Posts Tagged ‘Leon Wieseltier’

He broke shit.

Saturday, December 6th, 2014

The 31-year-old owner of TNR

He wanted to “break shit.”

And so he did. Now everyone knows what Guy Vidra meant when he referred to himself as a “wartime CEO” at The New Republic and what, exactly, he wanted to break:  The New Republic is not likely to recover from the sacking of top editor Franklin Foer and literary editor Leon Wiesieltier, followed within hours by the resignations of Ryan Lizza, Adam Kirsch, Julia Ioffe, and six more of the dozen editors, with contributing editors Anne Applebaum, Paul Berman, , Helen Vendler, and others asking to be dropped from the masthead – altogether 55 exoduses, at last count. The debacle was accompanied by lamentations all across the political spectrum, for although the New Republic has a reputation as a “progressive” magazine, it was one of the few that gave a podium to intelligent voices of all ideological ilk, a truly needed service in an increasingly acrimonious and divisive society.

The New Republic is moving to New York, although it will continue to maintain a Washington, D.C., office. It will also cut its publication frequency in half, publishing just 10 print issues a year. Vidra’s announcement of the changes was thick with jargon and clichés: “re-imagining The New Republic as a vertically integrated digital media company,” among them. Vidra, formerly general manager of Yahoo News, has the support of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who acquired TNR in 2012 at the age of 28. They both talk about about “content” and “platforms” and “brands,” and have taken the magazine in a more clearly ideological direction, designed to boost page views.


Wieseltier … gone.

“Assuming Chris really does plan to dumb it down in the name of clicks, what’s maddening is the way he has betrayed the premise on which he bought it. It’s like buying a historic Victorian mansion with the promise of preserving it — and then carving it into condos two years later,” one former longtime TNR staffer told Politico. “I hope Chris realizes how much intellectual firepower he’s losing here — and how hard it is to fake intellectual substance,” the former staffer said. “It makes no sense to publish clickbait under the TNR name (again, if that’s really his plan), you might as well just build a new thing from scratch.”

At this point, saving TNR will not be done by will alone. It takes more than ideology and snark to produce something that endures. You cannot buy gravitas, any more than you can buy reputation. What’s missing is what Czesław Miłosz used to call “piety” – a feeling of hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature – or perhaps what Susan Sontag called “an education of the heart.”

It has less to do with education and more with a certain amount of living, suffering, patience, tenacity, endurance, wisdom, and the willingness to pay, pay, pay (and I don’t mean with cash). My concern is that people such as Hughes and Vidra have no idea what it means to be caretakers of a century-old literary institution. It would take them a good deal of effort to get to the cultural level they already think they inhabit. Meanwhile, people being imitative creatures, the cheesy values spread and will accelerate a rush to the bottom.

Our culture is being taken over by children. While the young have always given the heave-ho to their elders, usually the elders held the purse-strings. The world has never been short of wealthy, arrogant youth, of course, but usually it was inherited, and depended on parental approval and generosity. With our technological era, the checks and balances are gone: an unimaginable wealth has shifted to kids who understand the weight and price of many things, but the value of nothing. A younger generation tests the limits, because historically, the guardrails have held. They don’t always. If you’re old enough, you’ve seen that, too.

juvenescenceRight now I’m reading Robert Pogue Harrison‘s Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age,” but before I began reading, my eye caught this passage in the epilogue:

“This is also why I believe that our juvenescent age is not just another stage of cultural development in the unfolding of modern civilization but represents a momentous, yet chaotic event in the evolution of humanity itself. The future that this event holds in store for us is one that remains incomprehensible from the perspective of the cultural history that precedes it. That future may well be upon us already, for as each day passes our present confounds historical understanding. If wisdom serves to create a living memory by synthesizing past and present with a view to the future, wisdom in our age has been thrown for a loss.”

Some have challenged whether this is a notable juncture in America’s cultural and literary history: Clive Crook over at the Bloomberg View writes in “Without the New Republic, I have No Reason to Live“: “You might say, the New Republic was a great and storied title. Why buy it in order to destroy it? Yes, in its day, it was indeed an indispensable magazine, but that was a long time ago. It’s years since it was required reading, even for people (such as myself) who are paid to take an interest in the things it writes about. Fact is, very little any longer is required reading: Choices have expanded in such a way as to make that idea anachronistic.

