(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 21, Spring 2003, pp.99-102)
N HIS ‘EPILOGUE’ Geoffrey Hartman describes how the airport he was passing through closed down on the morning of September 11 as a disaster (with its modern identity crisis) unleashes which puts him in mind of the shooting of the albatross: if what occurred in New York on that day heightens our sense of the real it is because it is already underpinned by a memory scar. For Hegel the dialectical outworkings of the spirit leave no scars, but the contention of these distinguished essays is that the marks of trauma or ecstasy making up the history of our hunger for self-realisation are not only never erased, but constitute our sense of reality. Hartman’s immediate follow-up question is how any sense of reality at all is maintained in an age of global mechanical reproduction where TV fosters a ‘low-grade but addictive idolatry of the image’ (23). It is notorious, of course, how September 11 became an immediate disaster-movie for many spectators, being so perfectly suited to the screen as to be screened from their consciousness. But for Hartman the danger is not that such events are saved from absence, but that they become more present than they are or can be (an observation written before September 11). Counter-views in competing for attention intensify the process. Any media critique, if it itself chooses to shock, can expect its impact to be seamlessly absorbed. Does Hartman imply that it may turn out ironically to be as scarless as Hegel conceived his dialectic to be? He suggests Hegel’s prophecy of the end of art, if it comes about, will do so more as a paroxysmic rather than philosophic act of transcendence.
Hartman’s own voice, courteous but unoptimistic in the 14 chapters of his book, doesn’t aim to shock or browbeat; indeed he has been accused during his career of having too light a way with theory, despite his reputation as a leading Yale critic in the 1970’s. The opening triad of chapters reviews what standing a word like ‘authenticity’ still retains as part of the quest to become real, a quest in which the human spirit is more likely to endure perpetual self-wounding than progress coherently through the world. The essays in Part 2 analyse in more detail how such questions fare in the hands of predominantly visual media, while the three essays of Part 3 consider how spirit pervades the texts of both religion and art, texts which may or may not succeed in muting apocalyptic stirrings. The final group of essays scrutinises the conditions under which we study art today, and anxiously ponders (from within discussions of Goethe, Wordsworth and Malraux) how much longer art might function as an
antidote to the growth of instant communication and pervasive insensibility. In this book Hartman rests his claim on the essay-form itself (he refers to ‘chapters’ or ‘essays’ interchangeably) as a means of being neither overtly original nor jazzy, but as an attempt to observe, by way of some judicious ‘academic ballast’, the way life and art interact. The so-called ballast is vast and effortless, so that these essays seamlessly reference a lifetime’s preoccupation with the texts of Hegel, Wordsworth, Goethe, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Benjamin, Blanchot, Derrida and Vattimo, as well as constituting an excellent introduction to many of Hartman’s leading concerns over nearly 50 years of critical writing. Here, we revisit the relation between visionary imagination and a self-conscious culture of mediations; the fate of close, discriminatory reading confronting intensifying visual media; the role of a problematically privileged spirit within the great religions and its less than wholly secular overspill into high art. It is this latter theme which crystalizes around the dilemmas of authenticity, the hunger for a truth to experience confronted by an excess of replica, but an ideal it is clear Hartman is unwilling to let die, so intimately bound up as it is with the role of author and language. Will an instantly revelatory glow undermine the pleasure of more artistic forms of imitation, which have in the past moderated our anxiety in the face of the open-ended, unframeable narratives of life? Such quandaries, one can gratefully assume, are also those of a leading Romanticist, haunted by the complex inheritance which led to that movement, and assessing the modern world in terms of what one might still be able to hope for from its aftermath.
For Hartman, the practices of reading have always been over-shadowed by much older hermeneutic traditions which arose within Christianity or more especially Rabbinic Judaism, as part of a commitment to enable unwieldy proof-texts to continue to serve the needs of an evolving community. It was also a way of digesting and modifying prophetic incitement and excitation which could easily corrode its own chosen ones, rather as Coleridge speculated a vital polarity between the catholic and the prophetical impulses in church life. Today’s ‘authenticity’ seems similarly straddled across the impulse to generate vision as both personal reality and a collective possibility (the way of the unmediated), and the need to assimilate that vision to the cultural health of a multifarious community. This correlates with how the truth of an inspired object may be seen as either more or less than the ordinary, both approaches being able to claim exemplary status. Hartman, with his Yale critical background, values a skeptical hygiene which posits a reserve of the uninterpretable, a sort of phenomenological blankness at the heart of things, or a dark speck in the light which the light comprehends not (to invert St John). But Hartman also sees that just such a blankness is likely to be a refuge of the sacral itself, and could function as a resource for absolutist utopian politics or a variety of messianic ideologies.
It is the liability of contemporary cultural effects and spectacles to sudden swerves or unpredictable outcomes which Hartman traces through the glancing
discriminations of his essays. He retains a wistful respect for the ‘weakness’ of art (perhaps more a 19th century inheritance than a current actuality), particularly for the literary, where words can ‘refresh and move as quick as in the sea’ (8) precisely because they lack the fixations which box them in as narrowly judgmental, though they become exemplary through careful reading. Hartman also approves Irving Howe’s insight that cultural matters are not just political problems writ small, but a distinct set of conditions affecting how it is we negotiate what we are.
