Offcourse Literary Journal
ISSN 1556-4975 

The Twilight of the Humanities, by Ricardo Nirenberg.



In an essay titled “The Multiple Meanings of the Word ‘History’” Milan Kundera makes a distinction between the history of subjects like science or technology, subjects in which (he says) there is constant progress towards an ideal of perfection, and the history of Germany, for instance, or of literature, where the ideas of progress and perfection are not applicable.  I suspect that Kundera’s distinction is history-bound, a product of the spirit of his times, of the type of mind sanguine when it comes to mathematical science, and disillusioned about all other human collective activities.  In any case, the following question arises naturally: how about the history of the histories themselves—or of some types of histories?  Are there historical disciplines where progress can be discerned toward some ideal of historical truth or perfection, as it happens in the sciences, where each new synthesis comprises, and improves upon, the previous ones?  Or are all human histories only a matter of opinion?

Truth (alétheia) against opinion (dóxa) is surely the oldest and sharpest of philosophical distinction, and the basis on which philosophers first separated themselves from the vulgar.  Aristocracy against the rabble; truth and opinion, and nothing in between, no middle class.  The other basic philosophical distinction, being and appearance, is parallel and follows naturally; to it were added in due course unchanging eternity, the blessedness of always being, over against fleetingness, which is the curse of appearing.  And finally, universality versus locality.  Of our intellectual disciplines, mathematics is the paradigm of true, eternal and universal being, while history, by its essence, is soaked in time.  So, for a consistent Platonist, history is destined to fall on the wrong side of the tracks, on the seedy slopes of opinion.

This was not an actual problem for history, or for the humanities in general, for as long as we believed that we are the purpose and the highest product of Creation.  History and philology were considered important for the interpretation of Holy Scripture, and for providing us with moral examples.  Later, when the Dictator and His Scriptures disappeared from the academic scene, came Hegel with his Geist, the Spirit of Man unstoppably developing toward self-understanding, followed by Marx, who replaced ‘self-understanding’ by ‘world-revolution’ and the end of penury for Man.  Then Nietzsche with his Man self-overcoming into Super-Man, Dilthey with his Man who has no nature but a history, and finally Heidegger, who pretended to study Being by focusing on just one particular being, Man.  Man!  Man!  Man!  For centuries, a chorus singing the glories, the powers and the progress of Man—or latterly, the tragedy of Man suspended over nothingness—resonated in the gardens and halls of Academe: that chorus was called humanism, and it was propitious humus for the growth of the humanities.

But no longer.  In our present view, Man is not what he was vaunted to be.  That often-quoted choral line from Sophocles’ Antigone, that of all things in the world Man is tò deinótaton, the most awesome, now we either hear it differently: "Man is the most awful," or we dismiss it as bosh.  Man is not superior to the other animals; he is no different from other beasts, except he is hateful, degraded and the most damaging to this little speck of universe, the Earth.  Only science and technology may still save us from what human science and technology have wrought: such is our feeling and our hope.  What future for the humanities in this?  Of what use can opinions be, opinions about Man and his tarnished glories?   Isn’t it more profitable to write and read something objective about the life of the otters?

Those reflections were prompted by my reading in several recent issues of the Times Literary Supplement horrified letters from British humanists (and, just now, March 17, I read a piece by Anthony Grafton in The New York Review of Books on the plight of the humanities in the U.K.)  Their government wants to withdraw funding from programs in the humanities that are unable to show a measurable social and economic “impact” (some decades ago they might have used instead the milder term “contribution”).  “Measurable” and “impact” are, of course, technical terms borrowed from the physical sciences; typically, they are misappropriated.  Imagine trying to measure the impact of a new commentary of Dante’s Inferno on our society and the economy.

In the US the situation of the humanities at the major universities does not seem to be much better than in the U.K.  In the latest issue of The New Republic (March 11, 2010) there is an article, also by Princeton historian Anthony Grafton, titled “Humanities and Inhumanities”, a review of the book by Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, Norton, 2009.  The situation in the humanities academic departments is described as one of advancing sclerosis.  Faculty hold on tenaciously to what they perceive to be the boundaries of their disciplines, while in fact those boundaries become more and more tenuous.  In the mathematical and natural sciences, instead, professors and graduate students will flock enthusiastically to any new pasture overlapping several fields.  A remarkable contrast between math and literature to be added, perhaps, to the Platonic ones—truth against opinion, being against seeming, permanence against evanescence, universality against provincialism.

