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The Hertzian Sublime
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MLN 120.5 (2005) 969-985

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The Hertzian Sublime

Cornell University

For anyone who knows Neil Hertz, a great raconteur with an ironic sense of humor, a man of the people, able to talk to anyone, he seems a most unlikely theorist of the sublime, in the line of Longinus, Burke, and Kant. Longinus and Burke display an unbounded admiration for moments of elevation, in expression and nature—not so Hertz. Neither they nor Kant is notable for a sense of humor, and they are all quite snooty about the low or the trivial. "The use of trivial words," writes Longinus, "terribly disfigures passages in the grand style" (154). But the moments of incongruity that provoke and dismay Longinus are precisely what capture Hertz's attention, and his best stories are likely to have as a punch line something incongruous that somebody said.

For Longinus sublimity comes from nobility of soul and manifests itself in elevated language. Hertz, au contraire, is suspicious of those moments when "the language rises," as he puts it in The End of the Line (62). He has a nose for precisely those moments of "tonal heightening," which attract his critical eye and reveal special investments, something suspicious going on—by contrast with moments of less inflated language.

It is not just Hertz the raconteur who savors the deflation produced by the vulgar or overly familiar but also Hertz the critic. In "Recognizing Casaubon," an essay whose centrality for his work is marked by the fact that it appears in George Eliot's Pulse as well as in The End of the Line, the opening page considers a passage where Eliot asks "Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know no speck so [End Page 969] troublesome as self." This is an example of what critics particularly admire in Eliot, Hertz writes.

The intelligence at work extending a line of figurative language brings it back, with a nice appropriateness, to the ethical point. This is an instance of the sort of metaphorical control that teacher-critics have always admired in Middlemarch, the sign of a humane moral consciousness elaborating patterns of action and imagery with great inventiveness and absolutely no horsing around.
(Pulse 20)

This is an instance of the sort of touch that readers have always admired in Hertz: if things seem to be getting too solemn, high-minded, and potentially pretentious, he will find just the right deflationary turn that punctures pretension while nevertheless making the point; and, since no doubt we all secretly fear that we are being pretentiously inflationary when we write about the important intricacies of these texts that fascinate us, his deflationary turns make his point all the more impregnable. We might have smiled indulgently at the "humane moral consciousness," but "with no horsing around" enables us to embrace that judgment in better conscience.

In "More words: Nullify, Neutral, Numb, Number," Hertz writes that the arrival of Daniel Deronda's father is

the occasion for one of those scenes of morally impeccable denunciation that have punctuated George Eliot's fiction from the first—thoroughly gratifying scenes in which one character is licensed to verbally excoriate another. Her readers have always admired them and no doubt even come to expect them: Nanny in "Amos Barton" giving the Countess what for. . . .
(Pulse 122–23)

("Morally impeccable denunciation" should perhaps have warned us that we needed to be pulled up short). Later in the same essay, when consideration of neutral and neutralize demands a reference to le neutre in Blanchot, which necessarily heightens and solemnifies the tone, Hertz quotes the opening of Le Pas au-dela: "'Nous pouvons toujours nous interroger sur le neutre.' 'We can always ask ourselves about the neutral.' 'Lotsa luck!' would seem the appropriate unspoken reply to this proposal" (127). Wry amusement and suspicion are his responses to the inflated language that is characteristic of the sublime and that is likely to arise at other points when authors are...