Geoffrey H. Hartman

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Richard Poirier

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[In "The Fate of Reading and Other Essays"], there emerges a consensus view of a possibly coherent theory of poetics. This is … validated by some extraordinarily deft analyses of Wordsworth, Keats, Collins, Valéry, Goethe and Christopher Smart, and much briefer but equally brilliant illuminations of a number of other writers….

"The Fate of Reading" is much more intensely speculative than ["Beyond Formalism"] and so much more anxious for patterns that every analysis of a writer or a work is made continuous with literary theory, every poem is shown to be an act of criticism, every act of criticism a poetic one.

Extremely difficult, extremely burdened by "anxieties" about critical influences, and in many ways a sectarian inquiry into the hazards and hopes of contemporary theories of literature, this is even so a peculiarly non-academic, even anti-academic book. Hartman is against both the polemical and the pedagogic inclinations of academic interpretation; the first, because it prevents what he calls in the title essay "universalizing scrutiny"; the second, because the pedagogue as reader tends to retreat from what is most astonishing in literature into what is most susceptible to structured analysis. Who, then, is the imagined audience for this book, what kind of reader is conjured by its style?

The style here and in the work of Hartman's associates is intentionally difficult, as if they want to exclude that general public who might otherwise join—but would as surely corrupt by simplification—their effort to restore to literature and to reading the awe and mystery which have apparently been taken from them by various efforts at popularization. For the restoration of mystery is Hartman's most pervasive ambition. His is a sometimes gleeful unintelligibility, not unlike Lacan's, combined with some of the prophetic preciosity of Bloom—"the eristics of interpretation are its eros."

Much of the difficulty is made necessary, of course, by the theories among which Hartman adjudicates, but a good part of it is addressed to an Elect for whom obscurity is at least the initial evidence of a trip in deep water. (p. 21)

I should say that these remarks on Hartman's style are not meant to give comfort to those who would be incapable under any circumstances of appreciating the enormously impressive intelligence at work here and the selfless energy with which Hartman addresses inherently complicated matters. Most other critics avoid the essential questions he asks about the representation of the self in acts of writing and reading, questions made all the more difficult by his choosing to ask related ones about the places where this representation occurs—not only within known conventions of literary form but in that mysterious area where the so-called text and the so-called context of writing, or of reading, blur into one another. His basic concern, described in words of one syllable, is like Arnold's when, in "Stanzas From the Grand Chartreuse," he falls under the shadow of his mentors and cries "And what am I that I am here?"

At issue is not the legitimacy of this question but the quality of response to it. My complaint is that, like de Man and Bloom, Hartman wants to assert his critical presence as if contending for the role of poet-priest…. [His] ideal critic is, to use one of his Hegelian phrases, capable of "hermeneutic heroism." The implication is that there must be an answerable style, sometimes afflated, sometimes even bullying, and very often displaying the large-mannered motions of a mythy mind.

For all this, Hartman's book does demonstrate the advantages as well as the dangers of stepping across the line that customarily separates literary from literary-critical discourse....

(This entire section contains 1619 words.)

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It allows him to show, for one thing, and more eloquently than anyone has before, that if critics are poets then poets are often the very best critical historians—in their poetry. The influence of one poet on another has not always been the occasion for "anxiety," and not conspicuously till after Milton. But the idea that it was at any time fraught with feelings of competitive repulsion as well as gratitude was brought to the fore by Hartman and Bloom, following on the work of W. J. Bate, and ought to invigorate everyone's sense of what otherwise has been a benign notion of literary transmission—except, it should be said, in the study of American literature. Hartman's capacity to elicit history from modifications in poetic forms and images is masterful in a number of these essays…. (pp. 21-2)

Another advantage stemming from the confusion of poet and critic is that the recognition in poetry of a subliminal anguish about its own history calls into question the more stubborn kinds of literary idealism. The idealization of the autonomy of the literary text becomes, for critics like Hartman and de Man, an intolerable estrangement. Furthermore, the rather smugly confident privileges accorded literature as a result of a belief in textual autonomy—including the assumptions that there can be no such thing as unmediated expression and that the self cannot hope to break through the determinants of form—are privileges which literature itself, if read intently, does not choose to claim.

