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This review is taken from PN Review 138, Volume 27 Number 4, March - April 2001.

PORTRAITURE MICHAEL ANNE BERNSTEIN, Five Portraits. Modernity and the Imagination in Twentieth-Century German Writing (Northwestern University Press) $24.95

Perhaps especially in Britain, historians have been needlessly boastful in their avoidance of the literary, philosophical, or theological. It is as if thinking about the human condition - or the nature of good and evil - might divert them from merely gathering, and then ordering, titbits of information, in line with their undemanding assumptions about historical causation or human beings in general.

The work of Michael André Bernstein, a leading American scholar of comparative literature at Berkeley, is an implicit challenge to the intellectual complacency of many historians, because Bernstein enlists imaginative literature, philosophy and theology to expose underlying assumptions so powerfully present in our culture that historians seem not to notice them.

In line with the Austrian writer Robert Musil, Bernstein is sympathetic to open-ended renditions of the past, and the often unsung virtues of the prosaic and quotidian. He is rightly suspicious of the ways in which our culture seems drawn to extremism, if only in the form of books about beastly deeds and dead dictators. The moths are guaranteed not to singe themselves in the flame.

A certain kind of portentous Holocaust fiction, typified by the novelist Aharon Appelfeld, in which assimilated Jews should have recognised what bore down upon them, formed the theme of Bernstein's previous book Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History. The political perils of mythologising the introspective, solitary, artistic or philosophical genius are central to his new essays on five major Austro- German writers and thinkers. These ...


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