Sophisticated eviscerations are always fun to read (the art of the take-down), but how about when one intellectual praises another? Or how about when a person tries to capture the essence of a smart, accomplished person in a paragraph? A few choice selections from recent readings.
Here’s Michael Kinsley praising Christopher Hitchens:
Hitchens is the bohemian and the swell, the dashing foreign correspondent, the painstaking literary critic and the intellectual engagé. He charms Washington hostesses but will set off a stink bomb in the salon if the opportunity presents itself.
His conversation sparkles, not quite effortlessly, and if he is a bit too quick to resort to French in search of le mot juste, his jewels of erudition, though flashy, are real….
His enemies would like to believe he is a fraud. But he isn’t, as the very existence of his many enemies tends to prove. He is self-styled, to be sure, but no more so than many others in Washington — or even in New York or London — who are not nearly as good at it. He is a principled dissolute, with the courage of his dissolution: he enjoys smoking and drinking, and not just the reputation for smoking and drinking — although he enjoys that too. And through it all he is productive to an extent that seems like cheating: twenty-three books, pamphlets, collections, and collaborations so far; a long and often heavily-researched column every month in Vanity Fair; frequent fusillades in Slate and elsewhere; and speeches, debates, and other public spectacles whenever offered.
The biggest strategic challenge for a career like this is to remain interesting, and the easiest tactic for doing that is surprise. If they expect you to say X, you say minus X.
Consistency is foolish, as the man said. (Didn’t he?) Under the unwritten and somewhat eccentric rules of American public discourse, a statement that contradicts everything you have ever said before is considered for that reason to be especially sincere, courageous, and dependable.
Here’s Joseph Epstein describing John D. Rockefeller in the book Ambition, which I love for its clarity:
He was cautious but courageous — a careful plunger. He took on loans of such size as to make his early partners tremble…. He had no known distractions. He found adventure in business, spiritual nourishment in his church, social life among his family. His life was organized for success. He tended to give off a somewhat chilling effect on people who met him. He commanded complete calm in crisis. He planned everything eight or nine moves ahead. He had the mind of a first-rate chess player: analytical, concentrated, monomaniacal. Of his inner life very little is known. Possibly he had none.
Here’s Epstein on Mark Twain, the two final sentences are telling:
Mark Twain, the Lincoln of our literature, as William Dean Howells called him, landed not in the White House but in a white suit. He was the first American writer to attain national celebrity, to be everywhere read and recognized and to turn a big buck off literature, and the white suit was part of his act. He it was who affixed the great label Gilded Age to the time in which he flourished, and he not only labled it but lived it. He was brilliant at marketing, his product being himself, often first-class goods. But he was not much at detail. With one eye on literature and one eye on business, he developed a cross-eyed talent. To excoritate your time yet revel in its luxuries, to proclaim the virtues of the simple life yet complicate your own life beyond imagining — you can’t have it both ways, but neither can you blame a man for trying. Mark Twain tried, and failed.