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.

Whenever Hartman expresses a reservation, it is not the reserving of any essential concurrence but the reserving of his position. Of Barthes: ‘His erotics of semiotics approaches at times the diction of the précieuses ridiculed by Molière.’ The point is warranted, but also carefully provided with no actual warrant; the admission is a staving-off of any unmannerly intrusion, with ‘approaches’ and ‘at times’ using a double tentativeness to make sure that no grounded accusation of ridiculousness will be pressed, so that the sentence can then at once end the paragraph without having really had to give any hostages. There is a similar quasi-evenhandedness when Hartman, who is happy to name opponents like Frederick Crews and Gerald Graff, comes to speak of those on his own side from whom he would slightly wish to dissociate himself.

Yet those who have turned to Continental thought or the sciences humaines have also fallen into reductive habits. A new species of coterie writing has emerged, restricted in its range and terminology. It seems unable to open itself to a past, that is, to the Arnoldian tradition still with us; it remains indulgently fixed on a few reiterated texts. Worst of all, it can be scientistic instead of scientific, or is unable to transmit its findings in a form that may be tested – tested, I mean, by a more than mechanical application, tested on art outside the restricted canon, and by criteria that are not only diagrammatic but also, in the broad sense, ethical.

This may be resented by some as too easy an inculpation (not a name, not an instance), but by the same token it is too easy an exculpation and a pitch.

‘Even biographies are no longer the stodgy things they once were but lively accounts that blend unreserved speculation with stupefying doses of factual detail.’ How smartly the syntax moves on through that stodginess (Boswell’s life of Johnson? Forster’s life of Dickens? Carlyle’s life of Sterling?), and then preserves its own freedom of manoeuvre with the unassimilated acknowledgement embodied in the words ‘stupefying doses’.

Hartman regularly couches his adverse criticisms cushionedly. ‘Despite the film’s stereotyped plot and its reliance on Jeanne Moreau as the only developed character, it sets up a moving contrast between ...’ But what is on the move there is Hartman’s exculpatory rhetoric, whereby the syntax of ‘Despite ...’ at once makes a concession and makes sure that we won’t attend to it. Hartman is uneasy because he is by temperament a moralist and now by affiliation an aesthete games-player; the only answer is then to enjoy squirming. ‘It is a deliciously amoral moment ...’ ‘How tediously searing the end of Werner Herzog’s Stroszek ...’

Such notional debitings occur, too, whenever Hartman tries to placate his historical conscience in the face of the historical falsity of those who are of too much service to the cause of critical development to be candidly judged. Here the word ‘myth’ is called upon to do the dirty work of whitewashing. ‘To locate the scriptor only in the modern period is obviously a myth; but the important thing for Barthes ...’ Not necessarily obviously a myth; the parti pris locating might, with some plausibility though with less political convenience, be an untruth. ‘However thin his thesis may be, it does connect city life, the media, and detective fiction’ – but how thin this is itself, in praising Henri Lefebvre with so cultivated an indifference to whether or not he is seriously attentive to historical truth. Hartman here is a pussyfooter with nine lives, but he who saves his nine lives shall no less lose them. ‘The temptation to rhyme shades and Hades and ladies returns the worst to laughter, and I wouldn’t say whether a cold or compassionate kind.’ But why wouldn’t you say? Only a misplaced love of indeterminacy could make a reviewer of new poetry (here, of Ruth Stone) positively advertise this irresponsibility of irresolution as if it were a supreme act of discrimination. ‘For good or bad,’ he sometimes says, as if it were a matter of indifference which. Of the presence of the father: ‘Whether the visionary Lawrence is struggling to emanate or eliminate that third presence is a matter for scrupulous judgment’ – yes, go on – ‘and cannot be decided here.’ And why isn’t here, whether it be the Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association or now in Easy Pieces, the right place in which to decide a matter for scrupulous judgment? This is ‘almost too’ evasive, to use a resource to which Hartman often has recourse. ‘That film is almost too healthy’; ‘But Anne Sexton, like Ruth Stone, knows her experience, knows it almost too well’; ‘One became almost too aware of Goffman’s “the self as performed character”.’

