Geoffrey Hartman as Literary Critic
By Nicholas Birns
Hartman (1929-2016) was born in Germany and came to America before the Second World War; he served as a private in the US Army in the late 1940s, by which time he was already pursuing an advanced degree at Yale, where he spent the entirety of his academic career. After Wordsworth’s Poetry, 1787-1814 (1964) Hartman became not only the late twentieth century‘s leading expositor of the poetry of Wordsworth, but the critic who put Wordsworth back on the map, rescuing him from decade of New Critical obloquy and restoring him to the place in literary culture he had possessed in the time of Matthew Arnold. Hartman, though, had a very different view of Wordsworth from Arnold, at once de-emphasizing his sense of social responsibility and seeing him as, despite his imaginative flights, bound to existence in a way that generated, paradoxically, the euphoria of failed transcendence. Hartman liked Wordsworth’s poetry, but neither idealized it nor used it to idealize experience or perception. Hartman used the metaphor of akedah (the Hebrew word for the binding of Isaac before his near-sacrifice to God by Abraham) to express this sense of perilous yet concrete epiphany. Hartman’s early work was seen by his teacher René Wellek as reflecting the influence of heidegger and sartre, but nonetheless going in its own distinct direction.
In the 1970s, Hartman also became known as one of the principal expositors of Derrida and as part of “the Yale School.” Saving the Text (1981) was originally published as essays in The Georgia Review in the mid-1970s, when that journal was under the editorship of John T. Irwin, and were expositions of one of Derrida’s most difficult texts, Glas (1974). Unlike most guides, Hartman did not aspire to be simpler than what he was explicating. He took full advantage of Derrida’s wordplay and allusiveness. In a sense this spirit of commentary was reminiscent of medieval commentators on anterior texts such as Fulgentius. Indeed, Hartman spent much of the later portion of his career working on a cognate tradition, the mode of Biblical exposition practiced by scholars of the Hebrew Bible called midrash.
Hartman’s growing concern with Jewish issues was manifested in his increasing interest in issues of trauma, particularly regarding the Holocaust. The Third Pillar: Essays in Judaic Studies (2011) followed earlier books such as The Longest Shadow: In The Aftermath of the Holocaust (2002), in indicating Hartman’s dedication to this subject and to, among other aspects, the oral testimony of the atrocity’s victims---far from the nihilism and relativism often imputed to deconstruction by its opponents. It was not only Hartman’s Jewish background but also his depth of his involvement in Holocaust studies that made his strong defense of his late friend Paul de Man, written after de Man‘s pro-Nazi wartime journalism had been unearthed, so compelling. Hartman argued that de Man’s emphasis on skepticism, critique, and unreliability could be read as atoning for the ideological mistakes of his youth. In this respect, deconstruction was not a nihilistic relativism but an ethically alert practice whose honesty lay in its recognition of linguistic fissure and rupture, which made impossible the crude doctrinal affirmations of de Man’s wartime writings. Hartman’s own position on language, though, was as close to that of his lifelong friend and colleague Harold Bloom as it was to deconstruction, seeing a strong if fractured agency behind linguistic play. Not only Hartman’s critical acuteness but also his rigor of judgment, his unwillingness to bend towards ideologies he saw as less than perfect, made him an independent critical voice, which survived the historical fate of deconstruction as such.
Atkins, G. Douglas, Geoffrey Hartman: Criticism as Answerable Style. London: Routledge, 1990.
Vermeulen, Pieter, ed. Geoffrey Hartman: Romanticism After The Holocaust. New York: Continuum, 2010.
Whitehead, Anne, “Geoffrey Hartman: A Deviant Homage.”
The Wordsworth Circle, 37, no. 1, (Winter 2006): 30-42.