Eugene Goodheart, as I am probably not the first to say, is mad as hell and is not going to take it any more. Everywhere he looks is ideology, and it’s crowding out truth, beauty, great works of art, ethics—everything worth anything. Or, rather, people think that everywhere they look is ideology, and that’s even worse. If ideology really is everywhere, that’s bad; but if people perversely see ideology where it isn’t, that’s both bad and strange.
And yet, in literary study especially, a conviction has taken root that all works of art, all cultural expressions, are saturated with ideology, which—as the prevailing mood would have it—inhabits a work in [End Page 1076] a covert but corrupting way, and must be extirpated by the vigilant, skeptical, triumphant critic. In an ideology-besotted atmosphere, the conviction that ideology is everywhere is itself an ideology, an antihumanistic dogma with disastrous consequences, Goodheart argues, for fundamental notions of human dignity, human agency, human freedom, and even human pleasure.
Against ideology, Goodheart has what would seem to be slender weapons—modesty, self-criticism, flexibility, curiosity, uncertainty, responsiveness. But standing behind these is the massive force of the Enlightenment, which emerges in a final chapter on Primo Levi and Jean Amery—Holocaust survivors who, in the absence of a belief in God, still found sustenance in the darkest days by holding on to the ideals of morality, reason, and, in Levi’s luminous case, Dante.
What Goodheart especially dislikes is a pervasive attitude of arrogance and intellectual superiority towards both texts and other people who are not toeing the party line, an attitude weirdly attached to a conviction of individual powerlessness to transcend one’s circumstances, to exercise significant choice, to think or to act freely, to perceive or to state the truth. The conviction, or prejudice, that everything is corrupted by ideology leads, as he points out in an early chapter, to the hyper-pragmatism of Richard Rorty, which is not only flaccid but contradictory on its own terms, and earns some of Goodheart’s most irritated pages.
Despite the pugnacity and righteous bluntness that occasionally infects Goodheart’s discourse, his essential generosity of spirit is best suited to praise and appreciation, and it finds expression here in nuanced readings of Matthew Arnold, the “New York intellectuals,” Kenneth Burke, and Sigmund Freud, all of whom he defends, passionately but not uncritically, from their most virulent antagonists.
The contemporary situation is not altogether bleak as long as there are figures like Isaiah Berlin, Alain Finkielkrait, and Tzvetan Todorov around to stand up for a cosmopolitan liberalism premised on the possibility of communication and reasoned discourse. If there is a contemporary hero emerging from this volume, it is Leszek Kolakowski, who, in another instance of Goodheart’s spacious sensibility, receives warm praise for his defense of Enlightenment orientations and attitudes, especially those that lead to and sustain contemporary liberalism, [End Page 1077] despite the fact that he pegs these attitudes to Christianity. Jewish himself, Goodheart nevertheless respects and values Kolakowski’s unfashionable respect for religion.
This respect is altogether consistent with the spirit of the Enlightenment itself, which, while secular and rationalist, was never anti-religious and clearly sought to preserve religion, while confining it “within the bounds of reason,” as Kant put it. But ideology, too, is a part of the Enlightenment ethos. One of the byproducts of revolutionary fervor in France at the end of the eighteenth century, ideology—the study of social ideas—represents perhaps the defining instance and proudest achievement of Enlightenment rationalism. For, with the dispassionate inquiry into the origin of social ideas, thinkers were able to train a skeptical, genealogical eye on all forms of monarchical or ecclesiastical authority. In this original context, ideology and the unmasking critique of ideology represent assertions of human liberty. According to Goodheart, they have become, in our time, dogmatic assertions of servitude to systems we can barely even grasp, much less control.
It would be good to see Goodheart grapple with this paradox in future work, which...