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Things That Matter: Three Decades of Pastimes, Passions and Politics by Charles Krauthammer.


In his essay on Coleridge, John Stuart Mill wrote (I've updated his terminology a tad):


A conservative public intellectual cannot be wholly conservative, but must often be a better liberal than liberals themselves; while he is the natural means of rescuing from oblivion truths which conservatives have forgotten and which the prevailing schools of liberalism never knew. ... "Lord, enlighten thou our enemies," should be the prayer of every true progressive; sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers. We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom; their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.



When I first encountered this passage, I agreed wholeheartedly with Mill. Now I'm less sure. Conservatism was different in Mill's time. What he rejoiced at in Coleridge's example was the prospect of deliverance from "the owl-like dread of light, the drudge-like aversion to change, which were the characteristics of the old unreasoning race of bigots" - Sir Leicester Dedlock, for example, or the Duke of Wellington. A conservative intellectual was virtually an oxymoron before the Industrial Revolution; too much cleverness made a man "unsound."

Nowadays conservative intellectuals are legion, and some of them are very clever. But they have not become enlightened or enlightening, as Mill hoped. Instead of rescuing forgotten truths, they devise novel fallacies like New Class theory or the efficient markets hypothesis or American exceptionalism. No longer automatically subversive of authority, the intellectual has become authority's chief of staff.

Feudalism shunned intelligence; capitalism profits from it: partly by controlling the institutions that manufacture public opinion - advertising, media, publishing, education, research - and partly by cultivating talented individuals with suitable views and values. According to the pioneering political scientist Harold Lasswell, the advent of modern society "compelled the development of a whole new technique of social control, mainly through propaganda ... the one means of mass mobilization which is cheaper than violence, bribery, or other possible control techniques."  Irving Kristol, propagandist par excellence, foresaw that "intellectuals would move inexorably closer to the seats of authority" and devoted his long career to furthering that rapprochement, recruiting lavish support from an anxious business class for the right kind of intellectuals. The contemporary neoconservative intelligentsia, including Charles Krauthammer, is the result.

Krauthammer, a nationally syndicated Washington Post columnist, Time essayist, and frequent guest on Fox and other networks, is quite possibly the most widely respected neoconservative public intellectual. On the occasion of Krauthammer's first collection, Cutting Edges (1985), Michael Walzer praised the author as "intellectually tough and morally serious" (exactly the qualities whose absence on the left Walzer complained of in his widely discussed essay "Can There Be a Decent Left?").  In 1987 Krauthammer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his "witty and insightful columns on national issues." According to Henry Kissinger, Things That Matter, with its "learned examinations of history and policy," demonstrates Krauthammer's "sharply honed analysis, humane values and questing mind."

High praise, though it withers a little under the heat of this blast from the as-yet-unreconstructed Christopher Hitchens:


In the charmed circle of neoliberal and neoconservative journalism, "unpredictability" is the special emblem and certificate of self-congratulation. To be able to bray that "as a liberal, I say bomb the shit out of them" is to have achieved that eye-catching, versatile marketability that is so beloved of editors and talk-show hosts. As a lifelong socialist, I say don't let's bomb the shit out of them. See what I mean? It lacks the sex appeal, somehow. Predictable as hell.


Picture, then, if you will, the unusual difficulties faced by Charles Krauthammer, newest of the neocon mini-windbags. He has the arduous job, in an arduous time, of being an unpredictable  conformist. He has the no less demanding task of making this pose appear original and, more, of making it appear courageous. At a time when the polity (as he might well choose to call it) is showing signs of Will fatigue, it can't be easy to write an attack on the United Nations or Albania or Qaddafi and make it seem like a lone, fearless affirmation. An average week of reading The Washington Post op-ed page already exposes me to appearances from George Will, William F. Buckley Jr., Jeane Kirkpatrick, Norman Podhoretz, Emmett Tyrrell, Joseph Kraft, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, and Stephen Rosenfeld. Clearly its editors felt that a radical new voice was needed when they turned to the blazing, impatient talents on offer in The New Republic - and selected Krauthammer. I dare say Time felt the same way when it followed suit. We live in a period when a chat show that includes Morton Kondracke considers that it has filled the liberal slot.




Krauthammer can dish it out too: he is a savage scoffer and merciless mocker (though hardly in a league with Hitchens). He is a commercial as well as a political success: Things That Matter briefly topped the New York Times best-seller list last fall. Facility in framing the conventional wisdom, however vacuous, with perfect assurance, indeed with an edge of impatience in one's voice that such truisms need to be explained at all, is a singular gift, and probably the supreme qualification for an op-ed columnist or talk-show guest. But Krauthammer has paid the unavoidable price for composing too many 1000-word essays for Time, 800-word columns for The Washington Post, and 20-second sound bites for Fox News. There is very little intellectual tension, dialectical drama, or sense of discovery in his arguments, and very little rhythm, color, or finesse to his prose. He floats like a vulture, stings like a tarantula.

