An Appraisal : Amos Oz, a Writer Who Loved the Dream of Israel and Charted Its Imperfect Reality


December 28, 2018

By Gal Beckerman

 

Israel, born out of a dream, a yearning, and then forced to face, for better or worse, what reality brings, found in Amos Oz a writer who combined both the country’s essential idealism and the ability to see the cracked nature of what had been wrought.

Mr. Oz, who died on Friday at the age of 79, was Israel’s most significant cultural ambassador for nearly 50 years, perennially mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But what he most proudly championed was modern Hebrew itself, the form of the language that Zionism revived. Mr. Oz never stopped professing an enduring love for its mongrel qualities. He thrilled at the chance to work in a tongue that had deep biblical references embedded in the root of nearly every word, but that also borrowed heavily from Yiddish, Russian, English and Arabic.

This new-old language was the perfect vehicle for the role Mr. Oz came to embody, a sort of sociologist and psychologist of the Israeli soul. “I bring up the evil spirits and record the traumas, the fantasies, the lunacies of Israeli Jews, natives and those from Central Europe,” Mr. Oz said in a 1978 interview with The Times. “I deal with their ambitions and the powderbox of self-denial and self-hatred.”

His biography suited him well for this job — he was in many ways the quintessential new Jew that Zionism had hoped to create. As a teenager, he left Jerusalem on his own, changed his last name from Klausner to Oz, which means courage in Hebrew, and moved to a kibbutz, one of the socialist farming communities where Israelis lived out their truest fantasies of cultivating themselves and the land to become robust and hearty.

Inspired by “Winesburg, Ohio,” Sherwood Anderson’s collection of realist stories about small-town life, Mr. Oz began writing in his twenties about the characters he saw around him in his kibbutz. Those stories eventually made up his first collection, “Where the Jackals Howl,” published in 1965. Anderson, he would later say, “showed me that the real world is everywhere, even in a small kibbutz. I discovered that all the secrets are the same — love, hatred, fear, loneliness — all the great and simple things of life and literature.”

As a writer, Mr. Oz kept returning to the rural, communal life of the kibbutz in a spare, modernist style that focused on the complexities of interpersonal relations, from his 1973 novel, “Elsewhere, Perhaps,” to his 2013 story collection, “Between Friends.”

But his breakthrough, both in Israel and internationally, was a far more psychological work, “My Michael,” a 1972 novel, his first book to be translated into English. It is told from the perspective of Hannah Gonen, a young woman misunderstood by, and alienated from, her husband. Mr. Oz follows her sexual obsessions, which seem to emerge from a need to be seen — creating a sort of “Madame Bovary” set against the backdrop of white Jerusalem stone. Hannah describes one moment early in her relationship with Michael, her then-boyfriend, when he unbuttoned his coat and drew her inside it to the warmth of his body: “He felt very real. So did I. I was not a figment of his thoughts, he was not a fear inside me.”

Mr. Oz’s masterpiece is his 2004 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” It was unlike anything he had ever written, telling the story of his own coming of age in Jerusalem with precision and brutal honesty. He captured the mystical air of the city, how it was transformed with the birth of the state, his own bookish youth and his mother’s depression, which led to her suicide when Mr. Oz was 12. In the memoir, he remembers his mother telling him: “I think you will grow up to be a sort of prattling puppy dog like your father, and you’ll also be a man who is quiet and full and closed like a well in a village that has been abandoned by all its inhabitants. Like me.”

It’s an extraordinary book that will endure as one of the greatest works in modern Hebrew. In many ways, through this memoir, Mr. Oz perfected what he had tried to do again and again in his fiction — to capture the coming together of the personal and the political, with neither of the two elements suffering from the collision.

Mr. Oz’s politics defined him to the international audience he often dazzled with his metaphors to explain the conflict (“the only solution is turning the house into two smaller apartments”; “I would say that the patient, Israeli and Palestinian, is unhappily ready for surgery, while the doctors are cowards”). He became a critic of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza following the Six-Day War, and was a mainstay of the left who insistently argued, in essays and opinion pieces and speeches, that the only solution to the conflict with the Palestinians was to create two states for two peoples.

