Estimable men

The grim reaper has had rich pickings among famous writers, octogenarian and up — Philip Roth, Bernard Lewis, Tom Wolfe in the last few days. I mention them together for in their different ways they were three of the saner navigators — into the shoals of our fin-de-millénaire, our hyper-décadence. Only two were conscious writers of fiction, but I think that I would count all three as exponents of “the new journalism,” in which the author becomes gonzo of his own chronicle: a kind of roman-fleuve, spilling over its literary banks into the fields of entertainment and “Meeja.”

“Show don’t tell” was the principle behind that new journalism, which I first encountered as a young aspirant, before it began to bore me. Perhaps the true founder was the painter, Cézanne, who could build a picture with small appliqués of pigment: little drybrush squibs of nothing, that gradually add into something there. But nowhere, or never in sight, the betrayal of a grand intention. Roth “putting the id in yid,” Wolfe “the oy in goy,” one might say. Lewis attempting a thorough, scholarly, external depiction of the modern history of a huge religion, without having religious feelings himself. All good, honest, decent men, from a background culture of honest decency, unrolling a canvas of something from nothing.

Do not misunderstand: I think all three were and remain giants in their kind, worth reading. Two (Wolfe and Lewis) I personally glimpsed in passing, and was impressed with what I thought a good act: privatized public figures in a sense, warm and unknowable. All three struck me as advisers, for how to cope with the contemporary world, who had no advice to offer, beyond presenting a wonderful still-life of how it looks in decay on the eve of disintegration.

The good, the true, the beautiful: I keep going on about these Platonic transcendentals, which take us beyond the parameters of workaday earthly life. Doing this, they cannot be restricted to formal compositions. I think of them as aspects of the Gloria — of a greater beauty that “contains” all three; what “enlightened” men of a previous century attempted to call “the sublime.” But they are not art; art at its highest is a means to them. By “highest” I think, for example, of Dante, infusing meaning into all he draws. There is nothing like this in our contemporary world, and could be nothing like it. We do not share a language that would make that possible, as men did in earlier times. We live in “modern” times when meaning is rejected, when “God is dead” for all practical purposes. The good, the true, and the beautiful craze us. We want to embrace them, but they “don’t fit.”

For Bernard Lewis I had considerable respect: a scholar whose information was hard-earned, and a writer who was bravely coherent. I have views myself of that Muslim realm on which he built his expertise; he was the last of the old-school Orientalists, who knew what they were talking about; could prove and demonstrate everything they said. (Not a fraud, like his antagonist, Edward Said.) Yet to my mind he was missing something vital, something living, something unaccounted in that Muslim realm; for want of better word, the “spiritual” component. He seemed to me tone-deaf in that respect.

Without that component, “the other” remains impossibly “exotic.” While Lewis was, one might almost say, perfectly informed about conditions on the ground in the Middle East — and on the ground in Washington and New York for that matter — he could miss conditions only slightly above.

The same, generally, for all the famed literati of my generation and that immediately before, if I may swing a broad tar brush. The talented depict a world without God, without meaning, whether they intend to or not. They present themselves as “outsiders,” yet entirely on stage. It is as if signlessness were the sign of our times.