Krauthammer does have his amiable side (or corner). The first section of Things That Matter, labeled "Personal," contains a few affectionate portraits: of his older brother; of a kindly dean who made it possible for him to continue in medical school after a paralyzing accident; of a beloved, famously eccentric mathematician; of an obscure major-league baseball player's brief, brilliant comeback several years after an initial flop. But these ingratiating pieces are few and a little awkward. Lightness of touch doesn't come naturally to Krauthammer; he's too embattled.

The object of his hostility is ... why, you, dear Nation reader. I suspect that if Krauthammer were asked to sum up everything he stands against intellectually in two words, they would be "the Nation." Virtually every position regularly espoused in this magazine, and on the left generally, comes under his fire. Even where there is a measure of agreement - sexual equality, gay marriage, stem cell research, creationism - it is grudging and usually accompanied by a rebuke to callow radicals. When it comes to political economy and, especially, foreign policy, his contempt is unabashed.

Sometimes it unhinges him. One column tells of a 60s radical, part of a bank robbery in which a policeman was killed. She escaped, became a chef, lived undetected for 23 years, and finally turned herself in. The moral of the story, according to Krauthammer: "It starts with people power. It ends in polenta. A fitting finish to the radical '60s." Another column sensitively discusses the case of a 39-year-old woman who gave birth at home using a lay midwife, and whose baby died. "It was about the mother's karma. It was about the narcissistic pursuit of 'experience,' the Me Generation's insistence on turning every life event - even those fraught with danger for others - into a personalized Hallmark moment."

As these jibes suggest, the Hammer strikes hard, though not always discriminatingly. He is tough all right, and excruciatingly serious, though not quite in the complimentary sense Walzer meant those epithets. Still, he is not merely provoking but- unlike his less acute comrades George Will, William Kristol, and David Brooks - often thought-provoking as well. Because he fiercely despises left-wing opinions rather than, like Will et al, smugly ignoring them, he has a nose for their weaknesses. Which is, after all, a blessing, however bitter, for those of us who profess them.

He is furious, for example, at the suggestion that the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World should be an occasion for "repentance and reflection" about the unhappy (for its inhabitants) sequel. "For the left," he jeers, "the [anniversary] comes just in time. The revolutions of 1989 having put a dent in the case for the degeneracy of the West, 1992 offers a welcome new point of attack." True, mistakes were made. "The European conquest of the Americas, like the conquest of other civilizations, was indeed accompanied by great cruelty. But that is to say nothing more than that the European conquest of America was, in this way, much like the rise of Islam, the Norman conquest of Britain, and the widespread American Indian tradition of raiding, depopulating, and appropriating neighboring lands." Besides, he concludes, "the real question is, What eventually grew on this bloodied soil? The answer is, The great modern civilizations of the Americas - a new world of individual rights, an ever-expanding circle of liberty."

Was there really nothing special about the conquest of the Americas? By the end of the 19th century, the indigenous population had shrunk by 90 percent, with 95 percent of their land lost through violence or fraud. Millions were enslaved; hundreds of tribes, languages, and cultures in both hemispheres simply disappeared. Nothing on this scale happened during the rise of Islam or the Norman conquest of England, much less in pre-Columbian America. The circle of liberty did not expand for most of the population of South America until quite recently, as US dominance declined. And where it did expand - for the white population of the 18th- and 19th-century United States - the expansion turned erratic as the society was regimented by mass production, plundered by a rising finance capitalism, and battered by storms of political hysteria.

Still, some deep and troubling questions lurk beneath Krauthammer's crass celebration of America's manifest destiny. The flowering of equality, self-reliance, and civic virtue in the non-slave states from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century is one of the political wonders of the world, a signal achievement in humankind's moral history. It was made possible by a great crime: it all took place on stolen, ethnically-cleansed land. Likewise that other pinnacle of political enlightenment, Athenian democracy, which rested on slavery. But in both cases, didn't the subordination or expropriation of the many allow the few to craft social relations from which the rest of the world has learned invaluable lessons? Is some such stolen abundance or leisure a prerequisite of moral and cultural advance? Even if we acknowledge the dimensions of the crime, can we really regret the achievement? Krauthammer is no help in answering such questions, but he is clever enough and truculent enough to force them on our attention.

Krauthammer is an unapologetic - strident - hawk. He chides Jeane Kirkpatrick, no less, for suggesting that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States might become "a normal country in a normal world." On the contrary, he admonishes, we live in a permanently abnormal world. "There is no alternative to confronting, deterring and, if necessary, disarming states that brandish and use weapons of mass destruction. And there is no one to do that but the United States," with or without allies. Of course there is no question of deterring or disarming the United States. The very idea is outlandish - America is uniquely benign, history's first "reluctant hegemon," almost quixotic in its "hopeless idealism." Only twisted leftists would deny that "freedom [is] the centerpiece of [American] foreign policy."

