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Sacrificing Commentary: Reading the End of Literature (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 21, Number 2, October 1997
pp. 487-489 | 10.1353/phl.1997.0032

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Philosophy and Literature 21.2 (1997) 487-489

Book Review

Sacrificing Commentary: Reading the End of Literature

Sacrificing Commentary: Reading the End of Literature, by Sandor Goodhart; xiv & 362 pp. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, $45.00.

The defining experience of literature is the experience of another knowing. In the simplest terms, this experience arises as the sensation that the literary work knows something that the reader does not, that the work has something to teach the reader. No reader would experience a story as a form of counsel if this were not the case. And no professional reader would bother to ask "What is literature?" if this experience were not primary and ineluctable. This phenomenon, whether we call it the experience of "autonomy," "disinterestedness," or "the aesthetic"--if these traditional labels make sense any more -- guarantees that a reader will have a different understanding of the work with every reading. It also guarantees that the art of literary critics will always fall short of their individual experience of the work, since literary criticism is in effect the feeble attempt to shoot the gap between an individual and general response to the literary object. Literary critics conclude that literature in general is about what they thought a particular work was about at a given moment, and then they try to muster sufficient evidence to convince themselves that arguments of this kind are credible. Of course, the best literary critics are attuned to their failings in a self-conscious way, asking explicitly where literature begins and ends, and where any given idea of what literature is begins and ends, but self-consciousness is not ultimately useful in answering these questions. For the problem remains that these questions cannot be answered because literature is the site of moral experience of a kind that risks making the greatest sense to the individual reader and none at all to everybody else.

To question the goal of literature, then, as the literary critic must, and to expect a satisfactory answer, is always in some way to ask that literature come to an end, that it stop doing what it does best, which is to mean one thing and another thing again and again and always be telling the truth. Sandor Goodhart has taken up this task with great self-awareness and the resolve not to let go wherever he may be led. His basic thesis, a version of the paradox I have been rehearsing, is that literature is always its own best commentary and that any commentary that we might bring to it is bound to betray literary knowledge, not by changing its truth, which cannot be done, but by claiming it as our own. "Whether we read literature as philosophic moralism or philosophic history," Goodhart argues, "we read literature through philosophy, and not the reverse" (p. 27). The point here is not that philosophy takes precedence over literature but that philosophy is what we think we are doing when we look for a name other than "literature" to label the genius of literature. More important, Goodhart concludes, when commentators try to explain why they know what they know or even what they know, they make little sense until they begin repeating what literature told them in the first place. Literature is the site of truth that cannot be paraphrased not because the paraphrase somehow loses sight of this truth but because there is ultimately no such thing as a paraphrase of this kind of truth. It is the kind of truth from which one cannot achieve the distance or difference that would make a paraphrase recognizable as sufficiently other than its object to be named as paraphrase at all. It is no accident that Goodhart refers to this truth as the "prophetic." For only a concept such as the "prophetic" might account for a form of revelation so powerful as to be virtually inescapable, so powerful as to recoup any attempt to disguise, avoid, or pervert it. The prophetic is, in Goodhart's words, the name for "a repetition founded not upon difference but upon sameness or identicality, upon 'more of the same'" (p. 263). To read prophetically is "to read in advance...

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