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. The overview we get from A Critic's Journey, however, shows that Hartman's more elliptical manner is anything but an accident of style, a deformation of theory, or simply one writer's penchant for pleasing himself. It is deeply ingrained in his whole approach to art and experience.

In a revealing moment in the "polemical memoir" that introduces this volume, Hartman recalls submitting four close readings of poems to his thesis advisor, Rene Wellek, who returned them with the comment, "Very good--but where is the thesis?" In a sense this became the story of his life. His little memoir is a polemic against polemics. Unlike his old friend and colleague Harold Bloom, whose close readings are always loosely organized around a pointed argument that helps him reach a general audience, none of Hartman's books is thesis-driven. Instead he is an evangelist of interpretation itself. "I am not good at concluding," he writes near the end of one essay. For him the journey not the arrival matters.

Like the deconstructionists, he sees in literary texts a surplus of meanings, and resists the efforts of critics--or even of the authors themselves--to simplify or unify them. In an astonishing passage, he compares writers to the biblical redactors or editors who were working with layers of material they could not seriously alter or fully control. Hartman feels that a film director like Hitchcock flattens his characters by his meticulous planning, his need for control, and he argues that the neat resolution of the detective story betrays the moral complexity and weird atmosphere that made it worth reading in the first place. "A voracious formalism dooms it to seem unreal, however `real' the world it describes.... We value less the driving plot than the moments of lyricism and grotesquerie that creep into it."

Hartman is so strongly drawn to poetry because of its irreducible complexity, and he recoils from vernacular poetry (as he dislikes plain-speaking criticism) as a misguided push for purity and directness. This separates him from the American tradition which, since Twain, Hemingway, and Frost, has been anchored in the spoken language. When Hartman writes about Wordsworth, he brilliantly complicates a writer long seen as an apostle of simplicity. For Hartman, poetic language is layered with "animistic" residues of religion and myth. Interpretation, to be adequate to the irrational traces that shape this material, must become prismatic, limitlessly resourceful, and open-ended. Hence he sees the critic not as the handmaiden of the text, the faithful servant of its literal meaning, but as its creative interlocutor, on the model of the midrashic interpreters of scripture.

In the preface to his first collection of essays, Beyond Formalism (1970), Hartman attacked the "repetitive, compulsive analysis of works of art in terms of theme or formal relations":

Great exegetes ... have always, at some point, swerved from the literal sense of the text. This text, like the world, was a prison for Rabbinic, Patristic, or Neoplatonic interpreters.... I feel the poverty of our textual imagination compared to theirs. The very idea of interpretation seems to have shrunk.

Hartman sees the Rabbinic commentators as freewheeling visionaries, men of imagination who adapted biblical texts to contemporary needs. Their fanciful elaborations, like Kafka's, could become suggestive parables in their own right. For Hartman they turned what could have become a dead letter into something constantly changing. "For any text to remain alive, it requires the attention and supplementation of commentary." But Hartman takes little account of the homiletic and normative distortions of midrashic interpretation, whose current heir may be the politically motivated criticism, left and right, for which he has little respect. Along with ingenious flights of speculation, the rabbis too often took problematic texts, including whole biblical books, and softened them into a pallid orthodoxy. They served the community better than they served the truth.

Hartman's surprising appeal to Midrash does little to validate criticism as a whirligig of open-ended interpretation. But it helps us see how his own criticism is modeled on scriptural commentary, except that his scripture is not the Bible but the poetry of Wordsworth. I know of no modern parallel to the way Hartman has used one poet's texts to investigate such a formidable array of theoretical issues. In the Freud essay, for example, Wordsworth's seemingly euphemistic language becomes a vehicle for exploring Freud's strategies of dream interpretation. There's no apparent limit to the ways Hartman can use the eight simple lines of "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal" without repeating himself. (He does it twice in this volume.) Like the rabbis with scripture, he is so deeply inside Wordsworth's words, he's lived with them so long, that even the slightest turn offers a new angle of vision. His own prose is an echo chamber of Wordsworthian intimations.

