On Looking into the Abyss:
Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Every few years it seems we are forcefully reminded of how the academy and the liberal state are tied together inextricably and that any radical attempt to change the former threatens the very existence of the latter. This, in short, is the subject of the eminent historian Gertrude Himmelfarb's new collection of essays. A thoughtful diatribe against those who would treat philosophy as poetics and politics as aesthetics, On Looking into the Abyss shows the worthlessness of the intellectual currency traded in most places of higher education today.
In each learned essay, she contends that the current academic fad of poststructuralism and its skepticism towards 'meta-narratives' have consciously blurred the distinction between the greatest tragedies and achievements of our civilization. The result is the moral obtuseness and intellectual numbness of many in the academy today, both faculty and students. Himmelfarb shows that postmodernism as an ideology is not at all an abstract debate about the virtues of decentering authors and questioning "modes of emplotment."
Rather, postmodernism's ideology is founded on the defanging of the beasts of twentieth-century evil. Consequently, the Holocaust always lurks menacingly in the background of these essays. In the introduction to the book, Himmelfarb herself calls attention to the Holocaust as a 'rebuke to historians, philosophers and literary critics who, in their zeal for one or another of the intellectual fashions of our time, belittle or demean one of the greatest tragedies of all time."
Himmelfarb goes on to write that "historians who think it the highest calling of their profession to resurrect 'the daily life of ordinary people' can find little evidence in the daily life of ordinary Germans of the overwhelming fact of life--and of death--for millions of Jews." She contends that "those who look for the 'long-term' processes and impersonal 'structures' in history tend to explain this 'short-term event' in such a way as to explain it away: and those seeking to 'deconstruct' the history of the Holocaust as they deconstruct all of history come perilously close to the 'revisionists' who deny the reality of the Holocaust."
Himmelfarb has perceptively traced the contours of the pestilence that threatens truth, which is the very purpose of the university. But Himmelfarb does more than describe the pestilence. Indeed, employing some of the same lines of argument as Allan Bloom, Himmelfarb confronts this pestilence with the tools of reason and moral virtue that Moderns and Ancients (a term which applies to any one who seeks the truth--rather than truths) share in their joint struggle to beat back the dangerous aspects of the postmodern herd.
Himmelfarb rightly states that "for the historian, as for the philosopher, the quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns is being superceded by a quarrel between the Moderns and the Post-moderns. If the greatest subversive principle of modernity is historicism--a form of relativism that locates the meaning of ideas and events so firmly in their historical context that history, rather than philosophy and nature, becomes the arbiter of truth--postmodernism is now confronting us with a far more subversive form of relativism, a relativism so radical, so absolute, as to be antithetical to both history and truth."
On Looking in the Abyss is a trenchant analysis of the postmodern condition and its threat to liberalism and the liberal imagination. The subtitle of Himmelfarb's short book is 'Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society," and she means it. By arguing for the restoration of partial truths and solid standards, Himmelfarb's book is a Modern's response to the postmodern condition. Since Himmelfarb is now a professor emeritus and a historian of nineteenth-century England, one might be tempted to discount her description of the current impoverished state of the humanities. This would be a grave mistake.
Himmelfarb has compiled seven essays and lectures here, forming a sustained and coherent argument against some of the contemporary trends in American higher education and culture. On Looking into the Abyss is one of the most important books young minds (and old ones too, I suppose) should be aware of and reading.
But to say that the subject of this somber book is the postmodern 'condition' would imply that the condition is now universal, perhaps even ingrained in human nature and society. This is empirically a falsehood, since, for the most part, Zulus and Czech window-washers do not fret over, let alone care, about postmodernism (yet!).
Moreover, the fact that we can say it is a falsehood means that postmodernism is not in fact ingrained in human nature or society today, because by its very nature, postmodernism does not accept notions of truth.
All I can say is thank goodness we never actually arrived at this imaginary place beyond good and evil, the place where we would not be able even to mark the 'partial, contingent, incremental truths of Moderns, let alone the truths of the Ancients. On Looking into the Abyss is a lucid explanation to those like Paul De Man who, when they looked into the abyss and walked away smiling, should really have wept.