To my mind, neither Menand nor Grafton—both scholars I admire—succeed in explaining the predicament of the humanities; both float on the surface; neither broaches the sad but obvious fact that academic humanists themselves have lost faith in the importance of their professions.  “Theory”, that fake-philosophic frippery meant to cover the nakedness of the erstwhile King of Creation, is of course mentioned and perhaps mourned, but with no insight into what it means or why a need for such a thing is felt.  The latest fashion among humanists, le dernier cri de Paris, is Alain Badiou’s skeletal Platonism in motley garb with Stalinistic cap and bells: neither Menand nor Grafton gives us the means to attempt an explanation of such a frightening apparition.




Perhaps a brief elucidation is called for at this point.  The philosopher Hilary Putnam once wrote that if there is such an intellectual sin as Platonism, it is remarkably unclear what this supposed sin consists of (“Mathematics Without Foundation”, Journal of Philosophy, January 1967).  For my purpose, however, the meaning of Platonism as a psychological condition is clear enough: it is the belief, explicit or implicit, consciously modulated or not, that any proposition for which being true or false makes sense is, indeed, either true or false; that there is a method—dichotomy, elenchus, dialectics, analysis & synthesis, scientific method, or what have you— allowing us to reach a conclusion as to the truth or falsity; and that there is a sharp boundary between truth (being the sum total of all true propositions) and opinion, the sum total of the unmethodical utterances of the uninitiated.  The Platonist, furthermore, is allergic to opinion, with its abundance of stupidity and logical inconsistency.  Now, opinion is largely decisive in modern democracies, but all Leninist Parties take themselves to be masters of a general method for arriving at truth.  Stalin, typically, declared himself a philosopher, the perfection and culmination of all philosophy; insofar as academic humanists are Platonists, it is frightening indeed, but not very surprising, that they feel nostalgic for a philosopher-king.



Attracted by the subject matter—Polish literary and political history—I recently borrowed from the university library Marci Shore’s Caviar and Ashes; a Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968, Yale University Press, 2006.  The “Caviar and Ashes” of the title is, I take it, an allusion to the 1958 film by Andrzej Wajda, “Diamonds and Ashes.”  In any case, the subject matter of Marci Shore’s Caviar and Ashes could not be more central to any sort of understanding of the twentieth century and of its gaping legacy.

But I had difficulties from the start.  On page 5, at the end of the phrase,

“Intertwined with a shift away from politics as such is a reading of the past in which the loci of power are complex, constantly in flux”

we are called to this endnote:

“While Michel Foucault’s name does not appear in the chapters that follow, his observations about the nature of power—emanating not from a single point downwards but rather omnipresent, radically dispersed, implicit in all relations—comprise an ever-present subtext in my reading of the past.  I owe much as well to recent Soviet historiography—that which I would call ‘postrevisionist,’ embodying a kind of neo-totalitarian school synthesis of Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault—especially that by Stephen Kotkin, Igal Halfin, Jochem Hellbeck, Eric Naiman, Peter Holquist, and Amir Weiner, who examine the ways in which Stalinism ultimately was as creative (in the nonnormative sense of the word) as it was repressive.”

One may quibble with the writer’s style, but not with her dutiful acknowledgment to those Sovietologists already established.  Networking it is called, and anyone who first enters into the halls of Academe—Marci Shore is an assistant professor at Yale—must bow to its requirements.  But the mention of Hannah Arendt, presumably her 1951 tractate The Origins of Totalitarianism in which the victims are blamed, made me exclaim, “Oi weh izt mir!”  Mixing her with Foucault makes it no more digestible, and “Stalinism was creative in the nonnormative sense of the word” could mean (shudder!) almost anything.  Anyway, this is not going to be a critique or a review of Marci Shore’s book, but only of one of its paragraphs, to be found on page 4:

“For this generation of Varsovian intellectuals born at the fin de siècle, life was unbearably heavy.  They moved about in entangled circles with shifting boundaries, connected to one another by not more than one or two degrees of separation.  They were quintessential cosmopolitans, polyglots who felt at home in Moscow, Paris, and Berlin—yet who at once felt inextricably bound to Poland, who believed in their role as ‘the conscience of the nation,’ who very much felt that Warsaw belonged to them.  They suffered (sometimes advantageously, sometimes painfully) from a certain pathological narcissism.  They sat in their café called Ziemiańska and believed, with absolute sincerity, that the world turned on what they said there.  Often they fell into bouts of despair and self-hatred, and—not despite, but rather precisely because of their narcissism—they embodied the observation that intellectuals comprise the only class that loves to hate itself.”

