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DIRECTIONS FOR CRITICISM: GEOFFREY HARTMAN AND STANLEY FISH / William E. Cain An essay-review of Geoffrey Hartman, Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), and Stanley Fish, 7s There a Text in This Class?: The Authority ofInterpretive Communities (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1980). GEOFFREY HARTMAN and Stanley Fish are two of our most important and influential literary theorists, and so it seems natural to review their new books together, in order to trace shared themes and interests. But while Fish and Hartman are usually seen as members of the critical vanguard, and often viewed as posing similar kinds of radical threats to the institution of criticism, they are very different—in style, approach, preferred subjects, concerns; and thus reading and reviewing their books at the same time makes for an odd, if stimulating, experience. What is most noticeable to the reader, right at the start, is the sharply different prose styles of these two theorists. Fish writes with the force of a piledriver, hammering home his points and rarely letting up the pressure on his reader. Hartman, on the other hand, eschews argument; he is oblique, indirect, both elusive and allusive. His touch is much lighter, his range is wider, and he borrows freely from and works with the ideas and vocabularies of Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, and the major European theorists. Fish's motto might be Whitehead's axiom that "narrowness is the price of intensity," for he maintains a steady focus on his own theory and its antagonists; unlike Hartman, he does not often examine other theories that he admires and has learned from. Rigorously organized and methodical, Fish is always striving to refine and tighten his arguments. Which, it seems, is just what Hartman is anxious to avoid. At one point in Criticism in the Wilderness, he says outright that "in terms of systematic thought I have nothing to add" (p. 268); and later, after a rare burst of straightforward prose, he apologizes for what he has done: "I am so unused to this open kind of rhetoric that having written the above words I wish to cross them out" (p. 287). Ordinarily we grant each critic the right to prosecute his case in the way that is most fruitful for him, and then we assess what his chosen mode has led him to discover. But as one considers these books, one finds oneself wishing that each writer had greater measures of the other's virtues. With a better sense of argument, Hartman would satisfy us more; he does not deliver as much as he promises, and reading him often proves disappointing. Hartman does not perform the analytical tasks that best suit him, nor does he realize the disparities and confusions in his call for a The Missouri Review · 227 "philosophical criticism." Fish provides us with the argumentative power that we miss in Hartman, but his writing is so goal-oriented, so energeticallyin pursuitofits conclusions (the ideas all clickinginto place), that he appears not to see some of the major implications ofhis arguments on behalf of "interpretive communities." OFTEN IN Criticism in the Wilderness, the reader notes fine insights and connections. Hartman comments well, for example, on F. R. Leavis's relation to Carlyle and Ruskin, on his resistance to philosophy, and on his moral commitment driven by ferocity and disdain. Thebook also contains intriguing points about the need for an "American" criticism, based on Emerson, William James, and Peirce, and reflects on the major "revision" and revaluation of the Romantics that has occurred in recent decades. These and other observations are perceptive, and the same can be said for Hartman's brief but incisive "readings" of poets (Yeats, Wordsworth, and Dickinson, among others), theorists (Frye, Burke, Bloom), and philosophers (Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida). But it is precisely because what Hartman gives us is so often suggestive that we expect more from him. To put this another way, the reader is struck by the keen perception or reference, but is not offered the full exploration and development ofit. He is never offered, that is, the type of rich and sustained interpretation of writers, texts, and literary...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 117-129
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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