What to Kill for? What to Die for? What to Think About?

by NORMAN SIMMS June 20, 2016

Some time ago I wrote a long review essay on a group of scholarly books in which, aside from my comments on how accurate they seemed to be, what uses they could serve for general and research purposes, and whether there were any underlying and distorting ideologies at work, it struck, me that almost all of the authors-but mostly the young ones, meaning those some thirty years or more younger than I was then-were approaching their historical subjects from the outside.  Now, another fifteen or so years along, I feel I should revisit this problem and expand upon my comments.

The problem still seems to be there in many, certainly not all cases, and it is now clearer that these youngish scholars...and, alas, to be frank, many of them are well into their fifties and beyond (as are my own children)...still approach their topics from the outside.  This is not, however, a matter of seeking scholarly objectivity, a good thing, to be sure, even if it is now probably  outmoded to think anyone can be as objective as nineteenth-century positivist thought one could or should be.  There is the question of moral objectivity, of taking all points of view and all political actions as part of their own time and place, and so beyond reproach; or, rather, the assumption is that the people involved, like their ideas and feelings, are not our own, and it would be wrong to treat them as though they meant anything to us or "impacted" on our lives. But even in saying this, I need to backtrack, because so many contemporary academics actually do take up moral positions vis-à-vis the persons and values of the past, whether dismissing them for their sexual biases, colonialist mentalities or sheer stupidity in not understanding science in our terms. Or that is what they seemed to be saying behind a thick layer of jargon and neologisms, much of which by its sheer weight, seemed to be the whole point of the article or book, that is, to prove their bona fides as members of the New Order of Criticism for the Sake of Criticism.

What I really mean about approaching the past from the outside is rather different.  After all, everyone always had to start from their own experiences and work their way into the subject by learning scholarly skills and doing a lot of reading.  I don't want to suggest that our contemporary scholars do not actually (or ever) have those particular philological or historiographical skills and have not learned a great deal about the people, places, things, ideas and actions they are studying.  It seems that despite these academic accomplishments the books and articles they publish are attempts to describe, discuss and understand as a foreign place in another universe (or should I say "planet" which seems to stand for both "world", "universe" and "cultural environment").  The object of their research seems to be, also, to make the past increasingly distant and other (part of "alterity"), brought into focus the way one does natural specimens and images of the cosmos in its earliest stages of evolution.  To me, this seems to be the very opposite of what scholarship is supposed to be all about.  Let me get more personal since I think we are talking less about a disagreement within the academy on what constitutes valid criticism and commentary, and more about an epistemological sea change-and perhaps even a shifting  of the intellectual earth off its axis.

The "issues" that are undissolved in this morass of controversy are not a cranky complaint about poor spelling, awkward syntax and shrinking lexicon of descriptive and critical words.  It is one thing to find established scholars mistaking infer and imply, using loose when they mean lose or confusing he/she/they/it in regard to the use of generic pronouns, and another to thrash about wildly unable to name people, places and things because the precise words have been swallowed up in political correctness. What do you call a contemporary dark-skinned person from Africa who is not an American? How do you designate a character in a nineteenth-century novel who comes from a colonial outpost but who was born in Europe, has mixed "blood" and is highly educated, but who resists the lure of rabid nationalism and biological racism of any sort?  Aybe you shouldn't call them anything. 

There are people who, for one reason or another, were not educated in the Ancient Classics of Greece and Rome, and thus do not recognize allusions and references in mediaeval or Renaissance literature, or who depend on vague and superficial annotations, yet purport to be experts in literary history by transforming such poetic and dramatic texts into sociological treatises to be parsed by our own standards of value and points of reference.  Similarly there are those who have not studied the books of the Bible either in their original languages or in translations that make evident the inherent puns, cross-references, and critical revisions. 

