- Response to the Work of Rodolphe Gasché
Rarely does literary criticism today display the range of erudition, the philosophical reach and acuity, and the literary sensitivity that we find in the work of Rodolphe Gasché. Gasché performs surgical gestures in his literary readings, deep interventions that open the literary field beyond its usual surfaces as established by literary history, thematic reading, or formal analysis. I want to emphasize the intensity—indeed the seriousness—of Rodolphe Gasché's engagement with literature, one he presents as a counterpoint to his philosophical work. Gasché stands among the great literary critics who refuse to abandon the most fundamental questions—how does a literary work function, indeed what makes a literary work a literary work, what kind of work does it do, how does it do it—even as he engages with the fine art of reading specific literary texts and takes evident pleasure in their magic. Criticism today, it seems to me, is moving more and more away from this sort of ambitious inquiry; it is bracing to see such questions posed with intellectual rigor and urgency. [End Page 19]
I have had first-hand experience, as a student, with the brilliance of Gasché's readings of textual folds and veils, and of the thinking that this opens up, a thinking that is neither strictly speaking discursive nor poetic, but a powerful, and sometimes disquieting, combination of the two. I remember, as a student of Rodolphe's, the pleasure of being introduced to a practice of reading and a mode of thinking that invited both sides of my brain to work together. These memories return to mind as I engage critically now with the fruit of so many years of his work, analyses deepened by the intervening years of thinking, propelled by a powerful intellectual and esthetic curiosity that does not automatically shut down other lines of inquiry, even as it emerges from a clear set of convictions about literature and about philosophy. I am honored to have been asked to respond to his work. The occasion has prompted genuine questioning on my part. My own path has diverged from the one Rodolphe opened up to me as a student and the one he has pursued consistently throughout his career. It has been a distinct challenge for me to engage now with the power of his reflections on literature, as well as the force of his literary readings, and to try to articulate where I stand with respect to them now. Having started out—as a student and then as a professor—at Johns Hopkins (where I had the pleasure of studying with Rodolphe), I have ended up at the University of California, Berkeley, hotbed, at least for a time, of new historicist criticism. I have not been converted. But I must say that conversations with colleagues there, and respect for the interesting work some of them have produced, has complicated my sense of things.
There is something magnificent—I am tempted to say heroic—about Gasché's commitment to, and deepening transformations of, one path of inquiry over a period of more than thirty years, as various trends and practices in literary criticism have come and gone. At the same time, the resoluteness Gasché has shown in his approach to literature throughout this period puts pressure on some of his basic claims. "All literary research that seeks to establish anything of worth about literature," Gasché writes in his introduction to The Stelliferous Fold, "must justify its interpretations on the basis of a fundamental reflection on literature . . ." (2011, 1). As a preliminary gesture, Gasché reflects on "the singularity of literature," which he elaborates suggestively as [End Page 20] a kind of essence of literature (2). Committed to "a fundamental reflection on literature," which he poses as the remainder of philosophy, he affirms in his introduction that philosophy "contributes to the . . . formation" of literary works and "haunts literature's self-production" in such a way as to "inform . . . the whole literary enterprise"—even "provok[ing] literature to establish itself as a response to philosophy" (3; my emphasis).
My first point concerns the discrepancy I feel between the breadth and generality of...