Sunday, August 13, 2017

Tonsor: Intellectual History: Goethe II


As I labored my way back to the bus stop near the Diag, a grocery bag of books in each arm, I reflected on Tonsor's habit of reading Goethe every morning and his sheer delight in discussing Faust. How had my professor kept such enthusiasm for the same work since the 1940s?[1] How could he wax eloquent about a Dead White European Male in the 1980s when to do so on a college campus was considered bad form? Stanford University's debates over "the core and the canon" had made international news.[2] Goethe was now suspect, as guilty as the next DWEM of racism, sexism, classism, and chauvinism. Some scholars even indicted Goethe for inspiring the Nazis. It is one of the terrible ironies of German history that the concentration camp at Buchenwald is but fifteen minutes from Goethe's Weimar.[3]

If you knew Stephen Tonsor, you could take it to the bank: He was not going to be cowed by the canon wars. Au contraire: He was the type who would go out of his way to laud DWEMs like Goethe if he thought it would get under the skin of leftist critics. 

It was risky behavior. A former student of Tonsor's whom I had met, Bob Houbeck, asked him why the Left had not taken him down. After all, Michigan was a leftist stronghold and Tonsor would have been low-hanging fruit. Tonsor told him, "The Left just never got around to targeting me. Maybe it's because of my guardian angel."[4] No wonder Tonsor believed in the transcendent in Faust.


The historian in Tonsor sought out Goethe for the obvious reasons -- his preeminence in the republic of letters; his mastery of a half-dozen languages and a dozen literary genres; his status as the last great classical writer of Western civilization; his brilliance as a polymath; his scientific discoveries; his attractive personality and dazzling conversation, rather like Lord Acton's. 

The cultural critic in Tonsor appreciated Goethe for the critical reasons discussed earlier. The Weimar poet grasped as few others did the newly emerging psychological, philosophical, and theological problems presented by modernity. 

Henry Regnery (1912-1996)
The Germanophile in Tonsor loved Goethe for yet another reason, one whose motive was less apparent. If you listened to him over a period of time you figured it out: Tonsor felt the burden of modern German history, and Goethe was the rebuke to what had gone wrong in that history -- from Luther's cleavage of Western Christendom ... to the radical Germanic thought of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud ... to the nation's barbarous behavior in two world wars. In contrast to these evils and errors stood Goethe (and Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and Humboldt and Mann, and, and, and --), who reminded the nation of the better angels of their nature and who thus represented the great humanistic storehouse of the German people. For all these reasons Goethe held the lamp that could guide Germans still. So Tonsor, who took such great pride in his German heritage, found much pleasure in spending time with Goethe. And he enjoyed sharing that pleasure with students, colleagues, and friends. Goethe, in fact, was one of the bonds that Tonsor and his Germanophilic friend, Henry Regnery, shared. Regnery, too, was eager to restore German culture to its pride of place in the world.[5] 

On a more personal note, Tonsor remarked that "Goethe has served as Henry Regnery's mentor and model. He has been very important in my formation, too."[6] 


In a world that was reevaluating Dead White European Males, it was one thing to cultivate a private admiration for Goethe. It was another to make a public declaration of it. By the 1980s, the postmodern academy was not a particularly accommodating place for a historian and cultural critic like Stephen Tonsor. In his interior life he was a conservative, a Catholic, and an integral humanist. By temperament and education he swam against the postmodern current. Yet his discipline, modern European intellectual history, required him to teach the very radicals, progressives, and postmodern theorists who reviled his most cherished beliefs. To his credit, Tonsor could lecture on those radicals, progressives, and postmodern theorists with the best of them, and generations of students profited from his teaching. Nevertheless, at Michigan when I knew him, he was a stranger in a strange land -- a sojourner through a kingdom ruled not by his beloved Goethe but by that troika of dominating Germanic thinkers -- Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. 
Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), explored
the distance between what we say
and what we mean.

