Commentary Magazine


The Promised End, by Stanley Edgar Hyman

Of M?ths and Myths

The Promised End: Essays and Reviews, 1942-1962.
by Stanley Edgar Hyman.
World. 380 pp. $6.50.

Mr. Hyman is an efficient and indefatigable expositor—a man resembling in some ways the Babel character he discusses, who, turning to natural knowledge, assimilated it with the same fury he used on the Talmud. Mr. Hyman is soulhydroptic with a secular thirst.

These essays are some of his occasional writings over twenty years. The earliest in the book is a piece on Steinbeck written in his twenty-fourth year, and if only for that reason remarkable. It foretells much that was to come. That is quite a lot; The Promised End is what Mr. Hyman calls a “whopping” book, if that word means (as I conjecture) “large.” It treats of a considerable variety of topics, including literature (in a smaller proportion than might have been expected). Hyman enjoys, and is skillful at, reviewing vast compendia—collections of various kinds, dictionaries of this and that; and one or two of these pieces might tempt somebody to a comparison with C. K. Ogden’s famous review of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Hyman’s. own compendium puts his reviewer in a similar position; and, by his real pleasure in observing slips or controvertible statements, inspires a desire in me to do likewise. This must be controlled.

Still, in his review of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, one of his liveliest pieces in this kind, he quotes with gestures of amazement what is said of Newman: “His genius has come to be more and more recognized after his death and his influence both on the restoration of RC-ism in England and the advance of Catholic ideas in the C of E can hardly be exaggerated.” But this is sober fact, and not evidence for the contention (which is, however, supported by other citations) that Newman is the “hero” of this Anglican compilation. To requite this venial slip, Hyman has a good joke in the same article when he quotes the ODCC as saying that Oxford’s “close and continuous connection with the life of the Church is shewn by the trials of T. Cranmer, N. Ridley, and H. Latimer in the University Church of St. Mary”; which he finds “a peculiar way of saying that three English Protestant martyrs, educated at Cambridge, were burned at Oxford.”

The essay on “Words and Sensibilities,” which is good in its way, makes some debatable points. The term “U” in the boring English joke-controversy, means simply “upper class,” not “university.” Anyway that was what Ross, who invented it, said it meant. Hyman’s skepticism concerning Fowler’s statement that some people said m?th for myth is quite unjustified, for Oxford is still crowded with them. On the debasement of words: to speak of having a passion for strawberries is not to use a word of which the sense has degenerated from that of the Christian “Passion,” nor is it parallel to the debasement of the word “agony” in such expression as “I’m in agony with my feet.” Still, it is a debasement. Mr. Hyman has a grudging respect for Fowler, labeling him custodian of the doctrine of kurion onoma, the idea that everything has a true name; but he doesn’t appear to reflect on the important role played by the clerisy (who retain some respect for this m?th even when they learn as undergraduates that it is a myth) in retarding the rate of change in language when there are so many powerful parties anxious to benefit by the abolition of artificial precision. On the short life of euphemisms he is interesting, and one is grateful for the information that “poppycock” means “a cake of pap-shaped liquid dung.”

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Thus far I reflect Mr. Hyman’s Coleridgean passion for (if I may use the expression) multeity. To see him at work on the proliferation of Christian heresy is a real pleasure. But he has also a “passion for” unity, and devises a dialectic to fit the historical course of heresy. This is characteristic. Parts of this book were written while Mr. Hyman labored at The Armed Vision, and evidently represent an attempt to synthesize some of its more appealing ideas. The sources of this synthesis are clearly Kenneth Burke, to whom this book is dedicated; orthodox Freudianism, for which Hyman is a tireless propagandist; and certain modern mythographers and anthropologists. This is the beast that heaves its back from time to time out of the brisk waters of Mr. Hyman’s prose.

I am not in a position to blame Mr. Hyman for being repetitive, and in a necessarily scrappy book of this kind it is in fact a useful way of showing the writer is bringing a serious working mind to the job of reviewing. At the root of Hyman’s multitudinous reporting on literature and learning are beliefs of the following kind: myth is a “verbalization of collective ritual experience,” the legomena of the ritual dromena; the therapeutic utility of ritual is preserved in myth no matter how its “folk” transmission may vary it; these variations are effected by processes to which Freudian terms may be applied more or less analogically—displacement, projection, rationalization—and the consequent structural changes are explained as necessary to the social function of myth as conceived by Malinowski. The descendant (or analogue) of this non-cognitive and healing myth is great art as we understand it (though Hyman follows Scott Buchanan in discovering a ritual basis even in the procedures of the physical sciences). In art of this character one can, he insists, discover the basic movement of myth, and he likes to render this as triple, in the manner of Burke and Fergusson. Finally, art is “symbolic action,” a sophisticated and private ritual purgation.

