Advances in longevity mean that we’re going to see literary critics and theorists working and writing into their eighties in ways that would once have been unthinkable (F.R. Leavis’s productivity at that age being a rare earlier exception). So though, in our videoconference between Lancaster and Yale the other day, it was sad to see Geoffrey Hartman so afflicted by Parkinson’s disease as he spoke to us, one had to admire the determination with which, none the less, he clearly wants to remain visible and active in intellectual debate. May we be as brave when our time comes!
Hartman began as a critic and theorist of Romanticism, but operates on a broader canvas these days. He left Germany at the age of ten in 1939 as a Kindertransport refugee, and has recently set up a centre for Judaic studies at Yale, so Hartman the Romanticist looks like an interlude in a wider experience of and meditation on the violence of the twentieth century – which includes Stalin and Mao as well as Fascism, Hiroshima and Dresden as well as Nanking. In the quest for a literary form adequate to such horrors, ‘passion-narrative’ was a generic term he wanted to extend beyond its original religious meaning. But that traditional term may not be so neutral after all, since in his next breath Hartman was telling us that the ‘modernist event’ (Hayden White’s phrase) had ‘injured story-telling’ and that ‘older modes of fictional treatment are more resilient than avantgarde artists acknowledge’. So we get rapidly pulled back towards an aesthetics of redemption and reparation – precisely those contemplative values (the work of art as a consolingly harmonious totality, even if its contents are horrible) which the avantgarde felt were contemptibly inadequate to the bloodbath of the Great War in the early twentieth century.
We as Morrisians, if we are not to be just Victorian historicists, need to think hard about issues around political violence too; and I deeply admire Hartman’s attempt to do that (rather than endlessly go on explicating Wordsworth), even if I can’t follow him in his brusque dismissal of modernism and the avantgarde. For we can surely say of Geoffrey Hartman in his early eighties, as of the Chinamen at the end of Yeats’s ‘Lapis Lazuli’, that as he stares on the tragic scene of the twentieth century, his eyes, his ancient glittering eyes, are gay.