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Mistaken Identity

Gertrude Himmelfarb respects minds that are of two minds. The heroes of Victorian Minds are either men of principled ambiguity or men who effect a change of heart as well as a change of mind. Heroes like Edmund Burke, whose defenses of conservatism are more liberal than liberalism, and who may be the greater as a writer because he is susceptible of a “double reading.” Or Thomas Malthus, whose second edition of the Essay on the Principle of Population quietly but drastically reversed the argument of his first edition. Or John Stuart Mill, because he had a heavy bear who went with him—“the other John Stuart Mill” who was “anything but the perfect liberal” and who even had the courage to come in his last years to an open expression of theism. Or Lord Acton, appalled at the doctrine of papal infallibility but refusing to quit the Roman Catholic Church because to do so would be to make out that for the first time the Church was acting wickedly—whereas through all its history it had perpetrated wickedness. Or Walter Bagehot, with his “divided nature”: “that rare species of the twiceborn who could give proper due to the rights and merits of the once-born.” Or James Anthony Froude, with his “ambivalent set of motives” toward Thomas Carlyle about whom he wrote with such lacerating candor. Or John Buchan, whose biographies of Montrose and Cromwell emanate from one who is himself a “complicated man torn by conflicting ideas and emotions.” Or Benjamin Disraeli, whose very opportunism about the Reform Act of 1867 constituted a magnanimity of liberalism scarcely to be found in the Liberal Party.

Such are the men whom Victorian Minds venerates. Those whom it rebukes are the men whose single-mindedness is a doctrinaire threat to the mystery and complexity of life. Jeremy Bentham, for the glacial logic that planned the Panopticon—intended to be not only the most secure of prisons but also the most profitable (to that other Jeremy Bentham who offered himself as the contractor as well as the inventor). Or Leslie Stephen, whose unbelief is of no interest because he was unable to imagine belief. Or Gladstone, whose “failure of imagination came from a crucial and characteristically Liberal failure of nerve.”

But though these men are rebuked, they are not Miss Himmelfarb’s villains. Her villains are historians. For men who act badly, she has some pity; for men who badly praise the acts of others, she has none. In this she represents the most severe of her heroes, Acton, whose views on Döllinger’s culpability she summarizes:

The historian who condoned a crime was perpetuating it throughout history. His guilt was greater than that of the original perpetrator of the crime not only because the effect of his sin was more enduring but also because his motive was less pressing. The sin of the historian was gratuitous, willful, total. “To commit murder,” Acton noted, “is the mark of a moment, exceptional. To defend it is constant, and shows a more perverted conscience.”

So Miss Himmelfarb excoriates “the strange, almost willful inattentiveness of biographers and historians” to what Bentham really was proposing. The same goes for Malthus, who has been afflicted with “readers, or non-readers, who find in a book what they expect to find in it.” “The myths that pass as history” are her special target. E. J. Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson are indicted for making common cause against the common enemy, instead of probing a crucial disagreement between the two of them as to the relationship of Methodism to radicalism. The “re-writing” or “reconstruction” of history arouses in Miss Himmelfarb an Orwellian horror, so that of the received account of the Reform Act she can say with memorable bitterness: “The fantasies of the historian, however, have exceeded even those of Gladstone.”

WHAT MISS HIMMELFARB sees at work is by no means a sancta simplicitas. “The current intellectual fashions put a premium on simplicity,” so that ambiguities which used to be “the mark of serious thought are now taken to signify a failure of nerve.” Miss Himmelfarb’s nerve never fails. When she speaks of “the ambiguous nature of intellectual history,” it is clear what attracts her about it. If we were to choose for her a reigning deity of history, we might take the most ancient king who reigned in Italy and who became a god: Janus, who is represented with two faces because he is acquainted with the past and the future.

At one point we meet Bagehot’s sharp remark about the necessity on occasion that a man “should impugn his own opinions.” A related notion was given a crucial place by Matthew Arnold in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” where Burke is praised for the conclusion, surprising and generous, to his Thoughts on French Affairs. Arnold’s words would have made an apt epigraph for Victorian Minds:

That return of Burke upon himself has always seemed to me one of the finest things in English literature, or indeed in any literature. That is what I call living by ideas: when one side of a question has long had your earnest support, when all your feelings are engaged, when you hear all round you no language but one, when your party talks this language like a steam-engine and can imagine no other,—still to be able to think, still to be irresistibly carried, if so it be, by the current of thought to the opposite side of the question and, like Balaam, to be unable to speak anything but what the Lord has put in your mouth. I know nothing more striking, and I must add that I know nothing more un-English.