Given how he envisioned the future of his country, his voice became an increasingly marginalized one in Israel in recent years, even as his stature continued to grow around the world. The native-born, kibbutz-influenced, adamantly secular, left-leaning Israelis of European descent who dominated Israel throughout much of Mr. Oz’s life have had to make way for Sephardic and Russian Jews, and the Orthodox, putting Mr. Oz increasingly in the position of an aging lefty, a prophet with fewer people willing to listen to him in his own country.

In his last novel, “Judas,” shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, he explored, by revisiting the story of the New Testament traitor, what exactly it means to be out of step with your own society. “Anyone willing to change will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change and are scared to death of change and don’t understand it and loathe change,” he told me when I interviewed him in 2016. He felt himself a man possessed of moral clarity but denigrated for it in a country that could not make the difficult decisions he thought were necessary.

For all his frustrations with Israeli society and its direction, he was always an optimist, a man who had gone all in on the Zionist experiment and saw no reason to believe that perfection was ever on offer.

In his final essay collection, “Dear Zealots,” published at the end of last year, he wrote that he was, “afraid of the fanaticism and the violence, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in Israel, and I am also ashamed of them.” But this didn’t get in the way of his love of Israel. “I like being Israeli. I like being a citizen of a country where there are eight and a half million prime ministers, eight and a half million prophets, eight and a half million messiahs. Each of us has our own personal formula for redemption, or at least for a solution. Everyone shouts, and few listen. It’s never boring here.”

A version of this article appears in print on of the New York edition with the headline: Writer Who Grasped Depths of the Israeli Soul. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

 

A New Biography Presents Gandhi, Warts and All


October 15, 2018

By Alex von Tunzelmann

GANDHI
The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948
By Ramachandra Guha
Illustrated. 1,083 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $40.

“The number of books that people write on this old man takes my breath away,” complained the politician B. R. Ambedkar of the proliferation of Gandhiana. That was in 1946.

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Ramachandra Guha  (pic above) must have smiled when he quoted that line in his new book, the second — and final — volume of his biography of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Few figures in history have been so extensively chronicled, including by himself (Gandhi’s own published collected works run to 100 volumes and over 50,000 pages). The really surprising thing is that there is still so much to say.

“Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948,” encompassing both world wars and the struggle for Indian independence, is a portrait of a complex man whose remarkable tenacity remained constant, even when his beliefs changed. It is also extraordinarily intimate. Gandhi drew no distinction between his private and public life. He made his own body a symbol, mortifying it through fasting or marching for political and spiritual change. He even went public with his sexual life — and the negation of it through brahmacharya, or chastity.

It is difficult to write about a man who was a revered spiritual leader as well as a keen political operator. Guha, the author of “India After Gandhi” and “Gandhi Before India” (the first volume of the monumental biography that this book concludes), approaches Gandhi on his own terms while trying not to gloss over his flaws. Perhaps inevitably, with one who has been regarded almost as a saint, it is the flaws that will capture many readers’ attention. A key theme that emerges is Gandhi’s effort to control himself and those around him. This extended from his own family to his political allies and opponents.

 

The most compelling political relationship Guha reveals is the antagonism between Gandhi and the aforementioned B. R. Ambedkar, the pre-eminent politician of outcaste Hindus then known as “untouchables” and now as dalits. Guha’s book charts the two men’s interactions over decades, along with Gandhi’s own changing views on caste.

Even while he still saw some value in the caste system, Gandhi opposed untouchability. Guha is at pains to refute Arundhati Roy’s dismissal of Gandhi as a reactionary on caste. He details Gandhi’s exhaustive campaigns to allow untouchables into temples, and his many attempts to persuade other Hindus of his caste to accept them. Certainly, Gandhi did much brave and important work. Yet he still characterized untouchables as “helpless men and women” who required a savior — namely, him. As Guha says, Gandhi’s rhetoric “sounded patronizing, robbing ‘untouchables’ of agency, of being able to articulate their own demands and grievances.”

