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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 13 (Oct. 1997)

Sandor Goodhart, Sacrificing Commentary: Reading the End of Literature. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Pp. xiv + 362.

For those of us interested in some combination or the other of the mimetic theory, biblical studies, and literary criticism, the publication of this volume of Sandor Goodhart's essays should be a real treat. Goodhart, now Director of Jewish Studies at Purdue University, has put together a collection of papers presented over a period of twenty years. All but the introductory piece and the concluding essay were previously published in some form. Knowing critical theory from the inside out, yet always returning in some fashion to the work of Girard, Goodhart's engagement with Western literary traditions traverses a range of texts from the Bible and Oedipus Rex to modern philosophy and contemporary Holocaust literature.

Many of the readers of the Bulletinwill have already read some form of the chapters on Oedipus, the Joseph story and anti-idolatry, and Jonah and prophecy. The other selections show the depth and coherence of Goodhart's work, which is capped off beautifully by the concluding essay, "Reading After Auschwitz."

Goodhart offers a new understanding of literary reading which is in keeping with poststructuralist tendencies. His argument is that the texts usually designated as "literature" or "scripture" are already a form of commentary. The paradigmatic texts still accepted by many of us as "classical" or "scriptural"--Sophocles, Shakespeare, the Hebrew Bible--perform a critical, desacralizing function. Criticism tends to resacralize and remythologize the myths these texts deconstruct by exalting the texts and separating "criticism" too neatly from "literature."

Here I will comment briefly on the biblical essays before turning to the final two chapters on "modern reading," which are centered on the responsibility of reading after the Holocaust. "I Am Joseph" deals with the rabbinic approach focusing on Joseph as dream interpreter and the modern humanist view of the Joseph story as wisdom literature. The story itself does not negate, but shows the limitations of both these readings. In "Reading the Ten Commandments" Goodhart argues that the commandments should be read as a narrative sequence which must always be led back to God's name and the law of anti-idolatry. "Out of the Fish's Belly," on Jonah, discusses two rabbinic approaches, an earlier one focusing on Jonah's reluctance and a modern one emphasizing God's compassion. The Ninevites who finally sit in repentance are more "Jewish" than Jonah and the Jonah who sits complaining about the gourd plant is more "Ninevitian" than the Ninevites. The critical function of the text becomes externally duplicated as Jewish worshipers imitate the Ninevites on the Day of Atonement, when Jonah is read liturgically.

Goodhart's reading of the Book of Job ("The End from the Beginning") may be more problematic, or at least more difficult to follow and understand. What he argues essentially is that the dominant readings of Job tend to ignore or suppress the "transcendent logic of creation" provided by the Job text. We are called, to the contrary, to "give up responding to the universe as the project of [our] own egos." But this "master reading" of Job is not as uncommon as Goodhart thinks.

In the penultimate essay, "'Writing on Fire': The Holocaust, Witness, and Responsibility," the author states that since the Shoah "two humanisms remain available to us: a humanism of essential and undying values, and a humanism of personal responsibility...." This latter humanism of personal responsibility is what he sets out to formulate in the conclusion, "Reading After Auschwitz." This conclusion brings together the threads of his hermeneutics of reading. At the heart of this chapter is the recapitulation of the theme of the anti-mythic attitude of literature and the sacrificial reaction of criticism. Literature has a disturbing, monstrous element at its very heart, and "criticism responds as it has learned to respond in the face of any dangerous mimetic contagion: sacrificially." If literature questions the sacrificial, critical literary reading tends to be sacrificial in eliminating sacrifice itself. It therefore covers over the powerful problematic of literature.

How is this theory and practice of reading related to the Holocaust? It comes down to personal responsibility, specifically to witness. "Is reading our manner of engaging the witness borne around us? Is it possible that rather than read texts, what we always read in fact is witness?" Reading witness is an anti-sacrificial reading, that is, engagement and interpretation which acknowledges our own complicity, our own continuity with a world of sacrificial violence. In this regard, Goodhart's analysis of the controversy surrounding Paul de Man is quite instructive. It is also ironic, devastingly so, as the author recognizes, for in his introduction he uses two quotations from de Man to situate the studies that follow. De Man's silence about his antisemitic article during World War II "says only too much." It is the silence of the collaborators, a silence which is "itself a living remnant, a leftover from another time and place," which returns to haunt us. For de Man ends up "as the most powerful expositor of the difficulties of a practice of reading that shares certain fundamental demythologizing features with the texts of the very community his Nazi collaborators would annihilate."

This is an important book, not only for the insight of its main thesis about literature as commentary, but also for the motor that drives it: the summons to personal responsibility, which is ethical and religious. Inspired and informed by Girard, Levinas, and Buber, Goodhart shows that unless we attain to the ethical and religious our interpretive work falls invariably into empty formalism or rhetorical cleverness, which are always sacrificial.

James G. Williams