Category: Literature

On Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cass Sunstein, and Other Public Intellectuals

I have a long piece up at The Chronicle Review on public intellectuals. It’s an adaptation of the keynote address I gave last fall at the Society of US Intellectual History. Here are some excerpts… What is a public intellectual? As an archetype, the public intellectual is a conflicted being, torn in two competing directions. On the one hand, he’s supposed to be called by some combination of the two vocations Max Weber set out in his lectures in Munich: that of the scholar and that of the statesman. Neither academic nor activist but both, the public intellectual is a monkish figure of austere purpose and unadorned truth. Think Noam Chomsky. On the other hand, the public intellectual is supposed to […]

This Muslim American Life: An Interview with Moustafa Bayoumi

Moustafa Bayoumi is a professor of English at Brooklyn College, where I teach political science. His book, “This Muslim American Life,” came out in September. It’s a fascinating collection of pieces—sometimes hilarious, often unsettling, always probing and provocative—about, well, Muslim life in America, past and present. There’s a mini-memoir about the time Moustafa worked as a Middle Eastern extra on “Sex and the City 2″; a Philip-Roth-like story about his discovery of a terrorist named Mustafa Bayoumi in a detective novel (that really did happen); a loving deconstruction of the Islamic undertones and overtones of John Coltrane’s music (“A Love Supreme” becomes “Allah Supreme”); a harrowing essay on how the American military uses music to terrorize and torture its victims […]

Fiddler on the Roof: Our Sabbath Prayer

Every week in synagogue, as we return the Torah to the ark, we sing a prayer that concludes, “Chadesh Yameynu K’Kedem.” The line has been variously translated, but my favorite is this one: “Make our days seem new, as they once were.” It comes from Lamentations, songs of sorrow composed after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and killed or banished many of its inhabitants. But today the invocation speaks less to a geographic sense of loss and longing than to a psychic sense of ritual that’s become rote, feeling that’s gone cold, a desire for a more vital apprehension of liturgy and law, an experience of prayer akin to what our ancestors once felt. Or so we assume they once felt. […]

A Prayer For Peace

Every week Jews recite this prayer for peace, which is drawn from various biblical passages, in shul. This is just part of it: May we see the day when war and bloodshed cease, when a great peace will embrace the whole world. Then nation will not threaten nation, and mankind will not again know war. For all who live on earth shall realize we have not come into being to hate or to destroy. We have come into being to praise, to labor and to love. This week more than ever.

Belated and Inadequate: My Thoughts on Carl Schorske

When Carl Schorske died two months ago, I wanted to write something more thoughtful and considered than the quick Facebook post or tweet. His work had meant too much to me. But when I started to re-read Fin-de-Siècle Vienna in preparation, I realized I wasn’t up for it. The book is just too symphonic; it’s like a George Eliot novel. Nothing I wrote seemed sufficient. So I did the only thing I could do: I posted a screen shot on Facebook of the opening paragraphs of the book. Tonight I was looking for something in my blog, and I found this post from two years ago. It’s a reply to a wave of criticism I received in response to an article […]

A Patience With Your Own Crap: Philip Roth on Writing

David Remnick: Is there a sense of mastery at some point that you might not have had at 40?— Philip Roth: There’s patience. Remnick:—What did age give you?— Roth: Patience. Remnick:—What did experience give you? Roth: Patience. That is, the patience to outlast your frustration. The confidence that if you just stay with it you’ll master it, you know? But that doesn’t mean tomorrow necessarily but that I think it gives you confidence in your instincts….You don’t feel like such a gambler, such a risk taker, in laying down the first ten or twenty or fifty pages. So I guess age and experience give you patience, confidence. Though the confidence can be shattered at the end of a first draft. […]