America, it is true, has no concentration camps or overseas colonies, and our government regularly proclaims its devotion to freedom. For Krauthammer, those facts evidently outweigh our having subverted dozens of governments, many of them democratically elected, and supported dozens of others that were not democratically elected at all, with the only consistent motive being the promotion of a favorable investment climate for American business. Actual history is thin on the ground in Things That Matter.

Even so, there's a shred of plausibility to Krauthammer's arrogant unilateralism. He proposes an interesting coinage, the "Weapon State": a category of anomalous states with little popular support, shallow historical roots, weak civil society, unbalanced economies, overdeveloped militaries, and powerful grievances or militant ideologies. They are not what social scientists call "rational actors." Such states, Krauthammer argues, may well have fewer inhibitions about using weapons of mass destruction or massacring civilians on a vast scale than more developed and democratic states. Iraq under Saddam is Krauthammer's prototype of a Weapon State; North Korea and Libya are other examples. Since nuclear emergencies or ongoing genocide may require instant response, and since Security Council action may be delayed or vetoed by a single major power, a status-quo hegemon may be a good thing to have on hand in certain circumstances.

International law is currently a weak reed, and international institutions are mostly dysfunctional. Mightn't the United States sometimes have to act unilaterally to save innocent lives or keep the peace in a supreme emergency? It is true (though you won't learn it from Krauthammer) that the United States has done a great deal to undermine international law and institutions, having used weapons of mass destruction for political purposes (Hiroshima and Nagasaki); supported their use by client states (Saddam's Iraq, against Iran); approved the slaughter of civilians on a vast scale by other clients (Indonesia in 1965 and again in East Timor; Turkey against the Kurds); ignored an adverse judgment of the International Court of Justice (which ordered the US to pay reparations for its aggression against Nicaragua); and repeatedly declared its readiness to use force without Security Council authorization, in defiance of its most important treaty obligation, the UN Charter. But so what? Even bad governments can do good things; sometimes even for bad reasons. The fact that the United States killed a million or more Indochinese civilians during the 1960s and 70s and bombed to the ground virtually every structure in North Korea during the 1950s does not disqualify it from saving civilians in Rwanda, Darfur, or Congo. Legality is very important, but not all-important.



Occasionally, then, Krauthammer is interestingly and usefully wrong. More often, though, he is tiresomely and mischievously wrong. His misconceptions begin with the Cold War. "Where would Europe be," he demands to know, "if America had not saved it from the Soviet colossus?" In fact, after World War II, the Soviet Union desperately sought a demilitarized Germany, having twice in three decades nearly been annihilated by that country. It offered to withdraw and allow free elections in a unified Germany in exchange for a guarantee that Germany not be part of a hostile military alliance and that the Soviets have a veto power over major foreign policy decisions in the Eastern European countries - a kind of Soviet Monroe Doctrine. The United States, then enjoying a monopoly on atomic weapons, refused. Germany remained divided and the Red Army remained in Eastern Europe.

Of course the Evil Empire never ceased its menacing machinations, and by the early 1980s cowed liberals were duped into supporting a nuclear freeze, "a form of unilateral disarmament in the face of Soviet nuclear advances," according to Krauthammer. In fact, US nuclear superiority at that point (and throughout the Cold War) was unchallenged. Soviet "advances" almost always followed, and responded to, American advances; and most of the disarmament initiatives, including a self-imposed unilateral test ban in the 1980s (unilateral because the Reagan administration refused to follow suit), came from the USSR. Moreover, as sensible people understood, the probability of a lethal accident involving nuclear weapons had become terrifyingly high by the time the Cold War ended. According to a Brookings Institution study, the US alone experienced 19 nuclear alerts between 1946 and 1973. On two occasions - one on either side - a large-scale missile attack following a false warning of incoming enemy missiles was aborted within minutes of launch. Eric Schlosser reports in Command and Control that 1200 nuclear weapons were somehow involved in accidents during the first two decades of the Cold War, at least two of which nearly caused catastrophic damage within the United States. As a former head of the US Strategic Command remarked: "We escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion."

About Central America, Krauthammer resorts to brazen falsification. Reagan's so-called "illegal war," he writes, was really "an indigenous anti-communist rebellion that ultimately succeeded in bringing down Sandinista rule and ushering in democracy in Central America." [In reality, the US throughout the 20th century supported business-friendly oligarchies and military dictatorships in Central America that violently suppressed all democratic stirrings. When Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza was overthrown (the US supporting him to the bitter end), the CIA assembled, trained, and paid thousands of former Nicaraguan National Guardsmen on either side of the Honduran border. There was no "indigenous anti-Communist rebellion." These contras commenced a rampage, torturing and murdering peasants and sabotaging agricultural collectives. During this onslaught, a national election was held, far more democratic than any the country had seen under Somoza. The Sandinistas won, after which the US organized an illegal international embargo that, as with Cuba, bled the country dry. As for the right-wing forces the US supported in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, they were, if possible, even bloodier and crueler than the Nicaraguan contras.

