February 7, 2005
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I recently read an excellent 10-page story by Chekhov: “In Exile.” I read the story because the local Great Books club was discussing it at their monthly meeting, and I wanted to attend the meeting. It’s a superb short story — philosophically profound, yet realistic and credible. The Great Books organization deserves credit for including this story in their volume Introduction to Great Books: Second Series. This volume is part of a 3-volume series; although the series is intended for high-school readers, it’s also suitable for adults, and it provides a quick and painless introduction to the classics.
“In Exile” deals with one of the oldest debates in ethics: the debate between the Active Life and the Contemplative Life. One finds this debate in ancient philosophy and in Renaissance philosophy. In China, this debate was called “Kong-Meng, Lao-Zhuang”; that is, the worldly philosophers Confucius and Mencius versus the hermit-philosophers Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi. Even today, this debate lives on; on one side are Western philosophers who say that we should try to make ourselves better, and make the world better, and on the other side are Eastern philosophers who say that we should accept ourselves as we are, and accept the world as it is. One might describe this debate as Nietzsche versus Zen. Perhaps this debate can never be resolved, because truth is on both sides, just as the debate in physics between the wave theory of light and the particle theory of light can never be resolved, because truth is on both sides. Some contradictions are irreconcilable.
Chekhov’s story is the best version of this debate that I’ve ever seen. Both sides are given a hearing, and it’s impossible to tell which side the author is on. My only complaint is that Chekhov depicts both sides as flawed, and so the reader is left with nothing but nihilism, despair. Instead of depicting both sides as true, instead of depicting a clash between two truths, Chekhov depicts both sides as false, bankrupt, and he leaves the reader empty-handed.
Pretend your neighbor knocks on your door today, and says, “I can see no reason to go on living, so I’m going to commit suicide tomorrow. I’ve come to bid you an eternal farewell.” You couldn’t raise his spirits by handing him “In Exile” because it’s a bleak, pessimistic story.
In the introduction to the story (the Great Books volumes contain useful introductions) we find a quote from Gorky; Gorky praises Chekhov as a “great, wise, and observant man” who said to his countrymen, “You live badly, my friends. It is shameful to live like that.” Okay, we live badly (his countrymen should have responded), so tell us how we should live. Don’t just shake your head, don’t just criticize. Make some constructive suggestions, show us how we might live better.
Why was Chekhov content to criticize? Perhaps he couldn’t point the way because he hadn’t found the way himself. He lived in a nihilistic society; in the late 1800s, there was an epidemic of suicide in Russia. We’re all products of our time, and Chekhov’s time was nihilistic, so the best he could offer was nihilism, despair. As the son of a serf, perhaps Chekhov didn’t feel responsible for solving the big problems. On the other hand, the nobleman Tolstoy strove to find The Way, and to tell the world about it.
When I said this at the meeting, when I said that Chekhov failed to show us The Way, people responded, “a fiction writer shouldn’t be expected to solve philosophical problems. A fiction writer explores problems, he doesn’t solve them.” Thoreau said that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”1 And then Thoreau proceeded to show the reader how he might live a good life; Thoreau didn’t just criticize, he offered a positive vision. “But Thoreau was a philosopher, we’re talking about fiction.” But what about Whitman? Whitman offered a positive vision, a mystic vision, much as Thoreau did. “But Whitman wasn’t a fiction writer, he was a poet. Fiction is different.” But what about E. M. Forster? Forster was a fiction writer, and he offers a positive vision. Forster was influenced by Whitman, and Forster offers a mystic vision, a Zennish vision; Forster also points the way toward personal growth. A fiction writer is, after all, a human being, and it’s natural for a human being to seek The Way, to seek The Good Life, and to tell other people what he has found.
Nietzsche said that the ideal poet “will scent out those cases in which, in the midst of our modern world... the great and beautiful soul is still possible, still able to embody itself in the harmonious and well-proportioned and thus acquire... the status of a model, and in so doing through the excitation of envy and emulation help to create the future.”2 Chekhov fails to achieve this, he creates not beautiful souls but flawed souls, his characters aren’t models.
Let’s look at some passages from “In Exile”, and let’s see how Chekhov depicts the debate between Action and Contemplation. Chekhov makes strong arguments for both sides in this debate, but his characters don’t embody these arguments in a positive way. Chekhov wisely puts the argument for Contemplation in the mouth of an older man, the argument for action in the mouth of a younger man, just as, in China, the young man goes out into the world, and listens to Confucius and Mencius, while the old man retires from the world, goes into the mountains, and listens to Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi.
Chekhov’s old man is Semyon, who operates a ferry on a river in Siberia (the story is called “In Exile” because it’s about people who have been exiled from Russia, and are living in Siberia). “I stay here,” Semyon says, “going back and forth, from one bank to the other. For twenty-two years now that’s what I’ve been doing. Day and night. The pike and the salmon under the water and me on it. That’s all I want. God give everyone such a life.” People who want a wife, or money, or freedom (i.e., freedom to leave Siberia) are, according to Semyon, being tempted by the Devil; they should close their ears to the Devil, and be content with what they have. “I can sleep naked on the ground and eat grass,” says Semyon; “I don’t want anything, I’m not afraid of anyone, and the way I see it, there’s no man richer or freer than I am.”
When someone on the other bank calls for the ferry, Semyon says, “‘All right, plenty of time!’ ...in the tone of a man who is convinced that there is no need to hurry in this world — that it makes no difference, really, and nothing will come of it.” Semyon reminds one of Stoicism, and of Zen. Zen doesn’t say, however, that one shouldn’t hurry because everything is meaningless, Zen says one shouldn’t hurry because one should be aware of the present moment, savor the present moment.
Semyon isn’t depicted in a positive light: he enjoys vodka, and drinks it on the sly lest his fellow boatmen ask for some. At the end of the story, he goes to sleep with the door to his hut still open, because he’s too lazy to get up and close it.
