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On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society
By Gergrude Himmelfarb
Knopf 192 pp. $23

“Ideas,” wrote the Victorian and Roman Catholic historian Lord Acton, “have a radiation and development, an ancestry and posterity of their own, in which men play the part of godfathers and godmothers more than that of legitimate parents.” Gertrude Himmelfarb has found repeated occasion over the years to quote Acton’s words, for they assign to ideas the untimely logic and the illogical timeliness that are both required for the intellectual history Professor Himmelfarb practices so well.

There is an old-fashioned sort of scholarship that studies ideas primarily as logical. “Philosophy consists in the concepts of philosophers, taken in the naked, impersonal necessity of both their contents and their relations,” Etienne Gilson declares in The Unity of Philosophical Experience (a book whose title betrays on several counts just how old-fashioned it has become). “The history of these concepts and of their relationships is the history of philosophy itself.” And there is another sort of scholarship, only recently become old-fashioned, that studies ideas primarily as temporal their contents predetermined by their presence at a moment in the history of something transhistorical: the Spirit of Freedom, Rationality, and Self-Consciousness, according to Hegel, or the economic class struggle, according to Marx. Ideas as Lord Acton describes them, however, have both an internal logic and an external timeliness, a content that is independent of time (though its consequences unfold in time) and an appearance at a particular moment in time for good historical reasons. The job of the intellectual historian is to explore the intersection of logic and time to explore, in Professor Himmelfarb’s case, a Victorian history in which Mill, Carlyle, Darwin, Newman, Arnold, and George Eliot are neither timeless gods delivering ideas as Zeus delivered Athena nor mindless puppets of history, but serious thinkers of serious purpose whose lives and times naturally suggested topics for their thought and whose influential thought itself constitutes an important part of history.

Postmodernist history, however, refuses to grant the reality of either logic or time, though it does perhaps grant that history contains their intersection. History for the postmodernists is a fiction of order, an imposition of narrative and causal sequence on a set of historical documents the interpretation of which is complicated by the fact that at a certain point (somewhere around the Enlightenment, in our old-fashioned way of dating) the documents begin to betray an awareness of themselves as historical. History for the postmodernist is a novel by historians in which, three-quarters of the way through, the characters discover they are characters in a novel.

That the single truth of manifold truthlessness had already been expressed so often and so well would probably silence historians in a world in which postmodernism had triumphed. Before that day of triumph, however, postmodernism offers historians rewarding opportunities to shock and offend (without risking the usual consequences of shocking and offending) by presenting the histories of blasphemy, horror, insanity, silence, censorship, murder, oppression, rape the darkness and the meanness that was always, for our sins, present in the world. An interest in these histories is the origin of the common cause made with postmodernism by feminist historians, who at least (whatever one thinks of their political aims and historical techniques) believe they have a moral responsibility to reclaim the neglected memory of women oppressed in the past. Postmodernist historians can claim no such responsibility; at last, they can only exploit the history of the neglected and oppressed in order to disrupt any claim to historical understanding.

This immorality of deconstructive postmodernism is finally what concerns Professor Himmelfarb in the opening and concluding essays of On Looking into the Abyss . Her writing is charged with a moral sense that has become weightier and more at the center of her thought since her Victorian Minds in 1968’a gravitas more appropriate to her later years, as she observes. The seven essays in On Looking into the Abyss were written for various occasions, and their unity comes not so much from their similar themes as from their similar moral weight. The book takes up several topics: academic postmodernism; the relation of Hegel and the young Marx to the collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe; Mill’s “One Very Simple Principle” in On Liberty (a text to which Professor Himmelfarb has turned many times); “The Dark and Bloody Crossroads” where nationalism and religion continue to meet despite Francis Fukuyama’s recent proclamation of the “End of History”; the disappearance of footnotes in historical writing. But underlying them all is Professor Himmelfarb’s concern with ideas in history and our ability to learn from them. Again and again, the essays appeal to three “notes” (as John Henry Newman might have called them) of her faith in the importance of history: a confidence in the possibility of the moral imagination; a certainty in the meaningfulness of the Holocaust; and a belief in the small but hard-won virtues of professionalism in the discipline of history.