Yet Miss Himmelfarb must have been conscious of one snag. She must know that she writes with such superb decisiveness, lucidity, and confidence as to make all her protestations about ambiguity have a curious ring. She does not write like a person who believes in self-impugning. Fortunately she has come up with an ingenious stratagem. Her book opens with Burke. Partly, no doubt, because—as she says—he is a “proto-Victorian.” But also because she has changed her mind about him, so that we start off with the historian herself “of two minds” about him, reprinting an early attack and then offering a current defense. A good gambit, though rather a gambit. And once she has shown her eagerness to correct her own simplistic readings, she is in the strongest of positions to castigate others. She has, after all, pointed at herself with a “Here, for the grace of God, go I.” She has convicted herself, and can then proceed to praise, above all, those who have the courage of their self-convictions.

YET IT IS NOT SO SIMPLE as that. For there are two Miss Himmelfarbs, just as she argues for two Mills and two Malthuses. The first is Miss Himmelfarb, a first-rate intellectual historian who delights in fair-minded combat, who is hard-headed but not hard-hearted, and who is piercingly specific. Unfortunately there is also Mrs. Irving Kristol. Where Miss Himmelfarb thinks of herself as a historian, Mrs. Kristol thinks of herself as the hammer of the liberal left, almost as the scourge of God. Whereas Miss Himmelfarb is incisively skeptical about slogans and stock responses, Mrs. Kristol can’t stop intoning them. Whereas Miss Himmelfarb is interested in ideas, Mrs. Kristol is interested only in her idée fixe: the self-deceptions of liberalism. Whereas Miss Himmelfarb has style, Mrs. Kristol has rhetoric.

Some of the rhetoric is a stalely fashionable protesting about “fashion.” It would be all very well to make a thing of being “unmodish” if that weren’t the most modish claim of all. And to speak of “the prevailing intellectual fashions” would only be worth anything if one set of fashions prevailed. But this isn’t so (and in any case there is no steady relationship between whatsoever things are fashionable and whatsoever things are true or untrue). For every gullible woolly liberal, there is somewhere a hard shrewd right-thinker. The idea that an essayist who can actually make an allusion to symbiosis is someone out in the unfashionable cold is ludicrous. Alfred Knopf and the Partisan Review and The New York Review and Encounter may not rule the scene as sponsors, but they should at least render it impossible to make a great thing of one’s isolated integrity and unfashionableness. Miss Himmelfarb is too shrewd not to be aware that the determination to épater les antibourgeois is now quite as fashionable as the other determination. She believes that “the embourgeoisement of the lower classes…has been the saving both of the lower classes and of society.” But (1) she can’t claim the lone courage of a Horatius in saying that; and (2) some people are not convinced that society is saved.

These days, “the now orthodox liberal lexicon” stands on the shelf next to a book which Miss Himmelfarb doesn’t mention: the orthodox anti-liberal lexicon. The endless truculent whining about “offending liberal sensibilities” and “calculated to outrage the liberal” is nothing more than an attempt to make us enlist in a war in which some of us don’t want to fight. Victorian Minds doesn’t dread stock responses—it dreads those from liberal stock (much as the US is not against dictatorships, just against some dictatorships). “The Times Literary Supplement, with the characteristic obtuseness of that journal….” Once upon a time, Americans needed to be protected against casual contempt from the TLS. Now the TLS needs to be protected against casual contempt from Americans. (Was the TLS being characteristically obtuse when it gave front-page praise to Miss Himmelfarb’s Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution?)

What is wrong with the essay on Leslie Stephen is that it is unjust. The evidence against him consists of gossip, Virginia Woolf’s Mr. Ramsay, and shallow animadversions on the English amateur and his love of sports. At no point is there any detailed scrutiny of any of Stephen’s writings. He is dismissed for his “crude philistinisms,” but since Miss Himmelfarb never gives any indication of understanding what literary criticism is, some of us may see no reason to abandon the belief that Stephen is still one of the best critics of the novel whom we have. Fortunately for Stephen, Miss Himmelfarb does make clear what she means by a philistine when she quotes Jeffrey’s famous review of Wordsworth’s Excursion (“This will never do”) as “the cry of the unregenerate philistine.” At which all one has time to say is: (1) that Jeffrey was quite right—The Excursion will never do, and has never done; and (2) that if Miss Himmelfarb can read Jeffrey’s remarkable criticism on, say, Byron or Crabbe, and still regard him as an “unregenerate philistine,” then there is not much chance of her regeneration.