Mr. Hyman knows very well the difficulties inherent in this position. One of them is to reconcile a post-Malinowskian anthropology with a Frazerian syncretism which to a modern anthropologist seems simply prehistoric. Even more difficult is the familiar Freudian dilemma caused by the master’s apparent failure to sort out art and neurotic fantasy; as Hyman notices, this has severely inhibited the development of a Freudian criticism. Third and worst, most of what we can agree to call “great literature” differs from myth in many more ways than it resembles it, and this makes it hard to say what use the resemblances are when you have noticed them.

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The first of these objections Hyman disposes of by emphasizing the importance of structure and function, and rejecting “memory traces” and “archetypes”; he is a rationalist. The second provokes him to a pretty passionate defense of orthodox Freudianism. He tells us flatly that we are “deeply and irremediably sick,” and that literature, which would not exist if we weren’t, is the only “honest doctor,” the one who tells you the case is hopeless. He despises the neo-Freudians who deny the master’s tragic vision, telling us not to worry so much and to develop enlightened self-interest; adding that if a true psychoanalysis could make us all really happy he would gladly give art away. This shows us what Hyman thinks art is for. Certainly there is some confusion, as his recognition of the third objection also suggests, for he says right out that “literature is analogous to myth . . . but is not itself myth.” This is obviously true, but how then are we to explain Hyman’s insistence on the continuity (via the “folk,” a concept he duly purges of 19th-century error) of the ritual tradition? If it has come straight down to literature, and if the only difference is that, having lost the communal, myths, we have surrogate rites piped to us privately for symbolic action in our own studies, then literature is much more than analogous to ritual; Mr. Hyman is not an analogue of his ancestors.

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On the whole this seems to be a sophisticated version of a venerable and romantic view of art as the solace of a sick society. It may be dangerous (it is dangerous when Hyman tells artists to choose a basic myth and work on it) but it results in some pretty striking passages, such as those defending Freud as the man who rediscovered the possibilities of tragedy in the modern world, and those devoted to sniping at the Jungians. Anyway, here is a set of ideas which are permutated and combined in various ingenious ways. One instance is in a central essay called “Psychoanalysis and Tragedy”; the corruption of Freudianism is compared with the softening found in some modern authors who are said to lose the tragic vision and go in for a revived Emersonian optimism. Thus Hemingway, authentically tragic in The Sun Also Rises, which illustrates the movement “from Purpose through Passion to Perception,” is a bathetic optimist in Across the River and The Old Man and the Sea; Faulkner likewise moves from Light in August to “optimistic comedy,” and Eliot from The Waste Land to The Confidential Clerk. This may not be wholly serious, and Hyman (who says he is a “florid endomorph”) seems to be enjoying it. I agree that in these cases the earlier works are the better, but do not need Mr. Hyman’s extravagant hypothesis to explain why a man who wrote a good book should later write a worse one. But generally Hyman is serious; he maintains his central doctrine un-equivocatingly, and has developed it more ambitiously, if less carefully, than John Holloway, who has recently spoken in England for a similarly post-Malinowskian, non-Jungian myth-theory.

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Anyway, Hyman is an unusual writer, and the book is one more proof that criticism is now a calling for creative people who don’t find the ordinary forms congenial, and also for people who like knowledge without caring to be scholars. He has a rhetorical variety which is probably the reward of journalistic practice (academics who snub literary journalists should try their hand and see how journalism, practiced in moderation, clears the mind), and he devours books and theories as poets are said to devour experience. You rarely find him engaged hand-to-hand with a book; there are hints as to what he might do to Moby Dick, and some pretty elaborate guesses on Thoreau; but what he really likes best, I think, is potting books and especially big miscellaneous books, where he can seek generalizations in diverse material. This, to be strict, keeps him in the second rank; and so, in spite of his attempts to evade the charge, does his preoccupation with genetic theories of literature. He genially quotes against himself an observation of R. W. B. Lewis that he is “more concerned with seeds, psyches and material causes” than with “perfections, forms, and final causes.” Yet you feel he can handle the latter if he chooses; perhaps in another volume he will. Finally, as a man convicted of fancy titles, I have tried and failed to find excuse or even explanation for this one.

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