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Border Crossings

WE ARE A CULTURE obsessed with memory. More precisely, we have a tendency to fixate on the memories of others—collective memories that both are and are not ours, imagining ourselves to be the rightful heirs of all manner of trauma, narrative, ritual, and conquest passed down to us through the movement of history. We claim possession over these memories. The American impulse toward ownership leaves not even the so-called sacred geography of memory untouched. Consider, for example, the recent cases of Holocaust memoirs that turn out not to have been written by survivors at all, but by people simply hungry for story. Or think of the number of second-generation survivors whose lives and careers hinge on their ability to successfully co-opt the memories of their parents. And of course one might look no further than the broad discipline of official history, which is always a danger to public memory, as Geoffrey Hartman suggested nearly twenty years ago, quoting Walter Benjamin’s admonition against victors who consider public memory to be part of the spoils that give them license to rewrite history.

After decades of scholarship on memory and its transmission, we know that it is a very fraught subject, and the question of to whom certain memories belong is not one that is easily answered. Witnessing via television, for instance, the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, may have left me feeling wounded as an American citizen, just as watching Night and Fog as a young person may have left indelible imprints of atrocity on my unconscious mind. But the extent to which I may lay claim to actual memory of those traumatic events is debatable.

It is the tenebrous topography of memory that forms a basis for Hartman’s newest endeavor. Hartman, who was a refugee from Nazi Germany in the Kindertransport and later a displaced child of Europe (as he referred to himself in a memoir in 2007), is no foreigner to the study of memory and trauma. A founder of both the Yale Judaic Studies Program and the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, as well as a pioneering literary critic and scholar, Hartman is a distinctive figure because his work is not confined to a single scholarly discipline. Years ago, as a graduate student in literature and Jewish Studies, I once remarked to some of my peers that I had heard Hartman give a lecture at a law conference in San Diego, and was unsurprised to find that it was not only my fellow young scholars of the Holocaust who were swooning with envy. In fact, one graduate student in literary studies—a Romanticist who writes about Wordsworth, the subject of some of Hartman’s most important work—pressed both hands to his reddening cheeks and exclaimed breathlessly, “Geoffrey Hartman is a god.” Proclamations of divinity aside, that Hartman is equally acclaimed in both English departments and Judaic Studies programs is an astounding scholarly feat. But it is an emphasis on the latter discipline that marks the purpose for Hartman’s most recent collection of essays.

In his preface to The Third Pillar, Hartman repeats some of the narrative of his early years that we find in his intellectual biography A Scholar’s Tale, but he does so in order to make an important point: he has few concrete childhood memories of Judaism. His German Jewish family had all but disintegrated by the time he was nine years old. His maternal grandfather, a rabbi who wrote a dissertation on midrashim to the Book of Ruth, died when Hartman was a year old, around the same time that his parents divorced and his father emigrated to Argentina. And while the only memory he retains of his grandfather is one that is manufactured through a couple of old photographs, Hartman nonetheless refers to his “memory” of his grandfather. Hartman also recalls one “dreamlike memory” in which, as a child, he was awakened in the dark and brought to a “festively lighted and richly furnished room full of books” in which “Shabbat, or something like it was being celebrated.” He associates that mental image with his grandfather, and what he calls an “absent Jewish presence.” And so we discover that it is, ironically, the absence of Judaism that marks Hartman’s foray into all things Jewish.

He is, from the beginning, fatherless, and given the largely secular life that he would go on to live, it may surprise some that he would not only become instrumental in the discipline of Judaic Studies in the United States, but also that he would make in this book a case for the inclusion of the discipline within the larger framework of Judaism. His memories, then—memories that really are little more than remnants of memories—both are and are not his own. In Hartman, the fervor of the ba’al teshuvah, the penitent who has returned to the faith, is absent: his drive toward Judaism reveals instead a passion of lower if persistent rumblings drawn from intellectual nostalgia. Refusing to exchange his scholarly life for a life of Jewish ritual, Hartman instead argues for the possibility—even the inevitability—of maintaining both simultaneously. The logic of paradox informs Hartman’s earliest sensibilities, and it is tempting not to see in this a foreshadowing of the work he would later do on the midrashic mode of interpretation.

Midrash itself is a kind of literary paradox. Visually, one might imagine that it takes on the structure of the Möbius strip in which the inside is always continuous with the outside. Viewing it from a certain angle, one might imagine that he or she can just make out the line that marks the separation between the inside and the outside. But spin it again, and one realizes that such a line does not exist. There are no borders or boundaries that one might transgress. Such is the world of midrash. Unlike the Christian mode of parable, which erects signs and symbols to stand for an idea or lesson in morality—that is, to represent an idea found in the biblical text—midrash is continuous with the biblical text, both inside and outside of it. Rather than seeking to represent one thing through the creation of something else, midrash preserves its origins and looks for “more of the original in the original, for more story, more words within the words.” Midrash is not representation; it is an extension of the original, of something already contained within the ellipses and incongruities of the biblical text. It wishes for something more, rather than something different.

Given the complex structure of midrash, it is unsurprising that Hartman, a man whose life experiences relegate him to both the inside and outside of the Jewish tradition, would champion its benefits for both the scholar of Judaic studies as well as the literary scholar. Indeed, one might even say that Hartman’s own life takes on the structure of midrash. It is no wonder that in his later writings he weaves together texts of equal parts personal biography and intellectual, realizing that they are continuous with each other.

The ideas of central importance to The Third Pillar are to be found in the middle of the book, as if the author has cleverly buried the lead. The second of three sections, following one devoted to the Bible and preceding another devoted to education, focuses entirely on the subject of midrash. With the first line of this critical section, Hartman appears to undermine his motives for studying midrash, calling them impure, and imagining himself as a “raider of the lost ark looking for treasure.” But as humble as Hartman is, he is much too clever to undermine himself or his motives. It is, rather, that he is challenging the entire discipline—his discipline—of literary studies as a whole: “Ask not what deconstruction can do for Midrash: ask what Midrash may do for deconstruction.”

