Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today

Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today

by Geoffrey Hartman, Hayden White

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Originally published in 1980, this now classic work of literary theory explores the wilderness of positions that grew out of the collision between Anglo-American practical criticism and Continental philosophic criticism. This second edition includes a new preface by the author as well as a foreword by Hayden White.
“A key text for understanding ‘the


Originally published in 1980, this now classic work of literary theory explores the wilderness of positions that grew out of the collision between Anglo-American practical criticism and Continental philosophic criticism. This second edition includes a new preface by the author as well as a foreword by Hayden White.
“A key text for understanding ‘the fate of reading’ in the Anglophone world over the last fifty years.”—Hayden White, from the Foreword
Criticism in the Wilderness may be the best, most brilliant, most broadly useful book yet written by an American about the sudden swerve from the safety of established decorum toward bravely theoretical, mainly European forms of literary criticism.”—Terrence Des Pres, Nation
“A polemical survey that reaffirms the value of the Continental tradition of philosophical literary criticism.”—Notable Books of the Year, New York Times Book Review

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Yale University Press
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Criticism in the Wilderness

The Study of Literature Today

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2007 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12398-2

Chapter One

Understanding Criticism

What difference does reading make? Is it perhaps, like traveling, a fool's paradise? "We owe to our first journeys," writes Emerson, "the discovery that place is nothing. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern Fact, the sad Self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go."

Emerson is urging us to self-reliance; yet the more we read him, the more he is the giant, seductive or overwhelming, who stands in the way of a liberation he commends. There is no getting around him: we must think him through, allow him to invade our prose.

The difference that reading makes is, most generally, writing. The thinking through, the "working through" (the metaphor of work applied to psychic process being Freudian, yet appropriate in this context) is hard to imagine without writing. Certain poets,like Mallarmé, even seek a type of writing that would end reading as tourism or as merely a reflection on a prior and exotic fact.

The division of literary activity into writers and readers, though it may appear to be commonsensical, is neither fortunate nor absolute. It is crass to think of two specialties, one called reading and one writing; and then to view criticism as a particularly specialized type of reading which uses writing as an "incidental" aid. Lately, therefore, forms of critical commentary have emerged that challenge the dichotomy of reading and writing. Besides the involutions of Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962) and the essays of Borges, there are such experiments as Norman O. Brown's Closing Time (1973), Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Maurice Blanchot's Le pas au-delà (1973), Jacques Derrida's Glas (1974), and Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse (1977). They are literary texts in their own right as well as commentary. They belong to the realm of "letters" rather than to purely "critical" writing, and they make us realize that we have narrowed the concept of literature.

Even when its form is less spectacular, such criticism puts a demand on the reader that may cause perplexity and resentment. For it does not see itself as subordinated in any simple way to the books on which it comments. It can be pedagogic, of course, but it is free not to be so. It is aware that in philosophy there is less of a distinction between primary and secondary literature: ask a philosopher what he does and he will answer "philosophy." It could be argued, in the same spirit, that what a literary critic does is literature.

Yet the reader-critic's claim to parity is continually chastened by the fact that he remains addicted to reading, to traveling through those "realms of gold" in the hope of being instructed and surprised. His supposed self-reliance is undermined by a famous Miltonic axiom, Satan's boast to the angels in Paradise Lost (4.830): "Not to know mee argues yourselves unknown." That is the seductive boast of every book. We are tempted to enter an unknown or forbidden realm.

The spectacle of the critic's mind disoriented, bewildered, caught in some "wild surmise" about the text and struggling to adjust-is not that one of the interests critical writing has for us? In more casual acts of reading this bewilderment can be muted, for there is always the hint of a resolution further on, or an enticement to enter for its own sake the author's world. However, in containing this bewilderment, formal critical commentary is not very different from fiction itself. Fiction also carries within it a hermeneutic perplexity: there is a shifting of focus, or a changeable perspective, or a Jamesian effort to discern the "felt meaning." It is not Dr. Johnson alone who has his troubles with King Lear: on reading the exchange between Lear and a Gloucester whose eyes have been put out-

Lear. Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light; yet you see how this world goes.

Gloucester. I see it feelingly.

-we can only echo Gloucester's own words in accepting so appalling a mixture of pathos and pun.

