A Scholar’s Tale: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe 
by Geoffrey Hartman.
Fordham, 195 pp., £17.50, October 2007, 978 0 8232 2832 4
Show More
Show More

Hostility tends to make people sound more powerful than they really are. Eliot against the Romantics, Leavis against Milton, Empson against Christianity, Ricks against Theory. By the 1990s, when literary criticism had become even more marginal than it was in its supposed heyday, critics were known mostly for the ferocity of their prejudices. Geoffrey Hartman, though, has never been a critic with animus. He has been forceful in his views without being disparaging of others in a profession with few niches and great rivalries. He has gone on making an exemplary case for close reading and the value of literature without making grandiose claims for the ‘cultural centrality’ of books that very few people read, or have even heard of. He has wanted the writing of literary criticism to be seen as not necessarily inferior to the texts it interprets, without secretly hoping that interpretation can replace or displace the texts it is drawn to.

He has always had strong preferences – for Christopher Smart, for Wordsworth, for Keats, for Freud, for Derrida – that are not sponsored by complementary hatreds, and he has written some of the most distinguished literary criticism of his time without sounding embattled, or outraged, or even territorial. He has always been mindful of competing methods and ideologies, but he has not been tempted to unmask the unmaskers. Though in no way a doctrinaire Freudian critic (he interprets Freud as much as he uses him as a guide to interpretation), Hartman tends to read for the puns rather than the plot, for the hesitations and obsessions and resistances in the writing, rather than for straightforward paraphrase. What interests him about a poem is the way it is productively at odds with itself: ‘Defence mechanisms cannot blossom,’ he wrote in an early essay on Christopher Smart, ‘when there is nothing – no fire or flood – to defend against.’ When he wrote about Wordsworth that his ‘optimism concerning a person’s strength to renew himself is based on his belief in a generous multiplicity of developmental influences,’ he could have been writing about himself. And even though over a long career he has been drawn to the most disturbing and disturbed subjects in his field, latterly to Holocaust testimonials (all his writing has been about what he calls ‘the relation between words and psychic wounds’), it is virtually impossible to list his prejudices.

Why this hasn’t been a recipe for terminal blandness (and blindness) is partially explained by A Scholar’s Tale, Hartman’s lucid and intriguing autobiographical memoir. A memoir which, as the title suggests, is about a professional trajectory, about intense preoccupations and about meetings with remarkable men (Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Lacan etc), not about wives and children or, indeed, meetings with remarkable women. It is, unusually, a memoir without alibis, without a palpable design on the reader. As a critic Hartman never takes over, but he doesn’t believe that literature should take over either. He assumes that if the critic writes well about the poem, the poem will speak for itself. The critic doesn’t speak on the poem’s (or the poet’s) behalf: the poem is allowed to have its say by being read attentively; it doesn’t need our reverence to boost it. This is psychoanalytically informed literary criticism – or one version of it – and Hartman has written wonderfully about Freud, referring to him at one point as ‘the only scientist I have ever been able to read’, which is double-edged, but not a back-handed compliment. So when he tells the story here of inviting Lacan to speak at Yale – Lacan who did tend to take over, but believed that in psychoanalytic treatment the resistance was always in the analyst not in the patient – he lets the event speak for itself, and if in reading his account we are tempted to dismiss Lacan, or discard what he has to say, he wants us to consider what it is we are doing. ‘From my point of view it turned out to be a disastrous visit,’ he writes,

since the host had to deal with Lacan’s array of idiosyncrasies and the lecture he gave was at once memorable and unpardonable. He made his grand entrance twenty minutes late, spent another ten having his assistant pin up coloured diagrams of Borromean knots, then proceeded to no more than half an hour’s intelligible discourse followed by nearly an hour of unintelligible elaboration . . . The venue for this talk on ‘The Symptom’ was overfull: standing room only, with probably four hundred crowded in. No one gave up and left, although Lacan’s talk was in French. Sitting in the front row, I heard him mutter as the applause subsided: ‘Only in America would they applaud so irritating a lecture.’ The word he used for ‘irritating’ was ‘emmerdant’.

Stories about Lacan’s antics, his disdain, his grandiosity, his unintelligibility, are gleeful currency now. What Hartman is always attentive to is the complicity of righteous indignation. He isn’t seduced by the excitement of being dismissive – in this case, of imitating Lacan – but nor is he willing to accept the ‘unpardonable’, though what the unpardonable is here is never spelled out. From his point of view the occasion was disastrous, but from other points of view, as he implies, it may have been something else. The event was memorable, but what exactly was memorable about it? Hartman leaves that question open. Was the room ‘overfull’ because it was too small, or because Lacan had tricked too many people into admiring him? On the other hand, no one left, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that the joke was on them – there was after all half an hour’s intelligible discourse. And Hartman is clearly irritated but his word for it is not ‘emmerdant’. He wants us to be interested in Lacan’s visit, and not to dispose of it; not to know ahead of time what we think. It is part of the subtlety of his writing to invite our prejudices in, and then to tweak them. What we depend on in making our judgments, and particularly our most assured ones, is one of Hartman’s insistent concerns.