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Gandhi fought Ambedkar over establishing separate electorates for untouchables, arguing that these would “vivisect” Hinduism. “I want political power for my community,” Ambedkar explained. “That is indispensable for our survival.” Gandhi’s reply, as quoted by Guha, was that “you are born an untouchable but I am an untouchable by adoption. And as a new convert I feel more for the welfare of the community than those who are already there.” Gandhi cared passionately about untouchability: He repeatedly emphasized his willingness to die if that was what it took to end it. What he could not seem to do was let untouchables themselves take the lead.

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Some of the most interesting parts of this book concern another group Gandhi sought to instruct: women. Two sections in particular are likely to raise eyebrows. The first is Guha’s account of Gandhi’s relationship with the writer and singer Saraladevi Chaudhurani in 1919-20. Gandhi was, by then, celibate; both he and Sarala were married to other people. Yet their letters speak openly of desire — “You still continue to haunt me even in my sleep,” he wrote to her — and he told friends, “I call her my spiritual wife.” He signed his letters to her Law Giver, which, as Guha observes, was “a self-regarding appellation that reveals his desire to have Sarala conform to his ways.” Gandhi’s friends appear to have talked him out of making this “spiritual marriage” public. Eventually he distanced himself, confessing that he did not have the “infinitely higher purity” in practice “that I possess in thought” to maintain a “marriage” that was perfectly spiritual.

The secon section that will provoke controversy tackles an even more sensitive subject: Gandhi’s notorious brahmacharya experiments, beginning in 1946. When Gandhi was involved with Sarala, he was 50 and she was 47, a mature woman exercising her own free will. Nearly three decades later, when he was 77, he made the decision to “test” his vow of chastity by sleeping in a bed with his teenage grandniece, Manu Gandhi.

Manu was vulnerable. She had lost her mother at a young age and had been taken in by Gandhi and his wife (who was deceased by the time the “experiments” started). Manu grew up in an ashram in which everyone was devoted to her great-uncle. She wrote a diary mentioning the “experiments” that Guha quotes, though it is a compromised source: Gandhi read it as Manu wrote it and his own writing appears in the margins.

Guha has found a letter written by Horace Alexander, a close friend of Gandhi’s. Alexander said that Gandhi told him Manu wanted to test her own vow of chastity. Guha suggests that this puts a new light on the “experiments,” and that Manu may have become involved partly to deter another man who was pursuing her romantically: “There may have been, as it were, two sides to the story. Both Gandhi and Manu may have wanted to go through this experiment, or ordeal. To be sure, there was a certain amount of imposition — from his side.”

That caveat is important, for, as Guha allows, there was an enormous power differential between Gandhi and Manu. It is not clear that the letter from Alexander changes how we view the “experiments”: He spoke only to Gandhi, not Manu. In the wake of #MeToo, we know that the powerful may delude themselves about the willingness of those they manipulate, and that their less powerful victims may go along with things they do not want because they are overwhelmed by the status of their abuser.

Lest anyone think this applies modern standards to a historical event, Guha provides extensive evidence of the horrified reaction of many of Gandhi’s friends and followers at the time. Most were appalled that a young woman should be used as an instrument in an “experiment,” and some of his political allies, like Vallabhbhai Patel, feared it would become a scandal. At least one, the stenographer R. P. Parasuram, left Gandhi’s entourage when Gandhi refused to stop sharing a bed with Manu.

Guha does as much as any reasonable biographer could to explain the “experiments” with reference to Gandhi’s 40-year obsession with celibacy. Ultimately, though, the reader is left feeling that Gandhi’s own defenses of his behavior are riddled with self-justification, and Manu’s voice may never truly be heard.