In the French Revolution’s “empire of light and reason,” Edmund Burke complained, “all the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off.” “All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies” are to be discarded. Burke’s clothing metaphor is exact: clothes, like morals, are super-added which is to say that morals, like clothes, would be fripperies were it always light and warm. But we live instead where it is too often cold and dark; beyond the French Revolution Napoleon waits, as beyond the Russian Revolution Stalin waits. The “moral imagination,” a contemplation of feeling by an understanding accustomed to consider actions in moral terms, Burke thinks to be our best protection against tyranny.

Of course, the problem with moral imagination, as Professor Himmelfarb observes, is that it takes hard work. “How the world is managed, and why it was created, I cannot tell,” A. E. Housman once gloomily wrote (about minor errors in the editing of Latin manuscripts), “but it is no feather-bed for the repose of sluggards.” A morality derived entirely from feeling the emotivism, for instance, that the Bloomsbury Group thought they found in G. E. Moore makes judgment an easy matter of aesthetic intuitions too much thought will only spoil. And a morality derived entirely from reason the socialist ethics, for instance, the English Marxists held in the 1930s’makes judgment an easy matter of asserting the need to reform the whole society according to some rational principle. But a morality based on the moral imagination requires both feeling and reason and long practice in using them to form and act upon judgments.

This sort of moral art cannot be taught, though it can be learned. In her essay “Of Heroes, Villains, and Valets,” Professor Himmelfarb examines recent biographers’ disdain for public life. We “contemplate with pleasure,” the pre-Victorian lyricist Thomas Moore said of his biography of Byron, “a great mind in its undress.” Believing we can see the real motives of public actors more clearly in their private behavior, Lytton Strachey mocked the eminent Victorians with details from their private lives. But it never occurred to either Moore or Strachey that public life was not somehow the reason for biography. Recent biographers, however, seem to deny the importance or even the reality of public life. If biographies of the famous are still being written, Professor Himmelfarb pointed out in her earlier Marriage and Morals among the Victorians , it is not because biographers believe in public life but simply because they have so much more material about the famous.

The denial of public life is a denial of heroes and villains, and the denial of heroes and villains makes the moral imagination Professor Himmelfarb demands impossible to learn. The dilemma of artistic practice is that the apprentice is required at that initial moment in which he lacks all knowledge in his chosen art to choose a master from whom to learn. By denying the public stage on which historical heroes and villains appear, we deny any chance for the ethical apprentice to learn the high-minded art of moral judgment from the models of history. A proper view of history, H. G. Wells claimed, would see Napoleon as a “cockerel on a dunghill” which means Napoleon teaches nothing distinct from what Wells thought every public actor teaches: the vanity of public actors.

Professor Himmelfarb draws the title of On Looking into the Abyss from an essay by Lionel Trilling, from whose example she learned that moral seriousness is the proper attitude of the critic and in whose essays she finds the moral imagination at work. Called upon to teach modern literature, Trilling discovered to his dismay that his students appreciated modernist writing. “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?” The situation has worsened, Professor Himmelfarb observes, for Trilling’s students were at least reading modern literature. Students today “are all too often reading books about how to read books.” The theory of literature has replaced literature with itself as the subject of its own theory. Professor Himmelfarb is sharp, witty, and relentless in denouncing the tail-swallowing of postmodernist theory and its further domestication of the Abyss.

The glibness with which postmodernists accept the failure of beauty, truth, and value stands in strange contrast to the feelings of the modernists who first observed it. There is something deeply immoral in the pragmatic amorality of the American deconstructionist Richard Rorty’s “light-minded estheticism” something much more immoral than Nietzsche’s deliberate anti-morality. “I myself, the one who has most single-handedly made this tragedy of tragedies,” Nietzsche declares in The Gay Science , “I myself have killed all gods in the fourth act out of morality! What should now become of the fifth act! Whence now take the tragic solution! Must I begin to think about a comic solution?” But Nietzsche’s laughter originates in outrage, and is directed as much at himself as at others. In the section of Twilight of the Idols entitled “Skirmishes of an Untimely Man” (which may have suggested to Professor Himmelfarb the “Untimely Thoughts” of her book’s subtitle), Nietzsche announces his disgust with the Victorians’ Carlyle, Mill, “little moralistic females a la Eliot” for their humorless failure to see they could not preserve Christian morality without the Christian God. After the death of God announced in The Gay Science , comedy alone remains; but it is a sick comedy, and its sickness calls forth Zarathustra’s mockery in Nietzsche’s next book. “And still laughed at the master who does not laugh at himself,” Nietzsche put in the epigraph to the second edition of The Gay Science (published after Thus Spake Zarathustra ). After Nietzsche’s mad, gigantic laughter, Rorty’s impulse to “recontextualize just for the hell of it” and to “josh” us out of serious morality seems small and unrelated to the broad, open, Whitmanesque American virtues it tries to evoke with its self-consciously hayseed colloquialisms. It seems all the more immoral for its glib acceptance of Nietzsche’s godless Abyss.

