02 March 2010

MCT: Geoffrey Hartman

Hartman, like Paul de Man, was a member of the deconstructionist school associated with Yale University. He should have taught de Man something about clarity. The essay here, "The interpreter's Freud", was originally given as a lecture, and is included in a collection called Easy Pieces.

He talks about a passage from Freud's Interpretation of Dreams and one of Wordsworth's Lucy poems, "A slumber did my spirit steal".

First he looks at how Freud's dream interpretation does not reduce the dream to a simple statement of meaning, but actually complicates it, searching out and reconciling references. Then he writes, extremely perceptively, about the poem, commenting on his own reading to show that again he is exploring a range of associations that the words of the poem (and its layout on the page) throw up.

The gap in the essay is any sense of where to stop, or of how to evaluate which associations are useful or meaningful. I think there's a suggestion that you shouldn't do such an evaluation. It's part of the general drift of post-structuralist deconstructionism that all associations are valid, and that it's not possible to claim more importance for any of them.

I still don't think that can be true, or that, even if we suspect it is true, it's a useful line to follow. It's similar to the (I think) undefeatable suggestion that all actions are determined by past actions. It's no fun to hold that view, and in practice people always reflect on human actions as if they are free. Similarly, critics always and inevitably act as if some reading of a poem is a better fit. And, in practice, critics and theorists understand that some literature is better than others, in whatever sense you want to give that 'better'.  De Man talked unentertaingly about resistance to theory. One of the reasons for such resistance is that it's no fun to hold a totally relativistic view, which is what deconstructionism seems to tend towards, in its most fundamentalist form.

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