Gandhi posed a huge challenge to his world in his time, and still does. Guha’s admiration for his subject is clear throughout this book. He tries to explain controversial aspects of Gandhi’s life by contextualizing them within Gandhi’s own thinking. Some of Gandhi’s fiercer critics may feel this is soft-pedaling, but it does help build a fair, thorough and nuanced portrait of the man. Gandhi spoke for himself more than most people in history, but even the most controlling people cannot control how history sees them. Guha lets Gandhi appear on his own terms, and allows him to reveal himself in all his contradictions.

There is much truth in a verse Guha quotes, written by Gandhi’s secretary, Mahadev Desai:

To live with the saints in heaven
Is a bliss and a glory
But to live with a saint on earth
Is a different story.

Alex von Tunzelmann is the author of “Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire.”

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 15 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Gandhi, Private and Public. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

On Princess Margaret–NY Times Book Review


July 25, 2018

On Princess Margaret–NY Times Book Review

  • Margaret of The House of Windor–Din Merican’s Special Princess

The past, Julian Barnes once wrote, has a way of behaving like a piglet, greased up and let loose in a room. It makes a lot of noise. People make fools of themselves trying to capture it. Invariably, it slips away.

This is the very business of biography — “the most sheepish and constrained of the arts,” the English journalist and satirist Craig Brown writes in his new book, “Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.” However, his study of the Princess, the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth — and one of the 20th century’s great malcontents — is gloriously truant. Brown ignores all the starchy obligations of biography and adopts a form of his own to trap the past and ensnare the reader — even this reader, so determinedly indifferent to the royals. I ripped through the book with the avidity of Margaret attacking her morning vodka and orange juice.

Brown’s technique owes much to the experimental French writer Raymond Queneau and to Barnes’s “Flaubert’s Parrot.” He swoops at his subject from unexpected angles — it’s a Cubist portrait of the lady. One chapter tells Margaret’s story solely through the public notices that announced her birth in 1930, divorce in 1978 and death in 2002. Another enumerates her most famous rebukes. There is a list of possessions auctioned after her death — her pillboxes and playing cards, two silver-mounted ivory lemon-squeezers. One section riffs on the phrases coined in the year of her birth: “bail out,” “feel up,” “sick-making.” “Each of these three has something Margaret-ish about it,” Brown writes, “as do crooner and eye shadow and the adjective luxury.”

 

As a subject, the princess proves to be something she never was in life: obliging. Beautiful, bad-tempered, scandal-prone, she makes for unfailingly good copy, and heaps of it. “Everyone seems to have met her at least once or twice, even those who did their best to avoid her,” Brown writes. “She shows up without warning, popping her head around the door of every other memoir, biography and diary written in the second half of the 20th century” — usually to insult her hostess or use someone’s hand as an ashtray.

Craig Brown

But, for a time, her charms were considerable. “Little hot looking pretty girl,” according to Ralph Ellison. Picasso desperately wanted to marry her. Peter Sellers would have settled for an affair. John Fowles publicly fantasized about abducting her and keeping her as a prisoner.

When the playwright Alan Bennett visited a friend, the television interviewer Russell Harty, on his deathbed, Harty requested the tracheotomy tube be removed. He just had to report that Margaret had inquired about his health — twice.

The princess could, her father said, “charm the pearl out of an oyster.” Her interests, however, ran more to sadistic parlor games (she makes an indelible appearance in Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels). She was aflame with snobbery and, as she grew older, addicted to bullying and one-upmanship. She would boast about her royal status to her children, and insist lovers address her as Your Royal Highness. When needing a rest, she was known to commandeer the Queen Mother’s wheelchair.

“Disobedience is my joy,” she supposedly told Jean Cocteau. But it was more than that; it was her identity. It was the opinion of Gore Vidal, one of her more loyal friends, that since the Queen was the source of national honor and duty, it fell to the princess to be the evil sister, the source of “creative malice.” (Of Vidal, the princess once said dryly: “The trouble with Gore is that he wants my sister’s job.”)

