Geoffrey H. Hartman

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Frederick Crews

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There can be no mistaking the fact that the study of meaning has now been vigorously contested. Some theorists hold that such study is always marred by a simplistic equation of meaning with the mental states of authors before or during the act of composition. A preoccupation with meaning, they say, leads to an undervaluing of conventional elements that are crucial to the way literature is perceived. But that cogent point is in itself no menace to academic business as usual. The real challenge comes from theorists—let me call them indeterminists—who argue that meaning is conferred not by authors but by readers, and that a work's meaning is therefore constantly subject to change. If that position is accepted, meaning ceases to be a stable object of inquiry and one interpretation is as lacking in persuasiveness as any other. The inevitable corollary is that debates among critics are entirely pointless. Such is the conclusion urged by the most influential of contemporary schools, Jacques Derrida's "deconstructionists," who claim that the "evidence" marshaled for any given interpretation is simply an artifact of that interpretation. If the deconstructionists are right, the greater part of our criticism has consisted of exercises in self-delusion. (p. 65)

[Hartman's] Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy strikingly exemplifies the frothiness of "theory" in the Derridean mode. But the earlier one, Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today, is even more telling, for as a highly defensive reply to opponents of "the hermeneutical Mafia," it places on view all the hostilities and confusions that go to make up the full-blown indeterminist spirit. These books, moreover, invite study because their author … has long been recognized as a preeminent American critic. His own progress, which I will not pause to recount, from historically informed interpretation to vapid attitudinizing could stand for the fate of much "advanced" academic discourse over the past two decades.

Hartman is quite aware of belonging to a movement of resistance to a continued concern for meaning. He even gives the movement a name, revisionism, which points to its essentially oppositional purpose. In championing the revisionists, he has in mind chiefly himself and his Yale colleagues Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Harold Bloom, and Jacques Derrida…. But lest he be thought parochial, Hartman admits as tentative members such further enemies of "objective" reading as Stanley Fish …, Fredric Jameson …, Hans-Georg Gadamer, H. R. Jauss, Wolfgang Iser, and Norman Holland. If he is only lukewarmly supportive of this secondary group, it is not because he specifically disputes their ideas, but because he fears they have not altogether forsworn the quest to discover what literary works are about. Through precept and example Hartman urges us not to "methodize indeterminacy" by merely shifting the source of meaning from authors to readers. As he says in an untypically straightforward sentence, "contemporary criticism aims at a hermeneutics of indeterminacy."…

[Hartman] strives unabashedly to keep conclusions at bay. The critics he admires are those whose language is "curiously unprogressive or exitless." Their work "reveals contradictions and equivocations, and so makes fiction interpretable by making it less readable. The fluency of the reader is affected by a kind of stutter: the critic's response becomes deliberately hesitant." And the prince of stutterers is … Derrida, whose "exhibitionistic" and "interminable"—these are terms of forgiving fondness—treatise called Glas supplies us not with anything so vulgar as ideas, but with "a chain of secondary elaborations stretching to infinity."

Hartman himself is never more at home than when recapitulating the "sense of débris" that pervades Glas or in trying his own hand at the recommended...

(This entire section contains 1767 words.)

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form of verbal doodling:

That the word "knot" may echo in the mind as "not" is one of those small changes that analyst or exegete are [sic] trained to hear. "When thou hast done, thou hast not done." There are so many knots: Donnean, Penelopean, Lacanian, Borromean, Derridean….

                                          (p. 69)

Here is a self-congratulatory hermeticism whose purpose seems to lie somewhere between the dropping of names, the displaying of tidbits of esoterica, and the muddling of agency. In this ghostly prose, sounds echo, similarities appear, a text is almost signalling its intention, the Lacanian primal process hums along, and a series of slippery signifiers establishes itself—as if neither Hartman nor Derrida had anything to do with these stage effects.

Given Hartman's aspirations toward inconclusiveness, it may seem anomalous that in Saving the Text he also puts forward a general theory of literature. But there is little danger of his being too easily understood. At times he appears to be proposing that literature originates in "a primal word-wound" which, conveniently for the theorist, has undergone such transformation that its traces are no longer available for study. Elsewhere he hints that literary form "saves the text" from the maddening openness, the impossibility of closure, that Derrida ascribes to language. But then again, the main idea of his book, "inspired," as he confides, "by French reflections," may be that "literature is the elaboration of a specular name"—whatever that means. It would be tacky to ask for specifics from a writer who disarmingly announces, "I cannot find it in myself to worry the question of the relation of empirical evidence to theory…." According to revisionist etiquette, theory "should not impose or lacerate but allow in others—in the world itself—an unconstrained response" (emphasis added). One must cultivate an exquisite vagueness if such a response is to be achieved….