Semyon converses with a young Tartar, who rejects his Stoic worldview. In broken English (or rather, broken Russian), the Tartar says, “God created man to live, be joyful, be sad and sorrow, but you want nothing... You not live, you stone, clay! Stone want nothing and you want nothing... God not love you.” The Tartar longs for the company of his wife, and he says that “if his wife came to him even for one day, even for one hour, he would be willing to accept any torture whatsoever, and thank God for it. Better one day of happiness than nothing.” Though there’s wisdom in the Tartar’s remarks, he isn’t presented in a positive light; at the end of the story, the Tartar is lonely and miserable, and he cries “like the howling of a dog.”
Though Chekhov fails to present a positive vision, or a model character, “In Exile” is a masterpiece nonetheless, and a perfect choice for a discussion group.
In previous issues, I’ve often said that Booknotes is the best book-related show on American TV, and in a recent issue, I said that Booknotes is going off the air. I recently discovered, however, that C-SPAN has another book-related show that’s almost as good as Booknotes, that isn’t going off the air, and that has (like Booknotes) an excellent archive of past shows. The show is called In Depth. Here’s how the website describes it:
Click here for an archive of In Depth interviews.
I recently watched an In Depth interview with Jacques Barzun (the interview aired on May 6, 2001). I knew little about Barzun, and had never read any of his books. I now realize that Barzun is a major figure on the American intellectual scene. Born in 1907, he now lives in San Antonio. When he was 93, he published a tome called From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present. Though I haven’t read this book, I suspect it’s a good general survey of Western culture.
Barzun was born in France; his father was a well-connected writer and diplomat. Since French universities had been decimated by World War I, his father suggested that he attend an English or American university. Barzun chose Columbia, and after he graduated, he stayed on for decades as a professor. He was the co-teacher (with Lionel Trilling) of a famous writing class, and he has a strong interest in style; among his many books is Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers. He also has a strong interest in education and academia; he was one of the architects of Columbia’s curriculum, which emphasized a broad general education, liberal arts, classics; he wrote several books on teaching and on academia. He’s a hero to those who believe in general education, and he’s listed as “Honorary Chairman” of The American Academy for Liberal Education. For many decades, Barzun has contributed to a magazine called The American Scholar, which he praises for its “literary tone.” (The American Scholar was edited for many years by Joseph Epstein and was recently edited by Anne Fadiman, daughter of the well-known man-of-letters Clifton Fadiman, whom Barzun regarded as a friend and a great diffuser of culture.)
Barzun has the wide range of interests that one often finds in outstanding intellectuals. He has a deep appreciation of music; he wrote a 2-volume work on the composer Berlioz, and he also wrote a book called The Pleasures of Music. Barzun also has a deep appreciation of visual art, and has written extensively on it; he was chosen to deliver the prestigious Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, and his lectures were published as The Use and Abuse of Art. His grasp of philosophy is evident in books like A Stroll with William James. Do any other contemporary intellectuals have such a wide range?
Barzun began his career as a champion of the Romantics, who were then held in low repute. One of the Romantics he championed was Berlioz. (Berlioz exemplified Romanticism in the field of music, as Hugo did in the field of literature, and Delacroix in the field of visual art.) Barzun distinguished the Romantic period from the preceding and succeeding periods in his book Classic, Romantic, and Modern.
Barzun is chiefly a historian, a cultural historian, in the tradition of Jacob Burckhardt and Johan Huizinga. He often criticizes contemporary culture (see, for example, his From Dawn to Decadence or his The Culture We Deserve: A Critique of Disenlightenment). His comments often have a conservative flavor; he bemoans the decline of authority in schools and elsewhere, and he criticizes modern art for its “desperate novelty,” a novelty that is neither spontaneous nor joyful.
When Barzun was interviewed on In Depth, someone called in and asked about his religious beliefs. He said that he wasn’t a materialist, he believed in spirit of some sort, but he didn’t want to comment further on the subject. Like most of the intellectuals of his generation, and like most advocates of the classics, Barzun is ignorant of new approaches to religion, such as Zen and Jung. Can Barzun be a leader in the cultural sphere if he keeps mum on the big questions, if he addresses secondary issues but ignores primary issues? As Mill said, there is an urgent need for new approaches to religion, and “all thinking or writing which does not tend to promote such a renovation, is of very little value.”3 Barzun is a great intellectual and a great educator, but he doesn’t see the need for a new religion, and he doesn’t help to meet that need. Barzun is a great humanist, but not a great original thinker.
I also saw an In Depth interview with Tom Wolfe (the interview aired on December 5, 2004). Wolfe is a popular contemporary novelist, who began his career as a journalist (Tom Wolfe should not be confused with Thomas Wolfe, a novelist who died in 1938). Tom Wolfe believes that literature should entertain, he tries to be entertaining, and his books have sold in the millions. He has incurred the wrath of the literary establishment, and he struck back at the establishment with an article called “My Three Stooges,” which criticizes John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving.
Wolfe is sometimes called the father of New Journalism. His interest in journalism reminds one of contemporary writers like Truman Capote. Wolfe’s novels stay close to reality; he researches his novels much as a journalist would research a story. (There’s a long tradition of modern novelists staying close to reality — Proust, for example, wrote in an autobiographical way, and so did Thomas Wolfe.)
Tom Wolfe is from the South (Richmond, Virginia), and he’s conservative. He made some enemies in the art world with his book The Painted Word, an unflattering portrait of contemporary artists; he also wrote a book on contemporary architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House. He first became famous in the 60s with books about hippies and other current trends (The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Pump House Gang). His most recent book, I Am Charlotte Simmons, is about American college life.
Though I haven’t read any of Tom Wolfe’s books, the interview that I saw convinced me that Wolfe has a good grasp of ideas, he’s a real intellectual. I agree with his view that literature should be entertaining; in an earlier issue, I defended aesthetic hedonism. But I question whether fiction should become journalistic; the Jungian in me says that it’s the inner life that matters, and fiction should deal with the inner life.
I’d like to briefly discuss another writer whom I haven’t read, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who died in 2004 at the age of 93. (I’ve invented a new kind of literary criticism, in which the critic writes about an author not after reading him, but before reading him.) After World War II, Milosz was a diplomat for Poland’s communist government. After a few years, however, he defected to the West. For almost thirty years, he lived in the U.S., working as a professor at Berkeley. During his last years, he lived in Poland. In addition to poetry, Milosz wrote various essays and literary studies. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1980.