 

 

 

But, as Brown reveals, those cutting remarks and outrageous scenes were a form of bizarre achievement and autonomy in a life that was otherwise barren. Margaret had no education, no occupation, no formal role. From time to time she’d preside over, say, the opening of a pumping station. Her relationships were chilly. She communicated with her mother by letter even when they lived one floor apart. Her marriage was a disaster. After the scandal of her love affair with an older, divorced man (a key story strand in Netflix’s “The Crown”), she married Antony Armstrong-Jones, a photographer who evinced a talent for cruelty all his own. He liked to leave little notes for her tucked into the book on her bedside table that said simply, “I hate you.” Other than her two children (oddly absent from the narrative), her most memorable accomplishment was gluing matchboxes to tumblers so she could light cigarettes without interrupting her drinking.

The wisdom of the book, and the artistry, is in how Brown subtly expands his lens from Margaret’s misbehavior — sometimes campy, sometimes desperate — to those who gawked at her, who huddled around her, pens poised over their diaries, hoping for the show she never denied them. History isn’t written by the victors, he reminds us, it’s written by the writers, and this study becomes a scathing group portrait of a generation of carnivorous royal watchers. “We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them,” Hilary Mantel wrote in an essay on Kate Middleton. Without ever explicitly positioning Margaret for our pity, Brown reveals how we elevate in order to destroy. Who or what, in the final reckoning, is the true grotesque — the absurd, unhappy princess, those desperate to get close to her, or the system propping them all up?

Follow Parul Sehgal on Twitter: @parul_sehgal.

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Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret–A Ravishing Beauty. King George VI said she could “charm the pearl out of an oyster.”

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret
By Craig Brown
Illustrated. 423 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.

Farewell, Michiko Kakutani and Thank You!


August 1, 2017

Farewell, Michiko Kakutani and Thank You!

https://www.newyorker.com

Farewell, Michiko Kakutani! On Thursday, the Times’ chief daily book critic announced that she would be leaving her regular reviewing post after thirty-eight years at the paper, marking the end of a literary era. Her assessments of novels and memoirs, works of history, biography, politics, and poetry have guided generations of American readers, and the prospect of getting a Kakutani review has been the hope and fear of more writers than could possibly be counted—a seriously big deal, or ordeal, as the case might be. A good review brought on elation. “It was like having the good fairy touch you on the shoulder with her wand,” Mary Karr told NPR. A bad one incited rage, sometimes despair. Nicholson Baker compared getting a negative Kakutani review to undergoing surgery without anesthesia; Jonathan Franzen called her “the stupidest person in New York.” (She had deemed his memoir “an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass.”) What made her scary to writers made her reliable to readers: you couldn’t easily predict where her favor would fall.

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Thank You. Michiko, for your Book Reviews in  the New York Times. You will be sorely missed. –Din Merican

More so than any critic working today, Kakutani has become synonymous with her profession. Her name long ago entered the lexicon as a verb (“to be Kakutanied”), a signifier of the ultimate cultural prestige. On “Sex and the City,” Carrie Bradshaw declared herself “terrified” of getting the Michiko treatment. A generation later, Hannah Horvath, on “Girls,” just wanted to “lock eyes” with her across a room—not an easy feat, considering Kakutani’s reputation for guarding her privacy. She turns down interviews, never does panels, and is rarely photographed. A head shot of Joan Didion is still, mysteriously, the first picture to appear on a Google search for Kakutani. Her Twitter avatar is an egg, though not one of the old default cartoon ones, beloved of trolls, but, rather, an attractive, hard-boiled number, luxuriating against a sea-green pillow.

Who is Michiko Kakutani? What is she like? One minuscule clue came in the much-discussed interview that she conducted with Barack Obama in January, days before his second term came to an end. When the President referred to his teen-age years, and his adolescent preference for “imbibing things that weren’t very healthy,” Kakutani responded, “I think all of us did.” Michiko Kakutani imbibed unhealthy substances in high school! I thought, with weird excitement. That she had couched this confession in a universal statement, thus disclosing absolutely nothing about herself, only added to her mystique.

