Diacritics is 50: A golden anniversary is a significant milestone for any academic publication, let alone one that began from a rather eccentric (dare I say punk?) ethos. Rather than the usual toasts or special commemorative issues, we have asked our readers and writers to reflect on the history of the journal. For the fifth installment in our anniversary series, former Diacritics board member Ani Chen spoke with Neil Hertz about his 1983 special issue on Sigmund Freud and Dora.
“When the Grammatology came out in French in 1968, I can remember reading it sitting on the terrace of Olin Library”: An Interview with Neil Hertz
Neil Hertz is Professor Emeritus of English at Cornell University. Neil Hertz came to Cornell in 1961. He taught courses on autobiographical writing, on writing about cities, on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature, focusing on the notion of the sublime, and on psychoanalysis. In 1983 he moved to Johns Hopkins, where he taught similar courses, tilting the emphasis more towards urban literature. He retired in 2005, moved back to Ithaca in 2010, and has taught, since then, for a couple of semesters in the program Bard College has set up in Palestine in collaboration with Al Quds University, just outside Jerusalem in the Occupied Territories.
Ani A. Chen: You were the special editor for the issue A Fine Romance: Freud and Dora in Spring 1983, and before that you had published an essay in Diacritics on Gustave Flaubert and Jean-Paul Sartre. I was wondering if you could tell us how you first became involved with Diacritics?
Neil Hertz: Well, I wasn’t in the French Department, I was in the English Department, so when Diacritics was started up by David Grossvogel, I just saw that it was happening. I had had no connection with it at all. It wasn’t until some time after that, mostly because of two people who were in the French department named Richard Klein and Jeffrey Mehlman, that I got drawn into reading it and eventually was asked to do this thing on Dora. But it was primarily a French department thing, and my relation to the French department was mostly a function of me having come to Cornell because of Paul de Man’s presence there. We had been teaching assistants in the same course when I was a graduate student at Harvard, and he had come to Cornell in 1960. I had a choice of a couple of job offers, and I followed him, because I was curious about his work.
AAC: What drew you to his work, the work of the French department, and the place of Diacritics in it at the time? Was the French department a separate department from the other Romance languages at the time?
NH: No, no, no. I call it the “French department” as shorthand. It was French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, but the people I knew there were French teachers: Edward Morris, Richard Klein. What drew me in was partly that I had gotten interested in Sigmund Freud. If you were a graduate student in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the fifties, and you felt unhappy, Freud was in the air. That is, you could get therapy of one sort or another. If you were a graduate student getting therapy, you started reading Freud. So I had read some Freud, but not a lot. When Mehlman, who had already started writing about Freud’s texts and particularly about Lacan, and Grossvogel, who was older but who had—I don’t know how he got this—maybe by way of his wife Anita Grossvogel, they were already reading Lacan’s Rome Report. There was a lure to be curious about Freud—for whatever personal reasons one had and through one’s friends. De Man was not. He was not nuts about Freud.
AAC: It’s really interesting that you point to the centrality of Freud in literary criticism at the time. You mention Lacan. Something I was really struck by when going through the special issue was that you chose to begin with Hélène Cixous and Sarah Burd’s translation of Portrait of Dora, and not Lacan or Lyotard or other French thinkers. What was the motivation for starting with Cixous?
NH: This wasn’t a decision of mine. I was looking to see where it might have come from. I think it might have come from Mary Lydon. You noticed that she is one of the five authors of the essay called “Questioning the Unconscious,” and my guess is that she prompted us to do that. I couldn’t find anyone else who knew more about it. I asked Anne Berger, Cixous’s daughter, whether she was on the scene and had helped us with that, because there was a question of getting permission for the translation. Anne Berger didn’t arrive at Cornell until 1994, so it wasn’t her doing. My guess, just looking at that list, was Mary Lydon, who was in town at the time, since she was a feminist and interested in psychoanalysis. But I haven’t followed up on that. As you probably know, to say that this came out in the spring of 1983 shows how weird Diacritics’s publication schedule was. Nothing ever came out on time. By the spring of 1983, I was already in Baltimore. All the work that Emoretta Yang and Noni Korf and I did, must have been done in 1980 or thereabouts. I don’t know, and I’m not sure how you would find out, except by talking to Phil Lewis, who was there and has a much better institutional memory than I do.
I remember the photos in that issue. I remember supplying Emoretta Yang with a bunch of little snapshots of my father that she put into those old photos of hers. If you see a guy sitting at a railroad station, that’s my dad in Cincinnati in 1921. Most of the pictures are from Emoretta’s family. The one I’m most pleased with is on page 35. See, there are cards spread out on the top right. Down below, there is a scene from Portrait of Dora, some keys, two Chinese statuettes that Emoretta supplied, and I think that’s Emoretta’s father and mother in their wedding picture. To the left there is a picture of man in a firefighter’s helmet holding a sign that says “Fireman save my child!” Next to him is a picture of somebody imitating W.C. Fields with a bottle of whiskey and a top hat—that’s my father and some other medical students horsing around in Cincinnati in 1920. We just threw a lot of casual stuff into this. That was the fun of being in that issue.