Publics That Don’t Exist and the Intellectuals Who Write For Them

This Thursday, the Society for U.S. Intellectual History is convening its annual conference in Washington, DC. I’m thrilled to announce that I will be delivering the keynote address; it’s a tremendous honor for me. The full conference schedule is here; my talk is scheduled for Friday, October 16, at 2 pm, in the Hamilton Ballroom of the Hamilton Crowne Plaza Hotel. If you’re in DC, stop by and say hello. The title of my talk is: “Publics That Don’t Exist and the Intellectuals Who Write For Them.” Here’s a sneak preview: The problem with our public intellectuals today—and here I’m going to address the work of two exemplary though quite different public intellectuals: Cass Sunstein and Ta-Nehisi Coates—has little to do with […]

Flaubert on Kissinger/Nixon

Speaking of Kissinger/Nixon, less flat-footed defenders of the Dynamic Duo like to take a tack that goes like this: “Yes, yes, massive violence at the periphery—Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, and elsewhere—but what about their more prosaic and peaceful achievements at the center: detente, the treaties with the Soviet Union, opening relations with China, and so on?” Flaubert had their number many decades ago: “Be regular and orderly in your life,” he is supposed to have to said, “so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Prometheus Bound: A Labor Day Story for the Left?

I wonder how Prometheus came to be championed by the left. At least in Aeschylus’s hands (there are other versions of the story, but I think Aeschylus’s was the most well known), he’s a more ambivalent figure, politically speaking, than the one we’ve come to know on the left. Yes, he sides with the insurgent Zeus against the the old order of the Titans, even though he is a Titan himself, but he comes to regret that. And not just because Zeus turns on him but also because, as the Chorus keeps repeating, insurgent power is always crueler than its predecessor, ancient power has more majesty. Part of the backdrop to the story is that Prometheus made a mistake: not […]

On the Cult of Personality and the Tolerance of Rich People

Looking back on the fierce debate over “socialism in one country” between Trotsky and Stalin before the Executive Committee of the Comintern in 1926, which he witnessed personally, Joseph Freeman, editor of The New Masses and founding editor of Partisan Review, had this to say: If I had known and understood more, I would have foreseen there and then that the dogma that personality counts for nothing in history would lead to the cult of personality; and what that dogma really meant, as it turned out, is that you don’t count and I don’t count and our neighbors don’t count and most of us must be content to be as they had not been—but HE, the great, brilliant, genial Leader, […]

On the New York Intellectuals

I first read Irving Howe in college, in Andrew Ross’ seminar on intellectuals. We read Howe’s “The New York Intellectuals.” I don’t remember what I thought of it; what I remember is that I admired Howe as the epitome of the independent political intellectual. At some point in graduate school, I grew less enamored of the New York Intellectuals as a whole (in part because of their compromises or collaboration with McCarthyism, in part because the ideal of the independent intellectual loosened its hold over me), and Howe fell in my esteem as a result. Which is ironic because Howe was one of the few anti-Stalinist intellectuals who kept his bearings during the McCarthy years. This past year, I’ve been re-reading Howe. His literary criticism […]

American Ambivalence: The Limitations of the Writer in the US

Speaking of Daniel Aaron, this graf from Writers on the Left is pretty great: Paradoxically, the American writer’s running quarrel with his society, his natural inclination to admonish and to castigate in the guise of entertainment, may have sprung as much or more from his identity with that society as from his alienation. He has never been easy during his rebellious moods, never able to divorce himself from the cowards, scoundrels, and vulgarians he attacks. Indeed, the very intensity with which insurgent generations of rebels have assaulted the unkillable beliefs of the bourgeoisie suggests an attachment to their enemy the rebels themselves have hardly been aware of. Made bitter by rejection, and despising a milieu so uncongenial for the creative artist, […]

