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ON LOOKING INTO THE ABYSS by Gertrude Himmelfarb


Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society

by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Pub Date: Feb. 15th, 1994
ISBN: 0-679-42826-7
Publisher: Knopf

 In seven essays and addresses on postmodern thought, Himmelfarb (Emeritus, History/CUNY) becomes the conscience of contemporary intellectual life. These essays, like the author's Poverty and Compassion (1991), pay tribute to Lionel Trilling's concept of the ``moral imagination,'' of which Himmelfarb offers a consummate example. Her concern: the intellectual arrogance and spiritual vacancy of postmodern literary criticism, philosophy, and history, their denial of reality, of truth, of facts, seriousness, moral issues, narrative, dates, even meaning, enabling them to belittle such monumental tragedies as the Holocaust, which becomes, at best, a pattern, a problem, a symptom, even the subject of comic books. Those deconstructionists or any of the other fashionable theorists whose only reality is language, for whom philosophy is ``play of mind,'' who have substituted aesthetics and rhetoric for morality, betray their disciplines and vocations, Himmelfarb charges. She attacks not only the ``unrepentant Nazis'' De Mann and Heidegger, but also their disciples and defenders--Derrida, Foucault, Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman, Richard Rorty, Shoshana Felman--for disguising their intellectual and moral poverty behind ``play of mind,'' fashion, and idiosyncrasy. In chapters on Marx and Hegel, on John Stuart Mill and liberty, on the timely and treacherous association between nationalism and religion, Himmelfarb illustrates the perils of confusing the reality principle with the pleasure principle, and indicts the moral lassitude of postmodern intellectuals and the degeneration of values epitomized even in the decline of footnotes. Essential reading for anyone in academic life, faculty or student, who has been exposed to what Himmelfarb identifies as professors with the minds of valets: incapable of appreciating greatness themselves, they deprive their students both of their heroes and traditions. A powerful corrective.