Milosz believed that modern philosophy had shaped modern history, he “insisted that the war against totalitarianism was at its foundation a war of ideas: ‘It was only toward the middle of the 20th century [he wrote] that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.’ The road from concepts to corpses was short and straight.”4
Milosz rejected historicism, rejected the view that we’re the product of history, the product of our time. “He accomplished his severance from history in his poetry. In the bleakest hours of World War II, Milosz produced a masterpiece called ‘The World,’ a sequence of 20 ‘naive’ poems ‘written in the style of school primers,’ in which the rudiments of a child’s world — the road, the gate, the porch, the dining room, the stairs, the poppies, the peonies — are portrayed with the indomitability of genuine innocence. Against the horror, he pitted pastoral!”5
Instead of the word “pastoral” one might use the word “Zen.” Milosz was fond of Eastern culture: “His reading of East Asian poetry confirmed Milosz in his preference for poems that ‘honored the object, not the subject’.... He extolled ‘the holy word: Is.’ All that he required for a justification of existence was a description of existence.”6
Though he lived during a dark period, Milosz’s poetry breathes a positive spirit:
You gave me gifts, God-Enchanter.
Milosz was respectful of religion, and a devout Catholic. He had “an envy of mystics. His hostility to materialism carried [him] all the way to the old metaphysics. Milosz’s otherwise withering intellect was gladly patient with mystery.... He was not embarrassed by the crudities of religion: they were the imagination’s answers to the mind’s questions.”8
I recently spent several days in New York City. Though I grew up in a New York suburb, I never spent much time in New York, never felt at home there, and never wanted to vacation there. Now, however, I’m starting to know my way around, and I’m eager to visit again. Perhaps my change of heart is partly due to discovering Thomas Wolfe; Wolfe lived in New York, and wrote about it. As my discovery of Ruskin whetted my appetite for Venice, so my discovery of Wolfe whetted my appetite for New York. In addition to literary associations, New York has architecture, history, museums, parks, etc. Its popularity is rising, its crime rate falling.
My wife and I thought that my daughter would enjoy the Museum of Natural History, which is famous for its stuffed animals and its dinosaur skeletons. Like other museums, the Museum of Natural History is starting to use high-tech films to inform and entertain. Unfortunately, we visited the Museum at a busy time (between Christmas and New Year’s); it was too crowded and expensive to be enjoyable.
I preferred walking the streets to standing in museum lines. As I walked, I often noticed the city’s architecture — not just the grand monuments, but also the ordinary buildings. Many of New York’s buildings are more than a century old, and they have classical features, or Gothic features. (There’s an organization dedicated to preserving and studying classical architecture; it’s called “The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America.”)
The architects of these old buildings seemed to think that, if they designed a building with 5 floors, and 5 windows on each floor, and all 25 of those windows were identical, the building would be drab, monotonous. But if each of the 25 windows were different, the building would be disorderly, anarchic. So the architects vary the floors instead of the individual windows: on the first floor, for example, the windows are all topped with a rounded arch, on the second floor, they’re topped with a pointed gable, etc.
Thus the architect avoids both monotony and anarchy; he achieves an orderly variety. Often the architect accents the doorway, or one of the central windows, with special features; often he tries to make the cornice, at the top of the building, add something to the design. But what if the building is to have 30 floors, instead of 5? In this case, the old principle of alternating floors could create a new kind of monotony; the skyscraper presents the architect with new challenges.
Now look at a picture of the White House, and see how the architect has achieved an orderly variety. Notice how the windows on the second floor have no ornament — neither a round top nor a gable top — while the windows on the first floor have alternating ornament — round then gable then round, etc. One might describe this as horizontal variety, as opposed to vertical variety. (One might compare the White House to the Palazzo Farnese.)
One New York neighborhood that I explored was SoHo, which is between Houston Street (in the north), Canal Street (in the south), Crosby Street (in the east), and West Broadway (in the west). In the late 1800s, SoHo was a place for manufacturing and warehouses. In the first half of the 20th century, it became run-down, and was called Hell’s Hundred Acres. In the 1960s, it became a mecca for artists, and finally it became an upscale neighborhood for bankers and high-priced clothing stores. SoHo is known for its cast-iron buildings, constructed around 1870. Often about six stories tall, these buildings had a facade of cast-iron that was shaped into a classical pattern. For example, the Haughwout Building (see below), at the corner of Broome and Broadway, has cast-iron columns and arches modeled after a Renaissance library.
It’s as if the architects of 1870 couldn’t bear to construct a building without style, without Renaissance associations, so they bolted cast-iron decoration to their buildings. (They were especially fond of Renaissance architecture; if there are any Gothic facades in SoHo, I haven’t found them.)
Though I enjoyed walking New York’s streets, and observing the buildings, people, and stores, I still prefer the tranquility of a country walk to the bustle of an urban walk.
Perhaps the high point of my visit to New York was waking up early, and enjoying a cup of tea, with none of the distractions and responsibilities that I have at home — no computer, no headlines, no To Do list — just a cup of tea. Sweet leisure, delicious idleness!
I visited my sister, the artist Jane Hammond, who has lived in SoHo for many years. In the past few years, Jane has made several works based on maps. Now she’s making a series of works in which maps of various nations are overlaid with butterflies; this series of works was inspired by a dream she had. With the help of various assistants, and various high-tech methods, Jane has managed to fabricate large numbers of butterflies, butterflies that might be mistaken for real ones. Learning from this project, she set out to fabricate a pile of autumn leaves. When you look at one of these leaves, you wonder if a human being has ever managed to fabricate a leaf this realistic — let alone a pile of them. Jane has a show at Galerie Lelong in March.
I also visited the artist (and Phlit subscriber) Elliott Banfield, who is utilizing the latest technology — and even creating some technology that other artists can use. Elliott has a big, flat-screen monitor that he can write on with a stylus; one might describe this device as a cross between a monitor and a graphics tablet. Elliott thinks that, in a few years, this device will be standard equipment for artists who use computers. Elliott has developed software that enables him to get the most out of his hardware. Elliott marvels at how centuries-old printing methods are being abandoned in favor of new, digital methods. He’s now using his talents and techniques to make editorial cartoons for a newspaper, The New York Sun.
