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Perils of Poetry

A Critic's Journey: Literary Reflections, 1958-1998 • By Geoffrey Hartman
Yale University Press • 858 pp • $37.50 • September 1999

I'm on a couple of email lists frequented mostly by Web designers, journalists, rock critics, and historians--sharp people who read a lot and don't teach English. A few weeks ago, one person started to go on about undecidability in rock lyrics; another shot back (and here I have to paraphrase): "I haven't thought that way since I sold my Geoffrey Hartman books."

It was the most depressing sentence I read that week, not just because I admire Hartman but because it showed how widely he's misconstrued. Hartman was (with Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, and J. Hillis Miller) one of the Yale school of literary theorists, so-called by early 1980s pundits. Hartman is still best known for his Derrida-inflected work of those years and, more recently, for a series of Holocaust-related projects. (He directs a Yale archive of videotaped survivors' testimony.) Both associations make it more difficult to see his real value as a critic.

Read Hartman as a deconstructionist, and you will have obscured everything most rewarding in him; read him as a literary thinker, applying his constant concerns about words and emotions, meaning and value, to the Book of Genesis and Walter Benjamin, to Shakespeare and Freud and William Carlos Williams, and he becomes someone whose insights you'll want to remember. Collecting nineteen of Hartman's essays, A Critic's Journey finds room for almost all of his recurring themes. (A promised future volume will feature Hartman's essays "about subjects of Jewish interest.")

Wallace Stevens famously wrote that poetry emerges from the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. Hartman insists--to oversimplify--that imaginative literature does not push reality out of the picture entirely but that it always runs the risk of doing so. For Hartman, the work of powerful writers risks replacing the actual world (with its other minds, material limits, and reciprocal obligations) with a wholly imagined, factitiously self-contained substitute. "Any call for purification or repristination is dangerous," he writes, especially when it might (and it always might) affect people's conduct. Reading a Yeats poem, for example, Hartman concludes that "part of the magic to be resisted is the poet's imperious assumption of a visionary mode, as if it were self-justifying." Whereas some historically minded critics deny literature's power to escape circumstance, Hartman readily believes in it. And he likes that power best when it tempers itself. He admires writers who contain the supernatural, the imaginative, and the unconscious within the cognitive and the empirical, and who value self-consciousness over self-confidence.

He is thus a wonderful critic of writers who made self-conscious self-containments central to their own projects. His 1970 essay "Milton's Counterplot" shows how Milton's mixture of styles and genres in Paradise Lost places limits on the powers of Satan, reminding readers of God's "calm prescience," and keeping the story's supernatural or fantastic aspects under control. In another 1970 essay, Hartman extols Wordsworth's "poetic reflection," which "keeps nature within nature and resists supernatural fancies." That resistance to visionary movement, that chastened and calming return to a common world, is what Hartman admires so much in Wordsworth. Hartman does not feel he has to explain the appeal of imagination as such. Instead, he seeks in Wordsworth and others not their imaginative flights upward but their "binding" of imagination, their journeys back down. (The term, like the metaphor, Hartman takes from the biblical binding of Isaac.)

Hartman has written more often about Wordsworth than about anyone else, devoting two whole books and chapters of several more to the author of Lyrical Ballads. In these writings he describes the poet's attempts to reconnect himself to nature: to the rocks and stones and trees that Wordsworth used to touch to be sure he was real, and to the "balm deriving from common speech," whose euphemisms in Wordsworth's famous Lucy poems become a counterweight to grief.

Hartman writes now that his 1964 book, Wordsworth's Poetry, tracked the poet's dealings with "the imagination's independence from nature, and its temptation to seek a separate reality." Temptation here carries its full moral force. Imaginative works, for Hartman, should be admired and loved for their own powers but must be prevented from usurping power that is not theirs. Self-consciousness, recourse to philosophical traditions, and appeals to common usage and to history may help writers and readers avoid visionary arrogance, and Hartman discusses them all.

When Hartman writes in "Understanding Criticism" that "the critic is always a survivor, or someone who comes late," the pressures on that sentence are not only literary. The past he has in mind can include Shakespeare and Freud but also the murder of European Jews. Hartman outlines his life in a brief, new, and memorable "polemical memoir." To understand his interests, it certainly helps to know that he fled Nazi Germany for England at age nine, and then at sixteen set off for America, where he attended Queens College in New York City. He read there, he says, no "secondary literature," only poetry and novels. At Yale, he studied under the polymath, apparently omniglot inventors of comparative literature, older refugee scholars like Erich Auerbach and René Wellek.


Hartman is the co-founder of Yale's Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies: excerpts from the testimonies are available in Quicktime format. His term for the restoration of voice to silenced people comes from the Greek myth of Philomela.

Hartman's peripatetic career seems to inform even his most cerebral work; his multilingual affiliations help him link French texts to German ideas, German ballads to English Romantic poetry, and Continental philosophy to all sorts of things. The same Continental sources inflect his prose. Contrasting belletristic Anglophile to theoretically ambitious Germanophile critics, the 1991 essay "Tea and Totality" concludes that the English tradition seeks "unself-consciousness or antiself-consciousness," which, "however surely a limitation rather than an expansion of the critical spirit." Anglophile critics wish to combine "power and charm," which Hartman "would like to keep separate."

Some readers may have little patience for Hartman's least charming, most self-conscious sentences, such as "It is hardly surprising that English studies should resist the influx of a French discours heavily indebted to post-Hegelian German philosophy." He can toss out neat aphorisms--"Interpretation is like a football game. You spot a hole and you go through"--but he rarely coins slogans or comes out swinging. Indeed, his style of thought, like his prose style, remains concessive, always alert to complexities, and, as he says, "deliberately hesitant." The words "yet," "but," and "nonetheless" attract him more than "therefore," "because," or "then."

Such circumspection strikes a pleasurable and trustworthy contrast to other critics' self-proclaimed rigor. The temptation to mastery can afflict a critic as well as a poet, and Hartman reminds us of this danger, calling for critics to "renounce the ambition to master or demystify." His concern to grant claims both for and against imagination, for and against rules, make him a judicious commentator on recent canon wars: Hartman writes that the the restoration of voice to silenced people, which he calls the "Philomela project," "has had a strange result. Retrieval of the past produced a conspicuous increase in feelings of guilt about culture as such."

The insight that made him a deconstructionist for a while is perhaps this: Something about the force of powerful literature seems unruly, not subject to conscious control by anyone, and this somehow accounts for our difficulty in deciding for sure what a literary text says or means. One line of critics has minimized literature's unruly power; another has celebrated it. Hartman wishes to restrain and respect it.

Stephen Burt is completing a dissertation on Randall Jarrell at Yale University. His collection of poems, Popular Music, has recently been published by the University of Colorado Press.

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