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The Review

Understand the big ideas and provocative arguments shaping the academy. Delivered on Mondays.

From: Len Gutkin

Subject: The Review: The Nightmare of History

"Is this a plea for historians to be granted some of the moral authority of the traumatized, of the survivor?" That's Michael Roth, a historian and president of Wesleyan University, commenting on "Can Historians Be Traumatized by History?," an article recently published in The New Republic. Based on that headline, I was initially sympathetic to Roth's skepticism. But the article, by James Robins, moved me. It begins with the story of Iris Chang, the historian whose book The Rape of Nanking (1997) Robins credits with "resurrecting for a new generation the half-forgotten savagery unleashed on Chinese citizens by the Japanese Imperial Army" in 1937. Chang's research required numberless hours absorbed in accounts of murder, rape, torture, mutilation. Especially crucial were her videotaped interviews with traumatized survivors. The Rape of Nanking made Chang a star.

Seven years later, having undertaken a research project on the Bataan Death March of 1942, Chang drove into the hills and shot herself through the mouth. She was 36.

It would be too simple to attribute Chang's suicide solely to her immersion in the atrocities of World War II. And pace the thrust of Robins's article, I doubt that "trauma" is the right interpretive frame for the psychic harms that can be caused by studying past brutalities. But that doesn't mean those harms aren't real. And while they might not confer the moral authority of the survivor — Roth's worry — they confer another kind of moral authority: the wisdom of the witness. That wisdom has risks. David Rieff, in a book called In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and its Ironies, quotes La Rochefoucauld: "No man can stare for long at death or the sun."

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To Burn or Not to Burn?

A couple weeks ago, the Brown University classicist Johanna Hanink took to our pages to argue against what she sees as classical studies's implication in "violent societal structures, including white supremacy, colonialism, classism, and misogyny": "I stand with Dan-el Padilla Peralta and others who would rather see the current incarnation of classics burn than fossilize, and who are eager for a fire that will make way for healthy new growth."

The essay occasioned debate and responses on all sides. Sander L. Gilman appreciated Hanink's position and compared classics's reckoning with racism and colonialism to that of his own field, German studies, which had to address the Nazi affiliations of some of its postwar members. Vicente Medina suggested that the "so-called cultural war in classics seems to have evolved into a false dilemma." Michael Poliakoff worried that "when classics is presented … by its own practitioners as some atavistic romp of white supremacy, diversity-conscious deans are likely to take the line of least resistance, with intellectually devastating consequences." And James Kierstead, of Victoria University of Wellington, offered a rebuttal: "Claiming that institutional classics is 'complicit' for the way extremists talk about the ancient world makes very little sense."

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I'm always hoping to hear from you — write to opinion@chronicle.com.

Yours,
Len Gutkin

Len Gutkin is a senior editor at The Chronicle Review. His first book, Dandyism: Forming Fiction From Modernism to the Present, was published in February 2020 by the University of Virginia Press.