On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society

Author: Marian Therese Horvat

On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society

by Gertrude Himmelfarb (New York: Knopf), 192 pp. review by Marian Therese Horvat

It is not a comfortable position or a place for the fainthearted: to stand on the edge of the abyss of postmodernism, to peer in, and to dare to criticize the beasts of contemporary intellectual fashion. But that is exactly what distinguished historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, .who lacks neither intellectual integrity or courage, dares to do in her recent excellent and polemic collection of essays titled . In these seven essays, Himmelfarb assails the postmodern culture and deals with a wide range of subjects - history, philosophy, literature, liberalism, Marxism, nationalism and postmodernism.

Her book is also a homage to Lionel Trilling, the author of (1950) and many other works about the culture that had a great influence on the intellectual and postwar academia in the US and Europe; today he is little known and read. Trilling was not a liberal in economics, although he was a political liberal, by his defense of what was for him the supreme virtue of tolerance and of the law as an instrument of justice. He had a firm faith in ideas as the motor of progress and a unwavering conviction that great literary works enrich life, improve men, and sustain civilization.

For the postmodern, these beliefs are nothing but ingenuous archaisms or supine stupidity. Prof. Himmelfarb shows how, despite the few years that separate Lionel Trilling from a Derrida or a Foucault, there is a veritable uninfrangible abyss between them. Today's avant-garde in literature, history, philosophy deny ("playfully" so, mind you, since "deny" already speaks with too dogmatic a tone) that human history has meaning, progress is a possible reality, and literature is an activity of the imagination with roots in history and a safeguard in morality. Himmelfarb takes a counter-offensive, and boldly states from the beginning that her book is dedicated "to the proposition that there are such things as truth and reality, and there is a connection between them, as there is also a connection between the aesthetic sensibility and the moral imagination, between culture and society." (p. xii) For Himmelfarb, ideas do have consequences.

The abyss in the essay on deconstruction is the abyss of meaninglessness. For the generation of Lionel Trilling, literary criticism centered on the central questions of what it is to be human, because it saw in literature testimony for the excellence of ideas, myths, beliefs, and dreams that make society function, as well as the secret frustrations and stimuli that explain human behavior. Not so today, states Himmelfarb. In the world of deconstruction, the interpreter takes precedence over the thing interpreted. Its most obvious aim is to weaken our hold on reality, since it denies there is any reality, since it denies there is any reality for us to grasp.

When university students gaze into this literary and cultural Abyss of postmodernity, they no longer instinctively recoil with horror at the dread beasts within that are subversive of culture, society, morality, conventional sexuality. At best, they breathe, "How interesting, how exciting!" and proceed to discuss and to legitimize the subversive and anti-cultural with a sophist sophistication. Even the most tragic and repulsive acts and sentiments of humanity can thus be made something abstract, deprived of their powerful vital force, of their capacity to stimulate the reader to natural responses of indignation or horror. Professor Himmelfarb warns with melancholy about the waters of this current, which reach the point where a Paul de Man could come to deconstruct the Holocaust in an intellectual operation not that far removed from revisionist historians who are pledged to deny the extermination of millions of Jews by the Nazis. This is to de-historicize, or de-idealize, history, and it effect is "to mute the drama of history, to void it of moral content, to mitigate evil and belittle greatness."

This is postmodern history at its worst, which Himmelfarb defines in her final essay as "a far more subversive form of relativism, a relativism so radical, so absolute, as to be antithetical to both history and truth."

In the 18th century, Voltaire with his characteristic irreverence called historical details "the vermin that destroy books." But the postmodernists have taken this disdain for tedious work in the archives to radical extremes. It is truth itself that is denied by postmodernism, be it in literary theory, history, philosophy, anthropology, law, or theology.

