The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

August 8, 2013

August 8, 1922

The much honored historian, professor emerita of the Graduate School of the City University of New York, Gertrude Himmelfarb, demonstrates in her many books the importance of simple virtues, like individual responsibility. To support this view, she must reject the reductionistic philosophies of history, Marxism, Freudianism, and the other determinismisms. 

It helps that she has a lovely, clear prose style. Here is how she outlines the core of Darwin's ideas: (Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, 1959)

Organic nature tends to an almost exuberant variety of individual living things that differ, either slightly or significantly from their parents...No two cats, no two people, no two lobsters, are exactly identical .At the same time animals and plants reproduce themselves profusely, producing more offspring and/or potential offspring (seeds) than the available resources will support. Although it is almost a tautology these two observations lead to the common sense statement that those individuals who could best use the available resources and/or avoid the obvious dangers would most often survive, and in turn,reproduce again. Some of the variations among individual members of a species help the individual survive and reproduce, some hinder these two activities and most have no effect on the individual's capacity either for survivial or reproduction.

Another book, Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians  (1991) considers the reports about poverty in London slums. "The Bitter Cry of Outcast London," is an example, where descriptions include such as this excerpt:

[Slum courtyards had] the “poisonous and malodorous gases” of sewage, swarmed with vermin, and stank from the putrefying carcasses of dead cats or birds “or viler abominations still.

This article raises for Himmelfarb, for one thing,  the question of why the public's reception of this report seemed to exceed that of previous printed exposes of the same situations.

On Looking Into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (1994) has a refreshing read on Art Spiegelman's graphic format  history of his father's holocaust experiences, where the Jews are mice, and the Nazis are cats. Maybe it is that the Germans are cats. She refuses to mention Spiegelman by name in her book, which I might finish reading. But I already know enough to follow her arguments against postmodernism in historiography, a view that envisages the validity of a variety of perspectives on one past event. Himmelfarb:

The comic-ironic mode is congenial to the postmodernist because it has the double effect of converting history into metahistory and thus distancing the historian from anything that might resemble truth or reality, and of dehumanizing the subjects of history [portraying them as cats and mice in her example] thus transforming history from a humanistic discipline into a critique of humanism. 
Himmelfarb can make these arguments because she mainly focuses on Victorian and modern history. Her simple assumptions about determinismisms can pass without much challenge in a world we all know.  The obvious, in a shared world, carries its own warrant for reasonableness. Historical eras where our own assumptions are not so prominent, might require a closer examination of the middle-class, virtuous citizen model, as a standard for human behavior.  It is not that Himmelfarb is wrong, so much, as she does not glimpse certain depths/heights, of the human dimension. 

In 1942 Himmelfarb and Irving Kristol were married. He is a leading neoconservative commentator. I do like the thought of married couples sharing rich intellectual lives. Long may they converse. 

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