‘Being a horse of instruction rather than a tiger of wrath,’ he writes in his preface, ‘I embody very little of what Blake advises in his “Proverbs of Hell”. But I do take comfort in one axiom of his: “No bird soars too high, if he flies with his own wings.”’ Very little is not nothing. A Scholar’s Tale is about, among other things, how difficult it is to tell, when one soars, whether one is soaring with one’s own wings. Literature is a good place to think about this because language is always other people’s before it is in any sense one’s own. Hartman’s story is the story of someone who is almost uncannily self-reliant, who is strengthened by his own intellectual affinities, and not by the making of enemies; someone who is endlessly curious and confounded by what he finds himself depending on. What Hartman terms ‘the call of literature’ can sustain ‘both a verbal discipline and an imaginative hope. It did not foster, though it might have, the solipsism of a youngster who grew up without a family and depended on the kindness of strangers.’ Literature – and eventually the so-called academy – was not so much a refuge, a retreat from the family, as a ‘community’ he made for himself; it was the company he kept, the words that were spoken to him. Hartman is peculiarly attentive as a critic to what isolates people, to the ways in which ‘psychic wounds’ are insulating. Until, that is, they issue in what he calls ‘the representation-compulsion’, the need to make them known. ‘What harnesses trauma’s destructive potential, turning it toward self-development?’ he asks; and the literature he has been interested in, in a career spanning more than fifty years, has not answered the question, but continues to ask it. This for him is what the reading and teaching of literature has been about.

Hartman quotes with approval Boehme’s aphorism, ‘Love is wrath quenched,’ and he is often acutely aware in his writing of the forms that wrath can take; that it is a thirst, and that it asks too much of us. When it is not quenched by love it is quenched by something far worse. The horses of instruction can be corrupted by the tigers of wrath. That in part is what the Lacan story is about. Was it Lacan’s rage that at the same time held and baffled the audience? Was it the audience that soared too high, or Lacan? What exactly was that event? ‘I tend to prefer,’ he writes by way of an introduction, ‘instances of eccentric interpretation to the task of chastening these by criteria of correctness . . . When deciding among interpretive choices, I abandon the rejected or marginal ones only reluctantly.’ But is it possible to be a critic without being a chastener? Or what kind of criticism can you write if chastening is not your pleasure? These are Hartman’s questions. Most of the great literary critics have been great chasteners; or is it just that great chasteners sometimes sound like great critics?

At the age of ten, in 1939, Hartman was evacuated from Frankfurt with twenty other boys on a Kindertransport. His mother had left for America four months earlier, just after Kristallnacht, and had intended that he should join her once he had obtained a visa. His grandmother, who was ill, did not escape and died in Theresienstadt; and his father, who had long been divorced from his mother, had immigrated to Argentina. Hartman, as he puts it, was ‘resettled in a small English village, a dependency of Waddesdon Manor and its owners, James and Dorothy de Rothschild, who supported the refugees’. Because of the submarine threat during the war he didn’t see his mother until August 1945, in New York. He was nearly 16. He had lived his transition into puberty in a very foreign – an enemy – country. His ‘instinctive love of learning’, he writes ruefully, ‘must have already been fostered by my attempt to escape the unhappy atmosphere of the “orphanage” in England’. You are lucky if the loss of your first instinctive love turns into an instinctive love of learning. And you are even luckier if that love of learning hasn’t brought with it all the ambivalence attached to the mother – all the wrath that with luck, or in the normal course of events, might be quenched by love – and especially to the mother who has to leave, and who you can’t get back to. On arriving in America, Hartman gets himself educated, gaining his PhD in comparative literature from Yale. He begins his lifelong career as a teacher of literature without regret, with no longing, apparently, for a life elsewhere. You never get the sense – from this memoir of a man so clearly devoted to scholarship – that he also sometimes hates books, or is affronted by the demands they make on him, or is sometimes just bored by reading and the amount of attention all these great writers seem to need. If the psychoanalytic question is ‘where did the hatred go?’ (and there is no reason to think from his writings that Hartman would be averse to the question, quite the contrary), one answer is that it went into a hatred of the chastening of others. It became a hatred of dismissive judgments. So, faced with the revelations of his colleague Paul de Man’s early Nazi sympathies, Hartman has two responses. First, his ‘ability to judge reaches a limit. The errors in my life have not necessitated a self-silencing by way of an impersonal writing’; and second, de Man’s cover-up leaves him with something ‘undecidable’: the fact is, he says, that ‘we cannot tell whether there was an intentional deception.’ Hartman has never been in de Man’s situation, has never used impersonal writing as self-silencing, and we can’t be certain of de Man’s intentions. But what are Hartman’s intentions here? It’s not entirely clear whether he is fearful of condemning de Man, or fearful of condemnation in general (it might be a good thing to be fearful of). De Man comes across, in Hartman’s account, as memorable, in the best sense, and not too pardonable. Does feeling wrath enable you to feel injustice, or only to inflict it? Hartman’s fear seems to be that the tigers of wrath are just too predatory; that we should be thankful for the horses of instruction and what they can do.