Unsurprisingly (he began his career at the New Republic, after all), Krauthammer is less than wholly objective about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There would be no conflict, he insists, but for "the long history of Palestinian rejectionism"; talk of Israeli "intransigence" is "mindless." His prime exhibits in evidence are the "three times since [1994]" when "Israel has offered the Palestinians land for peace.  ... And been refused three times." These three occasions are Camp David (2000), Taba (2001), and a mysterious episode in 2008 when Ehud Olmert allegedly made an "incredible" offer, an "ultimate capitulation to Palestinian demands." Each time, Krauthammer charges, the Palestinians "walked away." They have never wanted a "final peace" if it meant "reciprocal recognition of a Jewish state." They prefer "an independent Palestine in a state of war with Israel."

Matters are not quite - not nearly - so simple. At Camp David, Krauthammer writes, Barak offered Arafat "a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza - and, astonishingly, the previously inconceivable division of Jerusalem. Arafat refuses." What Barak actually offered was a West Bank divided into three cantons separated by salients containing 12 percent of the land and all the existing Israeli settlements; continuing Israeli control of water resources; a Palestinian capital in Abu Dis, a village adjacent to Jerusalem; virtually no provision for Palestinian refugees; and an agreement that UN Resolutions 194 and 242 should no longer apply to the conflict. What is "inconceivable" is that anyone but a hasbarist could portray this as a reasonable offer.

Clinton was disgusted with Barak's fakery and proposed an alternative, which formed the basis for discussions at Taba a few months later. Krauthammer calls this "an even sweeter deal," which Arafat again refused out of hand. In reality, the Palestinians did not refuse out of hand, and it was not a sweet deal or even a genuine offer. It was a campaign ploy. According to Israeli journalist Tanya Reinhart:


There was not even a serious attempt to hide the fact that these talks were part of the election campaign. "A senior source in Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office says the purpose of the Israeli-Palestinian marathon talks starting on Sunday at Taba is to neutralize the Israeli Left." ... It was clear from the start that the purpose of the talks was to produce some optimistic "statement for the press," a goal that was essentially obtained: "Ehud Barak sent the leaders of the Left - Shlomo Ben-Ami, Yossi Beilin, and Yossi Sarid - to Taba, with the aim of attaining an 'endorsement' for his candidacy from the Palestinian Authority. ... The three emissaries succeeded in fulfilling their mission. They convinced Abu Ala and his colleagues to sign a declaration stating that the two sides "have never been closer to reaching an agreement.'"



According to another Israeli journalist, there was clearly "a determined decision made by Barak not to reach a settlement with the Palestinians in the time that is left until the elections." In any case, the Israeli offer at Taba differed very little from the one at Camp David: it too called for annexation of the settlements and surrounding land (though somewhat less of it); no Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem; barely any notice of the refugee problem.

About Olmert's "incredible" 2008 secret offer, little was known for several years. Last May a report appeared in the Jerusalem Post with new information. Krauthammer's claim that "every settlement remaining within the new Palestine would be destroyed and emptied" turns out to be inaccurate. Olmert proposed to keep 6 percent of the West Bank, including the largest settlements, still effectively cutting the new Palestinian state into three parts. Several Palestinian holy places would be returned or internationalized, definitely not amounting to the "division of Jerusalem" (Krauthammer). And 1000 Palestinian refugees - out of 5 million - would be repatriated to Israel each year for five years. It was extraordinarily credulous of Krauthammer to imagine that Olmert, who in 2006 announced his intention to carry out Ariel Sharon's plan for greatly expanding existing settlements in the West Bank, should only two years later have proposed dismantling every single one of them.

In the overcharged ideological atmosphere of Things That Matter, atheism and even veganism are suspect. Krauthammer summons us to remember the wise observation of Arthur Schlesinger ("and others") that "declining faith in the supernatural has been accompanied by the rise of the monstrous totalitarian creeds of the 20th century." For, Krauthammer continues, "as Chesterton put it, 'The trouble when people stop believing in God is not that they thereafter believe in nothing; it is that they believe in anything.' In this century," Krauthammer grimly reminds us, "'anything' has included Hitler, Stalin, and Mao." It has also, I would remind him, included Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and Albert Camus.

