CRITICISM IN THE WILDERNESS: The Study of Literature Today by Geoffrey H. Hartman

CRITICISM IN THE WILDERNESS: The Study of Literature Today

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In ""The Function of Criticism at the Present Time"" (1864) Matthew Arnold compared the critic to Moses on Mount Nebo, gazing wistfully down on the promised land of artistic creativity (""the epochs of Aeschylus and Shakespeare""). ""That promised land,"" Arnold sighed, ""it will not be ours to enter, and we shall die in the wilderness."" To which Hartman ebulliently cries, ""Ah, wilderness!"" Unlike Arnold he refuses to distinguish sharply between creative and critical writing, and to assign the latter a humble ancillary role. Especially nowadays, with the narrow Anglo-Saxon schools of Practical Criticism and New Criticism giving way to broader, more philosophically venturesome modes from the Continent (or Yale), why shouldn't the critic join the game of literature instead of merely calling the play-by-play? Historically speaking, after ail, criticism is a ""relatively free, all-purpose genre,"" akin to the personal essay, so it's obviously flexible enough. As an abstract program Hartman's argument makes perfect sense, but neither his own example (not here, at any rate) nor that of the critics he admires (e.g., Jacques Derrida) is likely to stir up much enthusiasm outside the MLA and similar haunts of the clerisy. Hartman, it's true, writes with grace, wit, and enormous learning, but the 13 pieces in this collection seldom if ever rise above the level of what he himself considers the basic tradition of English tradition, i.e., ""sublimated chatter."" The phrase is a cruel but apt description for Hartman's delicate flitting from subject to subject (on one typical page he darts from Derrida's Glas to Schlegel's Athenaeum fragments to Hegel's Phenomenology to Kleist's Marquise of O--), gathering an insight here and making a polemical thrust there, but never really getting down to business. When the structuralists, deconstructionists, neo-Gnostics, etc., have all had their involuted say, Matthew Arnold, up there in his patriarchal perch, may yet have the last laugh.

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 1980
ISBN: 0300123981
Publisher: Yale Univ. Press