The characteristic intensification of 20th century aesthetics Hartman sees as bringing in its train a quite different weakness, a weakening of the reality sense itself, which he also discursively connects to the ‘weak thought’ of Gianni Vattimo. Benign and malign versions of weakness abound in these essays: the weak thought which rejects totalitarian ideologies and exclusivist metaphysics still bears a strong trace of Christianity, for Vattimo the only religion to announce its own secular basis in dedication to the other. Hartman is less happy with this new version of Christian pervasiveness, and sees in the non-transparency of a post-Nietzschean world a still ambivalent reserve of the sacral, by implication as likely to exclude as make progress. The sacral itself is the elemental scar which scores our history and overdetermines any pure liberatory secularism, even though Hartman is willing to concede (with Benjamin) that art may be no more reliable a receptacle for the sacred than religion has been. An art which continues to address this sacral, without the means to over-fulfil it as revelation or sacred code, would seem to remain his ideal, though he worries whether such a ‘secondary’ role for art (as Virgil Nemoianu has called in, in contra-distinction to ‘principal’ discourses of religion, science and politics) can survive, threatened as it is by the apocalyptic standing of postmodern art itself, or the new ritualisms of the avant-garde.
But ritual is once more no longer purely an aesthetic matter, and a number of essays touch on the sore relations between Judaism and Christianity in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Hartman finds a problem in Pauline Christianity in particular, and reads its famous adage ‘the letter killeth, but the spirit gives life’ as incitement to the long tradition of Western persecution and devaluation of Rabbinical learning, killing the letter of the other. This accusation as a matter of historical record is undeniable, but it’s a pity Hartman doesn’t offer St Paul himself any closer reading: we are not reminded that ‘the letter killeth’ is unlikely to be actually saying ‘kill the letter’, but is part of the fabric of a continuing commitment to textual authority, even from within a rival war of words. It remains rereadable as extolling a prophetic horizon to the text not reducible to interpretation alone, even while soliciting this latter from within its own rhetoric. But any rhetoric is dangerous and may turn absolutist. The sense of a residual animus here in a controversy which Hartman finds ‘painful’ (108) reminds us that his being among the first generations of Euro-American Jewish intellectuals who were at last able to go fully public and freely draw on the wealth of their tradition in a wider cultural context remains costly: all this is
hardly more than 50 years old. There is another moment where Hartman seems to have reined back interpretation: he tells us that the deathcamps slang-word ‘muselman’ (Muslim) designated a near-death, depressed prisoner who had given up even a passive resistance. Hartman approves Agamben’s refusal to deny even this mind-set some human dignity, but it will strike a reader as surprising that Hartman makes no attempt to gloss why ‘Muslim’ became a symbol of Jewish spiritual failure. In that camp slang does there, even more painfully, lurk a capacity to be oppressive as a Jew? In the present context, to refrain from comment seems an awkward omission.
There are silences or halting moments in these essays, though mostly they worth patiently listening out for. Sometimes the reader can be left high and dry, however, as when, in the midst of a discussion on the compromises of technology and the difficulty of questioning it freely, Hartman notes how Heidegger’s attempt ‘to retrieve a revelatory mode of questioning’ is a ‘fascinating if bedeviled response to this issue’ (157). Here the essayistic seems to plumped for a reviewing style as its signing-off mode, though shortly before this Hartman does ably critique Jabes’ sense of the multivocal ‘Why’, observing that such an invocation of the sceptical within the ethical can be precarious, in danger of leaving us with the obscurantist ‘Here is nothing but Why’ (ironically echoing the ‘Here is no Why’ of the deathcamp itself).
These essays are not in themselves Romanticist, though they usefully revisit a number of Hartman’s most telling insights into Wordsworth and Coleridge, who seem never far from his ear. And Hartman is certainly not un-Coleridgean in his ambition to reflect on the contemporary relations of art, life and thought in ways which draw on a principled depth of learning unlikely to charm a public weaned on colour-supplement fare. Hartman is stylish and highly current, but his essays are essentially monitory, sensitive to Goethe’s dictum ‘every attentive glance into the world is already fraught with theory’, though we are offered not new grand narratives so much as examples of where reading may suffice. It’s a pity that the essay is now so submerged beneath the professional academic article, as here Hartman reminds us of his implicit claim to be one of a line of essayists who were not outside literature but extended its domain: would it be an exaggeration to see Hartman as a worthy continuer of Lamb, Hazlitt, Arnold, Pater and the younger Kenneth Burke? It’s our loss if we don’t see any connection. This book reminds us of the presence among us of a fine teacher who compassionately enlightens the shadowy or shadow-casting cultural texts of our time, but who is wise enough to shade us from any contrary dazzlement.