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She is careful to hide herself on the page, too. “I” is a word that you will never read in a Kakutani review. She had no interest in the first person as a critical device, and that avoidance of the personal pronoun is part of what could make her negative reviews feel so lacerating. When she wrote, for instance, that Don DeLillo’s novel “Cosmopolis” was “a major dud, as lugubrious and heavy-handed as a bad Wim Wenders film, as dated as an old issue of Interview magazine,” the burn was all the sicker from being simultaneously so specific and so remote. (Note how this statement is actually three insults squeezed into one; what did Wim Wenders do to get so brutally Kakutanied along with DeLillo?)

Certain observers resented Kakutani for resisting “I,” a preference that became more noticeable as the chatty, confessional informality of Internet writing started to change the tone of criticism in the early aughts. Ben Yagoda, writing in Slate, accused Kakutani of having no humor, no wit, and no voice of her own. (He was, to this critic’s mind, overly aggrieved by the goofy reviews that Kakutani sometimes wrote in character. It’s a gruelling business, trying to find fresh ways to write about other people’s writing, let alone trying to do it multiple times a week. Let a critic have some fun.) Yagoda implored Kakutani to retire the old-fashioned epithet “the reader,” which she preferred to the personal pronoun. Then there’s the argument that the critic should use the first person to lay all her cards on the table, owning up to the particular experiences that shaped the taste that she’s bringing to bear on someone else’s work. But self-exposure wasn’t Kakutani’s style. What a critic needs most is independence, the ability to evaluate a work on her, and its, own terms. Some people find their independence through the first person, stressing the subjective nature of the whole critical enterprise. Kakutani found it by screening herself with the privacy afforded by the third. If she loved your book, or if she hated it, it wasn’t personal. “The reader” might always change her mind—next time.

Kakutani had deeper concerns about the possible pitfalls of relying too much on the first person. Writing in 2006 about the fraudulent memoirist James Frey, whose partially fabricated account of his struggles with addiction came to be seen as a high point of narcissism during the era’s memoir craze, she connected Frey’s slippery personal revisionism to broader cultural trends eroding the value of objectivity and truth. It was surprising, to say the least, to find, in a piece about one guy’s lies, references to Holocaust historiography, Bill Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal, and the Bush White House’s manipulative cynicism regarding the invasion of Iraq. But Kakutani’s argument—that postmodernism and deconstruction had ushered in a view of the world in which “all meaning is relative, all truth elusive,” easily manipulated by people in power—proved perceptive and darkly prescient.

“We live in a relativistic culture where television ‘reality shows’ are staged or stage-managed, where spin sessions and spin doctors are an accepted part of politics,” she wrote. “This relativistic mindset compounds the public cynicism that has hardened in recent years, in the wake of corporate scandals, political corruption scandals and the selling of the war against Iraq on the discredited premise of weapons of mass destruction. And it creates a climate in which concepts like ‘credibility’ and ‘perception’ replace the old ideas of objective truth—a climate in which the efforts of nonfiction writers to be as truthful and accurate as possible give way to shrugs about percentage points of accountability.” Kakutani has said that she’ll take advantage of her retirement as a regular critic to write longer pieces about politics and culture, and that’s a good thing. For all the uproar that any given rave or take down of hers could incite, she kept her eye on the bigger picture.

Tom Friedman’s Message to Donald Trump


March 16, 2017

Tom Friedman’s Message to Donald Trump

OPINION–New York Times

by Thomas L. Friedman

Every president has an early foreign policy test, and Donald Trump is no exception. Trump’s test is actually already in progress, and it bears some resemblance to the one faced by a young President Kennedy. Indeed, Trump’s crisis has best been described as a “slow-motion Cuban missile crisis” — only the crisis-driver is not Fidel Castro, but North Korea’s bizarre despot, Kim Jong-un.

