A Surplus of Meaning

By Dickstein, Morris | Tikkun, March/April 2000 | Go to article overview

A Surplus of Meaning


Dickstein, Morris, Tikkun


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 rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

A Surplus of Meaning
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.