Midrash, neither literature nor commentary and yet simultaneously both, stands between the sacred and the secular, reaching into both but not often regarded as critical in either the academy or the yeshiva. And this is the crux of Hartman’s dual-sided argument: “scholarship is scholarship, and those who would have no trouble finding pleasure and intellectual profit in [the Classics] … should have the possibility of learning, by way of Judaic studies, a subject whose history reaches into the contemporary world, and whose text legacy is, in many ways, different from the Hellenic.” Likewise, “every student who can parse a page of Greek or Latin should also have the opportunity to construe a page of Talmud.” Is it not right that those interested in moral philosophy from Socrates to Levinas should also have at least a cursory understanding of Maimonides or the Pirke Avot? And, returning to literary studies, should not each student of literary interpretation be exposed to the dynamics of rabbinic commentary? A graduate student of English, for example, will have no trouble finding a course on Chrétien de Troyes, the twelfth-century French poet, but there is no place for a course on Rashi, Chrétien’s contemporary, in the world of literary studies. The possibility of a course in midrash under the umbrella of literary studies is equally unthinkable—with the exception of one Midwestern research institution where I happened to do my graduate work. But even then the “course” amounted to little more than an independent study in which my professor and I and a few other renegades wandered the halls speaking a language that few others cared to understand.

This is not to say that contemporary literary figures have not incorporated the language of midrash into their creative endeavors. A number of works of popular fiction attempt to use midrashic methods to create compelling narratives, and the poets Alicia Suskin Ostriker and Marge Piercy have written explicitly (and beautifully) about the significance of midrash and have also incorporated the mode into their poetry and other creative work. Ostriker in particular—especially in The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions—has written tirelessly and provocatively about the entanglement of midrash and contemporary literary modes. But English departments and literary studies curricula have yet to acknowledge the significance of Jewish and midrashic thought to their disciplines.

Nor are Jewish Studies programs exempt from such distorting preferences. While certainly courses on midrash and rabbinic commentary are core courses in the world of Jewish Studies, they are most often taught with a focus on explicating Jewish ritual and law, while the innovative literary techniques of midrash are all but ignored. A few scholars—beginning in the 1980s—have tried to correct this through various works arguing on behalf of the shared scholarly impulses of literary and Jewish studies, including Susan Handelman’s The Slayers of Moses, which addresses the influence of Jewish religious thought on contemporary literary theory. Hartman and Sanford Budick’s edited collection Midrash and Literature was also a milestone in this regard, as was David Stern’s Midrash and Theory, which attempted to bridge the gap between Jewish and literary studies through a theorized study of midrash.

But lest we become tempted to dismiss the field of Jewish Studies as an insular discipline, the preferences of which are codified in one monolithic and exclusionary approach, Hartman reminds us that the map of the discipline of Jewish Studies is still being drawn: “Barely known areas tempt the explorer, and major reinterpretations remain possible.” It turns out that it is not only the sacred texts that invite constant reinterpretation: entire disciplines, too, must be redefined in an era that, despite its propensity for engaging in conversations about memory and memorialization, has become increasingly forgetful when it comes to origins and shared histories. Judaism and Jewish thought, for Hartman, comprises the “third pillar of our civilization,” but we have not yet discovered everything about its “structure and upholding function.” And so Hartman, like a true rabbinic sage, continues to turn it and turn it in a way that is creatively and intellectually compelling, but also in a manner that, somewhere along the line, engenders within the reader a sense of responsibility for picking up where the author necessarily concludes. Likewise, the possibility of climbing to a prospect “where secular and sacred hermeneutics meet on some windy crag” implies the probability of continuing to face countless unresolved (and un-resolvable) questions that both “plague and animate the thinking critic.” Perhaps this is the reward.

With the exception of an essay called “Angels in the Academy”, all of the essays in The Third Pillar have been previously published. But Hartman’s insistence on contextualizing them in both his personal trajectory and the current state of academic scholarship asks us to read them anew. Lacking early access to Jewish ritual, and “nourished” by what he calls the “rhythms and locutions” of the King James version of the Bible, Hartman’s earliest forays into the examination of Jewish studies—during college, a month spent in Israel at the end of a Fulbright year in France, and then subsequent explorations of Talmudic texts —seem to be little more than flirtations with a shadow of himself. But the text we have here illuminates Hartman’s depth of knowledge with regard to biblical and Talmudic material. Like any text, it functions as “a ventriloquist,” to quote Hartman’s reference to T.S. Eliot’s characterization of poetry as a “medium.”

Good writing, like good poetry (and like the Hebrew bible), reveals and preserves the tensions contained within it, and a major tension that emerges in Hartman’s book is his sense of himself and his own work: he is a man and a scholar on the edge of things, hovering about in the same kind of grayish no man’s land that exists between exegesis and literature, the space of midrash. “What interests me are the fault lines of a text, the evidence of a narrative sedimentation that has not entirely settled, and the tension that results between producing one authoritative account and respecting traditions characterized by a certain heterogeneity.” His essay on the binding of Isaac (“The Blind Side of the Akedah”) speaks precisely to this interest: “Something in us…is never sure about the sacrifice not taking place, once its possibility has been broached.” We experience a sensation of feeling unsettled, and purposely so.While others may prefer to settle into the stability of either literature or exegesis, Hartman has taken up scholarly residence in the fault lines, the sites of perpetual unsettling. I suspect that this is why he has something important to say.

Monica Osborne teaches in the Department of Germanic Languages and the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA.