Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Geoffrey Hartman on Reading

While I’m working on a long post on reading, theory, and the machinic critic I thought I’d post some passages from Geoffrey Hartman’s 1975 – those were they days, weren’t they? – collection The Fate of Reading (University of Chicago Press. In the title essay Hartman is grappling with the fact that, no matter how intensely critics are oriented toward the texts of which they write, that very act of writing requires distance from those texts. One cannot write about the text if and while one is immersed in reading it. Complaining that contemporary theorists—mostly French or under French influence—have come to privilege such writing over reading, Hartman asks (p. 272): “To what can we turn now to restore reading, or that conscious and scrupulous form of it we call literary criticism?”

Hartman then observes: “modern ‘rithmatics’—semiotics, linguistics, and technical structuralism—are not the solution. They widen, if anything, the rift between reading and writing.” I believe that Hartman is correct and that his list of modern “rithmatics” should be extended to include the newer psychologies, and to many of the analytic techniques of the digital humanities.

These methodologies are not going to restore the critic to that intimacy with the text which Hartman so earnestly desires. That is a loss. But the loss is not so much that of textual communion, but of the nostalgic rhetorical stance that such textual communion is the proper and possible end of literary criticism.

Here, without further comment, are some further passages from two of the essays in that book.

“The Interpreter: A Self-Analysis”
Confession. I have a superiority complex vis-à-vis other critics, and an inferiority complex vis-à-vis art. The interpreter, molded on me, is an overgoer with pen-envy strong enough to compel him into the foolishness of print. His self-disgust is merely that of the artist, intensified. "Joe, throw my book away." Sometimes his discontent with the "secondary" act of writing—with living in the reflective or imitative sphere—makes him privilege some primary act at the expense of art or commentary on art. He turns into Mystic or Vitalist. But, more often, he compromises by establishing a special relationship to what transcends him. Having discounted other critics, and reduced art to its greatest exemplars, he feels naked enough to say: "Myself and Art." Like Emerson, who said that ultimately there was "I and the Abyss." (p. 3)
"The Fate of Reading"
That darkling appropriation of works of art we call interpretation is surely as much a blind drive as an objective interest. We are forced to predicate a narrative or interpretive will, the will to be an author oneself, or even the author of oneself (and others). (p. 255)

Literature is today so easily assimilated or coopted that the function of criticism must often be to defamiliarize it. (p. 260)

A great interpreter like Erich Auerbach, a great critic-scholar like E.R. Curtius, a prodigal son like Kenneth Burke, or men of letters like Paul Valéry and Edmund Wilson, who practiced the minor mode of prophecy we call criticism, are not annulled by the fact that they may be explicitly writing about the writing of others. It may be a weakness in them to prefer, at times, the indirectness of commentary to the creation of their own news, but it may also be a conviction that their identity is bound up with the writings of others—that the mind is laid waste by the false Unas of literature even as it is renewed by faith in the classic or neglected text. (p. 267)

Reading, then, includes reading criticism. (p. 268)

The question persists, however, whether there is a specific function that differentiates literary criticism from literature .... Literary understanding, then, has two components: literary tradition proper, or an expansible canon of texts; and criticism, which helps to form this canon and guide its interpretation—which prepares us, at least, for the complexities of literary expression. (p. 270)

All we can be certain of is that literary understanding is bipartite, requiring both literary discourse (texts), and that too strong a privileging of fictional over nonfictional texts (of "primary" over "secondary" literature) reifies literature still further and disorders our ability to read. (p. 271)
In these various passages Hartman is working hard to elide the distinction between mere reading, which every literate person does, and a more strenuous activity, typically involving the production of a secondary text purporting to explicate some ‘primary’ text or texts. This second form of reading is typically done only by professional critics (and their students). But, as I noted at the very beginning, there are limits to what kinds of commentary Hartmann is will to count as reading:
I wonder, finally, whether the very concept of reading is not in jeopardy. Pedagogically, of course, we still respond to those who call for improved reading skills; but to describe most semiological or structural analyses of poetry as a "reading" extends the term almost beyond recognition. (p. 271)
And yet these days we talk of distant reading and machinic reading. I rather doubt that Hartman would include those within the compass reading as he was grappling with it back in the third quarter of the previous century.

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