Reshaping history

“In order to avoid a strangling historical determinism, radical breaks need to be made in which historical “truth” is reshaped in ways that would make historians scream.”  That’s quoted from esque, in the comments on the last post, describing what he calls an “unsubtle” Derrideanism.  The most obvious counter-argument would be an equally unsubtle defense of historical truth — and that’s how the debate usually divides, with the defenders of historical fact facing off against the defenders of ethical reshaping.  The pitfalls of both positions seem clear to me. And I suppose one of the goals of my thinking life is to find a more subtle, or truer ground.

At any rate, that’s been one of the goals of my thinking life for the past while.  Before that, for a time, I was a big devotee of ethical reshaping, especially when it came to readings of text.  I have argued, in print and in person, that the distinction between exegesis and eisegesis is a red herring, and that the important distinction is between ethical and unethical readings.  I remember once in the green room at CTS, the guys challenged the highly philosophical interpretation of rabbinic midrash I’d just offered.  “How far,” they asked, “can you bend the text before it breaks?”  I answered: “in the service of the truth you can bend it as far as you want, and it will never break.”  Ooo they liked that; people do like this sort of thing.  But from the position of the historian my statement was incorrect, and — perhaps more pertinently — from the position of the ethical reshaper it was arrogant.

Two little stories come to mind.  The first is from Bernard Henri-Levy’s exploration of America published in 2005 in The Atlantic.  Flying over Arizona in a helicopter, Henri-Levy asks the pilot how the grand canyon was formed.  The pilot tells him there are two theories on the issue, and goes on to place on the same scale, and weighing equally against one another, glaciers and intelligent design.  What I learn from this story is that the fundamentalists, who used to stand or fall on the ground of historical truth, have now placed themselves on the ground of the reshapers.

The second is a radio piece I heard a few years back on the subject of Holocaust minimalization. A t the end of a lengthy expose, the interviewer threw a zinger at the historian: “what does it matter if only 100,000 Jews died?  It would still have been a tragedy of monumental proportions.”  There was a pause, and you could hear the historian sucking air.  Finally he said, rather primly, “Well, I happen to think that facts matter.”

I’m not blaming Derrida for this.  People do blame Derrida for Holocaust denial, but they’re wrong.  I could offer an account of a more subtle Derrideanism, as could esque.  But this post is intended only to expose some of the problems with the less than subtle version that seems to be ubiquitous.

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