AAC: That sounds really special.
NH: Emoretta has a voluminous memory of all those times.
AAC: Portrait of Dora had already been circulating in France in the early and mid-seventies. What struck me about Diacritics at that time and still does, is that Diacritics was a translator of continental theory for an anglophone audience. Did the journal have that place in literary criticism at the time?
NH: For sure. I think that was deliberate on David Grossvogel’s part when he started the journal and certainly was in the mind of people like Jeffrey Mehlman, who already had many connections in Paris, and Richard Klein who was reading his way into that too.
AAC: How do you see your contribution to this special issue as fitting into your work and the broader milieu of literary criticism at the time? You talked a bit about the popularity of reading Freud. What struck me about your contribution is that you provide a subtle psychoanalytic reading of the relationship between Freud and Dora in the Case Studies on Hysteria. Your reading is not simply a matter of describing processes of transference or counter-transference between the analyst and patient, but rather you get into the depths of recognition and refusals of identification.
NH: I’m not sure if I can do more than refer you to paragraphs. What interested me—and this was not a discovery of mine, it was a discovery of two other people: Steven Marcus, who was teaching at Columbia at the time, and Phillip Rieff, who was a remarkable guy teaching at Chicago. Rieff had published a series of paperback collections of Freud’s articles, and these collections were generally around. So if you wanted to read Freud’s essays on transference or on something else, you could pick up a paperback edited by Rieff with a long and always smart introduction. He was the one who spotted the way a connection could be made between What Maisie Knew, the Henry James novel, and Freud’s way of reporting what was going on with Dora. So that wasn’t original with me. I had thought of that and I starting thinking more about it and writing about it in those terms. That was just a function of me doing things the way a literary critic does things.
AAC: Something else that I found very interesting about this special issue and your article in it is that it comes at a time when poststructuralism and French feminism are beginning to pick up on ambiguities of desire as they work within the text. Reflecting back on that time, do you see it that way? How would you evaluate that moment in the relationship between psychoanalysis and literary criticism?
NH: I would say that my interest in reading feminist texts was spurred on by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. That’s because she was an undergraduate at Cornell, and I had been one of her teachers. She wowed us! I was following her career, reading the books that she wrote, and being jogged in one direction or another by her own reading. It wasn’t by way of the French feminists, so much as by way of Eve Sedgwick’s work that I started reading feminist literature. She had been drawing on a book by René Girard that was important in the early sixties, Mensonge romantique et vérité tomanesque. John Freccero, who was a good friend of Girard, was talking about Mensonge romantique at Cornell in the early sixties. That book, which I was reading and Eve Sedgwick was reading, became important for her book Between Men. Girard would not have considered himself a psychoanalytic critic. He was too . . . I want to say, too vain to imagine that he was part of a school. He was sui generis in his own mind.
In fact, do you want to hear an anecdote about Girard? At one point around 1965, Paul de Man had a reception at his house in Lansing. Georges Poulet was in town and Girard was in town for different reasons. I forget who invited Poulet, and Freccero probably invited Girard. They all went to a reception at de Man’s house. At a certain point, Poulet took de Man aside and said, pointing to Girard across the room, “Qu’il ne touche pas mes livres!” and what he meant by “mes livres” was the whole corpus of European writing.
AAC: That’s a funny anecdote!
NH: I have another one that’s more à propos of Diacritics. When Richard Klein was editor, Jacques Derrida was teaching regularly at Yale. Just as there was a scandal about Derrida in Cambridge when he was given an honorary degree—a big brouhaha about how that wasn’t possible, he wasn’t a philosopher, and so on and so forth, there was another similar, small-scale scandal at Yale. A professor of philosophy named Ruth Barcan Marcus, who was one of the editors of a journal called Journal of Modal Logic, objected to Derrida’s presence. She thought he was a fraud. By way of Derrida, she started beating up on Diacritics. She wrote Richard Klein a letter saying how cheesy it was for Diacritics to publish articles—like mine, for example—by members of its own editorial board. “You don’t do that”, said Marcus. Then Klein wrote back saying: “Yes, it’s true, we do publish articles by members of our editorial board, but we have them read by anonymous, outside readers first.” Marcus wrote back: “You don’t understand what I’m talking about. We, on the Journal of Modal Logic, take this much more seriously. I’ll give you an example. Professor So-and-So has already published three parts of a four-part article in the Journal of Modal Logic. We recently invited him to join our editorial board, whereupon he withdrew the fourth part so it wouldn’t appear in the journal. Klein wrote back, “Ahh, now I see what you’re talking about. Yes, by comparison with that Diacritics is a swamp!”
AAC: How did Diacritics fit into your later scholarship? The essay you wrote in the special issue later appeared in an edition of collected essays, The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime.
