The Poetics of Otherness

Hart, Jonathan. The Poetics of Otherness: War, Trauma, and Literature. New York, NY: Palgrave, 2015. Print.

            Jonathan Hart’s The Poetics of Otherness: War, Trauma, and Literature (2015) confronts two major preoccupations of contemporary literary studies: trauma and otherness. The central thread of this sprawling book that ranges from the European encounter with Native Americans following the discovery of the New World to representations of the Holocaust is a thoroughgoing demonstration of comparative literature’s power to identify, address, and heal the wounds wrought by history’s failures of imagination. Hart examines how acts of interpretation undertaken with careful attention to otherness—both in and of texts—can ease the trauma inherited from a violent past and allow us to imagine a less traumatic future. In this way The Poetics of Otherness illuminates important aspects of the ethical commitments and political consequences of literary study.

            A crucial premise of Hart’s book is that atrocities such as “[t]he First and Second World Wars were failures of imagination with dire consequences” (8). These wars, as well as the genocides of Native Americans after 1492 and of the Jews in the Holocaust, indicate the inability of belligerents and perpetrators to understand their own biases and prejudices. Parochialism and ideological blindness enabled many of history’s violent projects and continue to haunt intercultural relations today. The author’s response to these persistent and dangerous imaginative shortcomings is to propose a “poetics of otherness.” Hart takes “poetics” to mean primarily the reading and writing of poetry, but he also establishes a more expansive sense wherein the term covers the reading and writing of texts generally. The poetics of otherness concerns the reading and writing of otherness, or the ways we create and receive representations of otherness. In simplest terms, genocide in the Americas became possible because European explorers saw the inhabitants of the New World as appropriate targets for violence; genocide becomes impossible when the other assumes a face too human to receive our violence. In the more subtle and guarded terms favored by the author, “often understanding others and different ways frees up the self to understand or even embrace change” (2), so that by studying different places, the past, and foreign cultures, for instance—those others of here, now, and the familiar—we become better able to envision the future as a set of non-violent alternatives.

            The Poetics of Otherness begins in medias res, tracing threads the author has begun to unravel in recent books like Interpreting Cultures (2006), Shakespeare: Poetry, History, and Culture (2009), and Textual Imitation (2012), and relying on interpretive strategies developed in those books. Of these tools, the notion of “story-argument” is perhaps most interesting and important. Though many texts—most obviously literary works, but also ethnologies, histories, and religious texts, for example—are not explicitly argumentative, narratives can wield a persuasive rhetoric, so that readers may adopt a text’s assumptions and conceptions even in the absence of argumentation. Since “[t]he power of poetry and art is to create story and character with such aesthetic power that people embrace these characters as if they were, as if once upon a time they existed” (32), the story-arguments of literature are especially important means of influencing readers’ conceptions of otherness. Hart is interested in the use of story-argument in both the texts he studies and his own book. He places representations of otherness into his own narrative of their creation and reception, with the result that his book exerts rhetorical pressure on the conceptions of otherness endorsed by its readers.

            The chief means by which the investigation of otherness proceeds are close reading and comparative analysis. The texts Hart studies, though drawn from diverse genres and disciplines that include poetry, drama, literary prose, history, ethnology, philosophy, and religious texts, invariably become the object of close reading, with a view to “unpacking the language for embedded assumptions and attitudes” (7). Despite considering a large number of texts, the author attends to specific characteristics like meter, rhetorical features, and considerations of diction, and so his book has value not only for its general theoretical insights but also for its specific analyses of individual texts. Hart’s close readings typically assume positions in matrices of comparison that cross time, space, and cultural tradition. The cumulative insights produced by the juxtaposition of diverse texts support the conclusion that “[c]omparative literature is a central discipline in which to explore the multiple points of view” from which we can approach the geography of otherness, or the impact of differences in time, place, and language upon reading and writing, and thus “achieve a critical distance about the limits of one’s own culture and subjectivity in an attempt to find an intercultural engagement and an openness and understanding of intersubjectivity” (71). In its free movement between languages, time periods, national traditions, and genres; in its interrogation of translation; and in its borrowing of tools, methods, and strategies of interpretation from sister disciplines like history and ethnology, The Poetics of Otherness is an exemplary instance of comparative literature and a demonstration of the value and necessity of cultivating theoretical perspectives that exceed monolingualism and the nationalization of literary study.

            Otherness appears in many guises in this book. In addition to the otherness of persons, cultures, and languages, Hart appeals to the otherness of time and place as he explores the poetics of geography and history. Perhaps the most important aspect of the exploration of otherness lies in the distinction between positive and negative otherness. This distinction allows Hart to address the difference between the (negative) othering by which Nazi propaganda demonized Jews and the (positive) othering through which literary study locates human voices silenced by violence and discrimination. Yet the distinction proves inadequate to explain the subtleties of some of the representations Hart studies. In Duncan Campbell Scott’s “The Canadian Indians and the Great War” (1919) for example, Native Canadians appear as superlative snipers, fearless warriors, and, ultimately, more like that curiosity of the Western imagination—the “Indian”—than like a humanized figure. The question of whether to characterize Scott’s effusive praise as positive or negative othering points to the shortcomings of Hart’s terminology. A more rigorous exploration of the notion of Aristotelian recognition to which Hart appeals might have provided a suitably robust taxonomy of otherness. Hart uses Aristotle’s concept of anagnorisis or recognition to explain how readers come to accept conceptions of otherness. When a reader experiences the passage from ignorance to knowledge that constitutes this form of recognition, he or she recognizes (or, all too often, misrecognizes) some person or thing as an “other.” Aristotle develops this concept in the Poetics, in a discussion of tragedy wherein he explains that tragic recognition occurs through the realization that the tragic protagonist has violated a moral code by behaving without regard for the specific degree of friendship or enmity deserved by the recipients of his actions. Extrapolating from this model of tragic recognition, it becomes clear that a crucial component of the poetics of otherness is a “poetics of friendship and enmity.” Productions of otherness create conceptions through which we understand what forms of ethical conduct are appropriate toward a given person. Scott’s representations of Native Canadians may be effusively positive, but they fail adequately to portray Native Canadians as beings deserving of friendship. To take another example, Hart notes how in the Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (1552), Bartolemé de las Casas strives to make Native Americans appear as worthy recipients of pity and compassion while demonizing the Spanish colonists of the New World. Las Casas’ text in part contributed to advent of the Black Legend of Spain, and so it is apparent that the text’s readers recognized the Native Americans as worthy of friendship and the Spanish colonizers as worthy of enmity. This extension of Hart’s poetics of otherness is justified by his own conceptual framework and likely would have strengthened his otherwise interesting, insightful, and valuable book.

Kris Conner
Western University