Geoffrey H. Hartman Joseph N. Riddel - Essay

Joseph N. Riddel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Though there is evidence here and there that [Beyond Formalism: Literary Essays 1958–1970] is a kind of housecleaning before a new start, Professor Hartman has indeed rendered a "book"—a statement from mid-career, Janus-faced, a summary and a prospect. It is also a major critical statement, made with an indirectness and a sense of the problematic of all such statements that seem to be Hartman's especial contribution to the critical project: that open, tentative, endless, self-contradictory violation by the mind of the very object of its love. Beyond Formalism is a confession of American roots and European efflorescence, the statement of one critic's education in the necessity and perverseness of the word and therefore his embodiment of the paradox of man, the myth-maker condemned to unravel (demystify) his own enchantments in order to begin again.

At first glance, Beyond Formalism is a classic example of the arbitrary, an accident of some twelve years, a multiple of interests, and not a few commissions. At the second, it has all the coherence of a single consciousness exploring the problematic of consciousness, questioning itself, seeking, and holding final answers at a distance. To be sure, the twenty-one essays and reviews, divided for the purposes of the book into four untitled and somewhat arbitrary subdivisions, ranging from practical exegesis to the criticism of criticism and from masters like Milton to moderns of questionable repute, present a very tentative order. The order it has is more like a tapestry than a narrative. In fact, the weaving of the tapestry is the metaphor to which Professor Hartman finally turns as the "figure" of literary language, "The Voice of the Shuttle." But the book also has a "theme," a "subject." For Professor Hartman, the scholar of comparative Romanticism, that "theme" is Romance—Romance as the story of story-telling, the "myth," if only because life depends on the reciprocal and continuing activity which allows the telling to begin again and throws man into his historicity. (p. 178)

For Hartman, literature, like human culture, is inexplicable without some understanding of Romance (the world of man's imagining, myth-making). If, therefore, the historical period of the great Romantic poets brings that activity to a focal point, the history of literature itself is the...

(The entire section is 971 words.)