Learning to draw, the Internet’s impact on culture, artificial intelligence, the gentle art of dog ownership, molecular gastronomy… these aren’t just a pile of phrases, my friend. They are just some of the topics he’s written about in the past year. Gopnik can render any ho-hum topic interesting and a Big Topic completely fascinating. His essay on the Gospel of Mark from way back in May 2010 (how innocent we were then) is one of my favorite essays, category: All Time. You can read it here.
The article which sends me to the keyboard is, unfortunately, behind the paywall, but it’s worth breaching that wall. Opening paragraph:
“Falling, yes, I am falling, and she keeps calling me back again,” Paul McCartney sang on June 14, 1965, a memorable high-water mark in musical history, when, on a single day, he recorded that first bluegrass-rock standard, “I’ve Just Seen a Face”; the throat-shredding early metal model “I’m Down”; and then, in dulcet tones, the most covered song ever written, the ballad “Yesterday”—all within a few hours and with a little help from his friends. Some of us think there hasn’t been as good a musical day since.
The essay is titled, “Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat” and it’s not about the Beatles or about music. It’s about books on the decline of civilizations. (American decline is a hot topic. Every hack writer alive has at least one article about it.) What follows that incredible Beatle fact (and thematic pun) is a genial yet thorough intellectual ass-kicking.
The asses in question belong to Oswald Spengler, author of “The Decline of the West,” Ian Morris, author of “Why The Rest Rules—for Now,” Niall Ferguson, author of “Civilization: The West and the Rest,” and Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, dual authors of the soon-to-be-if-not-already bestseller “That Used to Be Us.” (Tom Friedman can’t help but write bestsellers. It is simply his way.) Though each theory of decline is taken to the mat and, I think, ably pinned, the true ass-kicking parts are reserved for those last two books/three authors. (Hardcore Oswald Spengler fans will be relieved.)
Here, Gopnik calls out Friedman and Mandlebaum for not being concerned with a decline in American prosperity, actually, but decline in status:
They attack the humanistic film “Race to Nowhere,” which demonstrates the well-established truth that giving kids more homework to do only produces more homework, while praising the “Tiger Mom,” who keeps her children away from the grade-school play in pursuit of better grades in math. You kids think you’re stressed out from too much homework? “Stress is what you feel when you can’t understand the thick Chinese accent of your first boss out of college,” Friedman and Mandelbaum taunt… Never mind that the nationality of the boss would not make a bit of difference to your pocketbook; apparently it would denote a loss of status if we worked for foreigners with their thick accents instead of having them work for us, with ours.
管理单元! According to Google Translate, that says “Snap!”
Niall Ferguson gets his a few paragraphs later. Addressing the nihilism and ennui which now threaten our culture, Ferguson asks, “What are the foundational texts of Western civilization that can bolster our belief in the almost boundless power of the free individual human being?” Take it away, Adam:
He answers, in a footnote, that this list would consist of Newton’s “Principia,” the King James Bible, Locke’s “Two Treatises on Civil Government,” Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” and “Wealth of Nations,” Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” and the complete works of Shakespeare, along with a few speeches by Lincoln and Churchill.
You will search in vain for an ironic quiver of the cheek where his tongue must be buried. Ferguson actually thinks that all the key texts on modern freedom were written in English (or, in the case of the Bible, translated into it) by (Lincoln apart) subjects of the English crown. Put aside that Newton’s “Principia” is… a technical book, unreadable by all but specialists, while Galileo’s “Two Chief World Systems,” to name just one book by a Foreigner, is a systematic defense of the scientific method that’s charmingly written, in the vernacular, for a popular audience. Put aside, too, the point that the Bible, with its resolute emphasis on obedience to authority, is hardly a document proclaiming the boundless power of the free individual, even in its sublime Jacobean rendering. What is really lost, if you don’t name Erasmus or Montaigne or Moliere or, for that matter, Goethe to this list, is the horizon of the good life that is included in what we have called, since the Renaissance, humanism—the belief that, while our lives should be devoted to happiness, they’re impoverished without an idea of happiness deeper than mere property-bound prosperity.
Ah, to be the sort of writer who can cite authors like that and then add, without a hint of pretense, “or, for that matter, Goethe…”
* * * * *
As we approach the thousandth word of this post, we arrive at the “OK, who gives a shit?” moment. (Some scholars say we passed it long ago.) If I just wanted to say that Adam Gopnik is the bee’s knees and you should keep an eye out for his byline, I could have done it with a few short quotes and a link or two. So why quote him at length? Why the hell am I reviewing an article that reviews a small stack of books that I have not, in fact, read myself?
Because Gopnik exemplifies criticism at its best. The purpose of criticism is not just to tell you what book to read, movie to see, restaurant to avoid, or album to dislike. It is to point to the horizon of the good life. It is, even, to make us better people.
This last comment may sound like a stretch, and for all I know Gopnik himself, Markan scholar that he is, might say, “Hey man, let this cup pass.” Sure, a piece of criticism is not a homily. Nor should it be one. But any piece of criticism, from august to flippant, is an argument about life itself in which the critic helps the reader hone his discretion, judgment, and ethics. When Gopnik points out that Friedman and Mandelbaum give status the same value as prosperity, he is pointing to the serious moral implications that such a worlview implies. So... OK, yeah, a piece of criticism is kind of a homily.
In the closing paragraph of this essay, Gopnik writes:
Declinism is a bad idea, because no one can have any notion of what will happen next. Yet the idea of our decline is emotionally magnetic, because life is a long slide down, and the plateau just passed is easier to love than the one coming up.
When I read these two sentences, it was like he stopped chastising Friedman and Ferguson and turned his guns on me. I had spent much of the day brooding on my own decline, longing for plateaus passed, assuming no new ones lay before me. Here, Gopnik refuted my own faulty reasoning. “Do not be lured by pessimism,” is how I read that. “Do not be fooled by your emotions.” Not that he is peddling optimism. He’s counseling openness, readiness, and even—I’m gonna go to the tank here and pull out a big-ass word: probity. Yeah, I said it.
Gopnik closes his critique of Ferguson with this comment:
The special virtue of freedom is not that it makes you richer and more powerful, but that it gives you more time to understand what it means to be alive.
When I finish an essay like this, I see the horizon of the good life a little clearer. I feel like I understand, slightly better, what it means to be alive. To me, that’s worth at least ten bucks.