Geoffrey H. Hartman Bernard Bergonzi - Essay

Bernard Bergonzi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hartman's Saving the Text shows him at one and the same time engaging with Derrida, succumbing to him, imitating him and resisting him. His writing is determinedly playful, recalling Helen Gardner's sharp comment about playfulness being a synonym for critical activity; witness his extreme verbal self-consciousness, his frequent puns and his jokey chapter headings: "Monsieur Texte", "Epiphony in Echoland", "How to Reap a Page", "Psychoanalysis: The French Connection", "Words and Wounds."…

Hartman's book presents a multiple perspective of texts: there is extended comment on Derrida's book Glas (= "knell", and also, punningly, glace = "ice or mirror") which is itself a parallel collage, with Derrida's commentary, of texts by Hegel and Genet, enacting the juxtaposition of philosophy and literature briefly indicated in Hartman's subtitle. For someone who does not believe in the self or in presence Derrida is a central enough presence in this book, as in many others; perhaps, thinking of him as a bare name and no essential thing, and bearing in mind his own taste for distancing quotation marks, one should present him as "Derrida." His historical masters are Mallarmé and Nietzsche; thus do the tormented culture heroes of one fin de siècle return to haunt the next.

In more than one sense Hartman "goes along with" Derrida, but his book hints at an underground yearning for voice and presence, which surfaces in the final chapter, "Words and Wounds." Saving the Text contains elements of both criticism and philosophy but it exemplifies the deconstructionist tendency for such kinds of writing to turn into modes of fiction. Read as a work of fiction it is dense and cloyingly arch. In addition to the word-play there is a crooning, caressing quality in Hartman's prose, the tone of a man talking quietly and earnestly to himself rather than trying to communicate to others; an example, perhaps, of the loneliness of the American academic pontiff. (p. 62)

Bernard Bergonzi, "A Strange Disturbing World: The Conflicts in Criticism," in Encounter (© 1982 by Encounter Ltd.), Vols. LVIII & LIX, Nos. 6 & 1, June-July, 1982, pp. 58, 60-7.∗