If this crisis is not keeping you up at night, you’re not paying attention.Let’s see, we have an untested, macho, Twitter-happy U.S. president facing off against the leader of a dynastic North Korean political cult who’s building a long-range nuclear missile that could hit Los Angeles and who — allegedly — just had his half brother, Kim Jong-nam, knocked off by two women who wiped his face with a lethal nerve agent while he was transiting a Malaysian airport….

READ ON:

 

‘Russell Kirk: American Conservative,’ by Bradley J. Birzer


January 28, 2016

NY Times Sunday Book Review

‘Russell Kirk: American Conservative,’ by Bradley J. Birzer

“I’m so happy to find that you’re little, too!” the political philosopher Leo Strauss said when he first met Russell Kirk in Chicago in the mid-1950s. “From your books, I had feared that you might be a great, tall, fierce man.” Kirk can still seem great and fierce.

It was his book “The Conservative Mind” (1953) that first used the word “conservative” to classify various currents of anti-progressive dissidence that ran from the French Revolution to the 20th-century heyday of social democracy. Kirk’s book was an event. After a recommendation from Whittaker Chambers, Time magazine devoted the entire book review section to it. And Kirk had other gifts. He was a capable writer of ghost and fantasy novels. He founded and edited two prestigious journals. Not just Strauss and Chambers but also T. S. Eliot and Ray Bradbury esteemed him. In 1955, Flannery O’Connor, scarcely able to walk, traveled 340 miles in hopes of seeing him lecture in ­Tennessee.

Yet, by the time he died in 1994 at the age of 75, Kirk did look little. His brand of conservatism had come under attack from some of the people it was meant to inspire, including “neoconservative” foreign policy hawks in Washington and Lincoln-revering disciples of Strauss on the West Coast.

In a diligent and adulatory study of Kirk’s life and thought, the Hillsdale College historian Bradley J. Birzer makes high claims for Kirk as both a man of letters and a philosopher, and makes plain why Kirk worked such a fascination on thinking Americans, even non­conservatives, half a century ago.

Kirk grew up in Plymouth, Mich., in a family that was bookish but poor. He was solitary and self-dramatizing, later even a bit of a dandy, affecting sword canes, capes, three-piece suits with watch fobs and fedoras. He wrote his first autobiography in his mid-30s and often referred to himself in the third person. (When his rival Frank Meyer won a foundation grant, Kirk wrote to William F. Buckley, “There is a concerted effort to denigrate Russell Amos Kirk.”) He sought out feuds with anyone he suspected of pragmatism, utilitarianism or logical positivism.

When the publication of “The Conservative Mind” made it possible for him to resign his junior faculty position at Michigan State, he cast his decision as a protest against the institution’s “progressive lowering of standards.”

The principles Kirk laid out in his books once passed for a generic description of conservatism. Today they look idiosyncratic. “The Conservative Mind” grew out of a doctoral thesis on the intellectual heirs of Edmund Burke that he wrote at St. Andrews in Scotland. Kirk was intellectually smitten with Burke, especially with his critical assessment of the French Revolution. He could paraphrase Burke with such subtlety that the reader can almost never tell where Burke leaves off and Kirk picks up.

“The individual is foolish, but the species is wise,” Kirk writes. “Prejudices and prescriptions and presumptions are the instruments which the wisdom of the species employs to safeguard man against his own passions and appetites.” Kirk stressed the religious roots of Burke’s thought, easily documented but until then of interest to relatively few scholars.

“The Conservative Mind” is Manichaean in its certitudes. It elicits passions and loyalties as a sport does. A conservative is one who plays on the Burkean “team,” fights for the same decencies Burke does and denounces the right opponents: the dastardly Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance, and Jeremy Bentham, promulgator of “utilitarian” theories that seek “the greatest good for the greatest number,” who is the book’s archfiend. Thus Kirk conscripts the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, a liberal Whig, into his conservative army, only because Macaulay wrote a rather atypical debunking of Bentham in his youth.