Elliott gave me a book by Edward Shils, Portraits: A Gallery of Intellectuals. The introduction to this book is a portrait of Shils himself, written by his close friend, Joseph Epstein. Like Barzun, Shils often contributed to the magazine that Epstein edited, The American Scholar. Many of the essays in Portraits were probably written for The American Scholar.
Shils was the consummate academic, a scholar in the best sense of the word. He died in 1995, after teaching at the University of Chicago for more than forty years; he was also associated with Cambridge University. He was the editor of a periodical, Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy. At Chicago, Shils was involved in university administration and curriculum design (as Barzun was at Columbia). Shils knew many intellectuals in the Chicago area, such as the novelist Saul Bellow. It is said that Bellow changed some of his novels in response to suggestions from Shils; Bellow referred to Shils as his “alter super-ego.”9
Shils was a sociologist, but his knowledge and interests went beyond his specialty. One wonders if any of today’s scholars have the breadth of interest, the well-rounded education, that scholars like Shils and Barzun and Kedourie had. “Although Edward [Shils] earned his living as a social scientist,” writes Epstein, “he had read more literature than I, a literary man, ever expect to read. I never mentioned a writer, no matter how minor, whose work he had not read and whose measure he had not taken. He was a great reader of novels. He read Dickens over and over again. He regularly re-read Balzac. He adored Willa Cather.... Above all novelists, he admired, I believe, Joseph Conrad.”10 In his living room, Shils had busts of Joseph Conrad and Max Weber — a suitable pair for a sociologist whose interests embraced the humanities as a whole. One of his former students said that Shils came to sociology from literature, that literature taught him sociology, just as Freud said he “learned all he knew from poets.”11
Shils’ knowledge went beyond fiction and sociology: “vast quantities of literature, history, philosophy, anecdotes, jokes — all were neatly filed away in his mind.”12
One of the surest signs of an intellectual is the love of intellectual conversation. Epstein describes a conversation with Shils by quoting an entry in his journal: “Dinner last evening with Edward Shils. Always a pleasure: very good food, even better talk, and a lovely overall feeling of intellectual glow that lasts for hours afterward. What an impressive figure he is, by turns serious, severe, wildly humorous, marvelously anecdotal, and above all disinterested. [He is] a great appreciator.”13
Shils was frugal, but also generous. After eating at a restaurant, “he used to have the waiters put the extra lemons and unused bread into a bag that he would take home.”14 In Cambridge, people joked that Shils would take home desserts from college lunches, then serve them at his own table. But his generosity was even more remarkable than his frugality; Epstein mentions several examples of his generosity, such as giving $10,000 to a needy student.
While contemporary scholars seem bent on making the social sciences scientific, Shils was wary of the term “science.” When Epstein described someone as a “political scientist,” Shils said, “With the scientist understood as in Christian Scientist.”15 Shils had little use for most social scientists; “the only contemporary American social scientists he spoke about with respect [Epstein writes] were James Q. Wilson and Edward Banfield, who he thought had retained the fundamental common sense that contemporary social science seemed able to remove from most of its adherents.”16 Shils’ dim view of social scientists extended to other contemporary scholars: “Edward’s once great respect for intellectuals and academics had dwindled considerably after the 1960s. More and more he tended to think of academics and intellectuals as essentially quacks pushing untested ideas at no personal risk.”17
Shils was a colleague of the famous Chicago economist, Milton Friedman. He was somewhat skeptical of Friedman’s work, believing that one couldn’t make a science of human affairs, one couldn’t express human affairs with numbers. “He felt that the Chicago economists, brilliant though they could be, were insufficiently impressed with the mysteries of life. It was these mysteries — the role of the primordial, the part tradition plays — that most stirred him, and he struggled with the questions that they posed till the very end of his own life.”18 If Shils was wary of science, he was respectful of religion: “He believed in religion, as he believed in family, because he thought both enhanced society by strengthening its bonds, preserving its traditions, making it deeper and richer.”19
Shils felt that the intellectual world in which he developed was dying. “His high standards caused him truly to anguish over the state into which the universities, and intellectual life generally, seemed to him to have fallen. He, who perhaps knew more about the history of scholarship than anyone living, looked about him and everywhere saw compromise, dumbing down, politicization.... The great university traditions that he so much admired — had really devoted his life to carrying on — were everywhere, in his view, being worn away, undermined, all but sabotaged.”20
Perhaps you’re thinking, “great scholars write great books, don’t they? What did Shils write?” Although Shils wrote many books and essays, he didn’t write one magnum opus. “Powerful as so much of his writing is, and permanent though I believe his contribution to the study of society has been, he would, I do not doubt, have preferred to have left behind a single masterwork. But, alas, he didn’t. It was not something we talked about.” But if he had written “a single masterwork,” it would probably have dealt with sociology, and it would probably have appealed to specialists; perhaps we should be glad that we have collections of Shils’ essays instead, such as Portraits: A Gallery of Intellectuals and The Constitution of Society.
Shils was cosmopolitan — open to foreign cultures. During the ’50s, Shils spent time in India, and he maintained an interest in Indian culture. He admired contemporary Indian writers like Nirad Chaudhuri and R. K. Narayan. Shils wrote a book about Indian intellectuals called The Intellectual Between Tradition and Modernity: The Indian Situation.
Of all the scholars with whom Shils was acquainted — American, English, Indian, etc. — he was perhaps most fond of the historian Arnaldo Momigliano. As I wrote in an earlier issue, “Momigliano was a historian; Jewish himself, he wrote about Jewish subjects as well as Greco-Roman subjects.” Epstein calls Momigliano “Edward’s only peer.... the only man who seemed to know as much as Edward.”21 At the end of Momigliano’s life, when his health was failing, Shils brought him into his own apartment, and looked after him; Momigliano continued to see students, an oxygen tank in his room.