But then Hartman is in a difficult position, as a self and as a performing character. Matthew Arnold is still the enemy, yet Hartman is enough of a realist to know that there is at least some truth in Arnold’s conviction that the duty of a critic – social and literary – is to resist the impulses of the age, or the community, whenever they become tyrannous. Such tyranny is not the same as being erroneous; it is a fine stroke in Tennyson which sees the fact that ‘the old order changeth, yielding place to new’ as a protection against the tyranny of good, ‘lest one good custom should corrupt the world’. Hartman has been part of a movement which has effected some substantial changes of mentality and some heeded acknowledgements. The trouble is that, like the rest of us, he would prefer to go on saying what he used to say, whether or not it continues to be the thing that now needs to be said or emphasised. Once upon a time it may have been necessary concludingly to exult in this feat, ‘to remove a last assumption of innocence: that fictional techniques are clean, impersonal, and beyond the contamination of ideology.’ But it is now a fairy story to pretend that this is what any audience of Hartman’s most needs to be told; for the present, at least, it is this very way of speaking which constitutes the new innocence, with the notion of innocence itself resolutely and sentimentally ill-attended to, and with ‘the contamination of ideology’ having become a contamination by the idée fixe of the contamination of ideology. ‘But in France technique is no longer innocent.’ Tiens. This isn’t to deny that there are still plenty of people in the world who are unreflecting in the good old way: it is simply that Hartman’s constituency has not for at least a decade included any such ‘naive’ voters, and that his missionary impulse could now spend some of its energies on protecting his followers against quick and total acquiescence in the necessarily-limited truths to which he alerted them and against which he should now to some degree alert them.

Is there, in 1985, any point in continuing to say: ‘to use a fashionable term, Robbe-Grillet “deconstructs” those conventions’? Either use or don’t use fashionable terms, but don’t suppose that you can avail yourself of their implications without being implicated. Again: ‘I am interested in the fact that a film as derivative and quotational as Lumière – so full of what might be called movie diction – can be a powerful statement.’ But the difficulty is that this is now an easy piece: any Macaulayabout schoolboy these days will know, thanks to the triumph of intertextuality, that it is only derivative and quotational films which can be powerful statements – added contradictorily to which, there is now no such thing as a film that is not derivative and quotational.

Arnold, if Hartman didn’t so dislike him, would be worth listening to here. Nobody could be less like Carlyle in manner than is Hartman, but the central Arnoldian criticism of Carlyle applies to Hartman’s reiterative and consolidatory energies: ‘He seemed to me to be “carrying coals to Newcastle”, as our proverb says, preaching earnestness to a nation which has plenty of it by nature, but was less abundantly supplied with several other things.’ Things have changed and shrunk, partly because of the exacerbated professionalism of such as Hartman, and so he is not preaching to a nation but lecturing to an interpretative community: but he has also let himself become a coal-carrying columnist.

It is the contradictions, unattended to, which are both cause and symptom of his unease. Take one of the causes with which he has most strongly identified himself: that of rejecting the belief that criticism is a ‘secondary or subordinated sort of work’. Hartman is regularly unjust to Arnold in this matter, but in any case is his own position coherent? ‘It is my view that criticism cannot be judged inferior to creative writing unless you accept responsibility for a hierarchical position, a genre theory.’ Fine, but the position is distinctly that of a man who does not accept responsibility for a hierarchical position, a genre theory: in which case what is he doing when he sets severe limits to his admiration for Borges because Borges ‘never departed from the minor genres of essay, story and short poem’? This is slovenly, since ‘short poem’ isn’t a genre anyway (as the new Oxford Book of Short Poems shows, if it shows anything); moreover there are plenty of short poems, such as ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’, which Hartman would certainly not designate ‘minor’; but what matters is the unreflecting way in which an unremittingly self-conscious critic will dissociate himself on one page, because it suits his prepossession there, from a genre theory which on another page he will embrace for the same reason.