The rupture from his mother left Hartman uninterested in ferocity, and with a lasting nostalgia for what he calls, in this very un-nostalgic book, the sublime. ‘On one issue I was uncompromising,’ he writes: ‘Literature was not there to comfort or console.’ It was not, in other words, going to be that kind of mother (or mother-substitute) for the young, or old Hartman. But there was the sublime, combined with what he calls his ‘instinctive anti-theatrical prejudice’, which made the literature of Romanticism the thing for Hartman; this was a period of very little distinctive theatre – none of the great Romantic poets had an ‘instinct’ for writing plays – in which the sublime came into its own as a privileged, even essential form of emotional experience. A sense of the sublime, which Hartman refers to in an early essay as ‘facing the gods or the pathology of ecstasy’, an immediacy of feeling that you can’t, for obvious reasons, resist being overwhelmed by (the child’s intensity of feeling for the mother combined with undeveloped resistances against it), begins very early in life. (Hartman’s first book, his revised PhD thesis, was called The Unmediated Vision.) Unlike chastening, which repudiates the object of criticism through judgment, the sublime is as close to it as you can get. Chastening is an attempt at control; the experience of the sublime – though not the recounting of the experience, the representing of it in literature – banishes the idea of control. For Hartman there is the sublime, and there are the more or less sophisticated forms of scolding; ‘scholars and critics’, he writes, are always tempted to kill the thing they love through ‘creative jealousy’, through ‘resentment’ and ‘reductive judgments’. Instead, he proposes that we ‘resolve . . . to tolerate the genius of others’. What he wants is the closeness of close reading, and it is clearly a kind of longing: ‘I yearn,’ he writes, ‘for a theory to justify my return to the same poems with another and yet another interpretation’ – though why he would need a theory for this isn’t entirely obvious. If the poem seems inexhaustible, then the reader feels his powers of interpretation are, too. And by implication there are theories (and theorists) that seem to impoverish the poem – make it less rather than more interesting – and that deplete the poem by replacing it with commentary. Hartman intimates in several places that reading, and reading with other people, literally kept him going as a young boy; so in this memoir he doesn’t have to ‘defend’ literature so much as show us how it worked for him – and, indeed, what he has gone on wanting from it. ‘The idea of literature and that of community came together in a turn to teaching as mutual learning.’ Texts are also pretexts for people to do something together; and what they do together, in studying literature, is in the service of what Hartman calls, in his psychoanalytic way, ‘reality-testing’.

It was, at least until recently, ‘the self-questioning of art, the disturbance by art of its own magic’, that Hartman found sustaining. Like many people of his generation and younger, he is beginning to wonder whether this is something he should start mourning. Contemporary art, he finds, is too calculated, too knowing or too determinedly unknowing in its design on the audience. Art, Hartman concludes, ‘loses its effectiveness when the medium becomes a closed circuit of interactive and manipulated moves’. In the age of the ‘programmer’ and his ‘interactive universes’, it is the ‘disconnect and apathy’ he fears. Isolation and passivity, or the kind of isolation that makes passivity the only solution, is the catastrophe in the background of Hartman’s autobiographical story, a story that has nothing to say about defeatedness.

We know that Hartman is not going to turn on anyone in this eloquent and shrewdly understated memoir. The book is not written to make disclosures (there is no gossip here, academic or otherwise). He wants renewals rather than reprisals, but this doesn’t stop him knowing where the criticism is going to come from. He knows that humanism has a bad press now – at least in the universities – but he prefers it to inhumanism; and he knows that tolerance is the tyranny of liberalism, but there are other tyrannies he fears more, like living without a world around you, or living in a world you have lost. ‘Living so long in the ambience of the academy,’ he writes,

I am tempted to define the humanist’s lack of realism as coming from the substitution of the university for the universe and too often accepting its gossipy judgments as godly. But do not all of us have an encompassment of this kind? Every new movement that speaks for realism accuses the preceding one of evasion and abstractness – of not being in touch or turning a blind eye to the world.

Speaking for realism may be a mug’s game but Hartman believes that literature, at any given moment, can give us a clue about what we think we are being true to. It’s when people start turning a blind eye that we need to worry. Or when they prefer being right to being interesting.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences