Commentary Magazine

On Looking Into the Abyss, by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Confronting the “Isms”

On Looking Into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society.
by Gertrude Himmelfarb.
Knopf. 192 pp. $23.00.

The historian Gertrude Himmelfarb’s latest collection of essays displays all the virtues that readers have come to expect from her—lucid intelligence, wide-ranging scholarship, penetrating judgment. Good manners, too: she remains, as she has always been, a restrained and courteous controversialist. Yet one can also detect, however much it is kept under control, a new note of exasperation, even at times a hint of outright disgust.

Such sentiments are entirely in order, since almost all the essays deal with the disasters that have overtaken intellectual life in recent years. Three in particular tackle prevailing fashions head-on. The title essay, “On Looking Into the Abyss,” considers deconstruction and related ailments, especially as they have affected literary criticism, philosophy, and the study of history. “Postmodernist History” is about just that. “Heroes, Villains, and Valets”—which originally appeared in COMMENTARY (June 1991)—sets in perspective contemporary attempts to undermine the idea that some books or ideas or events or personalities are more significant than others.

The “abyss” in the essay on de-construction is the abyss of meaninglessness (or of surfeit of meaning, which comes to much the same thing). In the world of de-construction, the interpreter takes precedence over the thing interpreted, and—not to put too fine a point upon it—any interpretation goes. The most obvious aim of such a creed is to weaken our hold on reality, chiefly by denying that there is any reality for us to get hold of; its most probable effect, if we were to take it seriously, would be to induce feelings of despair and dread. But the abyss of the deconstructionists, as Miss Himmelfarb says, is a purely linguistic one. It offers us a soft landing; it positively invites us to start frisking around.

No feature of deconstruction is in fact more striking than its programmatic will to playfulness. Miss Himmelfarb quotes some memorable examples: the Yale critic Geoffrey Hartman praising deconstructionist critics as “clowns and jongleurs,” Richard Rorty exhorting his fellow philosophers to “josh people out of the habit” of taking moral issues seriously. She might have added that in recent years “carnival” and “carnivalesque” have become particularly okay critical terms. Life is a cabaret, old chum—though not a very amusing one. In practice, the verbal wit of deconstructionists tends to be as elephantine as their slogans would lead one to expect, and there are times when the whole enterprise seems not much more than an excuse for making bad puns. (A random example: I open a well-produced journal of art history, emanating from a major university, and there is an article on homoerotic motifs in Alfred Hitchcock entitled “Anal Rope.”)

Sometimes the joshing and jongling assume a more sinister aspect. Miss Himmelfarb also cites a description of the late literary critic Paul de Man, also of Yale, as “the only man who ever looked into the abyss and came away smiling.” I must admit that I have a strong, possibly unworthy, desire to wipe that particular smile off that particular face. Not of course that there was any necessary link between de Man’s later deconstructionist writings and the views he had once promulgated in a pro-Nazi newspaper in occupied Belgium in 1941 and 1942. But de-construction does not seem to have been any kind of hindrance to his hushing-up of those views, and it certainly enabled his admirers to resort to the most ludicrous sophistries in his defense—tricks to make the angels weep.



Turning from the deconstructionists to the postmodernists, Miss Himmelfarb notes that the historians among them are equally dedicated to the pleasure principle—to history, as she says, “at the pleasure of the historian.” They yearn to be considered creative and imaginative; casting off the chains of mere causal and chronological “narrativity,” they nonetheless tend to conceive of history as a form of fiction. Postmodernist fiction, to be sure: what one of them has called “a historiographic metafiction.”

As with the playfulness of the deconstructionists, there is a gulf here between the aspiration and (as far as I can judge) the mostly leaden results. But it is the theoretical stance that counts: that, and the rejection of established standards. Miss Himmelfarb is especially good on the contrast between the postmodernists and their modernist predecessors, between yesterday’s “relativistic” relativism and the “absolutistic” version that has succeeded it. The earlier modernists, like most good historians before them, were well aware that perfect objectivity is unobtainable; the difference is that they still thought objectivity was worth striving for, and that above all this entailed the critical sifting of evidence. In order to “demystify” such supposedly false history, postmodernism, in Miss Himmelfarb’s words, “has to expose not only its ideology—the hegemonic, privileged, patriarchal interests” that the old sort of history allegedly serves—“but also its methodology, the scholarly apparatus that gives it a specious credibility.”



