With impressive scholarship, keen insight and courteous polemics, Himmelfarb challenges the intellectual deception and spiritual poverty of our era. Most of the essays examine the trash that's become intellectually fashionable since the1980s. The title essay braves the swamps of postmodernism inhabited by the demons of nihilism, irrationality and immorality. She dissects deconstruction and related pseudo-philosophies particularly for their baleful effect upon philosophy, literary criticism and historical studies. In the madhouse of deconstruction, the interpreter takes precedence over the text that is interpreted, with comical or insane results. The objective is to undermine reality by denying that it exists.
She warns of the consequences when we are informed that philosophy has nothing to do with wisdom or virtue, that metaphysics is really linguistics, that morality is a form of aesthetics and that the best approach is not to take philosophy seriously. And about what happens to our sense of the past when we are told there is no past except that which the historian creates, or to our perception of the significance of history when we are assured that it is we who give it meaning, or to that terrifying historical event, the Holocaust, when it can be so easily be 'demystified' and 'deconstructed'?
Hegel deified Reason, arguing that every individual could rely on their own reason, accepting as true what seems rational according to individual judgment. Thus a train of thought was set in motion that led to Feuerbach representing religion as the failure of humanity's critical reason and Max Stirner claiming the Ego as the only reality. The destination becomes obvious. Himmelfarb shows up many contradictions in Marx: his habit of portraying his proletarian protagonist in pejorative ways, his counterfactual assertion that the needy would forever become poorer and the sinister sacrificial vision lurking behind his materialist interpretation of history. The author's epitaph for Marx has proved to be far too optimistic: the collectivist serpent returns from Hades again and again.
The essay on Liberty confronts the icon of modern liberalism, John Stuart Mill. She convincingly argues that his doctrine of the absolute freedom of the individual inevitably leads to relativism. And if truth can be relativized, morality will follow. She laments our materialist culture that bans unhealthy foods but not sadistic movies and forbids racial segregation but not moral degradation. Absolute liberty tends to subvert the very freedom it seeks to maintain as it grants itself the right to assault the foundations. This was also clearly pointed out by Polanyi in his seminal work Science, Faith and Society.
The Dark and Bloody Crossroads Where Nationalism and Religion Meet includes a comparison between the newer versus the established nation states. As the newer ones become more assertive and brutal, the older nations are becoming spineless and passive, ashamed of affirming the legitimacy of their own benevolent expression of nationalism and afraid of challenging the legitimacy of the oppressive tribal mode. The same can be said for Western standards of decency and what's left of our religion. In this regard, The Return of History and the End of Dreams by Robert Kagan is most relevant.
Himmelfarb believes that the historian should be able to identify heroes and villains in history and judge their behavior. The denial of good and evil trivializes the Shoah/Holocaust and the Gulag. It is incumbent upon us to maintain the reality of the past. She maintains that professionalism in history respects the reader and our ancestors whilst upholding the credibility of the discipline. The practice of professionalism confirms the humility of the serious historian that rejects both the arrogant claim to exactly recapture the past and the ludicrous notion of the past's unreality.
Historians educated in the old school of footnoting is struck by the increasing number of academic publications that have no notes at all and even boasts about their lack of sources. The skeptic Voltaire called historical details "the pests that destroy books." His heirs the postmodernists have taken this disdain for research to extremes by denying truth itself. The fatuousness with which postmodernists proclaim the failure of beauty, truth and value contrasts sharply with the reverence of the modernists who defined it. Chantal Delsol sets out an interesting diagnosis of this affliction in her books Icarus Fallen and The Unlearned Lessons Of the Twentieth Century.
Himmelfarb explains how postmodernist historians long to be considered creative and imaginative but by rejecting the causal and chronological narrative, they turn history into fiction. Like all honest historians, the modernists were aware that total objectivity is impossible but they still pursued it through the critical evaluation of evidence. They placed a premium on research and primary sources, the authenticity of documents, reliability of witnesses, the need to obtain substantiating and countervailing evidence, the accuracy of quotations and citations and prescribed forms of documentation in footnotes and bibliography.
Postmodernist philosophy holds truth in such contempt that one doubts the jokers themselves believe their assertions. Just like literary critics play with texts by twisting them in a myriad ways, so postmodern historians tell tales aimed at empowering whatever victim group is the flavor of the moment. Himmelfarb's abyss refers to the chasm of meaninglessness and despite her courtesy, at times a tone of exasperation and more rarely of revulsion surfaces in her writing. She takes on both the originators like Nietzsche, Mill, De Mann and Heidegger and their disciples such as inter alia Derrida, Foucault and Rorty.
I also recommend The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics by Mark Lilla, Last Exit to Utopia by Jean-François Revel, Explaining Postmodernism by Stephen Hicks, Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson & Jeremy Stangroom, Experiments Against Reality by Roger Kimball and the same author's Tenured Radicals in the 3rd edition of which he demonstrates how the trends he observed in the early 1990s had taken over the humanities and started to seep into popular culture within the space of a decade.