Epstein’s essay on Shils introduces the reader to many contemporary scholars whom Shils admired, besides Momigliano. Shils admired Peter Brown (author of a biography of St. Augustine), Owen Chadwick (author of a study of the Reformation, and a history of Christianity), and Paul Kristeller (author of Renaissance Thought and its Sources). Shils also admired Gershom Scholem, who is especially interesting to me since he wrote about the Kabbalah, which is the Jewish side of the mystical, Hermetic tradition that I’m interested in.
In 1995, when Shils was dying, Epstein arranged for him to have final phone conversations with old friends, like Ed Banfield, whom he met at Chicago.
I have a confession to make: when I wrote the above paragraphs on Edward Shils, I had read only a few sentences of Shils’ writings. I did, however, read the Table of Contents of his Portraits: A Gallery of Intellectuals (I think I deserve credit for that), and I noticed that Shils had written a portrait of Nirad Chaudhuri. I couldn’t resist reading the opening sentences, and gradually I was drawn into reading the entire portrait of Chaudhuri, and marking the most interesting passages. Now I’d like to share those passages with you. If I write about Chaudhuri, and you read about him, together we bring him back to life, we make his lonely labors worthwhile, we keep his memory alive, and we draw attention to the books that he spent his life writing.
Perhaps the most remarkable fact about Chaudhuri is that he lived from 1897 until 1999, and was a productive writer until the end of his life. Never in the history of literature (as far as I know) did a writer so old continue to be productive.
Chaudhuri’s chief works are autobiographical. In 1951, he published his first autobiographical work, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, which covers his early years, until 1921. In 1988, he published his second autobiographical work, Thy Hand, Great Anarch! India: 1921-1952, which covers his middle years, and especially the Indian independence movement. Chaudhuri’s autobiographical works are big, ambitious books that aim to describe not just an individual’s life, but also a culture and a historical epoch. And they also aim at the highest literary standards.
At the beginning of his portrait of Chaudhuri, Shils tells us that, in 1921, “Mr. Chaudhuri failed in his examination for the degree of Master of Arts at the University of Calcutta [and] refused to sit for it a second time.”22 This episode reminds us of Kedourie’s academic career; as we mentioned in an earlier issue, Kedourie left Oxford without a degree rather than revise his thesis. But Kedourie eventually became a prominent academic, whereas Chaudhuri remained a layman. For many years, “Mr. Chaudhuri was unemployed and almost utterly destitute, depending on relatives for support offered disapprovingly.... Still his intellectual propensities never relaxed; he continued unceasingly to read widely and intensively. He was determined on a career of authorship; he still wanted to write a great historical work.”23 He also dreamed of becoming a critic and man-of-letters, ŕ la Sainte-Beuve. He worked on some literary magazines in Calcutta, but his financial situation was precarious, and was “made worse by surges of uncontrollable bibliophilia breaking out in extravagant purchases of French and English books beyond his capacity to pay for them.”24
Like Kedourie, Chaudhuri was an imperialist; Chaudhuri believed that the British Empire had, on the whole, a positive impact on India. Chaudhuri was opposed to Indian independence; “I thought that power in Indian hands would be a calamity for the Indian people.”25 Chaudhuri believed that Gandhi’s independence movement “was carried on in a growing cultural void.”26 Chaudhuri was scornful of the Hindu revival, as Joyce was scornful of the Celtic revival.
Chaudhuri’s description of Gandhi’s movement reminds us of the current anti-American insurgency in Iraq. Chaudhuri says that Gandhi’s movement had “no positive content; it was driven by a ‘negative obsession’ [and] a basic xenophobic irrationality which is endemic in India; it was propelled largely by an intensely emotional hatred of the British and British rule in India.”27
Chaudhuri says that the British Empire “had a meaning for civilized human life as its disappearance is showing all over Asia and Africa today.... British rule in India [I] regarded as the best political regime that had ever been seen in India.”28 In Chaudhuri’s view, this regime ended too quickly; Britain’s hasty departure from India set the stage for the massacres that followed: “if [the British] had been ready to spend one hundred cartridges in 1946-47, they might have prevented the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Indians by Indians themselves.”29
Chaudhuri maintained his pro-British attitude during the 1930s, when many educated Indians supported Fascism or Communism. Chaudhuri felt that the British had helped India spiritually as well as politically; “apart from peace and protection from blatant oppression, which [the British Empire] had brought, it had also emancipated their minds, so that they could turn to social and religious reform and cultural creation.”30 The British helped to develop “a modern Indian life which espoused the ideals of personal uprightness, of a dignified sense of Indian nationality, of an appreciation of scientific knowledge and rationality, and of an ordered public life in which individual freedom was combined with a sense of responsibility for the common good.”31
While nationalists argued that foreign occupation had caused India to degenerate, Chaudhuri argued that Indian degeneration had caused foreign occupation. Needless to say, Chaudhuri’s views were unpopular in India, and Chaudhuri became the object of “raucous hatred.”32 Chaudhuri’s attitude toward India reminds one of Nietzsche’s attitude toward Germany, Ibsen’s toward Norway, Joyce’s toward Ireland, etc. Great intellectuals transcend nationality, and often become sharp critics of their own nation; indeed, they often pack their bags, move out, and go into exile, as Chaudhuri, Ibsen, and Joyce did. Shils says that Chaudhuri was more than an Indian, he was “a citizen of the world.” Is this true of every great intellectual?
Chaudhuri was by no means blind to British faults; “the haughtiness, rudeness, contempt, condescension, and sometimes physical manhandling of Indians by Englishmen is very prominent in his mind.”33 The British “despised and feared Indians [and] never had a good word to say to or for them.”34 “British officials,” Chaudhuri wrote, “did more to discredit British rule in India than any nationalist could.”35 Perhaps the broad outlines of British influence were positive, but the daily exercise of power rested with officials who were rude, contemptuous, uncultured, etc.
Chaudhuri’s criticism of the British goes beyond rudeness; he charges the British with decadence. “Mr. Chaudhuri has concluded that Great Britain is in a state of decadence and he foresees no reversal of the trend. The decadence consists in the refusal to acknowledge great achievements of great individuals. Disrespect for great achievements is a result, in his view, of the lack of courage to attempt them.”36 Chaudhuri is pained to see that “journalists, broadcasters, TV producers, and writers or intellectuals generally... ridicule all British greatness and virtues with ribald jests.”37 One might say that Chaudhuri himself respected the great achievements of great individuals, and had the courage to attempt them.