Thus, while Hartman, like Bloom and de Man, is essentially conservative about the possibilities of ever getting "beyond formalism," his conservatism is extremely agitated and complex. On the one hand, Hartman is rightly dismissive of theories which make literature into an allegory of possible escapes from the past or which try to claim that literary forms are always alternative to social ones in their hospitality to irrational, sublime or visionary states of consciousness. On the other hand, it is nonetheless incumbent on Hartman, given his notions of the critic's proper role, to question most existing poetic theories of closure, of the poem as resolved and self-contained. Sense—the meaning, so-called—can be one form of closure, the "triumph of form" another, and Hartman is unhappy about both of them. (p. 23)

Hartman wants to believe that the history of poetry as a continuing and essentially self-critical enterprise might show us how to deal with the larger stresses of contemporary culture. But unlike most other literary-cultural élitists he has a very troubled vision of poetry and of his own possible relations to it. He insists that our poetic inheritance can be useful only if we learn to give fuller acknowledgment to that demonic side of the psyche which his kind of interpretation can find even in the most unruffled texts—as in his too audacious reading of Keats's "To Autumn."

The problem, however, is that Hartman's critical daring actually strengthens conservative illusions about the power of education by poetry. He encourages us to suppose that threatening fractures in the general culture can be understood by studying supposedly analogous threats that have in the past issued from the psyches of individual poets as challenges to poetic form. Hartman's desire to read poetry as in large part a continuing struggle with the demonic thereby becomes politically significant and is to some extent politically motivated. His work tends, that is, to locate in the psyche those horrors which issue more deviously still from social, economic and political rather than poetical institutions. Even assuming that high literary culture could adequately teach us to cope with the culture in general, it would have to be a literary culture defined far more broadly than it is in a book devoted to a poetic line, and a very selective one at that.

With what cannot be a wholly conscious political shrewdness Hartman thus excites the imagination of poetical-critical power even while ignoring our prosaic powerlessness; anxieties about poetical-critical form are substituted for anxieties about forms of political and economic authority which also shadow literature and the imagination of the self. That is why the tone of the Elect which can be found in criticism of this kind, based as it is on the appropriation by the critic-poet of unprecedented cultural authority, has disturbing political implications. (pp. 24-5)

Criticism of literature or of literary theories is never purely literary or unbiased. Hartman knows this, but he has not been nearly theoretical enough in asking where his investigations into a comprehensive theory of literature would lead him if he opened them to forms more responsive than poetry to social and political and economic factors. The history of poetry is not the same as the history of literature. And the history of consciousness inherent in literary forms can't be accounted for by any number of interpretations, however masterful, when these are confined mostly to poetic texts. Hartman's theories are hobbled when it comes to any kind of writing—like novels and plays—where form embodies collective, social and not merely poetic consciousness. It is enormously difficult to locate the history of consciousness imbedded in literary forms because novels and poems (particularly poems written under the stress of specific historical occasions) are notoriously insidious in their ideological content—in their capacity, that is, to universalize certain norms which in reality are the product of class or other special interests.

It may seem ungrateful to bring up these objections of so potentially political a nature, but to do so is, I hope, further evidence of the thresholds to which Hartman brings us. If he aspires to any kind of thorough-going theory involving the dramaturgy of forms with the self, then he should now be especially cautious that a theory merely of poetry does not gel into a prematurely complete theory of literature. Otherwise he will encourage unfortunate inferences about his omission of recalcitrant and latently political aspects of literary form. (pp. 25-6)

Richard Poirier, "A Star Trek in the Theory of Poetics," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 20, 1975, pp. 21-6.


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