"Criticism in the Wilderness" is concerned with many of the same questions that troubled its predecessors, but it differs from them in one respect: to a well-defined problem it suggests a bizarre solution.
The problem is: What good is literary criticism in a time of mass education? The normal answer is that a critic can show what it means to read well; to read a poem or a novel, for instance, in such a spirit as to make the reading a valid experience, valid in intellectual, emotional and moral terms. When we read a work of art, we study the human imagination as a form of freedom: We think of the imagination as the mind in the aspect of its freedom. If the literary critic is employed to teach in a classroom, he regards teaching as the civic form of his skill: In teaching, he speaks, argues, persuades and practices the decency of communication. That is roughly the rationale of criticism.
Mr. Hartman is not content with such a program; he finds it constricting. He resents the convention by which criticism is deemed to be a secondary activity, subservient to the poems and novels we read, the primary texts.
In his early books, and even as late as "Beyond Formalism," he was content to practice literary criticism and literary history, conventionally defined. But in recent years he has lost faith in literary history and now he is demanding that criticism transform itself. Into what? Into literature: he wants to veto the conventional distinction between literature and criticism. The critic should produce not an essay in the interpretation of, say, Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" but a piece of prose, unconstrained by its ostensible object: call it prose, writing, lécriture or work, as in a work of art. Criticism should give up its service, which Mr. Hartman regards as servitude. (p. 11)
In a gruff moment he asks whether any critic has value who is only a critic. To which I answer: Maybe not, but the critic can't repair his disability by pretending to be something else, a Romantic poet, for instance.
What has this to do with literary criticism in a time of mass education? One of the oddities of "Criticism in the Wilderness" is that it is dedicated "to my students," because it gives an extraordinarily gloomy account of university teaching….
Mr. Hartman's argument is wild and vehement. Where other teachers find difficulty in communicating with their students, Mr. Hartman wants not to solve the problem but to transcend it…. The interpreter enters the text, making his entry as bold and violent as the text itself. I am content to wait for the result of these crossings and entries, but I must declare a prejudice: A critic who determines to make himself a sublime poet is likely to make himself a failed poet and an unhappy wretch….
[Hartman's] own style makes me wonder. In one mood, he is a vigorous, witty, trenchant writer, formidably lucid and polemical. Many of his sentences make me feel: I wish I had said that. But some of them make me feel: I wonder would that be worth the labor of understanding it?…
Readers have often wondered aloud why Mr. Hartman, whose early books were unfailingly lucid, seemed to go out of his way to make his later work cloudy and threatening. I have heard it suggested that he had merely fallen in with bad companions and corrupted his style. The new book provides a different explanation: His style is a desperate attempt to prevent his work from being prematurely assimilated. Demanding for criticism...
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the latitude of style readily given to poets and novelists, he is also demanding that a critical essay be read in the same way as a poem or novel; and, in our time, with the same readiness to confront its difficulty….
Mr. Hartman thinks that criticism can escape from the mass mind by taking to the higher hills of poetry and fiction; by cultivating dictions and syntaxes the mass mind has no hope of catching. It is pointless. Any text, however wild and vehement, can be incorporated. In "Criticism in the Wilderness" Mr. Hartman is virtually infatuated with Derrida's "Glas," a wild text even by wild standards…. But "Glas," too, can be incorporated; it lives only to the extent to which it has been incorporated. What form of existence has it, except as a text on some smart university courses called Contemporary Thought 405 or the like?
If Mr. Hartman wants to write sublime prose, he is free to write it. But he should not lead his readers to believe that the field of criticism is held by purveyors of a genteel or neoclassic tradition. (p. 32)
Denis Donoghue, "Reading about Writing," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 9, 1980, pp. 11, 32-3.