Geoffrey H. Hartman Laurence Lerner - Essay

Laurence Lerner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Geoffrey Hartman] doesn't believe that mere brute life can be art. "Forms are a betrayal of life": hence they are necessary. (Mr Hartman calls his collection Beyond Formalism, but "beyond" doesn't imply rejection; the truer your allegiance to it, the better you will transcend the apparent limits of formalism). Only the writer who is restrained by form, held at a distance from sheer experience, can perform the significant act of breaking out of it. Mr Hartman is not worrying here about the classical realists …: they had social and rational norms that kept them at a necessary distance from the flux of experience. He is concerned with the impersonal modern novelist who, by not allowing us to perceive his judgment on his characters, could be accused of not being able to handle his world—if it were not that his mode of distancing himself is not that of judgment but that of creating heroes. Modern realistic fiction, threatened by the all-engulfing democratic embrace that Whitman used to boast of, stands back and becomes art by means of its attachment to romance and myth.

Such at any rate is my account of Mr Hartman's suggestive but maddeningly elusive argument. If I have understood him right, then I rejoice to concur. If Stendhal was in danger of turning art into mere life, how much more is beat poetry or the fiction of the inarticulate. To attack form and insist on plain reality can, at a given moment of literary history, be...

(The entire section is 404 words.)