BRYN MAWR REVIEW OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE

Volume 4, Number 1 (Summer 2003)
 
Geoffrey Hartman, Scars of the Spirit: The Struggle Against Inauthenticity.

New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. 
xii + 260 pp. ISBN 0312295693. 

 

Reviewed by Kevin Hart 
The University of Notre Dame

"The wounds of the spirit heal and leave no scars behind."  Hegelís memorable sentence occurs in the Phenomenology of Spirit, toward the end of a dense passage on the conscience.  On his analysis, the conscience is a dialectical advance on Kantís moral consciousness.  It is universal in form, like the categorical imperative, yet it makes concrete moral decisions, and does so by responding to an inner voice that it knows to be divine.  Of course, the conscience can act quite arbitrarily.  It may suspend all action, and preserve itself as a "Beautiful Soul," thereby condemning itself to impotence or even madness.  Such was an essential temptation of Romanticism, Hegel thought.  Insufferably self-righteous, the "Beautiful Soul" condemns those who act, and -- because it does not realize that judgment is a species of action -- falls into hypocrisy.  The opposition of action and judgment yields to a higher form of consciousness, one willing to forgive.  Before that happens, though, there must be a breaking of "the hard heart," and it is this that wounds the spirit.

In its very title, Scars of the Spirit gathers together Romanticism and ethics, religion and speculative philosophy.  Of living literary critics, Geoffrey Hartman is one of the very few who can negotiate these four, produce an original meditation and maintain an individual voice.  The meditation, conducted over thirteen essays, centers on how we can live authentic lives, as citizens and writers, in a world in which no word has become less credible than "authentic."  In a wide variety of ways, the postmodern has made us uncomfortable with metaphors of the genuine, the integral, the interior, the original, the real, the self-sufficient and the transparent that are coiled inside the word "authentic."  Yet we continue to struggle against the inauthentic: in our taste for autobiography and biography, in the appeal of gritty realism on TV, video and the Internet, in our anxiety over imitation, and in our care for fragments of a past that was, we like to believe, lived more closely to the rhythms of the real than is possible for us today.

If we distrust the word "authentic," we have long since lost all faith in "Spirit."  Modern history has taught us to beware those claiming to be messiahs, in politics as well as religion, and to walk in fear of  "moral progress."  Modern European philosophy has instructed us, time and again, to look for what is repressed or suppressed in dialectical syntheses; while the best contemporary criticism has shown us the dangers of quickly passing from the letter to the spirit.  "The spirit does leave scars," Hartman points out, "both evident and eloquent. Nor do the wounds beneath always heal" (41).  Some of the most memorable scars are the works of art that answer, in one way or another, to the breaking of the "hard heart" that Hegel evokes.  As in The Fateful Question of Culture (1997), Hartman steadily points us to the achieved work of art as something that resists being swept up in a philosophical or religious rush of spirit or swept away by identity politics.  Cultural analyses are not made all the more authentic by retreating from the aesthetic; rather, they become less convincing the less they understand the aesthetic.  The complexity we find in Wordsworth or Yeats, Goethe or Valéry, enables us to respond more carefully to ethical, political and religious questions. 

Hartmanís position is not reactionary.  There is no proposal to return to a well-defined set of internal criteria of authenticity in literary texts.  The hope is far more modest: to free art from "false standards of appreciation" (9) -- or lack of appreciation, one might add.  Nor is there a question of returning to the curriculum and pedagogy of yesteryear: the study of literature has "to be reinforced (rather than displaced) by TV, Internet, and film" (96).  Cultural studies do not offer a new paradigm for literary studies; but, once their braggadocio has come to an end, they can be of assistance in deepening, extending and ramifying the study of art.  Certainly we need styles of cultural criticism that can identify, analyze and even redirect our life among images in postmodern times, and in these essays Hartman shows himself to be a well-informed and humane guide. 