Since I have high regard for Eastern philosophy, I wonder if Chaudhuri fully appreciated Eastern philosophy, fully appreciated Indian spirituality, yoga, etc. Is it possible that Chaudhuri’s Western education blinded him to the merits of Eastern philosophy? Does his book Hinduism do justice to Indian culture? When Chaudhuri says that he lost faith in the Hindu religion when he was 18, that doesn’t trouble me, since Hinduism may have become encrusted with superstition. But I am troubled when Shils says that Chaudhuri “is convinced that Indian spirituality does not exist. It is a figment of the Western imagination.”38 Did Chaudhuri appreciate the merits of Indian culture? I need to learn more about Chaudhuri before I can answer this question. My own view is that India had much to teach the West, as well as much to learn from the West.
In his portrait of Chaudhuri, Shils makes an interesting aside about contemporary intellectuals: “The most frequent fatality of all intellectual activities in our contemporary societies,” Shils writes, “is the gratifying ease of reiterating what is currently fashionable.... To run with the intellectual mob is a common pitfall into which many intellectuals fall.”39 In recent decades, deconstruction has been fashionable, and many academic careers have been built by singing the deconstruction song. In an earlier issue, I criticized what I called “the deconstruction fad.” Shils praises Chaudhuri for not following intellectual fashions, not running with the intellectual mob.
Shils concludes his portrait of Chaudhuri with some interesting remarks about fate in the life of an individual. Shils asks a question that many historians have asked, “what if ...?” Shils speculates on what would have happened if Chaudhuri had become an academic: “The relations with his colleagues would have been strained by the superiority of his knowledge and his contentious disclosure of their mistakes.”40 This strain would have been exacerbated, Shils argues, by Chaudhuri’s unpopular political views.
Like all great intellectuals, Chaudhuri confronts the Whole, instead of burying himself in a Part. This would not have improved his standing in academia; “he would have been further handicapped,” Shils writes, “by his disregard for departmental and disciplinary boundaries.”41 If Chaudhuri had become an academic, it’s doubtful (Shils says) whether he would have written his great autobiographical works. “Replete though [they] are with learning, they are not academic works,”42 and their admirers are “mainly in the world of letters and not much in universities.”43
When Shils reflects on the failure of Chaudhuri’s academic career, he says that “those of us who did not suffer it have very good reason to be grateful, or at least not to be especially regretful, for that failure.”44 Shils compares Chaudhuri’s career with the careers of Sidney Hook and Raymond Aron (whom he also discusses in Portraits), and he says that “in each case, the best alternative was taken; in each case, the result was better than it would have been had the other path been followed.”45 This is a remarkable judgment for Shils to make, a remarkable judgment for a scholarly academic to make about three intellectuals who weren’t scholarly academics; Shils appreciates the unscholarly intellectual.
Shils also has a deep understanding of fate. He understands that Chaudhuri’s failure on his Master’s Exam was fate, was an expression of Chaudhuri’s deepest nature. A person like Chaudhuri “does what he has to do.... For a person of strong character, what he is triumphs in the end.”46 Character is destiny. “A man of genius,” wrote Joyce, “makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”47
While Barzun was at Columbia, and Shils was at Chicago, a fixture in Harvard’s History Department was Oscar Handlin. While Barzun specialized in cultural history, Handlin specialized in American history — more specifically, American social and economic history. In 1952, when he was 37, Handlin won a Pulitzer Prize for a study of immigration, The Uprooted. In 1996, when he retired, Handlin reflected on his career, and on academia, in an essay in The American Scholar called “A Career at Harvard.”48
In his essay, Handlin describes the informal process by which he was admitted to Harvard’s graduate school. He arrived in Harvard Square by train, knocked on the door of a history professor, and chatted with a dean:
These are consoling words to someone who (like myself) was rejected by graduate schools! When I was talking to graduate schools, I asked if I needed to take tests, and collect letters of recommendation; it was clear to me that such things were just a waste of time and money. One professor I asked (John Stuhr) said, “the school requires it”; he seemed to realize that it was futile, and that I could make a case for myself by other means. Another person, however, said “of course you need tests and recommendations, how else could we evaluate you?”
Handlin wasn’t concerned with money: “Because I considered learning its own reward, ancillary financial arrangements seemed peripheral.... The university only paid me to do what I wanted to do anyway and what I would have done at any wage or none.”
As a teacher, Handlin’s approach was to continue to do what he had done as a student, namely, seek knowledge:
Handlin laments that some professors try to act young. He calls our era “an era that glorifies youth” and he says that “teachers come to dread the effects of aging.... Accommodations in hair, dress, and language wish the calendar away.... Keeping up with father has given way to keeping up with son.”
Handlin complains about “the ratings game” — that is, the way students choose courses based on ratings from previous students.
Handlin says that, among undergraduates, “student quality drifted down.” He also complains about graduate students; he says they had great credentials but
Handlin says that he hired some talented professors for Harvard’s history department. What did he look for? “Above all, ‘zest’.” Handlin deplores the recruitment methods used in the 1970s. But the worst was yet to come: “I could not anticipate the distortions produced by affirmative action or by the temerity of a dean who ordered the department to appoint a woman — any woman.”
Handlin complains that Harvard became more interested in changing the world than understanding it, more interested in social programs than scholarly endeavors:
In my book of aphorisms, I made a similar argument with reference to Columbia:
Handlin wasn’t only a student of history at Harvard, he was also a student of Harvard’s own history, and he was inspired by the example of Harvard’s founders:
Handlin co-authored a book called Glimpses of the Harvard Past.
Handlin thinks that today’s universities have become over-specialized, and lack the enthusiasm for learning that inspired Harvard’s founders:
Conservatives are praising Bush’s recent inauguration speech. They’re saying that it’s philosophically profound, and that it embodies the views of the philosopher Leo Strauss. Perhaps the most prominent conservative commentator is William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard. Kristol’s father, Irving Kristol, was also a prominent conservative commentator, and his mother, Gertrude Himmelfarb, is an academic, a historian who specializes in the intellectual history of the Victorian period.