And beware the moralizing tyranny of liberal educators. Having replaced soulcraft with hygiene, they are scheming at this very moment to "teach your kids safe sex, take Alar off their apples, feed them yogurt and broccoli for lunch and, for the ride home, lash them to their safety seats in cars with mandatory air bags." There is no end to this pernicious liberal nonsense, as witness "the mania for health foods," which "feeds a nutritional fanaticism and fastidiousness that make Islamic and Jewish dietary prohibitions look positively, well, liberal." Actually, as a practicing vegetarian with an Orthodox friend who observes Jewish dietary laws in their full rigor, I can assure Krauthammer that his concern for us deluded health-food maniacs is misplaced.


For the tragic waste of Krauthammer's considerable talents represented by Things That Matter, a good deal of the blame should doubtless go to the bad habits fostered by op-ed writing and talk-show commenting. Krauthammer is an expert simplifier, summarizer, and close-quarters scrapper. His skill at producing zingers is enviable. But remarks are not literature, and zingers are not political wisdom. You can't surprise yourself, breathe deeply, get to the bottom of things in 800 words or 20 seconds.

By and large, the quality of the eighty-eight pieces in Things That Matter is proportional to their length. Hearteningly, Krauthammer mentions that he is, at long last, writing a book: two books, in fact, one on domestic policy and one on foreign policy. Perhaps in the course of them he will, at least occasionally, surprise himself and us, vindicating Mill's generous hope.




George Scialabba is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For? and For the Republic. He blogs at




Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s and 1930s: The Shores of Light, Axel's Castle, Uncollected Reviews by Edmund Wilson. Edited by Lewis Dabney. The Library of America, 958 pp., $40.

Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s and 1940s: The Triple Thinkers, The Wound and the Bow, Classics and Commercials, Uncollected Reviews by Edmund Wilson.

Edited by Lewis Dabney. The Library of America, 979 pp., $40.

Reviewed by George Scialabba

It's said that Art Tatum's technique persuaded a great many young pianists to become insurance salesmen. Edmund Wilson's chops were equally phenomenal; not as sheerly, immediately dazzling, perhaps, but in range, erudition, penetration, clarity, and unfussy elegance, no less jaw-dropping. And just as Tatum's multi-volume Complete Solo Masterpieces (Pablo) is one of the summits of piano jazz, the Library of America's new two-volume issue of Wilson's essays and reviews from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s is one of the summits of twentieth-century literary criticism.

Edmund Wilson's life story is well known from his many published journals (The Twenties through The Sixties), memoirs ("The Author at Sixty" and Upstate), and letters (a superb collection, Letters on Literature and Politics, edited by Elena Wilson, his fourth wife), other people's remembrances, and two good biographies by Jeffrey Meyers and Lewis Dabney. He was born in 1895 - with difficulty, because he already had an unusually large head. His father was a reforming lawyer and Attorney General of New Jersey but was disabled for much of his later life by hypochondria and depression. Young Edmund got an extraordinary education at the Hill School in Pennsylvania and a decent one at Princeton, especially after he encountered the literary scholar and peerless teacher Christian Gauss. At Princeton he also (like Dwight Macdonald at Yale) began several lifelong literary friendships, notably with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the poet John Peale Bishop.

During World War I, Wilson served as a hospital orderly in France. Afterwards he freelanced for Vanity Fair and The Dial, and in 1925 he became literary editor of the New Republic until 1931, then traveled around Depression-era America as a correspondent. (His reporting is available in a marvelous collection, The American Earthquake.) In 1935 he spent some months in the Soviet Union, about which he was ambivalent. The second half of the decade he researched and wrote To the Finland Station, his brilliantly idiosyncratic history of revolutionary socialism. In 1940 he rejoined the New Republic, though not for long. Like Randolph Bourne before him and others more recently, Wilson fell afoul of that magazine's recurring enthusiasm for American military intervention.

In 1944 he began writing regularly for the New Yorker, where most of his subsequent work first appeared, except for Memoirs of Hecate County, a collection of stories and novellas, and Patriotic Gore, a study of American writing around the time of the Civil War. Besides literary criticism, Wilson produced a great deal of travel writing (much of it, as Lewis Dabney notes, "verging on cultural anthropology") about Europe, Russia, Israel, the Caribbean, and the American Southwest, as well as a widely read and admired book about the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was present at the creation of the New York Review of Books and first proposed The Library of America.

Wilson's love life was as busy as his writing life. He was married four times, most spectacularly to Mary McCarthy, and had (or attempted) romantic liaisons with Edna St. Vincent Millay, Louise Bogan, Anais Nin, Mamaine Koestler, and other celebrated women, most of whom remained good friends, as did Dawn Powell and Janet Flanner, who escaped his amorous attentions but keenly appreciated his encouragement and help with their careers.

T. S. Eliot wrote that in literary criticism, "the only method is to be very intelligent." This was Wilson's method. He made use of Marx and Freud, but pragmatically, as though their importance was not as system-builders or scientific innovators but as astute fellow-critics who had extended our limited perennial understanding of economic and psychological motives. These new approaches took their place in the critic's traditional repertoire alongside the biographical, formal, impressionistic, and others; and the choice of approach was dictated by the individual character of the work or author. The notion of literature as a body of evidence, a corpus over which to fit a conceptual grid, rather than a field for judgments about artistic merit, would have seemed to him perverse - a queer idea of theory.

