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February 27, 2004

TT: Clubbability

Paul Johnson, who wrote the introduction to the newly published Norman Podhoretz Reader, contrasts the intellectual and political styles of England and America. Apropos of Ex-Friends, the memoir in which Podhoretz tells how he and such folk as Allen Ginsberg, Lillian Hellman, and Norman Mailer parted company over political matters, Johnson writes:

We do things differently in England. We try not to let ideological disagreements disturb our social life or the ecumenical serenity of our clubs. Politics, let alone ideas, are not that important....We think people should come before ideas: it is our strength, as well (some would say) as our weakness.

I don't know whether English intellectuals are really like that nowadays, but it certainly seems as if they were once upon a time, and I think Johnson is right to declare this tendency (however ambiguously) to be at once a strength and a possible weakness. For my own part, I've never broken with a friend over his personal beliefs, so long as he doesn't become a monomaniac about them--but as any good statistician would immediately point out, that may say more about my friend-making practices than my friend-keeping practices. I don't enjoy the company of humorless people, and the absence of a sense of humor tends to go hand in hand with belief-related monomania. Hence I don't tend to seek out the kinds of people with whom I later might find myself inclined, even obliged, to break.

Not long after 9/11, I wrote an essay about overly earnest artists:

Alas, they have always been with us, especially in wartime and most especially in America, far too many of whose well-meaning citizens are allergic to the exhilarating fizz of high art with a light touch. It seems not to occur to them that life is such an indissoluble mixture of heartbreak and absurdity that it might be more truly portrayed through the refracting lens of comedy. Instead, they prefer what Lord Byron, who knew a thing or two about both life and art, would have crisply dismissed as "sermons and soda-water."...

Of course there is a parallel case to be made for earnestness: surely it is people like Isadora Duncan who make the world go round. But who would want to go along for the ride if they also made all the art? Henry James, that wittiest of serious men, underlined the point in an 1893 letter to his friend Edmund Gosse. The occasion was the publication of "A Problem in Modern Ethics," John Addington Symonds' agonizingly earnest pamphlet calling for a change in public attitudes toward homosexuality. "I think," said James, "one ought to wish him more humour--it is really the saving salt. But the great reformers never have it." No, they don't, but the greatest artists do, and never more than when falling skyscrapers threaten to make us lose sight of the crooked shape of man, absurd and preposterous and--yes--beautiful.

I still stand by those words, but I invite you to note that James--and I--were careful to distinguish between artists and reformers. Reformers, like saints, can be awfully awkward people. Their singlemindedness is no small part of what makes them effective, as well as uncomfortable to be with. I've known a few, but I've never tried to get close to them. No matter how friendly they may seem, I always get the feeling that they'd be perfectly happy to have me guillotined if they thought it necessary.

But, then, artists also incline to ruthlessness, don't they? As William Faulkner once observed, "If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies." This is not, thank God, a universal rule. Most of my friends are artists, and most of them seem disinclined to rob their mothers. But most of the great artists I've known--and it's a short list--have done things in the service of their art at one time or another (though never to me) that were so selfish as to make my hair stand up.

Again, the statistician in me speaks up: how big is my sample? And the answer is: not very. I've read enough biographies to know that some great artists are nice, others nasty. I haven't known many great reformers, or any saints at all. And as for what Paul Johnson calls "ecumenical serenity," I like getting along with people--though I wouldn't pay any price for it. But the truth is that my inclination to companionability has never been put to anything like a severe test. I have good friends whose views I think silly, but none who seem to me downright evil (and I believe in the existence of evil). I sometimes wonder what I'd do if I were to learn that a friend of mine had committed a cold-blooded murder. I like to think that I wouldn't have befriended such a person in the first place, and that's probably true--but human nature is complicated enough that I can't say so with certainty.

All I can say for sure is that I've never been intimate with anyone lacking a sense of humor, or truly loved a work of art by a humorless artist. That might just be the most revealing thing about me.

Posted February 27, 2004 12:00 PM

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