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On Looking into the Abyss


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Gertrude Himmelfarb taught for 23 years at Brooklyn College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York, where she was named distinguished professor of history in 1978. Now professor emeritus, she lives with her husband, Irving Kristol, in Washington, DC. Her books include The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values; On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society; Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians; The New History and the Old; Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians; The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age; On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill; Victorian Minds (nominated for a National Book Award); Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution; and Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics.


Noted historian Himmelfarb ( Poverty and Compassion ) deems current intellectual fashions arrogant and spiritually bankrupt in these seven invigorating essays expanded from pieces originally published in Commentary , American Scholar , the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere. She lambastes deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida and Geoffrey Hartman, relativist philosopher Richard Rorty, postmodernists and multiculturalists who ``pluralize and particularize history to the point where people have no history in common.'' Many of these trendy academic schools, argues Himmelfarb, trivialize history, as exemplified by their inability to comprehend the full import of the Holocaust. She also blasts apologists for Martin Heidegger, an ``outspoken and unrepentant Nazi.'' Elsewhere she ponders the internal contradictions confronting Western liberal democracies and the ``lethal combination of nationalism and religion'' sweeping the globe from the Middle East to Yugoslavia. (Feb.)

Critically examining some major trends in contemporary liberal American academic thought, Himmelfarb (history, CUNY) finds arrogance and spiritual impoverishment at the heart of such current academic movements in history, literature, and philosophy as deconstructionism, postmodernism, and the new historicism. She laments that the link between nationalism and religion has been dangerously ignored, particularly since there is a pervasive relationship between what is taught in the universities and what happens in society. Himmelfarb further argues that, with the end of the Cold War, liberalism is its own worst enemy. This is a closely and subtly reasoned analysis, though the dense and complex writing makes for difficult reading. Recommended only for large academic libraries.-- Harry Frumerman, formerly with Hunter Coll., CUNY

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