For good or bad

Christopher Ricks

  • Easy Pieces by Geoffrey Hartman
    Columbia, 218 pp, $20.00, June 1985, ISBN 0 231 06018 1

Geoffrey Hartman’s Easy Pieces can be hard going. ‘To see, oneself unseen, as at the movies, is only less than the ecstasy of an unseeing seeing: of going beyond the non-language of images to the non-language of non-images, or a glance that is not guilty, that is both knowing and pure.’ This is not incomprehensible, but it is not by any stretch easy either, and it tips a glance that is guilty. It invites the mild dismay of a poet to whom Hartman is prudently indifferent, Byron: ‘I wish he would explain his explanation.’ Yet it was Coleridge whom Byron was scorning there, and Hartman would not mind being tarred with the same brush as so myriad-minded a critic. But then again Coleridge didn’t go in for ingratiations, for titles like Easy Pieces, an act of calculated charm not compatible with the essential (in its essence) charmlessness which has to end an essay like this: ‘Even philosophy’s insistence on clear and distinct ideas may express this “ineluctable modality” of the perceptible that makes what we call representation the unexcludable middle between phenomenal reality and mind, between thinking in images and thinking by means of texts against them.’ This is a dour culmination, and it is a pity that Hartman’s sense of himself and of his enterprise will not entirely countenance honest dourness even of his own choosing – which is why he has to insinuate the easy piece ‘what we call representation’. What does it actually what we call mean to say ‘what we call representation’? This is manoeuvring, ‘I could an I would’, both knowing and impure: ‘propitiation’s claw’. For these pieces, like so much of recent Hartman, and unlike his large upright book on Wordsworth, are not easy but uneasy.

The crucial question is what Hartman means to do about his flickering of unease. Socially, within the academic society in which he is with good reason an influential figure, he now has a lot to lose from taking seriously his unease: but personally, as a matter of central dignity, he has even more to lose from continuing to treat it jokily, archly, shruggingly, concessively. There are many places in Easy Pieces where he expresses disquiet at the present state of affairs, a state in which his own example and urgings are much implicated – except that to say that he expresses disquiet is not quite to catch what he does with disquiet. So quiet is he, so unruffled, so hypothetical, that it all comes out sounding like a purrer’s demurrer, a concession the point of which is not to realise a reservation or a withholding but rather to diffuse and defuse, to engage in a notional bit of debiting, the smooth professionalism of accountancy’s accountability. As who should say, not in fact to inaugurate but effectively to occlude the scrutiny of a government’s injustices and limitations: ‘Not of course that the government has always been sensitive enough to the legitimate claims’ etc.

It would be possible to assemble from Easy Pieces a formidable body of antagonisms to recent ‘developments’ in criticism, but it would be you who would have to do the assembling, since Hartman makes sure that his demurrals stay discreetly discrete, never letting them assemble lest they cause a breach of the easy peace. Hence the sinking to a footnote of such wary dissent, dissent from one’s ‘interpretative community’, to use the latest justification for resting happy with preaching to the converted (the single most dispiritingly intensified feature of recent criticism). ‘There are problems, of course’ – of course, of course – ‘with theory as a project of the sort I have described. It could turn out to be futile or utopian or both. Wishing, for example, to rid language of clichés and slogans, it introduces its own jargon; seeking to be rigorous and purifying, it mimics the “purity” of doctrinaire positions.’ The issues here strike me as too central to be lodged in a footnoted aside; and that Hartman himself knows this is suggested by the glissade, from ‘could turn out to be’ to ‘it introduces ... it mimics’; the warning about a possibility turns unremarked into a deprecation of the actuality, with the deprecation soothing Hartman’s conscience and with the pre-emptively evacuating ‘could turn out to be’ soothing his allies.

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