Eating Your Cake and Having It

There are some strange assumptions in this review of Adam Sutcliffe’s Judaism and the Enlightenment. For one thing there’s a confusion throughout between Jews and Judaism. For another and related thing, there is a confusion between Judaism as a religion and Jewishness as nationality or ‘ethnic’ ‘identity’. As a result, there is a confusion between criticising a religion and hating people or a people.

There is also a lot of familiar and none the less annoying sneering at the Enlightenment.

The British-born historian is not the first writer to knock Enlightenment thinkers off their pedestals. The period’s “dark side” has been a recurring theme for more than a century now. Critics (among them Friedrich Nietzsche, the Romantic poets, and Michel Foucault) have charged the Enlightenment as an accomplice to a range of crimes that include not only racism, sexism, and “phallologocentrism,” but also bureaucracy, technocracy, ecological devastation, Western imperialism — even fascism.

And that’s the end of it. Did the charges stick? Is the evidence any good? Are the witnesses reliable? Have those zany ‘Enlightenment thinkers’ actually been knocked off their pedestals, or is it just that people have been trying to shove them for a long time. (Not to mention the vagueness on the dates of the ‘Romantic poets’ and the silly gossippy ‘dark side’ business, and the question of what pedestals.) Postel doesn’t trouble to say; just announces the off-knocking and moves on. And ends up with this untrue bromide:

And the prospect of a world without myth is neither possible nor desirable, Mr. Sutcliffe argues: “We need both reason and myth.” The “mythic resilience” of Judaism calls attention to the limits of the Enlightenment. “Enlightenment fundamentalism,” Mr. Sutcliffe says, can distort our understanding of the Other, or that which we deem to be irrational. Mr. Sutcliffe thus sees his book as more than a contribution to intellectual history. It is also a philosophical argument, he says, a cautionary tale against what he calls “the seductions of rationalist absolutism.”

We need myth, do we. What then? Are those of us who become aware that the myths are in fact myths supposed to keep quiet about the fact, lest we fall into the dangerous embrace of ‘rationalist absolutism’? Are we supposed to lie? Cover up? And what does it even mean to say we need both reason and myth. What, one minute we believe Jesus walked on water and the next we don’t and the next we do again? Is it possible the two are not compatible? Unless we redefine myth so thoroughly that it no longer means what everyone takes it to mean, in which case we have what? A myth about myth? Unvacated pedestals, is what it looks like.

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