Walt Whitman, Bolshevik

Reading Daniel Aaron’s Writers on the Left on the F train this morning, I found out that Walt Whitman was one of the very first American writers translated by the Soviet government after the Revolution. Reading around the internet after I got home, I discovered the following: In 1919, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Red Army Deputies printed 50,000 copies of Leaves of Grass. During the Civil War, Whitman’s works were rushed to Red Army soldiers at the front. Between the Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union, 28 editions of Whitman’s works were published. I also found out, from Aaron, that initial funding for The Masses came from the Vice President of the New York Life Insurance Company. Things […]

Mary McCarthy on the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

I don’t know why people complain about the loss of public intellectuals or the decline of intellectual life more generally. I just finished Mary McCarthy’s Intellectual Memoirs: New York 1936-1938. As far as I can tell, there’s more action on one night of Facebook than she reports over the entirety of two years. That said, McCarthy makes one fascinating—at least to me—observation about how we learn to read newness in the arts. In our Beekman Place apartment, besides PR [Partisan Review], I was trying to read Ulysses. John, in the breakfast nook, was typing his play “University” (about his father and never produced), and I was writing book reviews. Every year I started Ulysses, but I could not get beyond the first […]

Aladdin and Value

I found a free copy of The Arabian Nights on a stoop yesterday, so I spent the morning reading its version of the Aladdin story to my daughter. It’s a “junior” version of the story that was published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1946, but it appears to hew closer to earlier versions of the story than do the more popular and contemporary versions we see in the movies and such. In any event, it’s an interesting snapshot of its moment, whatever moment that may be. Two things of note about this version of the Aladdin story. First, it’s very much about the value form. Aladdin begins the story as a total naif about value: the genie gives him a silver plate, which he foolishly […]

Hannah Arendt and Philip Roth: Parallel Lives

In the second half of the twentieth century, a writer of uncommon gifts travels to Israel. There, the writer, who is Jewish and fiercely intellectual, attends the trial of a Nazi war criminal. When the trial’s over, the writer writes a book about it. No, it’s not Hannah Arendt. It’s Philip Roth. Arendt and Roth led oddly parallel lives. Both were denounced by the Jewish establishment—at roughly the same time, in remarkably similar terms—for pieces they had written for The New Yorker. Long before Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth antagonized the Jewish community with his short story, “Defender of the Faith,” which appeared in the magazine in 1959. Describing the controversy, Judith Thurman writes: It sparked a violent reaction in certain quarters of the Jewish establishment. Roth was vilified as a self-hating Jew and […]

Poetry and Power: Challenges for an Aesthetics of the Left

Hazlitt’s essay on Coriolanus seems apposite to some of the themes I explored in The Reactionary Mind. Hazlitt suggests a deep and abiding affinity of poetry for power, an affinity that explains how the right is able attract a broad formation of followers from below. Hazlitt also hints at why an aesthetics of the left, at least one centered on the more pedestrian claims of the mass, is so often difficult to attain and sustain; indeed, why any aesthetics may ultimately serve as an argument for the arrogations of power: The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible […]

Checking Your Privilege At Auschwitz

Primo Levi, 1976 appendix to If This Is a Man: We should recall that in some camps uprisings did take place: in Treblinka, in Sobibór, and even in Birkenau, one of the sub-camps of Auschwitz…In all instances, they were planned and led by prisoners who were in some sense privileged, and so in better physical and spiritual condition than the ordinary prisoners. This should not be surprising: only at first glance does it seem paradoxical that the ones who revolt are those who suffer least.

Primo Levi, “For Adolf Eichmann”

Galleys of the three volumes of The Complete Works of Primo Levi arrived in the mail today. I’ve got my summer reading plans. This poem jumped out at me, from volume 3. For Adolf Eichmann The wind runs free across our plains, The live sea beats on our beaches. Man feeds the earth, the earth gives him flowers and fruit: He lives in torment and joy, he hopes and fears, he engenders sweet children.   …And you have come, our precious enemy, Abandoned creature, man encircled by death. What can you say now, before our congregation? Will you swear by a god? What god? Will you leap joyfully into the grave? Or will you grieve the way the busy man grieves at last, Whose […]