The critic, then, is one who makes us formally aware of the bewildering character of fiction. Books are our second Fall, the reenactment of a seduction that is also a coming to knowledge. The innermost hope they inspire may be the one Heinrich von Kleist expressed: only by eating a second time of the tree of knowledge will we regain paradise.

Consider, in this light, Yeats's "Leda and the Swan."

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill, He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? And how can body, laid in that white rush, But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there The broken wall, the burning roof and tower And Agamemnon dead.

Being so caught up, So mastered by the brute blood of the air, Did she put on his knowledge with his power Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

It comes like a voice from nowhere, catching us too offguard. "A sudden blow: the great wings beating still...." Where got Yeats that truth? Part of the magic to be resisted is the poet's imperious assumption of a visionary mode, as if it were self-justifying. His exotic and erotic subject matter displaces the question of authority. For Yeats may be a voyeur rather than a visionary: we do not know where he is standing, or how ancient his eyes are, or if they glitter. Though we grant him, provisionally, the authority of his poem, we note that his empathy runs parallel to Leda's and focuses on the unspoken promise of an initiatory or "strange" knowledge-in fact, on the first temptation Genesis spells out: "Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." Leda, surprised by the swan-god, cannot but "feel the strange heart beating where it lies."

So fiction imposes on us, by a subtle or blatant seduction. We are always surprised or running to catch up or wishing to be more fully in its coils. This may explain why the detective novel, with its mock catharsis of false leads and inconclusive speculations, is a favorite of intellectual readers. Literary commentary is comparable to the detective novel: confronted by a bewildering text, it acts out a solution, trying various defenses, various interpretations, then pretending it has come to an authoritative stance-when, in truth, it has simply purged itself of complexities never fully mastered.

Seduction, then, in fiction or life, seems to contain the promise of mastery or, paradoxically, of joining oneself to an overwhelming intent even at the cost of being subdued. In more innocent language seduction is called persuasion; and rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, has always been criticized by competing arts, such as logic and dialectic, which assert a higher truth without being less vulnerable to the charge of seeking a powerful epiphany, or all-clarifying solution. Rhetoric, in any case, is to language what science is to the language of nature-a technique that can be mastered, perhaps for the purpose of further mastery. Yet it is also true that the verbal acuities of poetry or fiction challenge the rhetoric they use, as in the subtle, questioning progress of Yeats's poem. Rhetoric is the will doing the work of imagination, Yeats said.

At first we feel mainly the poet's rhetoric, his power in depicting an action that has power as its very subject. An episode that spans centuries is condensed in the representational space of a sonnet. The mimetic faculty is stirred by rhythmic effects (the additional beat in "great wings beating still," the caesural pause between "terrified" and "vague"), while inner bonding through repetition and alliteration ("beating ... beating," "He holds her helpless ...") tightens Yeats's verse as if to prevent its rupture. The energy of the event seems to produce its own enargeia, as rhetoricians call the picturing potential of words. The eyes are led along an axis that is sharper than ordinary sight: does "there" in "A shudder in the loins engenders there" refer to the place of vision as well as conception, to what is right there before the poet's eyes? He sees into the loins as into the heart. "Wisdom begins in images," Yeats remarked; rhetorical skill, the formal magic that recreates Leda, has made an image come alive.

Yet rhetoric in the service of mimesis, rhetoric as imaging power, is far from being imitative in the sense of reflecting a preexistent reality. Mimesis becomes poesis, imitation becomes making, by giving form and pressure to a presumed reality, to "Leda." The traditional theme, by being repeated, is endowed with a past that may never have been present. Leda is not even named within the poem; and the strongest images in the poem are not images at all but periphrases, like "feathered glory" and "brute blood of the air." These non-naming figures have the structure of riddles as well as of descriptions. Even the images in lines 10-12, stark metonymies, are a periphrastic riddle or charade for "The Destruction of Troy."

The last of these non-naming figures, "brute blood of the air," may be the most intriguing. Viewed in itself, detached from the representational frame of Yeats's lyric, it conveys a sense of internal generation, almost self-generation-something engendered from what is barely seen or grasped, that does not recall natural process so much as supernatural agency, not formation but transformation. It evokes the imminence of the visible in the invisible, an absence that can turn into a devastating presence. We are again projected beyond natural sight: air, as in omens, thickens, becomes concrete, theriomorphic, auguring; and to air there corresponds the airy womb of imagination, which also thickens here into an ominous historical projection, a catastrophe-creation of which "Leda" is but the legendary medium.