Acting on traits inherited from its forefathers, Nietzsche and Heidegger, and its fathers, Derrida and Foucault, postmodern history denies the fixity of the past, of the reality of the past apart from what the historian chooses to make of it, and thus of any objective truth about the past. As Himmelfarb so aptly notes, "postmodern history recognizes no reality principle, only the pleasure principle - history at the pleasure of the historian." (p. 133) Should it come as any surprise that the radical potential of postmodernism has been recognized and seized by feminist historians, who aim to rewrite all history from a feminist perspective? And then, why shouldn't black historians and homosexuals seize the moment to exploit their interests as well? As Himmelfarb points out, Multiculturalism has the obvious effect of politicizing history. Today's universities celebrate feminine and homosexual history; meanwhile, we have been liberated from the "coercive" ideas of truth and reality.

"We require a history," meta-historian Hayden White explains, "that will educate us to discontinuity more than ever before; for discontinuity, disruption, and chaos is our lot." (155) This is the abyss that the mad critic of modern culture Nietzsche dared to look into without the shield of faith. He should have heeded the warning he gave: "He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee." The abyss did, indeed, gaze into him as he was enveloped by insanity. And the monsters of the abyss are transforming society into the chaotic and mad world of postmodernism where the of man becomes increasingly dim.

In , Christopher Dawson makes his own prophetic analysis of these days: The new paganism

"is the unloosing of the powers of the abyss - the dark forces that have been chained by a thousand years of Christian civilization and which have now been set free to conquer the world. For the will to power is also the will to destruction, and in the last event it becomes the will to self-destruction." (p.9)

In the essay, , Himmelfarb tries to revitalize the idea of greatness - historical greatness, literary greatness, moral greatness. "No man is a hero to his valet," said Madame de Sevigne, but Himmelfarb believes we have been reduced to live with a valet's view of the world. While Victorian heroes could make no claim to greatness of soul (magalopsychia), she notes, they nonetheless had an individuality and high-mindedness that is disallowed in our times. The new history eliminates the last remnants of heroism by denying the very idea of eminence and the very idea of individuality. Following the egalitarian trends in culture, literature and history have displaced all elitist figures, in order to rescue the poor, anonymous common man. Even epic themes, like the Discovery of America, have been reduced and redefined as invasion, to destroy the epic dimension of the event.

And if there can be no heroes, so also there can be no villains. For example, even in recent histories of the Soviet Union, there is a tendency to deny that the tyranny imposed was the result of an ideology that was intentionally terrorist and totalitarian. In the end, a world without heroes and villains is a world without virtue and vice, without greatness of any kind, without momentous events in history. The most frightening feature of this gloomy specter is that man may lose the ability, or perhaps the will, to make distinctions between the trivial and the truly important.

In perhaps her most daring and interesting essay, , Himmelfarb proves her jousting prowess, taking on the giant of modern liberalism, John Stuart Mill. She successfully argues that his doctrine of the absolute liberalism of the individual in society lends itself to relativism. If truth can be relativized, then so can morality. This was something that Nietzsche understood and predicted. When modern liberalism had finally dissolved all the bonds between religion and morality, he prophesied morality would finally become a problem for the English.

That day has arrived. Mill would agree that morality cannot be legislated. But in the name of absolute liberty, we have passed laws that condone sexual promiscuity, undermine family values, sanction homosexual marriages, and defend obscene and pornographic material. Himmelfarb bemoans the essentially materialist culture she sees in her beloved America that "prohibits insalubrious foods, but not sadistic movies" and "prevents racial segregation but not moral degradation." In this she sees the tendency of absolute liberty to subvert the very liberty it seeks to preserve, because it invests itself with the power to destroy without having to face the consequences.

This process can be clearly seen in the religious sphere, which Himmelfarb summarizes in the essay, From Marx to Hegel. As Hegel notes, liberalism made Reason sovereign of the world. Each man could rely on his own reason, deigning to accept as true what appeared rational to him according to his own individual judgment. This set the stage for the reception of David Strauss's , which asserts the miracles recounted in the Gospels are not literally true, but mythically true. A few years later, Bruno Bauer denied even their mythical content and reduced them to fiction. Next, Feuerbach represented religion as the failure of man's critical reason, failure of man's very ability to realize himself as a man. (Man is the god of man.) When Max Stirner went one step further and affirmed the only reality is the Ego, the self, we see the end of the transition that he himself dares to proclaim: "I have founded my affair on nothing."