In Scars of the Spirit, as in all his writing, Hartman is first and foremost an essayist, with an appetite for the suggestive detail and a taste for indirection.  While his essays are quite different in style and temper than Maurice Blanchotís, the French criticís concerns press on Hartman more surely here than in his other recent work, and his admiration of Blanchotís insights is evident at several important points.  Hartman agrees with Blanchot that, as the American puts it, "writing is unable to reference its own authenticity" (22), though the thought does not lead Hartman to the brink of the abyss, as it does other readers of Blanchot.  Instead, Hartman regards the gap between writing and authenticity as a sustained call for critical commentary of an incisive and creative kind.  Literature asks us to take part in a conversation with other readers, alive and dead, and a positive response to the invitation has ethical as well as pedagogic value.  To set oneself in an "intergenerational conversation, together with the art enfolded by it" can moderate "passions that turn the quest for a grounding authority or a spiritual purpose into a ferocious weapon, a transcendental violence" (23).  Also, and more subtly, Hartman responds to Blanchotís account of the imaginary, which is arguably at the base of postmodern attunements to being. 

Most accounts of the imaginary console us with the thought that the real and the image belong to distinct and stable orders, that we can measure the truth of an image against the real.  In The Space of Literature, however, Blanchot argues that the imaginary is within a thing or, if you like, that the distance between a thing and its image is always within the thing.  On this understanding, it is none other than being that subverts any attempt to compare the real and the imaginary.  Now ontological accounts of the image are not new.  One of them animates the anti-iconoclast cause in the ninth century: St Theodore the Studite, for instance, maintained that there would be no prototype if there were no image.  But Blanchot reverses the spin we associate with this ontological account of the image -- divine being becomes absence -- and the ground for authenticity begins to crumble.  Once the ontological account of the image is harnessed to tele-technology we find ourselves living in a world characterized by a vast excess of image over experience.  Blanchot is willing to redefine "experience" so that it means a perilous exposure to the absence at the heart of being.  Yet Hartman stands aside, looking elsewhere.  Interested as he is in the twinning of literature and philosophy, he likes to keep both feet on the ground.  Neither Baudrillard on the hyper-real nor Debord on the society of the spectacle offers vistas that Hartman finds particularly rewarding.  It is the imbalance of experience and image that spawns postmodern inauthenticity, he argues, and we cannot return to a world in which experience and image are in harmony.

We might say that Hartman is an advocate of counter-spirit rather than Spirit.  I take the expression from the second of Wordsworthís "Essays on Epitaphs," remembering that the author of The Unremarkable Wordsworth (1987) remains an essential critic of that great poet.  "Language," Wordsworth says, "if it do not uphold, and feed, and leave in quiet, like the power of gravitation or the air we breathe, is a counter-spirit, unremittingly and noiselessly at work to derange, to subvert, to lay waste, to vitiate, and to dissolve."  Although he duly recognizes the darker forces of literary language, Hartman is certainly no advocate for the demonic that Wordsworth associates with "counter-spirit."  He is closer to the counter-spirit at work (without working) in Blanchotís The Writing of the Disaster: "a passivity that cannot be spiritualized (interpreted as martyrdom, for example) yet honors sheer endurance" (107).  The letter constantly returns, Hartman insists (with Lacan and Judaism forming the vanishing points of his thought), and this return "produces a complex fidelity" that he calls "a cure of meanings by the text" (117). 

The struggle for authenticity takes place by way of counter-spirit, by this textual cure of meanings.  It can be found in Blanchotís novel Thomas líobscur (1941) where we detect "a thereness, an il y a, that wounds arrogance and undermines stability of meaning" (117).  Here the imaginary cures meaning.  Elsewhere, the cure is performed by technique.  Hartman gives as an example his work for the Yale Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies.  In retrospect, he tells us, the first testimonies were spoiled by some irritating camera work. The camera would zoom in and out, "creating Bergmanesque close-ups" (74).  Thereafter the camera was required to give up its capacity for expressive potential and remain, so far as possible, fixed on the speakerís face.  "In short, our technique, or lack of it, was homeopathic: It used television to cure television, to turn the medium against itself, limiting even while exploiting its visualizing power" (75). 

No poem or film can evade the possibility of a transcendent reading.  Hartman knows that a movement from letter to spirit is inevitable and even desirable. We might suspend hermeneutics in favor of poetics for a while but not for ever: the human mind feeds on meaning.  Good reading is not a matter of remaining eternally in the realm of the letter; it is a question of knowing how to trace the detours and returns that occur in the inevitable passage from letter to spirit, of recognizing that transcendence is a part of complexity and not an escape from it.  Good reading is always slow reading: it cures meaning by attending closely to the text.  It takes us "beyond formalism," to be sure, but it never jettisons formalism. 


URL: Hartman.html; Last updated: Summer 2003; mail to: Complitreview@brynmawr.edu
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