NH: I don’t feel very solitary. I like having a bunch of people to talk to about what I’m thinking and reading. I pick up things from my friends. Having Jeffrey Mehlman and Richard Klein, Phil Lewis, and for a while Paul de Man, and having somebody like Eve Sedgwick at Cornell. Piero Pucci, who was in the classics department and never on the board of Diacritics, was someone we talked to all the time. For a while, Samuel Weber was here. He was getting his PhD, studying with de Man and publishing on Freud. Eugenio Donato, who was a friend of Freccero’s. That is, there was an interconnection of people who were talking back and forth about these books. For example, when the Grammatology came out in French in 1968, I can remember reading it sitting on the terrace of Olin Library and watching my son practice on his bicycle with training wheels, going round and round and round the Arts Quad. It was an easy place to be thinking about these things, and there was a lot of mutual discussion. I recall being in a reading group that included Piero Pucci and Terry Irwin (of the philosophy department) and was devoted to Derrida’s essay on the pharmakon in Plato.
AAC: The networks and by chance the people who were here at Cornell really influenced your work and your thought. What was the importance of the scholarly community, and the scholarly community that Diacritics fostered? What did it mean to you?
NH: It was only one community among others at Cornell at the time. For example, the whole question of how you teach student writing was important to me, because I had come from a college where that was taken seriously, Amherst College. It had kind of a bizarre freshman course, which nobody really understood—I got C’s in it both semesters. When I got here, there were a bunch of people who were unsatisfied with the rhetoric course that was required of all freshmen. You got a rhetoric textbook that told you about paragraphs and so on. It was tedious! Basically, one wanted to find some other way for students to become interested in writing. Three of us got together in 1962 and invented the freshman autobiographical writing course, a version of which is still being taught in Cornell’s English Department. One of us had been teaching at Amherst, and I had gone there as a student. The third one was somebody who had read a lot of Paul Goodman, a philosopher, psychologist, and very interesting poet, playwright, novelist and critic, who had written a highly original book called The Structure of Literature. Three of us—one with training from the Amherst English department course, one coming from having worked with Goodman as a young man, and me with this relation to what was going on in Diacritics—invented this course. It had an important effect on both the way I taught, what kind of classroom teacher I was, and what I later went on to do when I got to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore—and that was a very different community! We lured Freccero into that course for a couple of years. He had been writing about Italo Svevo’s autobiographical novel The Confessions of Zeno, and he had been close to Girard. The four of us did that for a couple of semesters and then three of us for a while. In other words, there were many communities and you didn’t have to pledge loyalty to one or to another.
AAC: What was the interest in biography and autobiographical writing in developing the freshman writing seminar?
NH: The interest had to do with what was going on in the early sixties. “The Sixties” hadn’t really begun. That is, the political sixties hadn’t begun. People hadn’t started burning their draft cards. SDS, I don’t know if it existed in 1961 or 1962. If it did, it wasn’t a thing on campus the way it was in 1966 or 1968. There was a lot of restiveness among undergraduates, smart undergraduates not happy with the world, but they hadn’t yet figured a way of turning their energies in a political direction. So there was all this discontent. We started asking them to write papers once or twice a week. We gave them a couple of things to read. We gave them a Goodman book called Growing Up Absurd, which was an important book for young people at the time. We gave them James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. At the end of the semester, they said: “We don’t want any more books! We have to do something!”
So in January, we had a mass meeting of all three sections—about sixty kids—who didn’t like the way the course was going (because it seemed irrelevant to them as a way of capturing their energies). First, somebody raised his hand and said, “You know what we should do? We should get on, like, a Greyhound bus. We should get on the bus and head off somewhere. Eventually we would all get tired and cranky and something would come of this.” That was not taken up by the majority. Eventually, we decided instead that we would publish a book called The Freshman Experience. All the writing they had done in the fall and all the writing they would subsequently do would be filtered through editorial committees—committees called “Writing about Family,” “Writing about Sex,” “Writing about Sports,” “Writing about Academics,” and so forth and so on. We did that the entire spring. At the end of the semester, we had a great collating party. This was all in the age of the mimeograph machine, pre-Xerox. The whole thing was . . . how many pages? I still have a copy of it . . . like, 200 pages. We had a 200-page book with enough paper to make 300 copies. We went around the table collating; you pick up a page one, and next, you pick up a page two, pick up a page three, and soon you have a bunch. Someone brought a guitar. Eventually, we put together a bunch of these mimeographed books. It captured some of the energy and some of the writing, some of the concerns of 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds in 1962. That helped me understand what I should be doing as a teacher of writing. When I got to Baltimore, I would do that with trips out into the city, out into West Baltimore mostly, to take up the question of race. It provided a bridge to a host of political questions that I was getting more and more interested in, questions that had little to do, I thought, with whatever I was writing in the wake of de Man or Derrida.
 Neil Hertz, ed. A Fine Romance: Freud and Dora. Diacritics 13, no. 1 (1983).
 Neil Hertz and Bernard Frechtman. “Flaubert’s Conversion.” Diacritics 2, no. 2 (1972): 7-12.