Old-Fashioned Virtues

WEISINGER, HERBERT

Old Fashioned Virtues THE PROMISED END: ESSAYS AND REVIEWS, By Stanley Edgar Hyman World. 380 pp. $6.50 Reviewed by HERBERT WEISINGER Department of English, Michigan State...

...I should rate the essays on psychoanalysis and tragedy, the ritual view of myth, American Negro literature and the folk tradition, trends in the novel, and the tragic vision as the best in the collection...
...the importance of a true folk tradition in art...
...In this best of all senses of the word, Stanley Edgar Hyman is a serious writer...
...As examples from the past, he cites Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, and especially "The Metamorphosis," a short work which is "simultaneously an allegory of the artist, an appeal against the social order, and an Odyssey of the human soul...
...of a style clear, direct and strong...
...indeed, his book is a testimony to his continuing faith in them...
...The periodicals in which they first appeared range all the way from the Hudson Review at one extreme to the Saturday Evening Post at the other, yet all maintain a consistent attitude and tone immediately identifiable as Hyman's own...
...the tragic vision...
...But he is saved from degenerating into a mere pedantic polyhistor by his wit, his refusal to take himself all that seriously, and, above all, by his passionate dedication to an enlarging and humane point of view, which is all the more genuine because it does not parade itself...
...Here the scholarship is carefully controlled...
...editor, "Centennial Review" Who else but one quite mad would willingly subject himself to the sudden slash of the Hyman wit by reviewing a book of his in the pages of his own journal...
...I conclude with a complaint...
...I am not sure I can say the same for Hyman's essay on Negro literature and folk tradition, which, while seemingly persuasive, still leaves the suspicion of over-simplification, and, what is worse, sentimental primitivism...
...Who Reads Dictionaries?," reviews of (presumed) standard dictionaries of folklore, English usage, and the Christian church...
...I am willing to go along with Hyman's account of the basic themes in American Negro writing, but I am not convinced that these are derived from folk tradition...
...Of the various essays in The Promised End, those on Thoreau and Melville best register Hyman's reaction against the notion that writers are to be judged for what they do as men and not what they write as artists...
...The Promised End consists of 29 essays selected from the many pieces which Hyman published between 1942 and 1962...
...they make sense of them and give them the dignity of art which they so richly deserve...
...But to think that is altogether to misunderstand both the man and his work...
...Thoreau, John Peale Bishop and Melville...
...Hyman, I think, can be placed squarely within this tradition of Arnoldian criticism, and methodologically he brings to the study of literature the matured fruits of 19th century speculation on biology, political economy, anthropology and psychology...
...For Hyman spends so much time and scholarship on his brilliantly refurbished portraits that he does not manage to get around to a careful examination of why and how their subjects said what they did...
...I find that as long as a Jew is defined as a Jew and everyone else is agreed he is one, there is no difficulty in maintaining one's Jewish identity...
...When earlier I spoke of Hyman's old-fashioned virtues, I had in mind the ennobling tradition of criticism as the study of the best which has been thought and said...
...Myth, Ritual, and Nonsense," which contains three essays on the Child ballads, as well as others on the symbols of folk culture, the ritual view of myth, and American Negro literature and the folk tradition...
...6.50 Reviewed by HERBERT WEISINGER Department of English, Michigan State University...
...Why, then, darken it with such a title...
...But, like most reactions, his seems to me to go too far in the opposite direction...
...the painful difficulty of being a writer in America...
...Forays into Hostile Territory," on psychoanalysis and tragedy, the Freudian revisionists, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the dialectic of Christianity...
...he ends his paper on psychoanalysis with these words: "If Freud showed us that human life was nasty, brutish, and short, and had always been, he was only holding the mirror up to our own faces, saying what the great philosophers and the great tragic writers had always said...
...The title of Hyman's book comes from Leur, where it conveys the most bitter and pessimistic meaning: The promised end is the world turned topsy-turvy, an end to courage and hope and life...
...In all of the essays, however, one enjoys the company of a lively intelligence at work...
...on the contrary, the latter is one of the most succinct and clear expositions of the ritual view of tragedy I know...
...Consequently, he is forced to depict Thoreau as the silly and inept exponent of his own philosophy and Melville as the archetypal Romantic artist in lone but splendid rebellion against society, though neither this view nor its opposite is seriously to the point...
...Another technique is to set the experts adrift in the Sargasso Sea of their own confusions and contradictions: He finds, for example, that each of the experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls reads them in the light of his own preconceptions, and when their views are brought together they neatly cancel each other out...