Let us first get some trivialities out of the way.  Let us pass over the geometrically absurd “entangled circles… connected by… two degrees of separation”, the nonsense of two alternatives of suffering, one advantageous, the other painful, and the silly observation at the end about self-hating intellectuals, taken from Tony Judt.  Let us focus on the central point, namely that “a certain pathological narcissism” caused those Polish intellectuals to believe with absolute sincerity that “the world turned on what they said” at the café Ziemiańska.

Only mental illness can lead people to believe that what they say at the café has world significance.  What then, for Marci Shore, has real world significance?  Something must, for otherwise her labor as a historian would be pointless.  The dealings in the offices and corridors of power?  The resolutions of the Sejm or the Reichstag, the decisions taken at the Kremlin?  Putsches?  Pitched battles?  No, she is a contemporary historian, she knows better.  She writes, let us recall: “Intertwined with a shift away from politics as such is a reading of the past in which the loci of power are complex, constantly in flux.”  Significance (one imagines) must be sought at different levels, in the organization of steel workers and their families in Magnitogorsk and other Siberian sites of heavy industry, in the way state schools teach and indoctrinate, in the forms sex is practised, genders are defined, division of labor is negotiated, in the intricacies of how electricity is distributed, in the play of national and ethnic identities, in the struggles for prestige of the different professions… one could go on and on: there are more than enough themes to launch a thousand doctoral dissertations.  But what is said while sitting at the café, the intellectual give-and-take, the poets and philosophers in dialogue: that, from a global view, is insignificant.

I feel tempted to remind Marci Shore that at the café Ziemiańska, at some table not far from the ones where the Skamander group of poets or the futurist poets were sitting, on the same day, one could find the Warsaw mathematical logicians Tadeusz Kotarbiński, Jan Łukasiewicz and Alfred Tarski talking about their science, the seed of later twentieth-century technology developments, including the computer.  Or that at a table at The Scottish Coffee House, in Lwów in southern Poland, around 1935, habitually sat the great Stefan Banach and other mathematicians, among them Hugo Steinhaus and Stanisław Ulam, exchanging and solving problems, and that Ulam went on to develop (with Teller) the first thermonuclear weapons for the U.S.  Just a few reminders that what was said at the Polish cafés in the 1920s and 30s could indeed have world significance of the sort any school kid can appreciate today.  But I must resist that temptation.  It would be dishonest on my part, for I know that science and math is not quite what Marci Shore had in mind, nor yet the quasi-mathematical social sciences; I know that she was only referring to the talk of poets, writers, literary critics, historians, philosophers.  It was those who had to be mentally deranged to believe that their café talk had world significance.

In other terms, it’s the humanities.  This is a strange phenomenon: to the mind of an up-and-coming professor of the humanities, you have to be mad to think that the matter and object of her own studies could possibly have world significance.  And Professor Shore is not alone; only, one doesn’t often find a conviction so clearly and pithily stated.  What that means about the spoken word and the world of the academic humanities, I will not go into, but perhaps we can already discern something of the pervading cynicism, careerism and despair.  Vico’s Oration to his university students in the liberal arts, given on October 18, 1699, in which he maintained that “Knowledge of oneself is for everyone the greatest incentive to acquire the universe of learning in the shortest possible time”, would be jeered today as ridiculous naïveté, yet our academic humanists are so naïve as to buy from any doctor Dulcamara, German or French most of the time, audacious enough to offer them something which looks vaguely like a philosophical or sociological method, a laudanum or monster-engendering specifico.  Then, over and above the language, spoken or literary, which has lost its capacity for significance, they establish the soon-overturned-and-replaced lordship of technical words—“rhyzome,” “nomadic,” “dissemination,” “trace”…

There are, certainly, cases of non-scientific, non-technical yet (to my mind) highly significant feats of verbal artistry accomplished in cafés.  For example, Witold Gombrowicz was one of the Polish writers who frequented the Ziemiańska in the 1930s.  Czeslaw Milosz, another habitué, writes in his Land of Ulro that he had not known Gombrowicz before the war, for, he explains, “I had not sat at his café table.”  Well, Gombrowicz happened to be in Buenos Aires in 1939 when the war broke out, and he decided to stay there instead of returning to Europe.  He lived in the Argentine capital, often precariously, for some twenty-four years, of which a sizeable part was spent at the cafés.  It was at the cafés that his 1937 novel Ferdydurke was translated from Polish to Spanish, by him and by a coterie of Spanish-speaking friends, Cubans and Argentines.  The café-talk result, strange and eclectic, published in Buenos Aires by the Argos publishing house in 1947 thanks to the financial help of a beautiful, fat and wealthy lady, Cecilia Debenedetti, reached my hands just over ten years later, in 1958.  Cecilia, incidentally, liked to eat large plates of spaghetti covered with powdered sugar, and she would sell a piece of the land she had inherited from her family every time a worthy artist (especially composers, her protégés) needed help.  She died penniless.  As for me, the only book by a Polish author I had read before 1958 was Sienkiewicz’ Quo Vadis, serialized in Spanish.  The Spanish translation of Ferdydurke fell into my hands when I was nineteen, together with Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, at whose Paris premiere in 1896 the author had announced, “As to the action which is about to begin, it takes place in Poland—that is to say, nowhere.”  Those two masterpieces of modern metaphysical farce, Ferdydurke and Ubu Roi, came to me, and were superimposed to my old love of Don Quixote, at the right age and on the right occasion, when I had just begun a career in mathematics.  Thus I was spared having to gulp down large amounts of Platonism without the life-saving Aristophanic antidote.

