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Self-imposed Ghettos

Richard Ostrofsky (May, 1998)

This column stems from a friendly argument between myself and a customer, about important but objectionable authors. Four names were mentioned – Freud and Nietzsche (to start with), and then Shakespeare and Heidegger a little later. These writers, for present purposes, can stand for hundreds of others. I was trying (unsuccessfully) to make the point that reading only those authors that we find congenial is self-defeating. As a book-seller, I have strong feelings on this point, and knowing that I had an OSCAR article to write, we closed the discussion by agreeing that I would write this column, and that she would write a rebuttal for the following month. So here goes:

It is scarcely possible to write an important book without offending some worthy group. I am not being snide here: people and groups are surely entitled to their sensibilities and political agendas. But the problem is, to probe beneath the surface of human experience and sensibility is to expose the differences between people – and yes, their interests – as individuals, and as group members. Outside the hard sciences, and sometimes even within them, important books are important just because they probe at sensitive areas where feelings run high, and opinion is divided. Thus, many important books are offensive (to those they offend) on purpose, as it were, because of their explicit, intended teaching. For persons of a humanist persuasion, Heidegger is deliberately offensive. For classical rationalists, Nietzsche is deliberately offensive. For persons who wish or need to believe that the conscious mind is “master in its own house”, Freud is deliberately offensive. In each case, a position cherished by those who cherish it is being deliberately attacked. We must defend the freedom to write and publish books (yes, even those that offend) because the alternative would be far worse; but then the important ones have to be read and understood because it is dangerous to be oblivious of your enemy’s position and arguments. Where these are unsound, one must collect the ammunition to refute him. Where these are sound, one must learn from him, in order to adjust and strengthen one’s own position

On the other hand, people who write books – even great books – are rarely entirely or homogeneously great. They have their areas of craziness, pettiness and blindness just like everyone else. Inevitably, these areas bleed through into their work on occasion, so that even very great books may be in some respects crazy, or petty, or wrong. If I applied consistently the principle that one should ignore people who are sometimes afflicted in these ways, I could not talk to anyone at all; I could not even talk to myself! Freud, as a matter of fact, had very little first-hand experience of sex. Nietzsche was mortally afraid of women. Shakespeare was not above titillating the sensibilities of his audience, and pandering to their prejudices, in order to fill his theatre. Heidegger was a Nazi – not just a party member, but an active and influential supporter – at an important stage of his career. Are these facts relevant to a critical reading of these authors? Insofar as it helps us understand them better – yes, of course. But do they stand as sensible reasons for refusing to read and understand them at all? One of the ways in which the experience of oppression injures people is by making it impossible, or very difficult for them to feel and think beyond their grievances. It is understandably difficult for women (like my customer) to be enthusiastic about Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, and for some deeply ideological feminists to be enthusiastic about Shakespeare’s oeuvre as a whole. It is understandably difficult for Jews (like myself) to be enthusiastic about The Merchant of Venice, understandably difficult for aboriginal peoples (perhaps) to be enthusiastic about The Tempest. Except regarding the current dynasty, Shakespeare never felt obliged to be politically correct. The concept did not even exist when he was writing. But I will focus on the case of Heidegger because, among the examples mentioned here, he has the most to be forgiven for, and because I can speak personally about the problem of reading him. Whatever one thinks of him and of his work, he stands fairly clearly among the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. Deservedly so. For better and for worse, it is scarcely possible to understand the recent history either of philosophy or of literary criticism without coming to terms with certain aspects of his thought. If I refused to make this rather considerable effort of sympathy and imagination, I would be cutting myself off from the possibility of an historical understanding of recent intellectual life. In doing so, I would be

harming no one but myself – building a ghetto wall to keep the rest of the world out, and succeeding merely in keeping myself IN. It is not a question of forcing myself to accept a repugnant philopsophy. It is a question of equipping myself to reject it intelligently. I certainly wish to reject the anti-humanist drift of much post-modern thought – but how can I do this to some effect without a working grasp of its appeals, its claims, its arguments and (if any) its legitimate concerns? How (as in the present case) would I set about persuading a woman who has unwittingly been considerably influenced by the anti-humanist movement – its denial of the fundamental unity of human experience and thought – if I were not aware of the influence of Nietzsche (through Heidegger and then the French existentialists) upon her?