Elizabeth Anscombe once suggested that somewhere between Mill and G. E. Moore (probably, she says, with Sidgwick) a strange skew occurred, after which no English academic moral philosopher can explain why “it cannot be right to kill the innocent as a means to any end whatsoever and that someone who thinks otherwise is in error.” In the same way that Anscombe uses the murder of innocents as a touchstone by which to determine whether there is something wrong with a moral philosophy, Professor Himmelfarb uses the Holocaust to determine whether there is something wrong with a method of doing history. If a history devoted to “fictive” techniques and liberated from “fact fetishism” must twist and turn and violate its own theory to distinguish the wrongness of the Holocaust the Holocaust as wrong in particular and not as wrong simply by the wrongness supposed to be present in all political events we must reject its way of doing history.

Postmodernist philosophy is so truth-denying that it is hard to believe any historians actually hold it. The dating of historical events is deconstructed, Dominick LaCapra claims in a recent book on intellectual history, when we recognize its dependence on the “convenient fiction” of a dating system centered on the Birth of Christ. Professor Himmelfarb’s response of the unhistorical nature of dating French history with the Jewish calendar misses just how radical is the epistemology of Jacques Derrida on which LaCapra relies. The fact that there are infinitely many systems we could use to measure or locate a thing in space and time does not prove the arbitrariness of the thing’s measure or location, but only of the choice of system to express it. LaCapra’s argument is persuasive only if the measured thing has measure merely by virtue of our measuring it, location in time merely by virtue of our dating it; it is persuasive, in other words, only if past events have no reality independent of historians.

We really have a duty to maintain the reality of the past. In “Where Have All the Footnotes Gone?”’ a paean to Kate Turabian and the funniest essay in On Looking into the Abyss ’ Professor Himmelfarb defines professionalism in history as an act of faith in the discipline, respect toward the reader, and duty to past lives. The hermeneutic circle consists for historians in the fact that our present interests and assumptions, the concern with which leads us to investigate the past, are precisely what constitute our difference from that past. There is no easy escape from this circle, neither in denying the originating importance of the present nor in denying the real otherness of the past. Throughout her essays, Professor Himmelfarb sees the exercise of the professional virtues as marking the humility of the serious historian’s humility that requires the rejection of both the arrogant claim to recapture the past as it actually was and the arrogant claim of the unreality of the past.

Jorge Luis Borges, whose strange, logic-game fiction contains the most disturbing philosophical indictment of traditional history (just as his involvement with totalitarianism, like Heidegger’s and Paul de Man’s, contains a moral indictment of the denial of traditional history), entitles a brief essay “The Modesty of History.” Historians have always known, Professor Himmelfarb writes, “what postmodernism professes to have just discovered “that historical study is vulnerable to” the fallibility and deficiency of the historical record; the fallibility and selectivity inherent in the writing of history; and the fallibility and subjectivity of the historian.” Professor Himmelfarb herself has always known it. Victorian England is now “a civilization lost beyond recovery,” she wrote in her first book, published in 1952. We must suppose “a past that was as complicated and varied as we know the present to be,” she wrote in her fifth, published in 1984. But this gives no reason to abandon the hard work of professional history. In On Looking into the Abyss , her ninth book, Professor Himmelfarb demonstrates once again the possibilities offered to the historian with moral imagination and a modesty before the reality of the past.

Joseph Bottum contributed “Christians and Postmoderns” to our February 1994 issue.