Himmelfarb points out some excellent contradictions in Marx: his compulsion to present his "hero," the proletariat, in an unattractive light; the lie of the "immiseration theory of history" disproved by history itself which clearly shows that the conditions of the working classes were improving in the West; the essentially apocalyptic vision burning behind his materialist interpretation of history. However, Himmelfarb's essay, which almost reads as an epitaph of Marx, may be somewhat optimistic. Perhaps Marx might be "turning in his grave" as he contemplates a new humanist Marxism that is replacing the ideology of communism. But Marx's view of the socially forward nature of history led him, as the determinist, to regard with hostility the traditional affiliations of family, community, association, and religion. Before we announce the snake as killed, it might be better to analyze more closely the metamorphosis it may be undergoing in the realm of today's cultural revolution.

Likewise, while Himmelfarb's analysis is keen and penetrating, her resolution to the whole question of liberalism seems somewhat artifical and optimistic. She suggests we will find relief in this storm by repairing to another liberal tradition, that of Montesquieu, our Founding Fathers, Tocqueville, and a more conservative Mill, the "other Mill." In , Christopher Dawson, points to a more satisfactory answer: "The modern dilemma is essentially a spiritual one, and every one of its main aspects, moral, political, and scientific, brings us back to the need of a religious solution."

He points out that strict moralists of the past were able "to clothe atheism in the frock cost and top hat of Victorian respectability." The answer does not lie in a return to this kind of superficial veneer. The answer lies in a return to Christianity not merely as a moral ideal or set of ideas but as a concrete reality:

But if Christianity is to regain its influence, it must recover its unity and its social activity. The religious individualism of the last age, with its self-centered absorption in the question of personal salvation and private religious emotion, will not help us. The Christianity of the future must be a social Christianity that is embodied in a real society, not an imaginary or invisible one. And this society must not be merely a part of the existing social and political order, like the established churches of the past. It must be an independent and universal society, not a national or local one. The only society that fulfills these conditions is the Catholic Church, the most ancient yet, at the same time, the most adaptable of all existing institutions. ... It was by virtue of the Catholic ideal of spiritual unity that the social unity of European culture emerged from the welter of barbarism, and the modem world stands no less in need of such an ideal if it is to realize in the future the wider unity of world civilization." From , Ch. 5.

(Editorial Note by John J. Mulloy: Somewhat disturbing in a book of this kind, in which Professor Himmelfarb is commendably trying to counter the spread of a hedonistic and nihilist culture, is the dedication of the book to Lionel Trilling, at one time professor of literature at Columbia University. For in an article in 1961 Trilling wrote the following, which seems to negate the idea of any restraints upon the gratification of one's instincts:

"...The end is not merely freedom from the middle class, but freedom from society itself. I venture to say that the idea of losing oneself up to the point of self-destruction, of surrendering oneself to experience without regard to self-interest or conventional morality, of escaping wholly from societal bonds is an 'element' somewhere in the mind of every modern person.

"But the teacher who undertakes to present modern literature to his students may not allow that idea to remain in the of his mind; he must take it from the place where it exists habitual and unrealized and put it in the conscious forefront of his thought. And if he is committed to an admiration of modern literature, he must also be committed to this chief idea of modern literature." "On the Modern Element in Modern Literature," published in 1961, later included in ed. by Irving Howe (New York: Horizon Press, 1967), pp. 80-81.

Whether Trilling's conception of modern literature is correct or not, that is what he found there and what he wished to promote with his students, using modern literature as his justification for this wholly subversive attitude toward society. Is it any wonder that, at this same Columbia University, it was only three of four years later that the SDS tore the university apart and spread its activities like a conflagration to universities in other parts of the Country? Trilling does not seem, therefore, a reliable guide for the restoration of a sane and balanced judgment to our society.)

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Spring 1995, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.