanistic learning that the Nazis had nearly extinguished.

From the beginning Hartman developed a passion for interpretation that became the driving force in his writing. This bent was soon naturalized by his study of Anglo-American poetry, especially Wordsworth, to whom he devoted the opening chapter of his first book, The Unmediated Vision (1954), as well as an influential book-length study ten years later. Not only did Hartman become a superb close reader of poetry, but he did so in a prose that was itself often close to poetry, free of jargon yet densely packed with aphorism, witty word-play, and learned allusion. Instead of arguing, summarizing, taking the reader by the hand, Hartman prefers to burrow into a text, to lose himself in the dense foliage of an idea. His essays leap forward by association, alliteration, and creative digression, taking abrupt turns that may puzzle the unwary. "Interpretation is like a football game," he says. "You spot a hole and you go through. But first you may have to induce that opening." Hartman praises the German critic Walter Benjamin's "revisionary perspectives and startling trains of thought that make one stop and wonder at the physiological and mental mechanisms he reveals." The same could be said of his other models, including Maurice Blanchot and Theodor Adorno.

This kind of "European" writing, so alien to the familiar style of English and American criticism, can be immensely eloquent yet also self-indulgent. Hartman has often defended it as a form of "creative" criticism, on a par with literature itself. It has an obvious link to the theory wave that swept over academic criticism in the 1970s, which his work anticipated. But he can also write in a more straightforward manner, deploying argument and evidence to influence the direction of literary scholarship or public discussion: witness his classic 1958 essay, "Milton's Counterplot"; his seminal study of Wordsworth; or his recent pieces on education, collective memory, and the Holocaust. …