Yale's Fab Four

Deep in the Heart of Texts

But Glascan be criticized, which Geoffrey Hartman has done in his latest book, Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy(Johns Hopkins, $12.95). Like Derrida, Hartman has grown fecund in the heady air of post-deconstruction. Just last year he gave us Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today(Yale, $18), where he coolly stepped outside the Anglo-American tradition of criticism, which he called "sublimated chatter." In Saving the Texthe still interprets, still explicates, but the sportiveness of his subject-text leads him to something like play—toying with dualisms, letting them flip unexpectedly into each other.

Criticism in the Wildernesswas dedicated to Hartman's students, but Saving the Textis "For the Subject"—Derrida, of course, with whom Hartman has been known to have lunch, but also the capitalized Subject, the object of subjection. He plays with Derrida's subjects as well as with his own, and he's obviously been lunching with Harold Bloom, too, since he comments on Bloomian favorites like Gershon Scholem, kabbalism, and Bloom himself. As the Yale critics advance they join hands, enriching each other mightily but also turning rather coyly intramural.

There's no coyness about Paul De Man, however. Germanically meticulous and icy, De Man is the outsider even within the dancing circle. He's the tester of truth, the rigorous tribunal, and an uncommonly unprolific writer, having produced only two books in the last decade. Already in 1971, in Blindness and Insight, he has digested deconstruction and metacriticized it, turning the avant-garde back upon itself at a time when the avant-garde had barely gotten started. Two years ago, in Allegories of Reading (Yale, $22.50), he confirmed his place with Nietzsche and Derrida among the "Archie Debunkers" of Western thought.

That phrase is a rare playful stroke from De man. His dense, formidable deconstructions of Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke and Proust are uncompromising in their purity as well as their demands; in his unamiable way, De Man is the most radical of his bunch. Harold Bloom calls him the "prince of deconstructors," confessing that of all critical theorists (After Nietzsche) Dem Na "troubles and wounds" hi most. This may be because, as Bloom says, De Man sees in all authentic poetry and criticism a rehearsal for "the random, meaningless act of death." But it may also be because the troubled, wounded persona of Bloom the creative critic requires the figure of De Man to give it pain.

I've been quoting from Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism(Oxford, January, $19.95), the latest in the almost yearly succession of books (everything from a science-fiction romance to a study of Wallace Stevens) that Bloom has been cranking out since The Anxiety of Influence(Oxford, $12.95, $4.95 paper) in 1973. Agonreturns to that book and its next successors, A Map of Misreading (Oxford, $14.95, $4.95 paperback) and Kabbalah and Criticism (Continuum, $6.95, 1975), supplementing and revising them. Bloom is now, like Freud, his own most important precursor. Everyone makes him anxious, especially his colleagues at Yale, but in this book, at last, his worst anxiety is inspired by himself.

Bloom belongs to no school and doesn't care (so he says) if he founds one. He's his own Yale department, and though he drops the names of all his fellow Yalies in a cordial, clubby way, he does so only to set himself apart from them. Bloom practices what he calls Antithetical Criticism, an intellectual bouillabaisse mixing Freud, Gnosticism, classical rhetoric, American patriotism, and emphatic Jewishness. To read him is a vertiginous, invigorating experience, but it's doubtful that it "teaches" you anything—except how to cavort with the mind of Harold Bloom.

There's the rub. Hinterlanders resent the New Haven avant-garde for its frank cliquishness and air of privilege, but the most common argument voiced against it is a practical one. The four critics I've discussed here share more than a place of employment: their pugnaciously playful manner, their unabashed difficulty, their refusal to don the old critic's mask of servant to creative originality—all these outrages strip them of the "usefulness" and "value" than American academic criticism has pretended to throughout the 20 th century. If you can't use a critic, what can you do with him?

You can dance with him, as I've suggested, but if the new Yale critics teach any lesson it's that you'd better not let them lead. Home-grown "structuralists" used to glut academic journals and conferences; today they've been replaced by flat-footed deconstructors a la Derrida and weak misreaders who strain to seem as strong as Bloom. This is distasteful, but time will probably cure it. Meanwhile, the ethical implications (if there are any) in the work of Yale's newest critics go unexplored by them and unrecognized in the provinces. We're left, perhaps forever, with the outrageous fact that these writers offer pleasure—rare and special, arcane and strenuous, but pleasure even so.

Who'd have ever thought that professors would do that?

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