David Brooks published a column this week that has circulated widely, including among my circle of liberal intellectuals and artists, and to much praise. It’s really quite lovely. It celebrates the love of art – writing, music, images and more. It mourns for a lost world.
And it completely misses the point of how we got here – the reification of neoliberal values which Brooks, himself, supports so prominently. In a society dedicated to, as my brother puts it, “precarity” for all but the super wealthy, who can afford to choose poetry over profit?
Brooks tells a lovely story of Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akmatova and their night spent deep in language. He writes:
By midnight, they were alone, sitting on opposite ends of her room. She told him about her girlhood and marriage and her husband’s execution. She began to recite Byron’s “Don Juan” with such passion that Berlin turned his face to the window to hide his emotions. She began reciting some of her own poems, breaking down as she described how they had led the Soviets to execute one of her colleagues.
By 4 in the morning, they were talking about the greats. They agreed about Pushkin and Chekhov. Berlin liked the light intelligence of Turgenev, while Akhmatova preferred the dark intensity of Dostoyevsky.
Deeper and deeper they talked, baring their souls. Akhmatova confessed her loneliness, expressed her passions, spoke about literature and art. Berlin had to go to the bathroom but didn’t dare break the spell. They had read all the same things, knew what the other knew, understood each other’s longings. That night, Ignatieff writes, Berlin’s life “came as close as it ever did to the still perfection of art.” He finally pulled himself away and returned to his hotel. It was 11 a.m. He flung himself on the bed and exclaimed, “I am in love; I am in love.”
That’s a lovely anecdote well described by a good writer. Here’s the problem.
Today we live in a utilitarian moment. We’re surrounded by data and fast-flowing information. “Our reason has become an instrumental reason,” as Leon Wieseltier once put it, to be used to solve practical problems.
Nonsense. These things do not just “become.” The world is filled with poets and artists, or would-be poets and artists. And the world of the first-half of the 20th-century was equally packed with utilitarian thinkers.
Then, after some digs at the evils of Stalinist Russia (no argument there), he finishes with the big point.
I’m old enough to remember when many people committed themselves to this sort of life and dreamed of this sort of communion — the whole Great Books/Big Ideas thing. I am not sure how many people believe in or aspire to this sort of a life today. I’m not sure how many schools prepare students for this kind of love.
O Society, he mourns, why have you given up your poetry? Why can’t we sit in lonely rooms and fall in love with words? Well, we in the West are fortunate not to live in the terrible conditions suffered by Akmatova, but if there’s a decline in people dedicating their lives to art, it’s because of the policies advocated by Brooks.
What frustrates me is that if, in fact, a cultural shift has taken place, it hasn’t just happened. Over the last half century there has been a widespread and sustained effort to de-legitimize intellectual life while stripping away the supports that could make that life possible.
Do you want more people to be like Berlin and Akmatova, Mr. Brooks? Support policies that make it possible for people to take risks.
1. There’s tons of great art. Part of what has happened is that a broader segment of society is more visible today, and lots of them are not so interested in art. Brooks watches reality TV while at the salad bar at Applebees and longs for a world in which only elites got the press. There’s spectacular art, literature, poetry, music, etc. being created. Thanks to new media, much of it is vastly more accessible than it was during Berlin’s day. Some of it is terrible. Much of it bizarre. But art is happening everywhere.
2. If it’s Great Books that we want, and I love Great Books programs, fine. Let’s support widely available humanities programs for anyone who wants it. Except that in today’s society, such programs are increasingly unavailable to non-elites. Moreover, the centrists on the right and the left both routinely criticize humanities, emphasizing job training instead. Right-wing legislatures strip away funding from our great public universities and threaten to pull money if they read the wrong books. So Mr. Brooks, perhaps a column about what’s going on with South Carolina?
3. J.K. Rowling famously wrote at least some of Harry Potter on the dole. Now HP isn’t great art, but it’s a nice anecdote of the way that universal guaranteed income, a society with national healthcare, and other related policies that run counter to Brooks’ politics, can enable people to choose to spend their lives in intellectual pursuits. In an era of austerity, lowering wages, and rising inequality – who can make that choice?
This is the frustration with Brooks. Sometimes, he hits on important cultural shifts and problems. He always, however, misdiagnoses the causes and the solutions.