Gertrude Himmelfarb’s On Looking Into The Abyss

Gertrude Himmerlfarb passed away last December, at the age of 97. She was one of America’s most decorated historians, with a publishing career spanning more than half a century. Even her family merits mentioning: her late husband was the influential journalist and commentator Irving Kristol, and her son Bill Kristol is a political commentator who served in various presidential administrations. On Looking Into The Abyss is not a work of history but of historical criticism, aimed at a school of thinking within the humanities that, at the time of this book’s publication, was in ascendance, and that as I write has come to predominate: post-modernism. The title, as she informs us from the beginning, comes from a quotation from the literary critic Lionel Trilling, whom she rightly reveres as being an early opponent of the intellectual and ideological trends that would cohere into post-modern scholarship: a mistrust of truth claims together with an elevation of the subjective that culminates in an unassailable relativism. This kind of foolish thinking has been popular in literary departments since at least the 1960s, where it has resulted in a flattening of hierarchies: out with the literary canon (which is merely the reflection of a white, male, European power structure) and in with – well, anything else. Mathew Arnold’s injunction that we study “the best which has been thought and said” was long ago replaced by an egalitarian ethos that, to borrow a phrasing, “privileges the marginalized.” In other words, Shakespeare becomes merely a white, male European voice, and he is to be counter-balanced by non-white, non-male voices (any will do). A great many people, who ought to have known better, turned a blind eye to these intellectual trends, content to allow them to run wild within what they believed to be a small, inconsequential sector of the academy. Himmelfarb is far wiser: “It is the premise of this book that […] there is an intimate, pervasive relationship between what happens in our schools and universities, in the intellectual and artistic communities, and what happens in society and the polity.” Surveying our modern culture, so much eroded by these same trends, and our modern polity, which has been demonstrably deranged by them, I feel her premise amply confirmed.

But let’s go back to Trilling, for the moment, since so much of these essays owe their genesis to an admiration for his approach to the study of literature. In the opening essay, “On Looking into the Abyss,” Himmelfarb quotes approvingly from Trilling’s “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” where he describes one of his goals for his students:

I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: “Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men.

The great works of literature – like, indeed, the great works of history – chart mankind’s abysses, laying bare the worst we are capable of doing and saying and thinking, and Trilling’s fear was that their insights, studied in an academic setting, might be neutered, particularly if they were encountered through the intermediary of literary theory, so much in vogue then and now. The abysses, Trilling insisted, merit our respect, for their sake and our own, and a “knowledge” of those abysses is fundamental to developing well-rounded students. Enter post-modernism, whose influence on literary studies might be summed up in a proclamation by one of po-mo’s most illustrious theorists, Stanley Fish: “The demise of objectivity relieves me of the obligation to be right […] and demands only that I be interesting.” Here is Himmelfarb, shooting down this nihilistic approach to literature:

To be sure, what theorists regard as “interesting” may not be what a literate reader, unfamiliar with their arcane language and convoluted reasoning, would find intelligible, let alone interesting. For theorists, what is interesting is what is outré, paradoxical, contradictory, opaque. Since there is no “right” interpretation, the opportunities to be “interesting,” in this sense, are unlimited. And since novels and poems are simply “texts” (or “pretexts”) that are entirely indeterminate and therefore totally malleable, they can be “textualized,” “contextualized,” “recontextualized,” and “intertextualized” at will. The result is a kind of free-floating verbal association, in which any word or idea can suggest any other (including, or especially, its opposite), and any text can be related in any fashion to any other.

Those unfortunate enough to have encountered these trends in modern literary scholarship will recognize Himmelfarb’s description in the sad output of so many graduate and post-graduate theses, which are read once and then consigned to the archives, never to be re-opened. If, indeed, there is no objective reality to which our great works of literature refer, and no means of preferring one interpretation of those works over another, then the job of the professor or literary critic becomes, by their own admission, as useless as the very works they disdain. It is only because we believe in an objective reality, and in literature’s ability to convey some important aspects of it, that men and women the world over continue to read the often difficult, often arcane classics.

But Himmerlfarb’s ire is not directed primarily at these facile literary critics, but at their doubles who have invaded the history departments and managed to work a similar mischief. The post-modern influence on history has been to call into question not only the standard interpretation of what actually happened, but the very possibility that any one interpretation could be more valid, more true, than any other. The Trojan horse carrying this subversive message was initially what Himmelfarb calls “history-from-below,” which sought to supplant the traditional teaching of history – the grand narratives, with their focus on monarchs and generals and statesmen – with an understanding of the living conditions of ordinary men and women. This was followed by more fashionable trends: “that which explains everything in terms of race, class and gender; that which “structuralizes” history, displacing individuals, events, and ideas by impersonal structures, forces, and institutions, and that which “deconstructs” it, making all statements about the past aesthetic constructs of the historian.” The great precursor of this way of thinking was of course Marxism, whose allure always lay more in its sweeping narrative of destiny, in which the oppressed would one day turn the tables on their oppressors, than on its applicability to actual events, past or present. But such approaches, Himmelfarb argues, are fatally flawed:

The effect in each case is to mute the drama of history, to void it of moral content, to mitigate evil and belittle greatness. It is ironic to find these schools flourishing at a time when the reality of history has been all too dramatic, when we have plumbed the depths of degradation and witnessed heroic efforts of redemption. Looking into the most fearsome abysses of modern times, these historians see not beasts but faceless bureaucrats, not corpses but statistics, not willful acts of brutality and murder but the banal routine of everyday life, not gas chambers and gulags but military-industrial-geopolitical complexes.

In one of this book’s most devastating chapters, Himmelfarb probes into the pasts of some of deconstructionism’s most famous practitioners, and finds not only support for Nazism (Heidegger and Paul de Man, most famously), but a craven willingness to defend Nazi sympathizers. (Jacques Derrida famously came to de Man’s defence, in an essay that exemplifies the creative powers of post-modernists to redefine language as they see fit.)

The most recent and most public example of po-mo history in action is provided to us by the New York Times and their now-infamous 1619 Project, which sought to “reframe” the story of America’s founding not, as was commonly understood, in a revolt against England in defence of national sovereignty, but in a revolt against England in defence of the institution of slavery. History, you’ll recall, is merely interpretive, and the new interpretation, mandated by the moral necessity of combatting white supremacy, must calumniate the very founding of the country. Only after months of pushback from leading historians, many of whom were not even consulted on a project bearing directly on their expertise, has the Times backed away from their initial claim, albeit by issuing the smallest of corrections. “This is the twofold agenda of postmodernism: to free history from the shackles of an authoritarian ideology, and to release it from the constraints of a delusive methodology,” Himmelfarb writes. “The ultimate aim is even more ambitious: to liberate us all from the coercive ideas of truth and reality.” Remember those words the next time someone decries the fact that we live in a “post-truth” society, for these once-obscure theorists have been frighteningly successful.