William Kristol is a disciple of the Harvard Straussian, Harvey Mansfield. William Kristol has high regard for Strauss, and cites Strauss’s book, On Tyranny, in his discussion of Bush’s speech. I didn’t know that Strauss had written such a book, and I wanted to take a look at it. I soon discovered a disagreement between Strauss’s philosophy and my own: my philosophy includes a theory of history, a theory that draws on Hegel, whereas Strauss rejects the view that people are a product of their time, Strauss rejects the Hegelian view that philosophy evolves through time, Strauss rejects historicism. Strauss urged his students to understand a writer in his own terms, not to see him in the light of his historical circumstances, not to try to understand him better than he understood himself. The Great Books group in which I participate urges readers to study the text closely, and not compare it with other works; perhaps the Great Books organization was influenced by Strauss.
Isn’t truth on both sides? Aren’t people partly the product of their time, and partly independent of their time? Isn’t there value in a close reading of classic texts, and also in a reading of commentary that places a writer in his time?
As I disagree with Strauss’s anti-historicist position, so I disagree with Strauss’s emphasis on politics, his view that “philosophy is ultimately political and that philosophers wrote with political intent.”50 Some of my favorite philosophical schools, such as Jung and Zen, address the inner life, and are silent on the subject of politics.
Strauss argued that modern thinkers like Hobbes and Locke over-emphasized reason. I agree with Strauss that one of the major weaknesses of Western thought is an over-emphasis on reason. I don’t believe, however, that this weakness can be overcome by returning to Greek ideas of Virtue and The Good.
Strauss’s book On Tyranny includes a debate between Strauss and a philosopher named Alexandre Kojčve. Though Strauss took issue with Kojčve’s views, he respected him, and was a friend of his for many years; Strauss even sent some of his disciples, like Allan Bloom, to study with Kojčve in Paris.
Kojčve was influenced by Hegel and Marx. Kojčve believed that Marx was right — history was indeed progressing towards a universal and homogenous state. But Kojčve believed that this universal state wouldn’t be communist (as Marx had argued), it would be liberal-capitalist. Kojčve’s idea influenced Francis Fukuyama, author of a much-discussed book, The End of History and the Last Man.
In Bush’s inaugural speech, there are several Straussian ideas. Bush rejects the historicist view that history is shaped by impersonal laws: “We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events.” Bush insists that virtue and truth don’t change according to one’s epoch, one’s class, or one’s perspective: “Americans move forward in every generation by reaffirming all that is good and true that came before — ideals of justice and conduct that are the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Bush says the goal of U.S. policy is “ending tyranny in our world,” and he speaks of, “the great objective of ending tyranny.” What is tyranny? Some would say that tyranny is just a word we throw at our enemies, that there’s no clear distinction between a tyrant and a ruler. But Strauss insisted that tyranny isn’t a value judgment, that tyranny can be precisely defined, and was precisely defined by ancient thinkers like Xenophon. Strauss said, “A social science that cannot speak of tyranny with the same confidence with which medicine speaks, for example, of cancer, cannot understand social phenomena as what they are.”51 Strauss bemoaned the fact that the ancient distinction between a tyrant and a prince had been erased in modern times by Machiavelli and other philosophers. Bush’s repeated use of the word “tyranny” is a sign of Straussian influence; one suspects that Bush’s speechwriter is a Straussian.
This doesn’t mean, however, that Bush is just reading a speech that he doesn’t understand or believe in. Bush’s beliefs are those of the American heartland, those of Reagan, and these beliefs are similar to Strauss’s: a clear distinction between good and evil, between tyrant and ruler, and eternal principles of virtue. Even if one doesn’t share the beliefs of Bush, or the beliefs of the Straussians, one can still respect the fact that they have beliefs, that they think their beliefs are good for the nation and the world, that they aren’t simply saying whatever will get them elected, that they aren’t motivated solely by a desire for power, or a desire to defeat their opponents.
Strauss’s emphasis on close reading has inspired his disciples to devote themselves to translating the classics, in the hope of achieving more accurate translations than had been available. Allan Bloom translated Plato’s Republic, Rousseau’s Emile, and some of Kojčve’s works, while Harvey Mansfield translated Machiavelli and Tocqueville.
I might mention in passing that the main character in Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein is based on Bloom, and another character in that novel, Davarr, is based on Strauss.
Strauss argued that philosophers don’t say what they mean, they conceal their meaning, and their meaning must be deciphered by reading between the lines. Some of his disciples have tried to apply this approach to Strauss himself, and have argued that, if one reads Strauss between the lines, one finds that Strauss’s views are similar to Nietzsche’s. But Strauss’s approach is intended for reading philosophers, and Strauss himself wasn’t a philosopher. In an earlier issue, I quoted Banfield: “Strauss presented himself not as a philosopher but as a scholar, an historian of political philosophy. So far as I know he never pronounced in his own name on a philosophical problem.” To suggest that Strauss was a Nietzschean is a wild theory indeed; it shows that when one reads between the lines, even the wildest interpretations become possible. Strauss admired the Greeks (Plato, Aristotle, etc.), Nietzsche didn’t. Strauss sought for moral absolutes, Nietzsche didn’t.
We shouldn’t make Strauss into something other than he was, we shouldn’t regard Strauss as an original thinker, whose ideas must be deciphered by a team of code-breakers. Strauss was an excellent scholar, and a man of vast learning. Banfield, who knew him well, considered him a genius, and I see no reason to question that judgment. Strauss’s writings are full of deep thoughts, though somewhat dry and pedantic. Like Barzun and Shils, Strauss doesn’t see the need for a new religion, and doesn’t help to meet that need. Like Barzun and Shils, Strauss doesn’t appreciate the exciting new ideas in modern thought, such as Western psychology and Eastern philosophy (Jung and Zen). Like Barzun and Shils, Strauss does an admirable job of carrying on the old traditions, but he doesn’t create new traditions, he doesn’t blaze new trails.