His characteristic approach was biographical, comparative, historical. In "The Literary Worker's Polonius," a witty and trenchant "brief guide for authors and editors," he is apparently describing himself when he writes:

"... a reviewer should be more or less familiar, or be ready to familiarize himself, with the past work of every important writer he deals with and be able to write about an author's new book in the light of his general development and intention. He should also be able to see the author in relation to the national literature as a whole and the national literature in relation to other literatures."

"But this," he adds dryly, "means a great deal of work." Wilson was famously indefatigable, vacuuming up new authors and even languages at a rate apparently unimpaired by his sexual and alcoholic indulgences. Mary McCarthy related wonderingly to one of his biographers that "after drinking in his study late into the night, he emerged 'in his snowy-white BVDs in the morning,' freshly bathed and ready to go back to work."

Where energy and the large view were requisite, Wilson was unfailing. Correcting Irving Babbitt about Sophocles, estimating the relative merits of English comic writers from W.S. Gilbert to Kingsley Amis, paying a well-informed tribute to Houdini (Wilson was an amateur magician), comparing Poe's reception in Europe and America - each of these (and perhaps a hundred and fifty others from The Shores of Light and Classics and Commercials), compact but spacious, authoritative but not bullying, was a week's work (two at most) during the crowded decades these volumes cover.

Wilson was rarely starchy and sometimes quite funny, as in "The Delegate from Great Neck," an imaginary dialogue between Scott Fitzgerald and Van Wyck Brooks; "A Letter to Elinor Wylie," signed "Sam. Johnson" and perfectly pitched in the Doctor's epistolary style; and his dead-on parody in Axel's Castle of Eliot's hyper-magisterial critical prose:

"We find this quality occasionally in Wordsworth," Eliot will write, "but it is a quality which Wordsworth shares with Shenstone rather than with Collins and Gray. And for the right sort of enjoyment of Shenstone, we must read his prose as well as his verse. The 'Essays on Men and Manners' are in the tradition of the great French aphorists of the seventeenth century, and should be read with the full sense of their relation to Vauvenargues, La Rochefoucauld, and (with his wider range) La Bruyère. We shall do well to read enough of Theophrastus to understand the kind of effect at which La Bruyère aimed. (Professor Somebody-or-other's book on 'Theophrastus and the Peripatetics' gives us the clew to the intellectual atmosphere in which Theophrastus wrote and enables us to gauge the influences on his work - very different from each other - of Plato and Aristotle." At this rate ... we should have to read the whole of literature to appreciate a single book, and Eliot fails to supply us with a reason why we should go to the trouble of doing so."

Of course Wilson revered Eliot, and in the same essay he praised Eliot's criticism, though in terms that throw light on their differences. Eliot "has undertaken a kind of scientific study of aesthetic values: ... he compares works of literature coolly and tries to distinguish between different orders of artistic effects and the different degrees of satisfaction to be derived from them." In spite of his "occasional dogmatism" and the "meagerness of his production," Eliot "has become for his generation a leader ... because his career has been a progress, because he has evidently been on his way somewhere," unlike "many of his contemporaries, more prolific and equally gifted."

Unlike, for example, Wilson. "On his way somewhere" meant that Eliot had a critical program, a large view of how all of literature fit together; that he aimed to work out and propagate a comprehensive philosophy of culture. Wilson's aims were nearly always more modest: to describe, to compare, to assess. It's not that he lacked philosophical interests; but he was satisfied with the Enlightenment, with science, with the main current of secular modernity, as Eliot was not. Wilson was a temperamental pragmatist and positivist, comfortable enough in his own philosophical skin to be able to muster at least an undoctrinaire sympathy, if not always much enthusiasm, for romantic and metaphysical heterodoxies.

Besides, he was, he insisted, just a journalist, whose beat was literature (with frequent excursions into politics, popular culture, and travel). He wrote to inform and edify contemporary readers and encourage (or, when necessary, discourage) contemporary writers, rather than, like Eliot, sub specie aeternitatis, or like Auden, to find out what he thought.

The closest Wilson came to a critical manifesto was "The Historical Interpretation of Literature" in The Triple Thinkers. There he distances himself respectfully not only from Eliot's unhistorical aestheticism and from the impressionism of Edwardians like George Saintsbury ("his attitude toward literature was that of the connoisseur: he tastes the authors and tells you about the vintage; he distinguishes the qualities of the various wines") but also from the sociological, Marxist, and Freudian approaches ("The problems of comparative artistic value still remain after we have given attention to the Freudian psychological factor just as they do after we have given attention to the Marxist economic factor and to the racial and geographical factors").

