Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Myths about Lincoln, Stories about Truth

In response to Mark's thought provoking posts:

A few weeks ago, UVU President Matt Holland gave a lecture about Abraham Lincoln that examined various myths that have grown up around the historical figure. In the process, he took a close look at Lincoln's second inaugural address, especially the parts in which Lincoln steps back from asserting certainty.

Several days later, we exchanged the following emails:

Many thanks. I especially appreciated your question/comment at my Lincoln lecture which got me back on track to make a point I had planned to make but got sidetracked from doing. In fact, I keep meaning to send you a short passage from my book that highlights the most unusual (for a politician in particular) epistemic uncertainty/modesty of Lincoln even as he is pushing for a vigorous defense of an ideal concerning individual human liberty that he simply considers true. For me, it is a remarkable blend of modern and post-modern sensitivities (though he would not have been thinking of it quite that way). I'll send you the passage.


Thanks for the pages from your book. I'm struck by the utter humility you highlight in the speech. You write that Lincoln knew he had no real control over the war and refused to declare it won (contrast George Bush's MISSION ACCOMPLISHED bravado), and your sentence about the "sweeping and radical sense of contingency" is especially powerful. That the contingency is in the context of talk about God, a living God, the God of the Bible, as you write, is striking. There's a phrase you don't mention that, perhaps, even further expresses the distance between the human and the divine in Lincoln's mind -- "shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him." What do we know about God? -- what we ascribe to Him (even the gender and caps).

In any case, this is the kind of epistemic humility to which I am continually drawn. I have worked for a couple of decades on and with a contemporary Austrian writer, Peter Handke, whose work keeps circling around the problems of what and how we know things and who we are depending on how we answer those questions. He undercuts as well as anyone the smug certainties of business and universities and politics and war ("The first casualty of war is language," for instance). And as a child of a German soldier during the war he knows the totalizing and debilitating language of the Nazis (Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein F├╝hrer) and yet simultaneously knows how much we need a (humble) Volk.

So where does this thinker of our times, a good and nuanced thinker, turn for structure and meaning? To myths about Lincoln! His character in the novel "Short Letter, Long Farewell" travels through the United States trying to find his wife who writes him at the beginning "I am in New York. Please don't look for me. It would not be nice for your to find me." I take her to be truth (from Nietzsche's "Supposing truth to be a woman" at the beginning of "Beyond Good and Evil"), and thus the novel is about our troubled relationships with truth. When the character reaches St. Louis, he goes to the movies, and in John Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln" he finds truths that are so obviously mythical / filmic that they can work for him, truths that remind him that they're not true while being true. We've got to have stories to live by, and the best ones have a dual structure, a conjunctive "and" that keep us wary of supposed absolutes.

all the best,

In short, for Peter Handke and other contemporary thinkers, the truest stories are the ones that wear their contingency on their sleeves.

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