Yet what about someone who begins a study on the unconsciousness in art "practice" by saying that painters and sculptors are like Hansel and Gretel leave bread crumbs behind them for us to pick up on our journey towards aesthetic appreciation and insight, as though the writer never went beyond the point in the fairy tale where the crumbs are eaten up by the birds and the lost children are entrapped by the wicked witch whose gingerbread house lies hidden in the middle of the primeval forest? 

hen I began to become a scholar many years ago I also felt like an outsider and found the things I was told to read and think about incredibly foreign, way out of my experience and primary education as a naïve Jewish boy from middle-class Brooklyn.  But the literature, history, philosophy and other disciplines that were made available to me were not things to be kept at an objective distance.  Instead, the task, as I understood it then, and as I still believe, what I wanted to do was become part of that other culture-because it was, I felt in my bones and inferred from what was being lectured and discussed in classes, a vast treasure house of ideas and values that belonged to me as a human being.  Even if I didn't believe in everything that was there in the books and could not agree with all the opinions expressed, and even at times felt deep repugnance for some of the ways in which those ideas and opinions were applied, it was still my inheritance of the world.  What I was becoming a part of, moreover, was not contrary to my own feelings and beliefs as a Jew.  What seemed foreign, alien, other helped me understand what I had grown up to think about myself and to believe profoundly as true about the world.

But still another new "trope" (as it were, to use an overworked expression that has come to mean almost nothing) is one in which the modern commentator observes of an author or text from the distant past, yet not always very distant past, even just a few decades ago, "way back in the last century": that not only is the writer wrong (by not being up-to-date as is he himself or she herself (or more politically correct: not them or themselves/ves), but also the work in question is boring.  This boringness is manifest in the fact either that the style and/or vocabulary is difficult and therefore hardly worth the effort, since "no one in his or her or their right mind" would spend more than a moment actually pondering, meditating and studying something that is not immediately understandable and relevant (though I gather that "relevance" has become somewhat passé to those who are mindful and live in and for the moment); or that the ancient scribbler and the archaic piece of writing refer to people, place, things, events, values  and ideas that the reader has never heard of-and therefore, it stands to reason, as an unquestioned truism, that nobody wants to hear about things they never heard of before. 

Related to the above, let me add the tendency of people who put their opinions into writing in newspapers as though they were the newsmakers and authorities  or speak over the speeches they supposedly are reporting on, to demonstrate their ignorance by not knowing more than a few chapters or paragraphs in the books they review, substituting a few details from the author's life instead of or confounding it with the text, and belabouring the obvious and rehashing the old clichés which appear on social media, in Wikipedia or were once heard in a first year university lecture.  For instance, the people who speak about Cervantes' Don Quixote but are not quite sure where the author begins and the novel picks up, and certainly have not read more than the first two or three chapters of Part One; in the same way as wise journalists show that they have not gone past Books One and Two of Swift's Gulliver's Travels-or think they have read all of the satire because they watched cartoon versions of it on television when they were toddlers. 

King Canute of legend stood on an English shoreline and ordered the tide to recede. President Canute stood before a Beltway audience and ordered the war to end. Neither tide nor war obeyed.

Someone recently tried to draw this analogy between the ancient British-Danish monarch King Canute and President Obama.  The old king, wise man that he was, became sick and tired of all the praises his courtiers heaped ion him and all their requests for him to perform the impossible.  He had his throne taken to the seashore, and then stood up, commanding the tide to halt in order to show his subjects that there was a limit to what he could accomplish and make them face up to the limits of political power. He wasn't the megalomaniac.  His courtiers and his magic-seeking subjects expected the world to bow to their wishes.  This obviously not the intention of the commentator, whatever merits there may or may not be in his criticism of Obama's international policies.

This is the trouble: people want to say something but misuse their language and their allusions to draw the wrong conclusions or at least draw analogies.  Nor can they frame their thoughts, if they have them at all, it seems, which is why with that cynical/sentimental assumption that no one really believes anything or has any principles: they mock all believers, do not take at their word jihadists and neo-fascists when they claim reasons for terrorism and mass murder and try to reduce everything to mental "issues" and "pure" hatred, like Iago's motiveless motives...

Norman Simms has just published the first volume of a new book, Jews in an Illusion of Paradise: Dust and Ashes (Cambridge Scholars Publisher.  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK).  It is available from the publisher as well as amazon.com and other online bookseller sites.  The second volume may be out before the end of this year    

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