Looking Into the Abyss

A friend of mine wrote this end of last week and emailed it to me, declaring it blogworthy. ((She doesn’t yet have a blog of her own, though I’ve offered her server space to set one up.)) After reading it, I agree, and she has given me permission to share it here.

What happens to our passion for literature when any “text” qualifies as literature, when theory is elevated above poetry and the critic above the poet, and when literature, interpretation, and theory alike are said to be indeterminate and infinitely malleable? What happens to our respect for philosophy – the “love of wisdom,” as it once was – when we are told that philosophy has nothing to do with either wisdom or virtue, that what passes as metaphysics is really linguistics, that morality is
a form of aesthetics, and the best things we can do is not to take philosophy too seriously? And what happens to our sense of the past when we are told that there is no past save that which the historian creates; or to our perception of the momentousness of history when we are assured that it is we who give meaning to history; or to that most momentous historical event, the Holocaust, when it can be so readily “demystified” and “normalized,” “structuralized” and “deconstructed”? And what happens when we look into the abyss and see no real beasts but only a pale reflection of ourselves – of our particular race, class, and gender; or, worse yet, when we see only the metaphorical, rhetorical, mythical, linguistic, semiotic, figurative, fictive simulations of our imaginations? And when, looking at an abyss so remote from reality, we are moved to say, like Trilling’s students, “How interesting, how exciting.”

When Nietzsche looked into the abyss, he saw not only real beasts but the best in himself. “He who fights with monsters,” he warned his reader, “should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” This was all too prophetic, for a few years later the abyss did gaze back at him and drew him down into the depths of insanity. Our professors look into the abyss secure in their tenured positions, risking nothing and seeking nothing save another learned article.

Nietzsche is now a darling of the academy. I have seen T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Nietzsche is Peachy.” Nietzsche, who had no high regard for the academy but did have a highly developed sense of irony, would have enjoyed that sight.

_Based on notes from On Looking into the Abyss by Gertrude Himmelfarb._

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