It will be clear from the type of interests it sets out to unmask (and Miss Himmelfarb’s brief list is an accurate one) that postmodernism does not operate in a vacuum. For the most part it has a political agenda, or rather a choice of agendas—some of them in potential conflict with one another, but all of them radical. True, it also has its radical critics, neo-Marxists in particular; but even they have been known to feel the charm of its subversive implications.

And what of deconstruction? It, too, presents itself as a liberation movement, which means that the most important question we can ask about it is: liberation for the sake of what? Often, no doubt, liberation as an end in itself, which is an attractive enough ideal until you have to start picking up the pieces. As Miss Himmelfarb remarks elsewhere in this collection, in an essay on John Stuart Mill, if absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, so does absolute liberty.

But then absolute liberty is itself a form of power—the power to destroy without having to face the consequences. And one way or another it is on the power they confer that the various “isms” Miss Himmelfarb discusses seem to me to base their ultimate appeal. Often, it is true, it is no more than literary or academic power: the traditional exultation of the intellectual in his ability to “see through” things, to dislodge his predecessors, to know more about you than you know yourself. But let us hope that things remain at that level, that these particular ideas are not translated into action as they filter down through the media and the instruments of mass education.



The presumption against greatness—“the valet-like conception of history,” about which Miss Himmelfarb writes so well—can itself be seen as a move in the intellectual power game; and like other such moves, it is not without its ironies. A climate in which heroes are supposed to be cut down to size is also one in which leading campus pundits (if they are deemed to be sufficiently subversive) are accorded a star status that very few of their predecessors ever enjoyed.

Miss Himmelfarb introduces us to the term “BG”—“Big Guy”; she first heard it, as a variant on DWM or Dead White Male, from “the head of the women’s-studies program in a distinguished college,” who explained that the objectionable thing about the BG’s of the past was not only that they were Guys but also that they were Big, and hence “privileged.” I am not quite sure where this leaves Big Persons like Emily Dickinson or Madame Curie, but I am even more curious as to whether the objection to bigness, which plainly takes in Beethoven and Shakespeare, also extends to more recent avatars like (shall we say?) the deconstructionists Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. I doubt it; in any case, there are certainly some feminists (Miss Himmelfarb quotes Joan Wallach Scott) who believe that Foucault and Derrida “can offer feminism a powerful analytic perspective.”

Postmodern often means post-Marxist as well, and Marx cuts a decidedly old-fashioned figure in the one essay in this book in which he bulks large. “From Marx to Hegel” takes its cue from Vaclav Havel’s observation that the lesson of recent history is that “Consciousness precedes Being”—as Hegel maintained—“and not the other way round, as the Marxists claim.” Insofar as Miss Himmelfarb’s essay reads like an epitaph for Marx, it may be a bit optimistic: I am not yet convinced that we have really killed the snake, and that we may not have to go on scotching it. But Miss Himmelfarb makes some excellent points along the way—about Marx’s compulsion to present the proletariat in an unattractive light, for instance, even while speaking on its behalf and in its name.

By contrast, an essay on nationalism and religion is the one piece in the collection that feels skimpy: Miss Himmelfarb simply does not have enough space to do justice to an elaborate theme. Yet even here she manages to make an observation which ought to be familiar, but is not, and which is all the more valuable on that account:

It is one of the bitter ironies of history that now, when the newer nationalities are becoming more aggressive and brutal, the older ones are becoming more diffident and passive, reluctant to affirm the legitimacy of their own civic, pacific mode of nationalism, let alone to impugn the legitimacy of the despotic tribal mode that is now emerging.

A subtitle describes the essays that make up On Looking Into the Abyss as “Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society.” They are untimely only in the sense that they resist and reject the fashions of the day; in every other sense they are as timely as they could be.

About the Author

John Gross is the editor most recently of The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. His “Mr. Virginia Woolf” appeared in the December 2006 COMMENTARY.

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