“Ideas were, are, and always will be the next big thing,” Richard Stengel wrote pantingly in his editor’s letter in Time’s “third annual 10 Ideas issue,” published last month. (What a damning admission, to announce an annual special ideas issue.) His assumption that the next big thing is what we most desperately need to know is itself an idea to which some analytical pressure must be applied, but it nicely captures the spirit of the love of ideas in contemporary America. “Conceptual scoops,” Stengel calls the ideas in his issue.
Since I have no reason to believe that Benjamin Netanyahu is bluffing about his readiness to attack the nuclear facilities of Iran, I find his recent behavior incomprehensible. In the wake of an Israeli attack, terrible things will almost certainly happen. There will be another war with Hezbollah, whose missiles will this time reach Tel Aviv. The Iranians may themselves respond directly with force. The price of oil will explode, afflicting ordinary people everywhere with the consequences of Israel’s strike, and provoking a new revulsion against Israel, and also against the United States.
Recently I was rummaging through the living mess of papers in my office--my nachlass, however hard-driven, will not be a hard drive--when I discovered a fading sheet I had not seen in decades. It was a copy of a letter that was given to me by a little man in the municipal hall in Hebron in 1980. I had traveled to Hebron to look into an incident that occurred a few days earlier on Purim, a triumphalist holiday on which Jews are enjoined to revel in inversions and to drink themselves out of their capacity to distinguish between good and evil.
The search for sublimity in the city is one of the most traditional quests of modernity. Urban life is a sacrifice of nature for culture, but it is not obvious that culture can provide the same exaltations as nature. When I saw Manhattan from 17,000 feet a few days ago, it looked like a folly, a vast vain pile of blocks and cubes into which the air and the light seemed to disappear. In the city, the question of being (I’m dating myself here) is a little ludicrous. What is the metropolitan sublime?
I should not speak ill of the dead, but what of the dead who spoke ill of the dead? Many years ago an acquaintance of mine applied for a position at the Museum of the City of New York, over which Louis Auchincloss presided. The search committee met in the writer’s apartment on Park Avenue. When the candidate was asked to describe what he would do to improve the institution, he replied that too many people were not represented in its galleries, and noted in particular the inadequacy of the museum’s portrayal of African Americans.
When I was young, I enjoyed the romance of the garret. Poverty, or relative poverty, became me. I mastered arcane books and composed ambitious essays in the smallest apartment anybody ever saw in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When you opened the door, it hit the bed, which of course led to some misunderstandings. I rested my typewriter on a scarred wooden board that groaned every time I struck the keys. When what I wrote was published, I took my earnings to an elegant clothing store on Newbury Street, in defiance of the disconnection notice in my briefcase.
Andrew Sullivan, in his diligent and sentimental response to my complaint against him the other day, retreats immediately to the personal. “I have Irish blood and a Catholic conscience.” “There will be times in which the emotion of the moment will overwhelm me.” “Am I insensitive? At times, I’m sure I am.” “I’m a South Park devotee, for Pete’s sake.” What, precisely, does any of this extenuate? There will be times in which the emotion of the moment will overwhelm me, too--and those are the times in which I will choose not to write.
I. “Trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to readers of The New Republic is not easy.” On June 2, 1944, W.H. Auden penned that sentence in a letter to Ursula Niebuhr. On January 26, 2010, Andrew Sullivan posted it as the “quote for the day” on his blog. Displaced and unglossed quotations are always in some way mordant, and bristle smugly with implications. Let us see what this one implies. Auden was at Swarthmore when he wrote his letter to his friend.
“Think of our new village here as the home of Jesus Christ, not the scene of a disaster,” the Reverend Joseph Lejeune told the smashed souls in a tent city in Port-au-Prince. “Life is not disaster. Life is joy! You don’t have food? Nourish yourself with the Lord. You don’t have water? Drink in the spirit.” One of the aftershocks in Haiti has been the revelation that belief may be immune to experience. The survivors are praying to the author of the destruction. Their metaphysics is their shelter, and I would not deny them their metaphysics as I would not deny them a bed.