Sunday, July 24, 2011


Leon Wieseltier at The New Republic is the rare prophet with subtlety, arguing with great ingenuity but always in opposition, whether to thoughtlessness, smug certitude, or superficial sociability. He is the rare intellectual insider who dares to be deeply and skeptically unfashionable; as such, he steers a tight course between the curmudgeonly, the lugubrious, and the devastating.

In his most recent piece (not available online except to TNR subscribers), he uses the metaphor of birds that sing at night (because they can't get a tune in edgewise in the growing cacophony of the urban day) to lament his growing disconnection with the insulted and humiliated of the world:

"Not long ago I surprised myself with the embarrassing thought that I no longer know any lonely people...But I am cut off from the ones who are cut off, from the disconnected and the un-networked (our technology of communications is supposed to have made such marginalizations obsolete, but I do not believe it: our culture is filling up with evidence of the lonely digital crowd), the ones who lead lives of radical solitariness, of aloneness without appeal, with no bonds to console them and no prospects to divert them, who struggle for stimulation and expression, whose beds are deserts, whose phones almost never ring, who march through their difficulties without any expectation of serendipity or transcendence. Their absence from my experience makes me feel disgracefully narrow."

This is a brave admission, and an acknowledgement by Wieseltier that he is, despite himself, one of the elite. But as one who gets to know many such people (as many physicians and most social workers do), I see a risk in extolling the lives of the disaffected and alienated. There seems to be romanticizing here, as of the overlooked poet scribbling in his garret, the anchorite glorying in his desert cave, or the oppressed dissident in the labor camp. Wieseltier seems to be claiming the inherent dignity of suffering, and while there is that, does this mean we should be any less assiduous in our struggle to alleviate distress? Suffering has the potential to lead to wisdom, but arguably in actuality it most commonly does not.

The prophet (whether secular or religious) is always positioned somewhere between the eccentric and the crank. The eccentric lingers "away from the center" of human experience, but can still engage in dialogue with a significant part of his fellows, whereas the crank has been cut off, as when a man goes into the desert for transcendence but never makes it back to relate the tale.

1 comment:

The Alienist said...

Your post reminded me of a statement by C.S. Lewis. Gave the example of being in a small, dark room with light shining through a hole in the wall. How you experience the light depends on whether you are IN the light looking back along its path or whether you are standing OUTSIDE the light looking at the beam itself. Both views are valid but very different.

To extoll eccentricity as a virtue in itself makes little sense. But valuing eccentricity for its ability to provide an interesting and useful new point of view does.