Reviewed by Andrew Bush (Vassar College)
Published on H-Judaic (December, 2011)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
Hartman's Jewish Turn
Well before he began to publish the essays in Judaic studies collected in his new volume, The Third Pillar, Geoffrey Hartman had already won a place for himself in the history of interpretation, the impossible project of which he dreamed in his youth, on the strength of his work on romantic and postromantic writing in Anglo-European literatures. It was this stature that enabled him to play a vital role in the creation of a Judaic Studies Program at Yale and the Fortunoff Video Archives for Holocaust Testimonies, initiatives closely associated with these essays. What Hartman characterizes as “My turn to Judaism” may yet be typical of a generation or more of those trained in other areas who, responding to the Holocaust and the not unrelated demands for a more diversified curriculum, expanded their professional interests to the field of Judaic studies (pp. 3-4). His case calls for careful consideration.
In his recent memoir, A Scholar’s Tale, Hartman remarks that his scholarly writing is an “admixture” of narrative and episodic modes. This apt description captures an enduring penchant: when faced with an apparent dichotomy, Hartman invariably prefers to stake out a third position, usually in between, occasionally on both sides. As narrative, both in the autobiographical remarks in the preface to The Third Pillar and the extended reflections in the memoir, Hartman relates that his commitment to William Wordsworth had not arisen despite his Jewish background, but because of it. He had come to England as a German-Jewish schoolboy via a Kindertransport in March 1939, and estranged from his classmates by upbringing and temperament, he took to solitary walks in the countryside which eventually became his Wordsworth studies. In the episodic, or as I would prefer, the figurative mode, the Wordsworthian and Jewish turns mapped out together, sometimes as parallels, sometimes at intersections. Both paths led him to moments of textual disruption, where, by subtle interpretation and a remarkably optimistic disposition, he sought to heal the wound in the text, while leaving the scar in view.
As narrative, then, Hartman makes clear that he had been reading in Judaic studies all along. And as figure, that reading in the Jewish and Wordsworthian traditions forms a complex correlation, rather than a series. In either case--and here is the crux of The Third Pillar--the Jewish turn is to be distinguished from the model presented by the two well-established pillars of the Western curriculum. Greco-Roman antiquity and Christianity view the shape of a life as a drama organized around a definitive turn (peri-peteia, more properly a kind of fall; and con-version, turning with) that gives meaning to what came before, but demands that there be no turning back. What precedes such recognition and epiphany must be abjured as blindness in favor of the new vision that supersedes it. Between the two pillars, however, it is possible to envisage a Samson whose apparent blindness (the scars of his wounds) conceals his strength.
It is far from Hartman’s point to try to tear down the temple of the Western academy, but he is determined to build a third, distinctive pillar out of Jewish learning. Its name, in these essays, is midrash. For Hartman, midrash shares the load-bearing burden of reading in the adjacent traditions that he characterizes, in a different, but related architectural metaphor, as “that cornerstone of poetics, the concept of unity” (p. 87). In classical midrash, of course, that concept is founded on an all-pervasive acceptance of the unity of God underwriting the all-inclusive unity of scripture.
Despite the common ground of unity, however, the Jewish pillar supports an alternative to being and/in Greco-Christian time: the time of supersession, the time of triumphalism. In concentrating attention on midrash as a third pillar, the primary elements for Hartman’s history and theory of interpretation may be enumerated as the rabbinic exegetical principle, “there is no before or after in Torah” (for Hartman, no early or late, p. 50; see Pesahim 6b); and the determination, in the face of apparent contradiction or other fractures in the unity of the text, to discover a harmonizing verse--a peace principle.
All is not peace, however, under Hartman’s third pillar. The effective exclusion of midrash from the Western curriculum makes a Jewish turn into a polemic. And Hartman is ready to resist anywhere that he finds triumphalism at work in reading. The most combative pages in The Third Pillar are reserved for a surprising choice of opponents: the distinguished scholar of Judaic studies, Robert Alter (a similar stance is present, but more mollified in another essay engaging Michael Fishbane). Concretely, Hartman contests Alter’s understanding of parallelism in biblical poetry, arguing that in Alter’s conception, the parallels always work in one direction, such that the second element always progresses beyond and effectively supersedes the first. Some of the animus, as Hartman himself allows, comes from what he sees as Alter’s facile dismissal of Wordsworth, but the matter is of greater import than its personal resonance: “If I sound exercised, it is not only because Wordsworth is closer than most English poets to the Hebrew Bible.... It is also because one can’t mount a defense of poetry by misreading great poetry. You simply play into the hands of a less intelligent conservatism” (p. 60).