Of course, Marci Shore may object that it is no great shakes, not something of world significance, even though it might have been of great subjective importance in my case.  I could reply, “No, wait, I know a dozen people, perhaps more, who had a similar experience,” but I have the impression that even if I brought up a hundred-and-forty-four it would be no good.  No argument, no statistic, no testimony is likely to pierce the solid conviction that anything that’s said by poets and philosophers at cafés or coffeehouses is merely opinion and cannot carry the sort of weight that can go with, say, a single mathematical formula.  Is this solid conviction a symptom of professionalism run amok?  Is it because café talk generally escapes the strictures of peer review?  Whatever the case, that solid conviction is a sickness, a cognitive epidemic of our times.  It is unfair to blame the Philistines or the bottom-line-obsessed administrators for the twilight of the humanities: no one is killing them, death is installed within.  We can clearly see the skull and bones of humorless Platonism.



It’s a law of nature, almost, that the same forces which rule the blooming and the fruition carry the seeds of death.  The lust for profit which first sent the Portuguese round Africa, the greed which was the force behind European conquests all over the world and, later, behind the development of industrial capitalism, is bringing our resulting political and social system crashing down: so say some people who profess to know.  Over the same time interval, starting in the 15th century, the Platonism rediscovered by Marsilio Ficino Ficino and his friends was a driving force behind the flourishing of humanism in Italy; but now a petrified Platonism, one from which Man and magic have been excised, presides over the death of humanism and the humanities.  The lack of humor is a logical consequence of the absence of Man, since for Man the only proper motive of laughter is Man.

Now, as a matter of fact, mathematics and the sciences prosper well enough without humor; whenever we find a humorous note in a scientific paper, we chuckle and appreciate it, but we are perfectly aware that it’s not necessary, that it is a surplus.  The question remains, can literary studies survive without humor.  I am not sure, I think not; but to end this piece I will tell a story.

Jorge Luis Borges, unlike Marci Shore, thought that history is so coy as to stage the most important events in humble places such as cafés.  In his  essay “El pudor de la historia”, La Nación, March 1952, collected in the volume Otras Inquisiciones (translated as “The Modesty of History”, in Other Inquisitions), Borges makes fun of “historic dates”, noting that they have less to do with history than with journalism and the influence of Cecil B. De Mille.  I suspect that five months later the short piece would have been suppressed by the censors, who would have seen in it a veiled reference to the historic date when, solemnly and spectacularly, Eva Perón passed to immortality, as the radio repeated every day at the same hour, 20:25.  But the story I want to tell comes now.  Twenty-five years later, in that same Buenos Aires newspaper, La Nación, on February 13, 1977, appeared a dialogue between Borges and Professor Raimundo Lida (collected in R. Lida, Estudios Hispánicos, El Colegio de México, 1988).  The usual themes were aired—Cervantes, Quevedo, Lope, Góngora, Lugones, James Joyce, Unamuno, Borges—and every time Borges expressed an outré opinion (which was often) Lida corrected him firmly and eruditely, as one has a right to expect from the Smith Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard.

But the story I want to tell really comes now.  Toward the end of their dialogue, commenting on Borges’ habit of stereotyping whole nations—Borges, for example, used to opine that Spaniards were not as intelligent as Italians or Jews—, Lida said that one should abstain from pontificating on that which one doesn’t know.  There is solid academic sense in this piece of advice, or, should we say, in this lesson.  And Lida added, laughingly, as to a brilliant but wayward student, “But you cannot resist the temptation.”  And Borges replied, “No, and right now I shouldn’t resist it, because otherwise there would be no dialogue.  If I renounced my opinions, we wouldn’t be able to talk.”

No one, to my knowledge, has the case for opinion so well.  If we renounced our opinions, if we were to abstain from saying anything except about those things which (we think) we know, we wouldn’t be able to talk.



Ricardo Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse.


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