I heard a talk not long ago about how modern commentators are “retelling the history” of John Henry Newman, believing that his Apologia does not reveal “the whole truth” about him.
They seek to know the “historical” Newman—not the one created by previous historians, nor Newman as he presented himself in his writings—and then to reinterpret all his works in light of that “real” Newman: his true intentions, doubts, or worries that he never expressed directly. They ask, for instance, whether Newman was a closeted homosexual, especially toward the men with whom he was “good friends.” If he was, passages in his works that seemed innocent or pious before look very different.
Such “deconstructionism”—“unmasking” the real author by reducing him to his cultural and psychological influences—is all the rage in the academy. Many scholars are continually trying to unmask past writers to understand them better than previous readers allegedly could. In the end, however, deconstructionism is self-negating.
The approach of deconstructionism is very Freudian: an author writes something thinking he has one intention, but the deconstructionist psychiatrist unmasks subconscious motivations that the author is hiding from himself. (I had an English professor who insisted that only after Freud could anyone understand Shakespeare’s plays, meaning that even Shakespeare didn’t understand Shakespeare’s plays.) Everyone requires an expert to reveal why he does anything. Often one’s alleged motive ends up being something like working out problems one didn’t resolve with one’s mother or reasserting one’s masculinity against one’s sexual repression.
One cannot deny that subconscious influences act on us. But we must not reduce all actions to epiphenomena of our impulses and external influences. I am certainly influenced by the culture in which I live, but I am not reducible to it. I am not the sum of forces operating on and within me. Some part of me, perhaps at times through great effort, transcends those influences. By it I can know some things to be objectively true and choose to act accordingly.
It would be very odd if we were not free and could not know the truth. When we make choices, we act as if we were responsible for them. When we write and argue, we appeal to truths that, we believe, we have not created and that our interlocutors could recognize as well. Centuries of readers have believed they can read the works of authors from radically different cultures of earlier times and recognize truths that apply to their own lives.
Even if by some further improbable oddity all humanity has been deceived in such beliefs, it would be impossible for anyone, including the deconstructionist, to recognize that deception. From what transcendent perspective could a deconstructionist rise above the forces that he believes control everyone? If authors before him can be reduced or deconstructed, why not he? If all written works are merely products of cultural forces and historical contingencies, then so are all his critiques, including his claim that all writings are merely products of historical contingency.
As C. S. Lewis points out in his wonderful essay on “Bulverism,” such people “have sawn off the branch they were sitting on.” If Freudians and Marxists say that all thoughts are tainted by history, ideology, and self-interest, then, course, “we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology or philosophical idealism. The Freudian and Marxian are in the same boat with all the rest of us, and cannot criticize us from outside.”
Honesty and integrity demand that deconstructionists turn their critical eye on themselves and inform their readers of their own cultural biases, such as their esteem for Freud, Derrida, and other postmodern thinkers. Perhaps they investigate the sexuality of Newman and take it be so important because they live in a culture that has become besotted and obsessed with sex. They may be ignoring the possibility that many people in Newman’s society, and Newman himself, were simply not obsessed with it. Perhaps some want Newman to be a homosexual because they are. Might it be that modern interpreters of Newman are eager to see Newman as motivated more by social dynamics than a deep concern for religious truth because they live in a culture that doesn’t take religious truth seriously?
Listening versus Projecting
Such interpreters are often engaging less in scholarly inquiry than in self-projection. But unlike Freudian “projection,” by which the interpreter projects on others the thoughts and attitudes he wishes to deny in himself, this sort of self-projection forces the thoughts and attitudes the interpreter is most proud of in himself or herself onto the author of a great work. He must have been gay. She must have seen the arrant nonsense of Christian thought. He couldn’t have been opposed to progressivism.
But when we deconstruct authors in this way, reducing them to our own preconceived categories, we no longer hear their voices, we hear only the mocking echo of our own. Worse yet, we insulate ourselves from the most interesting lessons they might teach us. As C. S. Lewis says in another of his essays, “On the Reading of Old Books”: “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.”
For Lewis, that meant reading old books, and that is a good place to start. But we will fail to obtain the benefits Lewis has in mind for us if we merely read into old books the characteristic mistakes and assumptions of our own age, to which we may have become blind. We will not learn from them if, instead of letting books challenge our presuppositions, we seek to make them allies in our present ideological struggles.
Finding the Transcendent within Every Historical Context
Pope John Paul II seems to me to have expressed the balance between a “historical consciousness” and “transcendent truth” with his characteristic wisdom and insight in the encyclical Fides et Ratio:
To understand a doctrine from the past correctly, it is necessary to set it within its proper historical and cultural context. The fundamental claim of historicism, however, is that the truth of a philosophy is determined on the basis of its appropriateness to a certain period and a certain historical purpose. At least implicitly, therefore, the enduring validity of truth is denied. What was true in one period, historicists claim, may not be true in another. . . . On the contrary, it should not be forgotten that, even if a formulation is bound in some way by time and culture, the truth or the error which it expresses can invariably be identified and evaluated as such despite the distance of space and time. . . . It is possible to move from the historical and contingent circumstances in which the texts developed to the truth which they express, a truth transcending those circumstances. Human language may be conditioned by history and constricted in other ways, but the human being can still express truths which surpass the phenomenon of language.
The life and works of Pope Saint John Paul II were a tremendous influence on me. But his teachings were not the only source for my belief that, as he put it, “truth can never be confined to time and culture.” Some of the same sources may have influenced both of us, but likely not many. How similar would the intellectual culture of a Protestant kid, growing up in an American suburb, attending public school in the 1970s, be to that of a Catholic kid growing up in a small town in Poland, under Nazi and then Communist domination? Given how different our cultures and upbringing were, how did we end up with very similar views on historical context and transcendent truth, especially since both of us grew up in cultures that were in their own ways dominated by relativism and historicism?
The human soul is marvelously complex. Anyone who thinks he can definitively disentangle another author’s motivations is fooling himself. So many of the influences that led me to my judgments—how my parents raised me (they had plenty of books but were devoted moral and historical relativists) or what mood I was in when I read my favorite book for the first time (probably bored)—are beyond anything even I could recall. I can’t imagine how anyone else could discover them, let alone benefit from them.
Perhaps, then, the best approach would be to read others’ written work as we would wish them to read ours. We all have fears, desires, hopes, dreams, neuroses, loves, and inanities, many of which are a mystery even to ourselves. There is no question that our culture and historical era influence us, yet so do the truths that transcend our age. But when we write, we hope to be taken seriously as someone with thoughts worthy of others’ consideration. We want others to take us at our best and interpret our words in good faith, doing their level best to understand the truths we set ourselves to communicate, not merely reading into them things it pleases them to find there. If that is what we want, should we not offer that same consideration to others, whether they are authors of a previous age or of our own?