- Scars of the Spirit: The Struggle Against Inauthenticity
Geoffrey Hartman is now an emeritus faculty member at Yale. All but the youngest readers of this journal will recognize him as a member of the now defunct Yale School of Criticism, which in its glory days included Harold Bloom, Hillis Miller, Paul de Man, and Jacques Derrida. Among these accomplished individuals, Hartman distinguished himself as the one most engaged with discussing the role of style in theoretically propelled criticism, and this remains his lasting contribution. The question he kept asking was the following: what demands do the books we read and the theories we use make on our own critical practice, and in particular, on our style? Works such as Criticism in the Wilderness (1980) and Saving the Text (1981) were concerned with promoting a philosophical criticism that is as creative as the literature it seeks to criticize, in opposition to the Arnoldian standard of a disinterested criticism that respects and preserves the canonical hauteur of literary classics and doesn't seek to imitate them. Yet over the decades Hartman's own prose, except when it lapsed into copying Derrida's, seemed more that of the Doctor and less the Explorer, to borrow the terms Lionel Trilling used to describe Matthew Arnold's criticism. This is an irony we are grateful for.
Hartman's most recent book, Scars of the Spirit, takes up the problem of authenticity in the context of postmodern culture, seeking to reestablish its legitimacy as a serious topic and unmask what merely poses as authentic in the global marketplace. Today his agenda ignominiously crosses paths with the likes of Jane Fonda, whose autobiography is replete with New Age claims to recover "the authentic me." One of the issues never resolved by Hartman's book and which taunts his project behind its back is whether his Continental erudition makes his project any more authentic than Fonda's celebrity psychobabble. Authenticity was the Heideggerian concept that Adorno ruthlessly and ironically attacked in his The Jargon of Authenticity, and it has an old-fashioned existential ring to it to this day. For those readers who haven't read Being and Time lately, authenticity (Jemeinigkeit) was the resolute impetus of making time one's own, taking it back from the instrumental public world that had appropriated it so that one can live a sincerely mortal life and die one's own death, as it were properly. Professors valiantly conjured an ethic out of this retrieval of selfhood, of one's personal property of time and destiny in the Lost and Found of culture, not fully cognizant of its Nietzschean roots. The absence of altruism in this existential ethic inspired Emmanel Levinas's patient attempt to persuade us to demote our egoism in an insatiable responsibility to and for others, for whom we can never do enough.
There is surely irony in the fact that the anachrony of authenticity as a concept was accelerated by the deconstructive theory that Hartman helped [End Page 501] promulgate. Hence his new book reads a bit like someone having to gingerly retrace his steps in a field of landmines planted by the Yale School of Criticism. The question of propriety, what is right and proper, what is one's own, stamped with one's unique or authentic properties, was deconstructed by Derrida, and Hartman reverently recorded the results in the incongruously titled Saving the Text, an analysis of Derrida's attempt to promote textual intercourse between Hegel and Jean Genet by setting them in parallel columns on one page. In a nutshell, the original source of an event or text, its material advent, is untraceable due to its derivativeness, the forces of semiosis (or textuality) at play in and between texts. In parallel to this discovery, Jean Baudrillard spoke of the simulacrum as a media-generated version behind which the original "thing itself" was forever irrecoverable. The very idea of authenticity came to sound illusory, denoting a mirage sought in a hopeless regressive inquiry or Ruckfrage which Husserl (with...