From Frankfurt to New Haven


By Benjamin Balint

Published May 22, 2008, issue of May 30, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A Scholar’s Tale: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe

RECONSTRUCTION: In his new memoir, critic Geoffrey Hartman, a pioneer in the field of deconstruction, pieces together the world of his youth.
RECONSTRUCTION: In his new memoir, critic Geoffrey Hartman, a pioneer in the field of deconstruction, pieces together the world of his youth.
By Geoffrey Hartman
Fordham University Press, 160 pages, $24.95.

Memoirs of displacement often trace shadows cast by the world departed onto the world gained. In his new autobiography, literary theorist Geoffrey Hartman outlines in just this way the lasting effects on his life of the violent upheavals of the 20th century.

Hartman, born in Frankfurt, tells how he was rescued from Germany in 1939, at age 9, on a Kindertransport to the James Rothschild estate in England. To comfort himself in the alien environs, he began “to read for the wound,” and indulged in a “monkish ecstasy of reading everything.”

After rejoining his mother in America, Hartman eventually reached Yale University, where he would teach literature and preach deconstruction for almost 40 years, and where he would develop the friendships with Erich Auerbach, Harold Bloom, Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man that he sketches in the book. But even as he wrote on Wordsworth and the Romantic poets, and introduced French theory and its German sources to American readers, the past’s darker silhouettes imposed themselves onto the present. “The shadow of the Holocaust often waylays me,” Hartman writes.

On one level, Hartman’s early escape from fascism shaped his view of literary criticism itself, an art he calls “reading to the second power,” and an art that he suggests carries a humanizing force. Thus Hartman suspects that his investigation of the history of literary theory expressed the hope “that there would be some exit from history’s serial bloodiness back to the more durable republic of the arts.” He treated works of literature as if they, too, had survived; after the genocidal disruption of an entire culture, he felt the strong impulse to preserve them in all their multiplicity. He keenly sensed the contrast between what he calls literary criticism’s “rich, ungovernable variorum of interpretations” and the Nazis’ attempt to “cleanse” German culture.

On a deeper level, however, this memoir maps the ways early displacement lent Hartman his preoccupation with mediation. It is not only that he saw texts themselves as mediating between the Medusa of historical reality and himself (he talks here about “the paralyzing effect of confronting experience in its immediacy”); he also came to understand himself as a mediator — between Anglo-American and Continental modes of criticism, between specialized literary critics and the general reader and, most profoundly, between his literary self and his Jewish self.

As he recounts here, in the 1980s, late in his career, Hartman softened the hard lines of the abstruse deconstruction to which he had earlier dedicated himself, making an autodidactic turn toward Jewish texts and memory. He had already devoted his only book of poetry to the sage Rabbi Akiva, seeking “to thread and unthread the tangled ties of poetry and divinity,” as he puts it. But now he helped found Jewish studies at Yale, as well as the university’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, the first major collection of its kind. Hartman began to bring his scholarly attention to bear on Holocaust studies (as in his 1996 book, “The Longest Shadow” [Indiana University Press]).

Inspired by the Jewish idea that Scripture bears an infinite capacity for interpretation, Hartman also enjoyed a belated acquisition of the pleasures of midrash, and the wordplays, interpretive freedoms and daring leaps of exegesis that mark rabbinic reading. “Midrash showed that commentary could be a form of literature,” he writes.

This “Jewish turn” seems to have been set in motion by several impulses. First among them was the influence of Hartman’s wife, who had been deported at age 10 to Bergen-Belsen.

More interestingly, Hartman’s turn arrived after he rushed to the defense of de Man, following the scandalous revelations that his colleague had contributed to a Belgian collaborationist and antisemitic newspaper during World War II. Recalling the episode in this memoir, Hartman’s characteristic density and elusiveness of style spill over into equivocation. He repudiates de Man’s “coarse ideology,” but considers “the reaction of the mass media in the States historically naive and exploitative…. Unable to defeat deconstruction intellectually, its American opponents used the Holocaust cudgel against it.” In this instance, Hartman’s indeterminacy of vision has served him poorly. And perhaps Hartman himself sensed this when he was subsequently moved to shed light on the very subject his friend had shamefully obscured.

Most of all, however, Hartman’s turn is revealed here to be a return, a circling back to origins. At its best, Hartman’s unsentimental tale plots a fascinating course through a critic’s mind. That the resulting map, for all its complex contours and fine shadings, emanates from a single reference point — the early injury of dislocation — makes it all the more poignant.

Benjamin Balint is a writer living in Jerusalem.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.