Where Did the Hatred Go?

Adam Phillips

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

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,

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in