BUT IT IS THE BUCHAN ESSAY which most shows Miss. Himmelfarb under the thumb of Mrs. Kristol. That Buchan had virtues is not in dispute—or that such virtues may be underrated by intellectuals. What is objectionable is simply a special pleading on behalf of Buchan which Miss Himmelfarb would be the first to reprehend in other historians. She concedes that Buchan indulged in racism and anti-Semitism. But she argues that we shouldn’t much mind:

Buchan was not conscious of race as a “problem” to which racism provided a solution; it was precisely because he was so unconscious of it that he could say: “A nigger band, looking like monkeys in uniform, pounded out some kind of barbarous jingle” (Three Hostages). And it is precisely because we today are so acutely, unhappily conscious of it that we find this language objectionable, whether in Buchan or in a writer of such distinction and delicacy as Conrad, who had no qualms about speaking of the “repulsive mask of a nigger’s soul,” the “black mist,” the “subtle and dismal influence” emanating from him.

In spite of the usual protestations, to explain is, in large measure, to excuse. The familiar racist sentiments of Buchan, Kipling, even Conrad, were a reflection of a common attitude. They were descriptive not prescriptive; not an incitement to novel political action, but an attempt to express differences of culture and color in terms that had been unquestioned for generations. Today, when differences of race have attained the status of problems [my italics]—and tragic problems—writers with the best of motives and finest of sensibilities must often take refuge in evasion and subterfuge.

But this defense rests upon the claim that I have italicized. Certainly there could be nothing wrong with Buchan’s not being conscious of a non-problem. (Though not to be conscious of what is indeed a problem can surely be heinously culpable.) But Miss Himmelfarb knows perfectly well that race was already a problem by 1910—or, come to that, that race was already a problem in a society where Tennyson could cry out, “Niggers are tigers, niggers are tigers.” To pretend that, Buchan lived before there was a race problem—or even before sensitive men realized that there was—is to go in for just that complacent re-writing of history which Miss Himmelfarb detests. The same goes for her defense of Buchan’s anti-Semitism:

This kind of anti-Semitism, indulged in at that time and place, was both too common and too passive to be scandalous. Men were normally anti-Semitic, unless by some quirk of temperament or ideology they happened to be philo-Semitic. So long as the world itself was normal, this was of no great consequence. It was only later, when social impediments became fatal disabilities, when anti-Semitism ceased to be the prerogative of English gentlemen and became the business of politicians and demagogues, that sensitive men were shamed into silence. It was Hitler, attaching such abnormal significance to filiation and physiognomy, who put an end to the casual, innocent anti-Semitism of the clubman. When the conspiracies of the English adventure tale became the realities of German politics, Buchan and others had the grace to realize that what was permissible under civilized conditions was not permissible with civilization in extremis.

But attitudes can be common and passive and scandalous. The pretense here is that the world was harmlessly “normal” before Hitler—as if Hitler invented all the various cruelties, humiliations, and disabilities practiced on the Jews. Try telling anybody who actually suffered from nineteenth-century English anti-Semitism that it “was of no great consequence”—merely a matter of what Miss Himmelfarb lightly calls “social impediments.” That Hitler’s form of anti-Semitism outdid everybody else’s is not in question; that does not affect the fact that there is no such thing as the “casual, innocent anti-Semitism of the clubman.” It was not German politics which first brought anti-Semitism into the world of “realities.” Anti-Semitism before Hitler (and in England) was very real and very pernicious. Nor are fantasies (“patently fairy-tale account”) as innocent as Miss Himmelfarb would like to pretend.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.

How can it happen that so cogent a thinker can here argue with such ugly slipshodness? That so keen a critic of wishful thinking can here be so wishful? That the Actonian moralist can defend the indefensible? Simply because all’s fair in cold war—and the intention was not primarily to defend Buchan but to attack the liberal pieties.

Miss Himmelfarb here says that, in The Liberal Imagination, “Trilling was not, after all, celebrating the liberal imagination.” Maybe not; celebrating is three cheers. But to say baldly that Trilling “was rather pointing to its limitations” is somewhat misleading. The work of Trilling—as of Mrs. Trilling—does indeed offer a critique of liberalism, but it does so from within a firm, manifest, and unexasperated commitment to liberalism. Meanwhile (and the Encounter débacle is not irrelevant—that is where Miss Himmelfarb first put her views on Buchan) we have plenty of “liberals” who speak from within liberalism for much the same reasons which make fox-hunters join the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Miss Himmelfarb, in this combative and brilliant book, makes much of the need to exorcise Bentham’s devils from our thought; while she is at it, she might try exorcising Mrs. Kristol.

Letters

Couples May 9, 1968

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