What united these three titans of modern thought was their insistence on a radical, even a militant, reading of the great books. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur famously called such a reading the "hermeneutics of suspicion." Literary scholars would call it "critique."[7] Tonsor did not share the radicals' admiration for such a method. He must have asked himself, from the Sixties forward, why the New Left and each succeeding wave of scholars approached the best-loved books in an increasingly militant manner. He saw first-hand how intellectual history had undergone a paradigm shift called the "linguistic turn," which explored the degree to which philosophical problems were really linguistic problems. Richard Rorty, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault -- all of them became quite modish by the 1980s and infused intellectual history with a sophistical jargon that Tonsor abhored. The young set of intellectual historians were not as ingenious as they thought they were; they were just channeling the ancient nihilists, Gorgias and Protagoras. It was all very wearisome to Tonsor. Must all truth-claims be treated with suspicion and hostility (unless, of course, they came from one's own ideological allies)? Could there not still be space in the academy for what St. John's College tutor Eva Brann called "the principle of charity" when reading and discussing important works?[8] 

The Oxford English professor, Helen Small, would argue years later that methodological balance was needed to restore the humanities: 
"the work of the humanities is frequently descriptive, or appreciative, or imaginative, or provocative, or speculative, more than it is critical."[9] 

And the University of Virginia English professor, Rita Felski, would similarly challenge her colleagues: 
"Why is it that critics are so quick off the mark to interrogate, unmask, expose, subvert, unravel, demystify, destabilize, take issue, and take umbrage? What sustains their assurance that a text is withholding something of vital importance, that their task is to ferret out what lies concealed in its recesses and margins? Why is critique so frequently feted as the most serious and scrupulous form of thought? What intellectual and imaginative alternatives does it overshadow, obscure, or overrule? And what are the costs of such ubiquitous criticality?[10]
Yes ... yes! 


When I started graduate school at Michigan in '87, the very dangers that Tonsor had already stared down now reared up at me. If he had three strikes against him, I had three strikes against me before joining the program. By tacking conservative, by becoming a Catholic, and by approaching important books with a humanist's appreciation rather than a radical's suspicion, I too was a stranger in a strange land. I was asking questions that did not align with the postmodern agenda. In contrast to the training of previous generations -- think of Tonsor's in the years after World War II, which tended to be deferential toward the canon -- my generation was being trained "to read against the grain and between the lines" to expose the lies, bad faith, and self-delusions that riddled the canon. That in essence is what it means to practice the "hermeneutics of suspicion" or "critique."[11]

Nor was that all. At Michigan it was not just the "hermeneutics of suspicion" and "critique" that were taught. It was also the attitude, or pose, that accompanied radical methods. In the West's elite programs, Felski has observed, one finds the humanities' methodological gatekeepers "patrolling the boundaries of what counts as serious thought." They foster "the cultivation of an intellectual persona that is highly prized ... suspicious, knowing, self-conscious, hardheaded, tirelessly vigilant." A degree of "arrogance" and "nonchalance" earns one style points.[12]

I wanted to pursue graduate studies because I loved history. I wanted to understand the past. But I would soon be forced to make a decision. On the one hand, I might have to tolerate the distasteful parts of a graduate education to land a teaching job. On the other hand, to strike a postmodern pose was not for me -- it felt inauthentic. I was not looking to be radical or subversive but to discover the meaning of the past -- more in line with Ricoeur's "hermeneutics of faith" than the "hermeneutics of suspicion." This led me to ask questions that were different from those of the radical students and professors around me.[13]  

I kept these qualms to myself -- and the irony of such a position was not lost on me. Any presentations I gave, any papers I submitted, deserved to be treated with the very hermeneutics of suspicion I found so distasteful!

What a conundrum I had worked myself into. How did I get there?


My first exposure to critique was at the University of Konstanz in 1984-'85, during my Fulbright year in then-West Germany; Wolfgang Iser and Hans-Robert Jauss were two leaders of reader-response criticism, making Konstanz a pilgrimage for postmodernists during the mid '80s. My next exposure came at a summer course at the University of Oxford in 1985, when I learned about the linguistic turn in intellectual history. Later still I was able to refine my knowledge of critique in an advanced English class at Colorado State University. Although I was intellectually curious about critique during these years, I never felt that it was the approach that I needed to adopt to do my work. Critique and the hermeneutics of suspicion did not get at the questions I was asking.