...He does not, however, programatically declare the grounds upon which his criticism rests...
...But surely Hyman posseses these very qualities in abundance...
...One of his techniques is to beat his victim at his own game by slugging him over the head with superior learning and...
...as the man totters, to administer the coup de grace with the stilleto of common sense...
...and finally, "Literature and the Culture," with two essays on the problem of Jewish identity, plus others on trends in the novel, the tragic vision, and stances toward mass culture...
...If we are serious, our reaction to this bitter truth is neither to evade it with one or another anodyne, nor to kill ourselves, but to set out humbly through the great tragic rhythm of pride and fall, so curiously alike in psychoanalysis and literature...
...I think I know what Hyman is after, but this is the same error which certain myth critics make in arguing that the presense of myth in a work of art automatically insures that it will be a good work of art...
...Yet he recovers well in his essay on John Peale Bishop, an expert and sensitive study of a difficult and somewhat unsympathetic poet...
...The analyses of the Freudian revisionsts, the Dead Sea Scrolls experts, and the contributors to dictionaries show Hyman in the role in which he is perhaps best known and most admired: the merciless scourge of intellectual pretense and sham scholarship...
...And he concludes his study of the tragic vision with a reaffirmation of the affirmation of tragedy: "If it is man's fate to go down inevitably into suffering and death, some exultation nevertheless rises to the skies...
...When one considers that his work in literary criticism, his studies of Darwin, Marx, Frazer and Freud, his more recent reflections on the literary classics, and his reviews in The New Leader have been omitted from the The Promised End, it becomes eminently clear that the range of Hyman's interests is frighteningly encyclopedic...
...As the Hudson Review piece makes no effort to ape that magazine's chi-chi and arcane style, neither does the Saturday Evening Post essay write down to its readers...
...For just as the bristling beard in the photo portrait on the back jacket conceals a modest man, so does the caustic style cover over Hyman's old-fashioned virtues of intelligence and learning in the service of sanity...
...At the end of this hard road we can see faintly beckoning that self-knowledge without which, we are assured on good authority, we live as meanly as the ants...
...Similarly...
...Again, in the essay on trends in the novel, Hyman calls for a meeting of two separated traditions: the richness of observed life fusing with a deeper moral or symbolic dimension in a work at once large in detail and significance, the marriage of the experience of life with the meaning of myth...
...The essays are arranged chronologically under the folowing topics: "Images of the American Writer," which deals with Steinbeck...
...rather, these are exemplified in every work he examines and in every judgment he makes...
...I do not share Hyman's concern over the disappearance of the Jewish character and Jewish values in a society as powerfully assimilative as ours...
...and of knowledge and ideas directed to humane and hopeful values (the last phrase is Hyman's own...
...In contrast, the essays on myth and ritual and on literature and culture, together with the one on psychoanalysis and tragedy, are positive statements of Hyman's position...
...I have never been able to convince my friends that whatever qualities of mind I have, and whatever principles I stand for, are the result, not of my being Jewish nor of my going to Hebrew school nor of my Jewish upbringing, but of my early reading the classics and my later reading in Hyman's own favorites: Darwin, Marx, Frazer and Freud...
...The distance between folk art and sophisticated art, to use Hyman's example, is as great as the distance between Yeats and the peasantóboth are Irish and that seems to me to be it...
...literature as secular salvation and redemption...
...Certainly, the implied corollary is unacceptable: that the presence of these themes in the work of the writers he considers is enough to make them good writers...
...Such an enlargement of critical techniques necessarily enlarges the understanding of literature itself, and gives the critic the right to demand of it the widest relevance and the largest purposes...
...Thus the Child studies clear a straight and useful path through the maze of conjecture and uncertainty which obscures the ballads...
...But he does come close to a specific statement of principle in his paper on Negro literature and the folk tradition, in which he praises those writers who are in "the mainstream of modern literature in its symbolist and ironical flowing, who use literary form as an act of the moral imagination with Melville and Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Joyce, Eliot and Baudelaire...
...This is how he disposes of the revisionists, the anthropologists, and the child psychologists...
...They made me such as I am, as I suspect they made him too...
...In his preface, Hyman points out that, despite their variety of subject, his "essays have a few common themes that never disappear: the ritual origins of myth...
...Hyman has his own answer...
...Here he falls into the very biographical trap he accuses other students of Thoreau and Melville of failing to avoid...

Vol. 47 • January 1964 • No. 1


 
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