“It’s no act of disrespect to the achievements of the past to change – or even to shut down, if it comes to that – a publication that’s lost its way. Even if money doesn’t come into it, titles ought to be living things, not monuments to what they were. The same goes, only more so, for writers and editors.”

And there is a truth in that point of view, too. But I sense many people waiting in the wings to break things. Not so many who know how to put them together again.

Postscript on 12/9: We got a nice mention in Andrew Sullivan’s “The Dish” here.

Leon Wieseltier: “Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.”

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

Birthday boy.

“Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?” asked Leon Wieseltier. The literary editor of the The New Republic spoke to the 2013 commencement crowd at Brandeis last month.  He called the commitment to the humanities “nothing less than an act of intellectual defiance, of cultural dissidence.”

“There is no greater bulwark against the twittering acceleration of American consciousness than the encounter with a work of art, and the experience of a text or an image. You are the representatives, the saving remnants, of that encounter and that experience, and of the serious study of that encounter and that experience – which is to say, you are the counterculture. Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.”

He deplored the dominance of technology in our society:  “The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. … There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. … This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.”


He also decried the descent of science into ideology: “Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles  certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic…”

So how did the crowd like it?  We weren’t there, but there are a mixed back of comments below the talk, which published, of course, in The New Republic (read the whole thing here).  Here are a few of them:

Polcereal complained that it was an “anti-technology screed.” Jack R. sniped, “Leon annoys me even when he might be onto something. Why he would imagine that a pompous, self-aggrandizing prose style would garner him adherents, much less a standing ovation, is a mystery to me. His main point that in today’s increasingly technocratic and digital world, humanistic values and pursuits are getting eclipsed is pretty much irrefutable. But surely one can advance this concern without the heavy air of condescension that Leon adopts to cloak the majesty of his thoughts.”

birthday cakeTo which W.K. Dawson replied, “Some people objected to Wieseltier’s style. It was a graduation speach. Should he have said ‘You people in the humanities should always be sure that your head is under the boot of science!’?”

What does the Book Haven say?  We say: “Happy birthday, Leon Wieseltier!”  June 14 is his big day.

He’s a winner! Michel Serres gets the Dan David Prize

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Relaxing at Stanford (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Michel Serres is a winner.  But then, we knew that already.  We’ve written about him here and here and here.

Here’s the latest evidence:  He’s one of the five winners of this year’s Dan David Prize, which was announced last week by the Dan David Foundation and Tel Aviv University. The other winners include Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, and Esther Duflo, a French economist who studies poverty in the Third World and has been active in the fight against malaria, and epidemiologist Alfred Sommer, and Sir Geoffrey Lloyd, a Cambridge historian of the philosophy of ancient Greece.

Haaretz described Michel Serres as “a French scholar whose work on the atrocities  of war has helped seal his reputation as one of the greatest French philosophers living today.”

Each year, three $3 million awards are made in three dimensions: past, present and future. Serres was recognized in the present dimension under “Ideas, Public Intellectuals and Contemporary Philosophers” Wieseltier represented “the present,” too – so they’ll split the million.

Here’s what the David Prize people had to say:

Michel Serres is a French master thinker of the old school, with an intimate knowledge of the western tradition in philosophy and science, from its origins to the present, a passionate curiosity about the present and the willingness—and the ability—to enter productively into discussion of a vast range of current questions. His career began with an enormous and penetrating investigation of Leibniz’s use of mathematical models, which continues to be a standard work, and rapidly developed into a series of inquiries: into the history and nature of mathematics, epistemology, moral philosophy and humanity’s relations with the natural world.

In the great tradition of French intellectuals, Serres has analyzed scientific, philosophical and fictional texts, deftly and reaching original conclusions.  He has led more recent efforts to preserve a French tradition in philosophy, concerned for moral and social questions. …

Serres is an eloquent, even seductive writer. Both in France and in the United States, where he has taught for many years at Stanford, he has been a compelling and charismatic teacher, and his lectures and publications have reached large audiences around the world. His combination of deep learning and profound thought with the desire and ability to address the public has become rare.

