What’s Wrong With Public Intellectuals? | The Chronicle Review

Mark Greif has written a long, lovely meditation on the heyday of public intellectuals and their audience in mid 20th century America. That period, in his view, was best epitomised by the Partisan Review.

My sense of the true writing of the “public intellectuals” of the Partisan Review era is that it was always addressed just slightly over the head of an imagined public—at a height where they must reach up to grasp it. But the writing seemed, also, always just slightly above the Partisan Review writers themselves. They, the intellectuals, had stretched themselves to attention, gone up on tiptoe, balancing, to become worthy of the more thoughtful, more electric tenor of intellect they wanted to join. They, too, were of “the public,” but a public that wanted to be better, and higher. They distinguished themselves from it momentarily, by pursuing difficulty, in a challenge to the public and themselves—thus becoming equals who could earn the right to address this public.

It was born of unique influences: a world emerging from unutterable darkness and eager for the light; a prodigious influx of the finest European intellects before and during the war; and, a widespread sense that bettering oneself was not only desirable, but possible. We can hardly wish for such a confluence to reoccur; no period of intellectual excellence could justify the cost. Nevertheless, Continue reading

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‘The Ill-Defined Plot’ | The New Yorker

Essays can be such a delight.

In The Ill-Defined Plot, John Jeremiah Sullivan happily rummages around in the origins of the term.

In the words of Hugh Walker—whose English Essay and Essayists remains the most lucid single-volume work on the genre a century after its publication—the genre becomes the “common” of English literature, “for just as, in the days before enclosures, stray cattle found their way to the unfenced common, so the strays of literature have tended towards the ill-defined plot of the essay.”

He finishes, if we (unjustly) exclude four entertaining, meaty footnotes, by setting the scene for the very first recorded use of “essayist”. Continue reading

Entranced by Reality

In a beautiful review of a new book on Camus, Ian Marcus Corbin writes:

In one of his most lyrical essays, “Nuptuals at Tipasa,” Camus exults in the stark beauty of an Algerian mountain town on the verge of the Mediterranean Sea: “Deep among wild scents and concerts of somnolent insects, I open my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-soaked sky.” [ . . . ] One could very sensibly argue that the pleasure and vibrancy of his aesthetic experiences served as a vital counterbalance to one of the most common and dangerous pitfalls of professional thinkers: the temptation to float off into the cool, exhilarating ether of abstraction, leaving messy, mundane realities behind.

The next few sentences of “Nuptuals” aren’t quoted by Corbin but they seem particularly apposite: “It is not so easy to become what one is, to rediscover one’s deepest measure. But watching the solid backbone of the Chenoua, my heart would grow calm with a strange certainty. I was learning to breathe, I was fitting into things and fulfilling myself.”

Camus’ refusal, or perhaps inability, to lose sight of the real in the abstract accounts for much of his enduring attraction. It may not seem such a rare thing, but amongst serious thinkers I believe it is. And as Corbyn says, “it certainly was in Camus’s day. Camus’s peers, mid-century French intellectuals, were all too susceptible to the raptures of abstraction.”

His love of the sensual beauties of the world cohabited uneasily with an astringent sense of its otherness, its strangeness, its unknowability. Continue reading

Maitzen on Middlemarch and morality| Open Letters Monthly

So Mr. Casaubon is not simply as bad as Dorothea believes— he is worse. And when she subordinates herself to him, it’s his petty, vindictive nature that gets free rein, while Dorothea’s generous ardor is stifled by her “nightmare of a life in which every energy was arrested by dread.” The fundamental question of moral philosophy is “how ought I to live?”: how can this be the right answer?

The doctrine of sympathy that sends Dorothea down that broad corridor arm in arm with her husband turns out, then, to have frightening consequences. It’s not that the best lack all conviction, but that their convictions lead them inexorably to a moral victory that by any other standard looks like defeat.

How indeed? And yet, despite the apparently perverse nature of this altruistic conception of morality Maitzen stands with Eliot.

There’s no way around it, though: as the narrator in The Mill on the Floss remarks, “the responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision.” Precisely because the Mr. Casaubons of the world are trapped in their own egocentric perceptions, they can’t be expected to either see realistically or act sympathetically. The Dorotheas of the world, in contrast, because wider in their vision and thus stronger in their moral perception, will always be accountable to the demands of altruism.

Maitzen quotes Eliot herself on this issue.

