When the stakes are this small, duck for cover.
I get a real jolt, usually on Saturday mornings if the French post office obliges, when I open my Times Literary Supplement (TLS) to the letters page and watch the long knives slide in and twist, often with considerable finesse.
The London-based magazine specializes in mind-stretching book reviews and esoteric essays but it is the letters page that I go to first — and I suspect I’m not alone. In fact I know I’m not. “The letters are addictive, even when I don’t know what they’re talking about,” says Canadian author Ann Tudor, a friend and a longtime TLS reader.
Here on public view every week are the world’s most cultivated men and women, most of them established academics, venting their spleens over a critical barb or a well-turned sneer in a previous issue. The indignation in these little gems — sometimes just a paragraph or two — is sometimes almost comic.
As Henry Kissinger once said, paraphrasing Woodrow Wilson, “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.”
The TLS letters are no mere blogosphere rants by nameless individuals. They are weighty cudgels from the academic crème de la crème. And their passions exist in some kind of parallel universe — detached from the real world of politics and oil spills.
I have been collecting my favorite TLS letters for the past six months or so, looking for patterns. Alas, I’m like that Canadian writer. I often barely understand what they’re talking about, much less what’s at stake.
The letters are in two categories: yelps about a reviewer’s comments, and yelps about a letter knocking a review. Sometimes the thrusts and parries go on for months, with several professors dragging out factoids they are eager to display.
Having a letter published there is almost as good for an academic career as getting a bona fide article accepted. One’s colleagues notice.
A long-running debate over Dostoevsky’s state of mind while writing The Brothers Karamazov is one of the more exhaustive cases of viciousness over small stakes. Dostoevsky dominated the letters page off and on from January to April over the relationship between psychological disorders explored in his classic novel and Dostoevsky’s own ailments, including epilepsy and paranoia. Prof. Emeritus James L. Rice of the University of Oregon probably had no idea what a firestorm he was igniting with his erudite 4,000-word essay.
Rice, a Harvard Magna cum laude graduate and respected voice in Slavic literature, found himself attacked for “fanciful speculations” and “applying (medical and psychiatric) ideas to Dostoevsky’s texts and thereby distorting them to make them fit.” Cambridge University Prof. Diane Thompson, the letter writer, accused him of “a sustained exercise in reductionism.”
Another letter in the same issue informed us that the innocent reader “has not, unlike myself, published five volumes on Dostoevsky’s life and works,” and went on to pick at Rice’s essay.
A few weeks later Rice shot back that some of the comment on his work was “pure sophistry and pointless bravado.” The fight was not yet over. Prof. Thompson seemed determined to wipe the floor with him. His defense, she wrote in a subsequent edition, was laden with “serious errors and misreadings,” and proceeded to instruct him in a secondary meaning of the Russian word “zhizn” (life). Prof. Rice concluded the debate with a couple of withering barbs, accusing Prof. Thompson of, among other things, being “deaf to Dostoevsky’s irony.”
Separate from the Dostoevsky debates, I saved another letter that required two or three readings to grasp. The writer took an author to task for hopeless confusion. “It is true,” he wrote, “that post-Impressionist painting, Darwinian theory and Heidegger’s question of Being all participate in modernity’s radically altered understanding of human existence and our place in the world…. Notwithstanding their shared reliance on the word ‘origin,’ Darwin’s and Heidegger’s ideas move in utterly different conceptual spaces.” I guess he had a point. At least a small one.
In the obscurity category came a letter from an author about a very small world indeed. Responding to a previous letter criticizing him, he explained, “Readers of the TLS unfamiliar with the field of historical scholarship on Madagascar may find themselves perplexed by the emotional tone of a recent letter.” The letter-writer under attack had claimed to be a leading historian of Madagascar, to which the aggrieved author retorted, “I would like to point out that in the English-speaking world, there are only three of us.”
Sometimes the letter-writer admits to confusion. “In his review of Amartya Sen’s ‘The Idea of Justice’, John Tasiolas mentions that a footnote in the book reveals that the famous anecdote about Piero Sraffa brushing his chin with his fingertips, in a familiar Neopolitan gesture of skepticism, and demanding of Wittgenstein ‘What is the logical form of this?’ may be apocryphal.” The writer claimed to have asked Sraffa once to confirm the anecdote, which he did, and to demonstrate the gesture. “Unfortunately, the writer adds, “I can no longer remember how you do it.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online