Wilson was not one to shrink from confronting an implied question, however daunting. "And now how, in these matters of literary art, do we tell the good art from the bad?" Among the things named at one time or another as the defining characteristic of art are "unity, symmetry, universality, originality, vision, inspiration, strangeness, suggestiveness, improving morality, socialist realism." All plausible enough, as a first approximation; but how is it possible to judge objectively of these qualities, and why are their effects so valuable?
Wilson answers these questions very much as William James would have. Art, like all other intellectual activity,

"is an attempt to give a meaning to our experience - that is, to make life more practicable ... The writer who is to be anything more than an echo of his predecessors must always find expression for something which has never yet been expressed, must master a new set of phenomena which has never yet been mastered. With each such victory of the human intellect, whether in history, in philosophy, or in poetry, we experience a deep satisfaction: we have been cured of some ache of disorder, relieved of some oppressive burden of uncomprehended events. ... This relief that brings the sense of power, and, with the sense of power, joy, is the positive emotion which tells us that we have encountered a first-rate piece of literature."

But this is a subjective reaction; what about objective judgment? Not everyone will feel the same "ache," the same "joy"; and "crude and limited people [will] feel some such emotion in connection with work that is limited and crude." True, but "the man who is more highly organized and has a wider intellectual range will feel it in connection with work that is wider and more complex." And if you ask,

"how can we identify this elite who know what they are talking about? Well, it can only be said of them that they are self-appointed and self-perpetuating, and that they will compel you to accept their authority. Impostors may try to put themselves over, but these quacks will not last. The implied position of the people who know about literature (as is also the case in every other art) is simply that they know what they know, and that they are determined to impose their opinions by main force of eloquence and assertion on the people who do not know."

The pragmatist's answer is the same for art as for science and philosophy: truth is enduring consensus. That is all we know on earth, and all we need to know.

This conclusion - that all criticism is practical criticism - is persuasive, to me at least. And how good a critic, practically speaking, was Wilson? James Wood's brilliant essay on Wilson (New Republic, 9/22/05), tactful but unsparing, is the best assessment. With all respect for Wilson's "glinting, pugnacious clarity," his "comprehensive and solitary scholarship," and his "beautifully restrained and classically elegant expository prose," Wood nevertheless finds that he is "sometimes, in the major essays, disappointing as a literary critic." The meaning, background, and comparative worth of works and authors are reliably propounded, but "it is hard to find any sustained analysis of deep literary beauty" - the kind of analysis Wood excels at - "in his work."

"Wilson's literary criticism, with its introductory relish, its recourse to biographical speculation, and its swerve away from aesthetic questions, now looks more journalistic than it once did. Pritchett seems to me to have had a more literary sensibility and a more natural understanding of how fiction works its effects; Empson explains poetry with a far richer respect for ambiguity; Trilling imbricates ideas and aesthetics with greater skill; and Jarrell accounts for beauty with more devoted vivacity."

It is a fair enough judgment, even if it only means that Wilson didn't do everything equally well.

One thing he did extremely well was make political judgments. This is not, however, the conventional view. His political books are widely praised for their literary qualities. Everyone acknowledges Wilson's superb Depression-era reporting in The American Jitters, his incomparable dramatization of intellectual history in To the Finland Station, and his far-ranging scholarship in Patriotic Gore. But everyone, it seems, has an unkind word for his political views, or what they take to be his views.

The principal charge is that Wilson idealized Lenin in To the Finland Station. James Wood refers to Wilson's "willful romanticizing of Lenin ... who is seen as the gentlest and most selfless of men." David Remnick too refers to Wilson's "romanticized portrait of Lenin" and complains that "to turn Lenin into an author, and to see him almost solely as an author or artist instead of an architect of power, with incredible talent for grasping that power, is a great problem and a self-deception." Paul Berman finds an "enormous enthusiasm for Lenin" and claims that, in Wilson's view, "the reason that Russia had indeed turned out quite badly ... was the mystical element in Marx. It was not because of Lenin - Lenin was the good guy, Marx the bad guy." Louis Menand concurs, seeing a "lack of enthusiasm for Marx" and "enthusiasm for Lenin."

This consensus will probably endure, alas. But I found, along with a vivid portrait of Lenin's many genuinely remarkable personal qualities (and flaws), plenty of lack of enthusiasm for Lenin as a political leader in To the Finland Station and no failure to notice Lenin's disastrous "grasping" for power. "Marxism at the End of the Thirties," originally the last chapter of Finland Station but later moved to The Shores of Light, contains these two forthright condemnations of Lenin's politics:

"The takeover by the state of the means of production and the dictatorship in the interests of the proletariat can by themselves never guarantee the happiness of anybody but the dictators themselves. Marx and Engels, coming out of authoritarian Germany, tended to imagine socialism in authoritarian terms; and Lenin and Trotsky after them, forced as they were to make a beginning among a people who had known nothing but autocracy, also emphasized this side of socialism and founded a dictatorship which perpetuated itself as an autocracy."