I often go to the Brown University library; Brown is kind enough to permit access to their library for a nominal fee. When you enter the library, there are three posters, each with a quote. There’s a poster with a quote from Proust (“In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self”), a poster with a quote from Borges (“I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library”), and a poster with a quote from Toni Morrison (“Access to knowledge is the superb, the supreme act of truly great civilizations”).
The Morrison poster is more than twice as large as the others, and dominates the space; since Morrison is a black woman, giving her pride of place is an obvious example of Political Correctness, of the politicization of academia. What is less obvious is that Borges and Proust were probably chosen for political reasons, too — Borges because he’s Hispanic, Proust because he’s homosexual. Universities today don’t make decisions based on merit, based on substance, they make decisions based on political considerations, and sometimes these considerations are subtle indeed. “This is just lobby decoration, this isn’t important.” But these posters show how academia makes decisions, they show how students are admitted, how faculty are hired — in short, these posters show how academia has been politicized. (If you want further evidence of politicization, the Brown president has set aside certain faculty positions for minorities, part of a program called “Targets of Opportunity.”52)
Another small but telling sign of politicization is the use of that awkward term “his/her”, in place of the traditional “his”. His/her is a departure from spoken English, and harmful to the rhythm, the music of prose. But what is especially deplorable about such “gender-neutral” terms is that they’ve become mandatory at some universities. If a student turns in a paper that doesn’t use them, the paper isn’t even read! So much for academic freedom, so much for toleration of different styles and tastes. Everyone must bow to Political Correctness, to liberal orthodoxy. I believe that a writer should avoid gender-neutral terms out of respect for tradition, out of respect for style, and as an expression of freedom, an expression of defiance toward the forces of Political Correctness.
The mantra of today’s universities is Diversity, but their faculties are composed almost entirely of liberals; they preach Diversity, but practice Uniformity. As a recent New York Times column said, “There is less intellectual diversity in academia than in any other profession. All but 1 percent of the campaign donations made by employees of William & Mary College went to Democrats. In the Harvard crowd, Democrats got 96 percent of the dollars.”53
I received some good news from India: a publisher in New Delhi says he’s going to publish my book. He doesn’t offer any payment, even if the book becomes a bestseller. I don’t object, I suppose he needs an occasional windfall, to make up for all the books that lose money, or break even. Although this project hasn’t yet come to fruition, my attempt to publish overseas has been worthwhile.
My Brazil project has collapsed. My Brazilian translator led me on, misled me, and played upon my eagerness to publish. In the end, he decided that my politics weren’t right, and the money wasn’t right. He pretended to have a deep and disinterested admiration for my writings, but he turned out to be the sort of person that writers should beware of: one of those literary hangers-on, one of those pseudo-intellectuals who try to use a small talent to make a pleasant living. Years ago, I had the misfortune of encountering such people in China; I suppose they exist wherever literature exists. Writers beware!
I’ve been lucky, though; thanks to my wife’s China connections, I met some excellent scholars, who appreciated whatever I have to offer, and who helped me however they could — scholars like Dong Leshan, to whom I dedicated the Taiwan version of my book. Unfortunately, most of these scholars have passed away, before I had a chance to meet with them again. Who will take their place? In my dedication, I referred to Dong Leshan as a man-of-letters who carried on the great tradition of Chinese literature. Who will carry on the literary tradition now, who will carry on the tradition of Dong Leshan, Barzun, Shils, Handlin, Strauss, Chaudhuri, etc.? Where are the younger scholars who have a passion for literature — literature for its own sake, without regard to money, career, or politics?
|1.|| Walden, ch. 1 back|
|2.|| Assorted Opinions and Axioms (in Part II of Human, All Too Human), #99 back|
|3.|| Autobiography, ch. 7 back|
|4.|| see “Czeslaw Milosz, 1911-2004” by Leon Wieseltier in The New York Times, 9/12/04 back|
|5.|| ibid back|
|6.|| ibid back|
|7.|| ibid back|
|8.|| ibid back|
|9.|| Portraits: A Gallery of Intellectuals, “Introduction” by Joseph Epstein back|
|10.|| ibid back|
|11.|| ibid back|
|12.|| ibid back|
|13.|| ibid back|
|14.|| ibid back|
|15.|| ibid back|
|16.|| ibid back|
|17.|| ibid back|
|18.|| ibid back|
|19.|| ibid back|
|20.|| ibid back|
|21.|| ibid back|
|22.|| Portraits, ch. 3, “Nirad C. Chaudhuri”, p. 76 back|
|23.|| ibid, pp. 76-78 back|
|24.|| ibid, p. 78 back|
|25.|| ibid, p. 84 back|
|26.|| ibid, p. 85 back|
|27.|| ibid, pp. 85, 86 back|
|28.|| ibid, p. 92 back|
|29.|| ibid, p. 94 back|
|30.|| ibid, p. 93 back|
|31.|| ibid, p. 94 back|
|32.|| ibid, p. 77 back|
|33.|| ibid, p. 92 back|
|34.|| ibid, p. 93 back|
|35.|| ibid, p. 93 back|
|36.|| ibid, p. 95 back|
|37.|| ibid, p. 95 back|
|38.|| ibid, p. 83 back|
|39.|| ibid, p. 105 back|
|40.|| ibid, p. 102 back|
|41.|| ibid, p. 103 back|
|42.|| ibid, p. 104 back|
|43.|| ibid, p. 104 back|
|44.|| ibid, p. 104 back|
|45.|| ibid, p. 105 back|
|46.|| ibid, p. 105 back|
|47.|| Ulysses, ch. 9 back|
|48.|| winter, 1996 back|
|49.|| Ch. 4, #3 back|
|50.|| See Wikipedia’s article on Strauss. Bush’s speech wasn’t the first Strauss-inspired speech. The Straussian Harry Jaffa wrote at least part of Goldwater’s 1964 acceptance speech. back|
|51.|| “On Tyranny”, by William Kristol, 1/31/2005, Volume 10, Issue 19 back|
|52.|| For more on Brown’s policies, see “What Can Brown Do For You?” in The Daily Standard (the online version of The Weekly Standard), 3/31/2004 back|
|53.||“Ruling Class War,” by David Brooks, September 11, 2004 back|