In Criticism in the Wilderness [Hartman] sets out to repeal "[t]he automatic valuing of works of art over works of commentary," to lift criticism from its "second-class status in the world of letters." As opposed to Matthew Arnold, who called the epochs of Aeschylus and Shakespeare "the promised land, toward which criticism can only beckon," Hartman suggests that perhaps "we are forerunners to ourselves"—that is, that criticism is already our outstanding literary genre.

In order to match "the primacy of art," Hartman believes, critics must marshal a "near-daemonic" force, an extravagance or "brilliance" which "liberates the critical activity from its positive or reviewing function." The criticism he admires is therefore that which deserves to be called "digressive," "outrageous," "freakish," even "ridiculous," for that way lies the Sublime…. If readers fail to appreciate the steely courage of critics who dare to navigate this void, it must be because they find "a possible loss of boundaries" to be just "too threatening." Even boredom, it seems, is a form of defensive homage to the extremity of revisionist heroics.

What readers may think, however, is of less moment to Hartman than what critics require for themselves. On that subject he is cryptic but usefully suggestive….

Our problem today, Hartman opines, lies with those who would "separate out, bureaucratically, the functions of critic and artist" (emphasis added). The idea of acquiring definite knowledge of literature conjures to his mind the specter of "technocratic, predictive, or authoritarian formulas," of a "monumental, totalizing system," even of "a managerial society full of technicians, operators, language therapists, a department of discourse control and emendation."… [Hartman implies that] elite critics must become Luddites in the factories of meaning production. By staunchly refusing to reach conclusions about literature, they will help to preserve "inwardness" from the ravages of middle-class rationality and homogeneity. (p. 70)

Yet revisionists with power can at least decline to be "hired grammarians" for those semi-literates who have been, as Hartman puts it none too delicately, "dislocated into institutes of Higher Education." And they can keep 'em guessing about the mysteries of criticism. If "[t]he 'service function' imposed on English departments … contributes to dividing literary studies into the grind of 'communication' or 'rhetoric' courses as against high-stepping intellectual entertainment"—why, Hartman simply opts for the entertainment.

Despite its arrogance, however, Criticism in the Wilderness is a distinctly melancholy collection of statements. It abounds in references to "resentful and lonely" critics whose colleagues misunderstand them and who are paid too little for undergoing "a routine that can seriously hamper self-development." Although Hartman repeatedly disparages what he elsewhere calls "academic-rotarian" professors who crave definite ideas, he complains bitterly against critics who "carp at critics" and who "bite or bark at their own kind." And his concluding proposal that students of law and medicine be required to study literary interpretation, presumably along the lines of the "hermeneutic highjinks" that he favors, is as wistful as it is devoid of a rationale.

Thus Hartman's campaign against isolation does not as yet appear to be a notable success. Nor could it be, given his renunciation of rationally based choice between competing theories, hypotheses, and interpretations. The vision of a community of investigators, whether within or between disciplines, is a phantom unless the parties involved acknowledge grounds of evidential appeal. And the fact that Hartman hasn't quite decided what he wants—is it fraternity, recognition, or mere exemption from the "service" that underlings will still be required to perform?—only renders his situation more pathetic. His tentative brief for boldness, his decorous critique of decorum, his politics of educational disdain—what are they, if not the marks of a mandarinism whose intellectual pretexts have dropped away?…

[By] now it should be clear that despite the variety of its moods, indeterminism as a movement bears implications that are both irrationalist and undemocratic. To be sure, not every indeterminist matches Hartman's sarcasm in speaking of the deteriorating "varnish" and "veneer" of "this ideal of a freemasonry or grand democratic concourse of polyphonic yet pacific person." But in disparaging the evidential grounds on which scholars and critics can address one another's ideas, indeterminists create a vacuum that can only be filled by cliquish power. A whole department or university operating without regard for independent rules of judgment would be barbaric in principle if not in outward demeanor.

I do not mean to suggest, however, that indeterminists amount to some sinister public force…. On the contrary, the indeterminists are for the most part mild-mannered professors who are trying to fend off discouraging thoughts about the waning importance of criticism. They have much in common with those colleagues who greet their movement not with eagerness to test its cogency, but with bland, incomprehending gratitude that something is still happening within a comatose field. For on one side and the other—that of "philosophical" affectation and that of routine exegesis—assumptions remain largely unexamined. If shopworn ideas about nothingness and meaninglessness are still allowed to pass for breakthroughs in theory, the fault may lie less in our superstars than in ourselves. (p. 71)

Frederick Crews, "Criticism without Constraint," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 73, No. 1, January, 1982, pp. 65-71.


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