The award ceremony will be held at Tel Aviv University on June 9.  I’m proud that I appear to have the only video interview with him in English:

Saul Bellow: “The name of the game is Give All.”

Saturday, November 27th, 2010

A few days ago, I posted an excerpt from Saul Bellow: Letters — an epistle from Saul Bellow to Leon Wieseltier, on the subject of Hannah Arendt.

I didn’t know till I was tipped off by Robert Hamerton-Kelly at lunch yesterday that Wieseltier had already reviewed the letters in the New York Times a few days earlier. The long, ebullient review of a friend by a friend praises the author’s “stunning, almost baffling plenitude”:

“Bellow’s letters are — as anybody who corresponded with him must have expected them to be, and here I must disclose, or confess, or boast, that the volume includes also some gorgeous letters to me, written in the fullness of our friendship decades ago, when we used to worry over metaphysics and the novel as we chopped wood — one of Bellow’s greatest books. [Editor] Benjamin Taylor records that it contains only two-fifths of what Bellow called his ‘epistling,’ but its riches are nonetheless immense. Taylor has selected and edited and annotated these letters with exquisite judgment and care. This is an elegantissimo book. Our literature’s debt to Taylor, if our culture still cares, is considerable.”

More excerpts, in case you missed it:

“In recent years, Bellow has been venerated primarily for his laughter and his language. His British admirers in particular, orphaned by the dreariness of their own postwar fiction and in abject (and rather boring) envy of American energy, have remade Bellow according to their need: a comic writer, a high mocker and essentially a stylist. There is some truth, obviously, to this worship of his ebullience, of the libertine vigor of his voice. Of all modern writers, Bellow somehow managed to combine intellectuality and vitality without compromising either of the indispensable terms. The life-force never deserted him, even as it was always attended by interpretation. The unruliness of existence was Bellow’s lasting theme; but while he studied it, he never quite ordered it. In his fiction and in his life, he seemed to believe in the fecundity of disorder.

“Yet something is missing from the chortling celebration of Bellovian jollity, and that is its foundation in gloom. ‘Bitter melancholy’ is ‘one of my specialties,’ he tells Edward Shils in 1962. About ‘the power to despair,’ he writes to a friend in 1961 that ‘having myself felt it, known it, bathed in it, my native and temperamental impulse is to return to sanity in the form of laughter.’ The letters show a man constantly wresting high spirits from low, and forbidding himself ‘the newest wrinkle in anguish.’ The charming and gregarious writer feels ‘almost astrally alone, but still “I’m out for sursum corda. Lift up the heart.’ … There is an almost erotic charge to Bellow’s endless affirmations; they are so affecting because they are so willed. Since they are deeply reflective, they do not seem merely manic. ‘Really,’ he writes to Lionel Trilling in 1952, ‘things are now what they always were, and to be disappointed in them is extremely shallow. We may not be strong enough to live in the present. But to be disappointed in it!'” …

“Bellow liked to scoff at serious people, but he never left their company. He, too, always had something urgent to say. … The view of Bellow as primarily a stylist, the pleasure-seeking reading of Bellow, the cult of his sentences, is inadequate. His manner was rougher and more controversial, stubbornly animated by ultimate questions, motivated by mind, an intervention in society as well as in literature. Even greater than how he said what he said was what he had to say. His writings, these letters included, are efforts in explanation, or in the hunger for explanation. He did not compose manifestoes or programs, and he despised ideologies — Norman Mailer is ‘such an ideologist,’ whereas ‘I do everything the hard way’; but his ridicule of intellectuals never led Bellow, as it did some of his contemporaries, to the barbarities of anti-intellectualism. …”

“One marvels for many reasons at the man who wrote these letters, but for no reason more than that he was a free man. I do not refer merely to his rebelliousness and his restlessness, to his ‘jail-breaking spirit.’ He is beset by cares and obligations; his friends die and die and die … but nothing ever robs him of the free and unfettered use of his powers. ‘A language is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us,’ and in that palace Bellow was sovereign. ‘The only sure cure is to write a book,’ he advises Alice Adams. Only time, and the accidental ingestion of a poison fish in the tropics in 1994, dims him. Otherwise, for the duration of the long and unsinkable life chronicled in these pages, he is a large man growing larger, a spirit expanding, an unabating lightstorm, and ‘the name of the game is Give All.’ He never loses his constancy of purpose. In the penultimate letter in this volume, in the winter of 2002, he sums himself up for a distant relative in a casual Abschied: ‘Actually, I’ve never stopped looking for the real thing; and often I find the real thing. To fall into despair is just a high-class way of turning into a dope. I choose to laugh, and laugh at myself no less than at others.'”

