‘A Scholar’s Tale:’ Europe to Yale

Geoffrey Hartman’s account of his life is titled “A Scholar’s Tale: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe.” Displaced, of course, by the Holocaust — an event which has cast a long shadow over Western discourse and a subject which, for its own sake, and for the place it holds in the collective imagination, is not lightly invoked. With this in mind, Hartman’s linking of his intellectual journey with his physical journey from Nazi Germany is startlingly brave. How dare he demote genocide to the level of scholarship? How could he treat art as seriously as he treats life?Hartman, in prickly anticipation, addresses the question head on: “Why should there be a discontinuity between the study of the arts and the urgent contemplation of extreme or traumatizing events?” Certainly, no such discontinuity has been observed in his own life and work. Acknowledged as one of the foremost critics of Romantic poetry alive, as well as a leading influence on the so-called “Yale School” of deconstruction (alongside Derrida, De Man and Hillis Miller), Hartman has devoted much of the latter part of his career to recording and archiving the testimony of Holocaust survivors. These projects are not discrete. For, as he so passionately believes, “Even if literature itself is more reaction than action, it keeps what is crucial in mind and has the ability to touch the conscience of collectives as well as individuals.”

The importance Hartman attaches to scholarship no doubt informs his lament — shared by numerous colleagues at Yale — of the anti-intellectualism of American society. This is not the self-reflexive and aging academic ranting about a diminishment of respect for him and his kind. Indeed, every night his fear that a “quasi-gnostic distrust” of intellectuals endangers the political process and fans the flames of extremism is incarnated and broadcast to millions on Fox News. It is not an association Hartman makes explicitly, but no student of history will forget that the denigration of the intellectual was a prelude to the fascist state from which he fled, without his mother, in 1939.

Perhaps this sense of the seriousness of academia is what leads Hartman to insist on the propriety of technical language in literary criticism — although (mercifully for us), not in a book like “A Scholar’s Tale,” written for a general audience. Nonetheless, much of this book is devoted to an evocation of the major intellectual debates of his career, in particular between historicism and deconstruction. Suffice it to say, Hartman ended up on the winning side, and it says much that a 1967 review of “Wordsworth’s Poetry” (now considered a gold standard) praised “the usefulness of … [his] endnotes.”

It also says much that Hartman should have had the good humour not only to forgive and befriend the reviewer (Jonathan Wordsworth), but to include the anecdote in his book. Despite the gravity of its theme, warmth radiates through Hartman’s prose. It is easy to believe that he succeeded, where many of his colleagues failed, in avoiding “the substitution of the university for the universe and too often accepting its gossipy judgements as godly.” To this end, Hartman relates a witty account of a lecture given at Yale by Lacan. The great man’s “grand entrance” was 20 minutes late; further, after half an hour of comprehensible speech (to Francophones, at least), Lacan subjoined “an hour of unintelligible elaboration.” Needless to say, the 400-strong, standing room-only crowd greeted the end of the lecture with a standing ovation. As the applause subsided, Lacan muttered, “Only in America would they applaud so irritating a lecture.” Hartman wryly observes, “The word used for ‘irritating’ was ’emmerdant.'”

In stark contrast, the intellectualism of “A Scholar’s Tale” is inviting, and not alienating, a perfect advertisement of its own method. What ultimately shines through Hartman’s “biobibliography” — for truly it is this, and not an “autobiography” — is what a pleasure it must have been to be taught by the man.