Hartman consistently defers to classical midrash, declaring, for instance, “A knowledge of Midrash will prove more interesting for the literary critic than a knowledge of literary criticism for the scholar of Jewish texts” (p. 101). And surely this collection is addressed far more to the former, the literary critic chained to the two pillars of Western culture. Yet he also makes a counterbalancing argument, explicit in his response to Alter, but implicit throughout, whereby a theoretically informed criticism grounded in other literary traditions does indeed contribute to Judaic studies. That is to say that Hartman’s polemic on behalf of Judaic studies vis-à-vis Greco-Christian humanism has another face within the field of Judaic studies itself, namely, an argument for midrash as admixture: part classical rabbinics and part metaphorical extension; part Jewish and part Wordsworthian.
Hartman supports his counterargument with a compact genealogy whose repercussions suggest a broad reconsideration of the history of Judaic studies since World War II. The family tree appears most explicitly in the appendix to Hartman’s memoir, “Erich Auerbach at Yale,” which may be read, therefore, as the harmonizing verse between A Scholar’s Tale and The Third Pillar. Hartman begins his brief story with a coincidence: “Less than a year after I first heard of Auerbach, he took a permanent position at Yale.” Moving, but reserved, the tale follows the development of the relationship between mentor and student, two German Jewish exiles, over biweekly cups of tea in Auerbach’s home, after Hartman returned to Yale from his two years of service in the U.S. Army in Europe. The minimalist account provides a narrative ingredient to the episodic expressions of Hartman’s theory of midrash, or midrash as theory, customarily bodied forth in figures of falling with various prepositions and prefixes, for example, when he contrasts midrash to Christian typology as a “Jewish counter-typology [that] presents words that always fall toward themselves, toward an aspect that is clarified by a comprehensive text rather than by later oracles or acts” (p. 45; see also fall “outward,” “on,” “back,” “from,” and “to,” pp. 36, 38, 50, 60, and 70, respectively). As Hartman teaches, to read is to “understand the reality of figures” (p. 67). Such a reading of “falling” may not be pursued here beyond the observation that in this idiom, one would say that Hartman fell in with Auerbach (co-in-cide, from Latin cadere; see also Hartman’s one Hebrew gloss on the thought-figure of the fall, pp. 49-50). And he continues to fall toward Auerbach in The Third Pillar, both when he falls in with him in “The Blind Side of the Akedah” and, more tellingly, when he falls out with him in the opening chapter, “Struggle for the Text,” where he reads the story of wrestling Jacob, “a sort of Jewish Odysseus,” as a counterpoint to Auerbach’s famous opening chapter to Mimesis (1946) comparing the Odyssey to the Akedah (p. 23).
One is tempted to consider Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence here, but anxiety is not Hartman’s way, and in this regard, it would be of far greater interest to study Hartman’s “ghostly dialogue” with “the early Bloom,” especially with an eye to expanding Bloom’s (and Sigmund Freud’s) oedipal model to attend to fraternal relations--as the Hebrew scriptures do. So the significance of Hartman’s genealogy is not the discovery of a rebellion of student against mentor, but quite the opposite, the need to establish a relation to a mentor.
In historical terms, that effort raises new questions about the legacy of the nineteenth-century Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, which Hartman, like virtually all others, takes as the starting point for the emergence of modern Judaic studies. Would it be possible, in an admixture of the narrative and the figurative, historical analysis and metaphorical extension, to draw a cogent relationship between the Wissenschaft movement and the contributions of German-Jewish scholars to romance philology (e.g., Leo Spitzer, sometimes Walter Benjamin, and even Viktor Klemperer, in addition to Auerbach)--for instance, as German-Jewish intellectual projects contiguous to but discontinuous with the nationalist contours of Germanistik. (I deploy the terms of Dan Miron’s recent From Continuity to Contiguity: Toward a New Jewish Literary Thinking , a book that would make a splendid interlocutor for The Third Pillar.) Hartman’s invocation of the tutelary spirit of Auerbach reads backward--along Elliot Wolfson’s timeswerve--to discover in a generation earlier than his own, the profile of the scholar entering Judaic studies from a place outside the field. It is a family tree that grows through Hartman’s own experience to include those who learned to read, as I did, from his classes on Wordsworth and company before, and after, turning to Judaic studies.
. See Geoffrey Hartman and Daniel T. O’Hara, eds., The Geoffrey Hartman Reader (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004).
. Geoffrey Hartman, A Scholar’s Tale: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 40.
. Ibid., 168.
. Ibid., 42, 45.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Andrew Bush. Review of Hartman, Geoffrey, The Third Pillar: Essays in Judaic Studies.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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