Robert Fulford's column about Stanley Edgar Hyman & The Tangled Bank

(The National Post, October 24, 2000)

It's been sitting on my bookshelf for 38 years, slowly growing worn, and with good reason: It may be the single volume I consult more than any other, aside from reference works, the Bible and Shakespeare. Yet The Tangled Bank: Darwin, Marx, Frazer and Freud as Imaginative Writers, by Stanley Edgar Hyman, appears to be almost unknown today.

That may be its proper fate (after all, it's pretty specialized) but possibly this is the case of a good book unjustly neglected. When I take it down, to check some quotation or fact, I often get caught up in it again and re-read it for a while, wondering once more about the astonishing nerve and imaginative sweep of the man who wrote it.

It is an understatement to say The Tangled Bank is neglected. In the days of Walter Winchell's great fame as a gossip writer, a columnist I knew said, "I'm so unimportant that Winchell doesn't even ignore me." The Tangled Bank now holds a similar position. Atheneum published it in New York in 1962, and two paperback editions followed, but all of them are long out of print.

In fact, The Tangled Bank is so out of print that doesn't know it once existed: It lists six other books by Hyman, all of them out of print though possibly available, but doesn't even mention The Tangled Bank. If you check, which sells second-hand and rare books ("Books You Thought You'd Never Find"), The Tangled Bank appears, but not in a way that will cheer its admirers. Demand for it is apparently not great. Depending on the condition of the individual copy, you'll pay only US$21 to $28 for the first edition of the hardcover, or $11 to $17.50 for a paperback.

Stanley Edgar Hyman (1919-1970) wrote books about Flannery O'Connor and Nathanael West, a monograph on Iago, and many excellent reviews. He analyzed the art of literary criticism, and in 1948 wrote a much-admired book, The Armed Vision: A Study in the Methods of Modern Literary Criticism. His central interest was the way writers organize words to make arguments and verbal beauty.

He came to love metaphors almost for their own sake, and he noticed that crucial books of non-fiction, sometimes books presenting themselves as science, rely as heavily on metaphors as novels do. "The language of ideas is metaphor," he decided. "Any book of ideas is to some degree metaphoric; a great book of ideas consists of profound metaphors in a realized form."

These thoughts led him to his most ambitious work, The Tangled Bank. He spent 13 years studying every scrap that Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sir James Frazer and Sigmund Freud wrote, picking through their words for literary devices and strategies, trying to see how they made language serve their ideas.

He chose his four subjects for their power over contemporary thought, but today the influence of one of them, Frazer, has grown less obvious than it was. A classicist and an anthropologist, Frazer wrote The Golden Bough (1890), an ambitious study of comparative folklore and magic that shocked its readers by describing a pre-literate world in which murder was a routine part of ceremony and statesmanship.

Frazer was a master of imagery. As Hyman says, "The key image of The Golden Bough, the king who slays the slayer and must himself be slain, corresponds to some universal principle we recognize in life. It caught the imagination not only of Freud and Bergson, Spengler and Toynbee, but of T.S. Eliot, and produced The Waste Land." Hyman compared the bloodshed in Frazer to "Darwin's sense of the war to the death behind the face of nature bright with gladness, or Marx's apocalyptic vision of capital reeking from every pore with blood and dirt, or Freud's consciousness of the murderous and incestuous infantile wish." Each of them created a violent drama of ideas.

Hyman saw The Communist Manifesto as a masterpiece of rhetoric, with a unifying metaphor, the stripping away of veils. Once the world was truly unveiled, and the illusions propagated by the bourgeoisie were exposed, Marx claimed to find direct, brutal exploitation. He moved to another metaphor when dealing with Christian Socialism, "the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat."

All four writers present themselves as scientists, but, as Hyman says, "In a deeper sense they are not scientific at all." He notes of Freud that "Psychoanalysis is about as quantifiable as a sonnet sequence." Freud was a man of vision rather than evidence. The others were also literary visionaries. Their ideas could not be tested: "One cannot refute a vision."

Reviewers, missing the point, complained in 1962 that Hyman showed no interest in the truth of the theories these luminaries developed. Hyman on this occasion was interested mainly in the language that makes a radical idea acceptable and even exciting.

For most of his career, Hyman taught English at Bennington College in Vermont and worked as a staff writer at The New Yorker. His wife was Shirley Jackson, a writer best known for The Lottery, a story about a town that every year chooses by lot one citizen to be stoned to death -- a narrative that may well have been inspired by The Golden Bough.

Hyman and Jackson were both amply proportioned. We can catch a glimpse of them in Brendan Gill's Here at the New Yorker, having breakfast at a diner in New York: "Each of them ordered and ate a substantial breakfast of orange juice, buckwheat cakes with maple syrup, buttered toast, and coffee; then they ordered the same breakfast again. They got up hungry."

Gill writes that he and several other New Yorker writers were fortunate participants in Hyman's self-education. "Freud, Darwin, Marx, Frazer -- as the tangled bank of heroes thickened and grew, we took care to grow along with it. We felt lucky to have observed at first hand the furnishing of that capacious mind."

Hyman's title came from Darwin's remark about contemplating "a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth" while reflecting that these elaborately constructed forms emerged through a struggle for life. In Darwin, the tangled bank was a metaphor for evolution. In Hyman, that metaphor illustrated the way great writers convey their ideas.

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