Postscript from the “Great Minds Think Alike” Dept.:  Over at Anecdotal Evidence today, Patrick Kurp also has a post inspired by Wieseltier’s review of Bellow — it’s here.

Saul Bellow on Hannah Arendt: The upshot? He didn’t like her much

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Letters out this month

Viking is publishing Saul Bellow: Letters this month.  It’s excerpted in Salmagundis 45th anniversary issue (Fall 2010/Winter 2011), which arrived in my mailbox a few days ago. Here’s an excerpt of Nobel laureate Saul Bellow’s March 12, 1982, letter to Leon Wieseltier. Clearly not a fan of political philosopher Hannah Arendt:

“The trouble is that her errors were far more extensive than her judgment.  That can be said of us all, but she was monumentally vain, and a rigid akshente [Yiddish: impossible woman, ballbuster] Much of her strength went into obstinacy, and she was the compleat intellectual – i.e. she went always and as rapidly as possible for the great synthesis and her human understanding, painfully limited, could not support the might of historical analysis, unacknowledged prejudices, frustrations of her German and European aspirations, etc. She could often think clearly, but to think simply was altogether beyond her, and her imaginative faculty was stunted.

German to the end?

“I once asked Alexander Donat, author of The Holocaust Kingdom, how it was that the Jews went down so quickly in Poland. He said something like this: ‘After three days in the ghetto, unable to wash and shave, without clean clothing, deprived of food, all utilities and municipal services cut off, your toilet habits humiliatingly disrupted, you are demoralized, confused, subject to panic. A life of austere discipline would have made it possible for me to keep my head, but how many civilized people lead such a life?’  Such simple facts – had Hannah had the imagination to see them – would have lowered the intellectual fever that vitiates her theories. Her standards were those of a ‘noble’ German intelligentsia trained in the classics and in European philosophy – what you call the ‘tradition of sweet thinking.’  Hannah not only loved it, she actively disliked those who didn’t share it, and she couldn’t acknowledge this dislike – which happened to be the dislike of those (so inconveniently) martyred by the Nazis.  The Eros of these cultures is irresistible.  At the same time assimilation is simply impossible – out of the question to reject one’s history. And insofar as the Israelis are secular, they are in it with the rest of us, fascinated and also eaten up by Greece, France, Russia, England.  It is impossible for advanced minds not to be so affected. …

“Anyway, your Arendt pieces are wonderful, even though the concluding sentence … but what else can one conclude but ‘on course; and ‘in the dark’? We mustn’t surrender the demonic to the demagogic academics.  Intellectual sobriety itself may have to take the powers of darkness into account.”

Casper discusses Arendt (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

In his book, Donat recounts the entrenched pro-German mindset of most Jews, who were looking backward to the heritage of the German Enlightenment: “For generations, East European Jews had looked to Berlin as the symbol of law, order, and culture. We could not now believe that the Third Reich was a government of gangsters embarked on a program of genocide ‘to solve the Jewish problem in Europe.’”

But I rather wonder at his characterization of “Jewish passivity,” remembering the doomed heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Only since the Fall of the Wall are some stories of Polish (Jewish and Christian) resistance coming to light.  History changes.

I attended a conference on Arendt last spring and was moved by Gerhard Casper’s tenacious loyalty to the friend he characterized as “a very private person”:   “She was forceful, opinionated, never had any doubts about her views,” he said. “In certain circumstances she was willing to listen carefully and be convinced she was wrong. Those were rare.”

Piotr Nowak recommended I read her pages on ineradicable evil in The Origins of Totalitarianism when we were at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen two years ago, while taking the “powers of darkness into account.”