From Frankfurt to New Haven

Memoir

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!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • 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.