Less an image, then, than a phantasm is represented. More precisely: is it an image, or is it a phantasm? By phantasm I mean an image with hallucinatory effect: "out of nothing it came" (see Yeats's "Fragments"). It cannot be explained or grounded by the coordinates of ordinary perception, by stable space-time categories. Does the poem revive a classic myth whose psychic truth is being honored ("to ground mythology in the earth" is one of Yeats's programmatic statements) or does it express a phantasm which that myth holds fast and stabilizes, so that mind can be mind and question it? Second quatrain and last tercet are questioning in form: one function of this form is to hold and elaborate what is happening.

I don't think I exaggerate the image/phantasm indeterminacy. Until we come to the one proper name, "Agamemnon," we are kept in the aura of an action whose reference is not fixed. Though a famous legend is presupposed, the poem effects a displacement from "Leda" and "Troy" to a non-proper, that is, unlocalized event that cannot be given a name or one name. The situating reference to "Agamemnon," the locking up of the action into the known if legendary context, is just that, a locking up; it does not resolve the indeterminacy; we continue to feel the imaginary within the reference myth, something that exceeds the latter like a riddle its solution, or periphrasis and metaphor the undisplaced word. As "Agamemnon" hovers between sonant matter and meaning, so the myth between phantasm and legend-laden image.

We cannot, in short, neglect the airy pretension of a poem that fills the vacancy of prehistory with a paradigmatic primal scene. What space or time are we in? Is the poet standing in his own mind? Or in the third heaven of a domestic séance? Is what he communicates a vision or the variant of a traditional theme or his recreation of a particular painting on that theme? Is he stationing a phantasm or framing something that even if it is an image is so nuclear in lines 10-12 that it could be detached from the poem and seen as Greek epigram or sybilline utterance?

These questions add up to a hermeneutic perplexity. Yeats's rhetorical skill has led us beyond or beneath firm knowledge, and we become unsure of the poem's real frame of reference. Who is (the) "Being so caught up"? Correlatively, we become unsure of the poet's authority: is he seer or subjective thinker or superstitious crank? It may be, of course, that it is we who think against the poem, who wonder why we were willing to suspend our disbelief and to accept this fiction. We could then follow our own suspensive or "negative" thinking, maze it part of the subject matter. But in any significant act of reading, there must be (1) a text that steals our consent, and (2) a question about the text's value at a very basic level: are we in the presence of a forged or an authentic experience?

There is an alternative to this last question, but it leads to a further uncertainty. For to raise the question of authenticity could be to mistake the mode-of-being of poetry-to make a category mistake about it-by seeing poetry as potentially a revelation, a disclosure of previously unapprehended truth. Should not the very concept of fiction, and of the poet as image-maker, avert that perspective with the help precisely of a poet like Yeats, who is a maker of images and has no further claim? But what are images, then, and fictive images in particular?

Philosophy from Husserl to Bachelard and Merleau-Ponty, and theoretically oriented reflection on art from I. A. Richards and John Dewey to Wolfgang Iser and Murray Krieger, have worked closely with the assumption that aesthetic experience is related to perception (or perceptibility, Anschauung, the sighting of insight); further, that this relation is what is expressed by the centrality the word "image" has won. The "image" is the point where the received and the productive meet. Our ideational response to the work of art tends to analyze itself in terms that favor the "image." Even without seeking to explain this turn of events, we would find it hard to give up the by now historical liaison between image and formal values in art or between image and any model poetics-despite the counterthrust of semiotic theory and deconstructionist mediation. Perceptibility-that all things can be made as perceptible as the eye suggests-may itself be the great classic phantasm, the mediterranean fantasy, continued even by Romantic or Modernist artists who are aware that the image is also a resonance, a musical as well as visual phenomenon:

Ces nymphes, je les veux perpétuer.

Si clair Leur incarnat léger ...

What images are, then, is a question that involves the make-up of our minds, or at least of our terms, our very language.


Excerpted from Criticism in the Wilderness by GEOFFREY HARTMAN Copyright © 2007 by Yale University . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Geoffrey Hartman is Sterling Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at Yale University. The Geoffrey Hartman Reader, co-edited by Hartman and Daniel T. O'Hara, is the recipient of the 2006 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin.

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