And again:

"Lenin's ultimate aims were of course humanitarian, democratic, and anti-bureaucratic; but the logic of the situation was too strong for Lenin's aims. His trained band of revolutionists, the Party, turned into a tyrannical machine which perpetuated, as heads of a government, the intolerance, the deviousness, the secrecy, the ruthlessness with political dissidents, which they had had to learn as hunted outlaws. Instead of getting a classless society out of the old illiterate feudal Russia, they encouraged the rise and the domination of a new controlling and privileged class, who were soon exploiting the workers almost as callously as the Tsarist industrialists had done, and subjecting them to an espionage that was probably worse than anything under the Tsar."

When Trotsky, jeering at Martov, coins the phrase "the dustbin of history," Wilson rejoins that Martov was right after all:

"Today ... his croakings over the course [the Bolsheviks] had adopted seem to us full of far-sighted intelligence. He pointed out that proclaiming a socialist regime in conditions different from those contemplated by Marx would not realize the results that Marx expected; that Marx and Engels had usually described the dictatorship of the proletariat as having the form, for the new dominant class, of a democratic republic, with universal suffrage and the popular recall of officials; that the slogan "All power to the Soviets" had never really meant what it said and that it had soon been exchanged by Lenin for "All power to the Bolshevik Party." There sometimes turn out to be valuable objects cast away in the dustbin of history."

And in the chapter on "Lenin at the Finland Station," Wilson gives the last word to the anti-Bolshevik revolutionary Bogdanov, who, revolted by Lenin's authoritarian declarations, "furiously scolded the audience: 'You ought to be ashamed to applaud this nonsense - you cover yourselves with shame! And you call yourselves Marxists!'"

It seems to me that, notwithstanding his later self-criticism about To the Finland Station, Wilson was as clear-sighted about the evils of Leninism as his critics.

The other usual occasion for condescending to Wilson is his Introduction to Patriotic Gore, with its rejection of belligerent nationalism, which prompted Hilton Kramer to sniff that Wilson "was not really a political thinker" (unlike, say, Norman Podhoretz). True, Wilson oversimplifies a little in the Introduction:

"In a recent Walt Disney film showing life at the bottom of the sea, a primitive organism called a sea slug is seen gobbling up smaller organisms through a large orifice at one end of its body; confronted with another sea slug of an only slightly lesser size, it ingurgitates that, too. Now, the wars fought by human beings are stimulated as a rule primarily by the same instincts as the voracity of the sea slug. ... The difference in this respect between man and other forms of life is that man has succeeded in cultivating enough of what he calls "morality" and "reason" to justify what he is doing in terms of what he calls "virtue" and "civilization." Hence the self-assertive sounds he utters when he is fighting and swallowing others: the songs about glory and God, the speeches about national ideals, the demonstrations of logical ideologies. ... This prevents us from recognizing today, in our relation to our cold-war opponent, that our panicky pugnacity as we challenge him is not virtue but at bottom the irrational instinct of an active power organism in the presence of another such organism, of a sea slug of vigorous voracity in the presence of another such sea slug."

This requires a slight qualification. The aim of American foreign policy is not to "ingurgitate" (i.e., conquer and occupy) other countries but to drain their vital fluids (i.e., to insure unrestricted inflow of American goods and investments and outflow of profits). Once this small correction is made, Wilson's view is far superior to the views of his critics, who upbraid him for insufficient appreciation of American virtue or of Niebuhrian tragic irony. (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., an admirer of Niebuhr, also opined that Wilson "wasn't really a man of politics." But Wilson's great, and still relevant, 1931 essay "An Appeal to Progressives" - included in The Shores of Light - is a more useful contribution to American politics than all of Schlesinger's loyal service in the corridors of the White House and at the dinner tables of Manhattan and Georgetown.)

Will there be another Wilson? Not for a while, certainly. There's too much to master and too many electronic distractions. Reading Greek and Latin for pleasure is practically unheard of. The very ideal of cultural authority is, rightly or wrongly, suspect. Most important, the freelance life is less and less possible in an economically rationalized, hyper-managerial society. Investors want twenty percent returns; we know what that means for literary journalism. Tenure committees are not impressed by "comprehensive and solitary," idiosyncratic scholarship of Wilson's sort. And where can a freelancer live? Even Hackensack will soon be gentrified. On the Web? Yes, but one wants, if not to be at the center of things, at least to know where it is. Or that it is.

Oh well, let's hope that, even in a decentered world, Wilson's temperament and critical method - curious, energetic, humane, and, of course, very intelligent - will keep their appeal:.


George Scialabba's second collection, What Are Intellectuals Good For?, will be published this spring by Pressed Wafer.


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