Kirk is preposterously Anglophilic. This disposition is justified by the influence of British thought on the conservative parts of America’s constitutional culture, but it quivers with something more literary and emotional, too. When Kirk writes of Britain’s tragic inability to defend “the rural parishes and tight little towns that had nourished English political stability, English literature and English charm,” one hears a note that runs through American literature after Henry James.

“The Conservative Mind” is the work of an American shocked by a first encounter with Europe, and thus with the relative shallowness of his own culture. Perhaps Kirk had a vocation for nostalgia: In his early 20s, he worked at Greenfield Village — Henry Ford’s “living history” theme park — where he did a variety of jobs, including playing the role of old-time preacher.

Kirk’s philosophical conservatism is nothing like the political doctrines that today bear that name: He backed the Socialist Norman Thomas for President in 1944, Barry Goldwater in 1964, Eugene McCarthy in 1976 and Pat Buchanan in 1992. He was not nationalistic. American nuclear strategy, the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II, the country’s treatment of American Indians and Middle East policy at the time of the first gulf war — these outraged him. Nor does Kirk extol entrepreneurship. He regrets that “Alexander Hamilton the financier, the party manager, the empire builder, fascinates those numerous Americans among whom the acquisitive instinct is confounded with the conservative tendency.” Kirk worried early on about “vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining.”

Because Kirk cut such an eccentric path through the Western intellectual tradition, it is no mean scholarly feat to discern an overarching project in his writing. At this Birzer succeeds admirably. He gives mini-biographies of those who influenced Kirk, including the Harvard French scholar Irving Babbitt, the Nation editor Paul Elmer More and (in rather too much detail) T. S. Eliot.

Birzer traces a favorite Kirkian-Burkean argument — that societies too rationally organized make easy prey for demagogues — to its origins in Plato’s “Republic.” He shows that the Stoicism Kirk professed in his youth is in profound philosophical harmony with the Catholicism he turned to in the 1960s and that Kirk was not the first intellectual to make the transition from one to the other. He believes Kirk suffered from his forays into politics and from his association with Buckley and National Review.

Birzer’s focus is more on Kirk’s thought than on his life. We do not find out why Kirk remained celibate until he married in his mid-40s or how he managed to spend whole summers in Scotland when he was so often strapped for cash. Like Kirk himself (who called Henry Adams “the zenith of American civilization,” Eric Voegelin “the most influential historian of our century” and Bradbury 20th-century America’s “best prose fiction” writer), Birzer is given to flinging around superlatives. He calls one of the characters in Kirk’s “Lord of the Hollow Dark” “not only a highlight of the novel but also a highlight of 20th-century literature.” He exaggerates Kirk’s importance in the past decades’ revival of interest in Burke and Tocqueville.

Birzer ascribes to Kirk a larger role than the facts warrant in the early stages of Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the 1964 Republican nomination, showing that Kirk wrote two speeches for him in 1962 but giving no account of any conversation the two ever had and citing no Goldwater letters that go beyond political boilerplate. Kirk is too often the book’s hero rather than its subject.

Birzer calls “The Conservative Mind” a “postmodern hagiography.” It is an apt description. Kirk’s mighty intelligence was, in retrospect, that of a curator or anthologist, not that of a creator. To say so is not to demean him. Kirk’s guiding principle was that when the subject is human nature, nothing is ever really created. Institutions, traditions and wisdom are either handed down or, if need be, rediscovered. This remains a deep and necessary insight. “Conservatism” is as good a name for it as any.

An earlier version of this review referred incorrectly to the aspect of America’s World War II internment of people of Japanese ancestry that particularly outraged Russell Kirk. It was the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry, not the internment of Japanese citizens. (Though many Japanese citizens were indeed interned, a majority of the internees were American citizens.)

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

A version of this review appears in print on January 24, 2016, on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Original Conservative.