Hartman’s descriptions of things don’t always carry conviction, and could do with substantiation. He will speak of ‘the detective story’ as ‘the macho genre’, without spending a second on the innumerable counter-instances. He hears Blake’s line ‘What dread hand? and what dread feet?’ as ‘hysterical’. He assumes ‘the vulgarity of straight rhyme’. But it is not these tendentious descriptions which open him to self-criticism (though they do to criticism), but his discordant contradictions. Which is why two of the strongest essays in the book lead Hartman to say things which are open to exactly the objections which he has hitherto brought against those whom he and his set so readily call ‘naive’. These two essays are devoted to the things about which he is most in earnest, so much in earnest indeed as to find – though he will not yet acknowledge it, leave alone give up leaving it alone – that his craving to demystify is shrivelled. For his essay on Wordsworth and Freud finds itself having to posit something which he would not countenance in another critic or elsewhere in his own work: a perfectly simple distinction between an ‘ordinary’ and an ‘artificial aspect of language’. In Wordsworth, the property which Hartman (kicking against the pricks) calls ‘euphemism’ turns out to be something which his hypertrophy of suspicion would normally squinny at, something ‘which cannot be demystified because it is not simply a figure of speech covering up naked truth’. He is naturally obliged to travesty, crassly to simplify, the alternative uses of euphemism in general, but this matters less than his finding here in Wordsworth something which has a stability of which elsewhere he despairs: euphemism in Wordsworth, ‘not of the artificial kind, the substitution of a good word for a bad one, or the strewing of flowers on a corpse, but an earthy euphemism, as it were, a balm deriving from common speech, from its unconscious obliquity and inbuilt commitment to avoid silence. To call it euphemism may be inadequate, but the quality I point to resists overconsciousness and demystification.’ Good: now let us hear more about all those other qualities, which, pace most of Hartman, also honourably resist overconsciousness and demystification. Hartman’s struggle in those sentences is that of a critic who is saying something right but has no right to say it: hence the endearing plea in ‘as it were’. It is good that he now believes that such a quality as he isolates in Wordsworth is possible: but it does have, or should have, one consequence – the radical reconstruction (to use an unfashionable term) of Hartman’s beliefs.

The same is true of the truths uttered in ‘The Weight of What Happened’. This is an essay on ‘the memorial books of Polish Jewry’. For so important is the history of Jewry to Hartman, as it should be, and not only in relation to ‘the Holocaust’, that he is moved to insist, starkly and simply, on distinctions and stabilities which elsewhere he has lent his support to demystifying to the point of explosion. The distinction between history and historiography, for instance, which it has been a triumph and disaster of advanced thought to annul or find nugatory, would not be countenanced by Hartman were it not in touch here with matters to which at last he finds homo ludens inadequate. Of the oral memoirs of Jewry: ‘That genre is historical rather than historiographical: penetrated by contingency, by the fact that these survived and these did not.’ A genre theory again. Nothing here is said about fictivity, about meta-history; no putting of ‘fact’ within the inverted commas of the higher intellect. Of ‘this new oral history’, he says that ‘it should not be left by default to the literary critic’s tendency to turn everything into narratology.’ No, it should not, but not because of its uniqueness, rather because nothing in history, and come to that in fiction, should be left to the literary critic’s tendency to turn everything into narratology: this last being itself a remark which would come better from someone less recently co-operative with such a tendency. ‘It is not fantasy we view, but reality – a reality which knows how to make use of fantasy.’ It is good to observe the de-de-mystification of the concept ‘reality’: but then it was not ‘fantasy’ which we viewed in the non-new non-oral history of Gibbon or of Clarendon.

Hartman is now recognising that some things are too important for demystification, for the fun of the fictive and the thrills of intellectual vertigo. If he were now to recognise the intolerable and welcome strain which these deep acknowledgements, precipitated by Wordsworth’s words and by Jewry’s memorials, put upon his professionalised positions, he could return from what, well-appointed though it is, is the wilderness to which his criticism has trekked.