In the late 1970s Hartman's exegetical bent, his distaste for any closure in interpretation, led him into a wild adventure. He became fascinated not only with deconstruction but with its strangest, most idiosyncratic work, Jacques Derrida's Glas, a book made up of two parallel discussions of Hegel and Genet whose pages, with their layers of text and commentary, look remarkably like leaves of the Talmud. Glas was Finnegans Wake without genius, perhaps even without talent, a baroque display of Joycean word play that pumped up Hartman's own linguistic brio. From this period Hartman has salvaged only one essay for A Critic's Journey, "Words and Wounds." Here is a sample:

Ishmael, the ending of which rhymes (at least approximately) with the first syllable of Melville's name, may evoke the homophonic word male. The trouble with this kind of rhyming, this illness of the ear, as W. H. Auden once defined poetry itself, is its infectiousness. What if Melville, when heard with Ishmael, elicits further echoes? Male(v)ill, Male Will? Or should the ear pick the assonance of el as the descriptive key, in its Hebrew meaning of "God" and its Arabic force as definitive article: the the?

Literature, of course, is partly about sounds and associations, but this infection of the inner ear, as Hartman rightly labels it, induces a vertigo of misplaced ingenuity that has little to do with criticism. Deconstruction played to Hartman's sense that interpretation was like Bottom's dream (in A Midsummer Night's Dream)--"it hath no bottom," no ground and no limit. "One tries to find ways, of course, to allay this infinitude," Hartman writes, "and these ways constitute what is called closure. But there is also a foreclosure ... that takes words away before they can be profaned by the language exchange." At this stage Hartman risks becoming like Wordsworth as a boy, who sometimes needed to grasp hold of a tree to prove that there was a world outside his own mind.

Such a tree loomed up for Hartman as a reflux of his own past. In 1981, the same year he collected his Derrida essays in Saving the Text, he became project director of the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale, which he had cofounded a year or two earlier. Though individual memory and oral testimony can be as slippery as any literary language, this project of interviewing Holocaust survivors anchored Hartman in a massive historical reality. This was just the moment when other leading academic critics (such as Edward Said) were turning from the skepticism of deconstruction, with its emphasis on man as a language animal, to a new historicism. Hartman's moral values had always kept him at some remove from deconstruction. Gradually the Holocaust, the war, and his own experience of displacement became grounding elements in Hartman's work, giving him greater respect for more civic-minded critics ("public critics," he called them) who mediated between art and its audience and engaged major social issues.

The results can be seen in all of Hartman's books from the last decade including Minor Prophecies, a study of the literary essay; The Longest Shadow, a collection of essays on the aftermath of the Holocaust; and The Fateful Question of Culture, a more elusive (and allusive) work that raises serious questions about multiculturalism and identity politics in the light of the regressive tribalism of the fascists. In two exceptionally fine essays in A Critic's Journey, "The Reinvention of Hate" and "Art, Consensus, and Politics," Hartman analyzes group hatred as a perverse mode of linear thinking, a way of simplifying and integrating the world, of expelling ambiguity. Like Hitchcock and the detective novelists (but with far more grievous consequences), the Nazis imposed pattern, order, and uniformity, the very qualities Hartman avoided in his own criticism. He quotes Adorno to the effect that "genocide is absolute integration," adding that "it is uncomfortable to recognize the frustrated creativity in hate, the idealism gone bad."

In criticism, as in social life, Hartman has now come to recognize the need for consensus, for a genuinely communal speech, as opposed to "the staged unanimity of fascism and the ideology-machine of communism." They represent the kinds of totalizing narratives he never wished to write, for they depend on foreclosure and exclusion. As against this forced consensus, the strategic appeal of the work of art, he says, is through "persuasion without coercion."

According to Hartman, the artist's tactics of persuasion are mirrored in the step-by-step strategies of critical reading, which, instead of being an operatic display of learning and insight, becomes "a form of exegetical bonding that does not deprive us of quality of consent." Where Hartman once offered a rationale for close reading as a secular offshoot of religious commentary, a way of gaining access to the elusive traces of myth and magic in art, he now defends it on political grounds as a cure for totalitarian manipulation, a form of liberal conversation. Art criticism can now be seen as "political philosophy by other means," highlighting "different perspectives" and drawing upon "a precarious reserve of empathy that is always in great demand."

Evoking such an incremental approach and a town-meeting image, Hartman sounds more like John Dewey or Richard Rorty than like his earlier French or German models. It seems that the study of the Holocaust and its aftermath has given a communitarian spin to Hartman's instinctive tolerance and pluralism, his interest in hearing a variety of voices. Pulling back from the epistemological vortex of deconstruction, he has become more like the public critics he once scorned, still resisting closure but doing so now in the name of democratic consent.

Photo (Geoffrey Hartman)