In addition to these courses, I noticed a disconnect between the English and history departments at CSU in the 1980s. The English classes that were taught by younger faculty were a world apart from the history classes that were taught by older faculty. These latter men -- for they all were male -- were old school. Thus my history classes at CSU tended not delve into the hermeneutics of suspicion. There was still joy to be had in reading thoughtful, engaging books of history without seeing them through critical theory. As a result, one of the younger English professors accused his older colleagues in the history department of running a "suburban book club." Cute, clever even, but not convincing. I approached graduate school with the mistaken notion that I could work toward a Ph.D. in European intellectual history -- in an elite department at an elite university -- without having to embrace the hermeneutics of suspicion.

Thomas Mark (1924-2010)
How mistaken I was. Through no fault of their own, the older generation of scholars whose classes I took taught me the way they had been taught, and I surmised that I could follow their path. 

One of my older professors at CSU was Tom Mark.[14] A Hungarian-American who had fought the Nazis in World War II, Professor Mark taught me Shakespeare. He was a character on campus and something of a gadfly. One evening when a famous postmodern literary critic visited the Fort Collins campus, Professor Mark showed up. The visitor was filled with self-importance. He impressed the audience with his display of critique, slashing and burning the literary canon. Most of the younger professors seemed attentive and appreciative. When the time came for Q&A, Professor Mark raised his right hand; he held a pipe in his left hand, close to his mouth. The visiting critic called on him, and Professor Mark asked, slowly, deliberately: 


He drawled the word out and his New York accent hung in the room like the sword of Damocles. Then he went back to puffing his pipe.

"Why?" It was all Tom Mark said. I and a number of other people in the audience started to laugh, quietly at first, and then more conspicuously. The laughter amplified the absurdity of the nihilism expressed by our pompous guest.  

Later, when I got to know Stephen Tonsor, his contrary manner would sometimes remind me of the same in Tom Mark. These dedicated humanists were two of a kind. But they were a vanishing kind, and I did not know, when I arrived at Michigan in 1987, how close they were to extinction. 



[1] Caroline Tonsor conversation with GW, Chelsea, MI, July 7, 2017. She distinctly remembers her husband's well-worn copy of Goethe when they moved to the North Campus of the University of Michigan in 1955. She also conveyed to me that, prior to Ann Arbor, they enjoyed discussing Goethe's poetry when they were in the University of Illinois Poetry Club from 1946-'48, and when Stephen Tonsor studied in Zurich, Switzerland, from 1948-'49. Caroline Tonsor email to GW, July 5, 2017.

[2] For an overview of the conflict at Stanford University within the larger context of the culture wars, see Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), esp. pp. 227-30.

[3] See, e.g., Susan Sage Heinzelman, "Johann Wolfgang von Goethe," in Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition, 2nd ed. (Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2004), pp. 393, 395.

[4] Robert Houbeck conversation with GW, Flint, MI, June 15, 2015.

[5] Alfred Regnery conversation with GW, Washington, DC, May 17, 2017. For passages that abundantly demonstrate Henry Regnery's love of the best in high German culture -- relevant to this project because they reveal how Tonsor came to see Regnery as a fellow Germanophile -- see Henry Regnery, Memoirs of a Dissident Publisher (Chicago: Regnery Books, 1985).

[6] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Henry Regnery," Equality, Decadence, and Modernity: The Collected Essays of Stephen J. Tonsor, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 322.

[7] Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy (1970), quoted by Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), Introduction.

[8] "The principle of charity" is from a quotation by Eva Brann at URL 

[9] Helen Small, The Value of the Humanities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 26; quoted by Felski, Critique, Introduction.

[10] Felski, Critique, Introduction.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy (1970); and Felski, Critique, Introduction.

[14] For more on Tom Mark, see URL

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