The notion that duty looks stern, but all the while has her hand full of sugar-plums, with which she will reward us by and by, is the favourite cant of optimists, who try to make out that this tangled wilderness of life has a plan as easy to trace as that of a Dutch garden; but it really undermines all true moral development by perpetually substituting something extrinsic as a motive to action, instead of the immediate impulse of love or justice, which alone makes an action truly moral.

There’s much truth to this and it feels wonderfully pious but I can’t escape the sense that it’s also profoundly, perhaps fatally, mistaken. Continue reading

What Is It About Middlemarch? | Vulture

As Dorothea learns to her dismay, other people do not necessarily crave the treatment we expect them to appreciate. To thrive in sustained intimacy requires learning to provide not what we think someone else wants, or should want, but what actually makes him or her happy.

This struggle to see others is the moral drama of Middlemarch, and of life. Eliot never stops resisting the autocracy of the self; what Copernicus was to ­geocentricity, she is to egocentricity. The most striking example of this resistance appears not in her books but in a letter, quoted by Mead, that Eliot wrote to a bereaved friend. “I try to delight in the sunshine that will be when I shall never see it any more. And I think it is possible for this sort of ­impersonal life to attain great intensity,—possible for us to gain much more ­independence, than is usually believed, of the small bundle of acts that make our own personality.”

Reading that passage is like watching Eliot drift upward to become the narrator of Middlemarch: omniscient, compassionate, seeing life more clearly for the distance but sharing not one iota less in its delights. From a narrator, we take such a position for granted. From a person, it’s a startlingly radical separation.

via What Is It About Middlemarch? — Vulture.

Writing and Whistle-Blowing | Morgan Meis

The point of Orwell’s elephant story is not that he should or shouldn’t have killed the elephant. Maybe killing the elephant was necessary. But whatever the legal or moral arguments, killing the elephant was, for Orwell, a horrible act committed for selfish reasons. That part of the story cannot, and should not, be removed. In writing the essay, Orwell restored the messy truth. Orwell killed an animal even though he didn’t want to and even though doing so caused him much pain. Orwell killed the animal because of his own pride, and stubbornness, and fear.

Like Orwell’s writing, Snowden’s whistle-blowing restores the ugliness. By giving us this information, Snowden is showing us the true face of our pride, and stubbornness, and fear. In wanting to make America invulnerable to attack, we’ve created an almost all-powerful surveillance state that watches us from the shadows day and night. Perhaps this is necessary. Perhaps it will make for a safer and better world in the long run. But as Orwell would say, it is important not to be deceived as to its true nature.

via The Smart Set: Writing and Whistle-Blowing

Oppenheimer: The Shape of Genius | NYRB

Freeman Dyson “often wondered how it happened that Oppenheimer changed his character so suddenly, from the left-wing bohemian intellectual at Berkely to the good soldier at Los Alamos.”

Much of it, he concluded, was due to the indirect influence of Kitty Oppenheimer’s first husband, Joe Dallet. She retained a deep and open loyalty to him and Dallet’s story was certainly striking.

Dallet was unlike the majority of the left-wing intellectuals who flocked to Spain to fight for the republic. Dallet took soldiering seriously. He believed in discipline. He quickly became an expert on the repair, maintenance, and use of machine guns. He drilled his troops with old-fashioned thoroughness, making sure that they knew how to take care of their weapons and how to use them effectively. In an anarchic situation, his unit was conspicuously well organized. His men caught from him the habit of competence, the pride of a steelworker who knew how to handle machinery. At moments of relaxation, he talked mostly about his beloved machine guns. This was the image of Joe that Joe’s friends brought to Kitty in Paris when they came to see her after his death. This was the image that Kitty brought to Oppenheimer when she married him.

From Spain to Los Alamos was a short step. Oppenheimer was as proud of his bombs as Joe Dallet had been proud of his guns. Oppenheimer became the good soldier that Kitty loved and admired. Through the Los Alamos years and for twenty years afterward, the spirit of Joe Dallet lived on in Robert Oppenheimer.

For all the suspicions that swirled around Oppenheimer in the post-war years he had been, according to Dyson, “astonishingly effective as leader of the Los Alamos project”, always devoted to America and “above all a good soldier.”

I have a vivid memory of the ice-cold February day in 1967 when we held a memorial service for Oppenheimer at Princeton. Because of the extreme cold, attendance at the service was sparse. But General Groves, old and frail, came all the way from his home to pay his respects to his friend.

There’s much more here.