Tuesday, April 11, 2017


I came across the news that Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books, has died at the age of 87. It took me a while to generate a reaction, because, as an editor, he placed himself at a distance from the reader, and whatever he thought or represented seems opaque. We know that he was the main force behind the publication, but we don't know exactly what he believed or considered important. In the end it seems as if he was a guy who liked editing and making a name for himself in erudite circles, and perhaps nothing more. The NYRB doesn't stand for much of anything other than general liberalism, and if its authors collectively represent any ideas, Silvers made sure that they were nuanced to death. When they were explicit, they were just as likely to be wrong as right. In two areas that interest me, he was on the wrong side of history, perhaps because underneath the surface lurked a creaky traditionalism that made him leery of evolutionary biology: maybe he was a closet conservative theologian of the humanist tradition. He favored writers such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin over Edward O. Wilson and Christopher Hitchens and promoted Garry Wills and Marilynne Robinson, who, from what I know, embrace obsolete or sentimental religious ideas that, to my way of thinking, do not belong in an intellectual journal. Tony Judt's comment about American intellectuals having no public impact also comes to mind; since no one pays attention to them, they are free to romp and play in the imaginary world of their choosing. On the pecuniary end, George Soros, whose writing style and qualifications as an intellectual were surely not sufficient to warrant his inclusion, got as much space as he liked, presumably because he had billions of dollars.

My negative thesis on intellectuals came to a head recently when I realized that Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were more poseurs than serious thinkers. Perhaps they and Robert Silvers were playing a game that they enjoyed more than actually figuring out anything important. By coincidence, I recently attended a surprisingly excellent student production of Tom Stoppard's play, Arcadia, which is partly about the stupidity and vanity of ambitious academics, and there may be parallels. Perhaps Silvers, Sartre and de Beauvoir simply sought fame, like Bernard Nightingale. Not many are immune to the allure of stature in the circle of their choice. When one looks closely at the petty ambitions of intellectuals, they come to resemble more pedestrian ambitions that lack the pretension of loftiness.

Although it's not yet green outside, the goldfinches are turning yellow again, and spring seems to have arrived. I've taken off my snow tires. For a change of pace, I am going to read the novel Compass, by Mathias Énard, next.

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