Historian looks into the present 'Abyss'

March 24, 1994|By John E. McIntyre | John E. McIntyre,Sun Staff Writer

"No man," said Samuel Johnson, "forgets his original trade: the rights of nations and of kings sink into questions of grammar if grammarians discuss them."

Gertrude Himmelfarb, a distinguished historian and professor emeritus of history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, has assembled a collection of essays on the deficiencies of contemporary culture. One, on its first publication, generated more letters than anything else she had written: a lament over the decline of footnotes in books by academic historians.

Whether or not footnotes best illustrate our malaise, her "jeu d'esprit" demonstrates tenacity in argument. Having learned the craft under the strictest of constructionists, Kate L. Turabian of the University of Chicago, Dr. Himmelfarb harbors the darkest suspicions of any enterprise that dismisses thorough documentation and the offer of evidence in support of conclusions as an academic fetish: ". . . the indifference to form inevitably engenders an indifference to content. Having violated the proprieties of sequence, punctuation, and the like, the author is tempted to be careless about such details as accuracy and relevance."

In short, she champions traditional standards in a degenerate age. These essays, she says forthrightly, are "dedicated to the proposition that there are such things as truth and reality and that there is a connection between them, as there is also a connection between the aesthetic sensibility and the moral imagination, between culture and society."

The opponents lurking in the opposing trenches are the academic exponents of relativism -- the shock troops of postmodernism and deconstruction. "The beasts of modernism have mutated into the beasts of postmodernism -- relativism into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity, sexual deviancy into polymorphous perversity." The burrowing of the deconstructionists has hollowed out and flattened heroism, has reduced the difference between truth and untruth, good and evil, to an arbitrary pattern of words in texts.

There is much in her enterprise that commands respect. In the title essay, she could hardly be wrong in her description of how the "abyss" -- the void in human experience described by Nietzsche and explored by the great modernist writers -- gets trivialized by the facile chatter of university faculty and students.

The essay on John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" zeros in on the the adversarial relationship between individual and society presumed in the essay -- the tendency to carry individuality's demands to extremes destructive of the very "civilization that would continue to impose upon individuals the 'eminently artificial discipline' that was the moral corrective to human nature."

There is merit in the insight in the essay on the practice of history that "Postmodernism, even more than overtly than Marxism, makes of history -- the writing of history as much as the 'praxis' of history -- an instrument in the struggle for power." Yet, admirable as her defense of the old virtues is, doubts arise.

Those of us who grew up in rural fastnesses rebelling against small-town conventions (and I grew up in a place in which it was still possible to read Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street" as a profoundly liberating work as recently as 1965) may have come to see in middle age that we sacrificed something valuable of shared values and identity. But Dr. Himmelfarb's exploration of the defects of rampant individualism neglects to explore just how the decayed virtues of "tradition and convention, morality and religion" are to be restored. One hopes not by some of the practitioners of morality and religion who are reaching for the levers of the coercive power of the state.

And while few will shed tears for deconstructionists over the administration of a sharp rap to the noggin on an academic orthodoxy that favors an impenetrable jargon, something here also falls short of the mark. One source Dr. Himmelfarb cites is a deeply sappy New Criterion article by a student who left graduate school rather than navigate the intellectual currents of her time because the deconstructionists did not fit her sentimentalized view of what graduate study had been under the New Critics 30 years before. (It does pay to check the notes.) Do we reach for any stick to beat the opposition, or do we take the trouble to examine the cultural forces to which postmodernism speaks? Even the French do not generate academic movements out of sheer perversity.

Dr. Himmelfarb's seriousness is admirable, her accomplishment as a historian undeniable. One picks up her book "The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age" and feels that a lost world has been recovered through immense labor and examined under a new light. Her discoveries about the past are more compelling than her commentary on the present.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "On Looking Into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society"

Author: Gertrude Himmelfarb

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 192 pages, $25

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