For some time now, I have been collecting notes on the interaction between academics and journalists. In theory, at least, this relationship ought to be mutually beneficial -- almost symbiotic. Scholars would provide sound information and authoritative commentary to reporters -- who would then, in turn, perform the useful service of disseminating knowledge more broadly.
So much for the theory. The practice is not nearly that sweet, to judge by the water-cooler conversation of either party, which often tends toward the insulting. From the mass-media side, the most concise example is probably H.L. Mencken's passing reference to someone as "a professor, hence an embalmer." And within the groves of academe itself, the very word "journalistic" is normally used as a kind of put-down.
There is a beautiful symmetry to the condescension. It's enough to make an outsider -- someone who belongs to neither tribe, but regularly visits each -- wonder if some deep process of mutual-definition-by- mutual-exclusion might be going on. And so indeed I shall argue, one day, in a treatise considering the matter from various historical, sociological, and psychoanalytic vantage points. (This promises to be a book of no ordinary tedium.)
A fresh clipping has been added to my research file in the past couple of days, since reading Brian Leiter's objection to a piece on Nietzsche appearing in last weekend's issue of The New York Times Book Review. The paper asked the novelist and sometime magazine writer William Vollmann to review a biography of Nietzsche, instead of, let's say, an American university professor possessing some expertise on the topic.
For example, the Times editors might well have gone to Leiter himself, a professor of philosophy at UT-Austin and the author of a book called Nietzsche on Morality, published three years ago by Routledge. And in a lot of ways, I can't help wishing that they had. It would have made for a review more informative, and less embarrassingly inept, than the one that ran in the paper of record.
Vollmann's essay is almost breathtaking in its badness. It manages to drag the conversation about Nietzsche back about 60 years by posing the question of whether or not Nietzsche was an anti-Semite or a proto-Nazi. He was not, nor is this a matter any serious person has discussed in a very long time. (The role of his sister, Elisabeth Forster-Nietsche, is an entirely different matter: Following his mental collapse, she managed to create a bizarre image of him as theorist of the Teutonic master-race, despite Nietzsche's frequent and almost irrepressible outbursts of disgust at the German national character.)
And while it is not too surprising that a review of a biography of a philosopher would tend to focus on, well, his life -- and even on his sex life, such as it was for the celibate Nietzsche -- it is still reasonable to expect maybe a paragraph or two about his ideas. Vollmann never gets around to that. Instead, he offers only the murkiest of pangyrics to Nietzsche's bravery and transgressive weirdness -- as if he were a contestant in the some X Games of the mind, or maybe a prototype of Vollmann himself. (Full disclosure: I once reviewed, for the Times in fact, Vollmann's meditation on the ethics of violence -- a work of grand size, uncertain coherence, and sometimes baffling turgidity. That was six weeks of my life I will never get back.)
Leiter has, in short, good reason to object to the review. And there are grounds, too, for questioning how well the Times has served as (in his words) "a publication that aspires to provide intellectual uplift to its non-scholarly readers."
Indeed, you don't even have to be an academic to feel those reservations. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, for example, many readers would spend their Saturday afternoons studying a weekly section of the Times called "Arts and Ideas," trying to figure out where the ideas were.
By a nice paradox, though, the coverage of ideas improved, at least somewhat, after the "Arts and Ideas" section disappeared. (See, for example, the symposium inspired earlier this summer by a Times essay on early American history.)
So while reading Leiter's complaint with much sympathy, I also found some questions taking shape about its assumptions -- and about his way of pressing the point on Vollmann's competence.
For one thing, Leiter takes it as a given that the best discussion of a book on Nietzsche would come from a scholar -- preferably, it seems, a professor of philosophy. At this, however, certain alarm bells go off.
The last occasion Leiter had to mention The New York Times was shortly after the death of Jacques Derrida. His objection was not to the paper's front-page obituary (a truly ignorant and poorly reported piece, by the way). Rather, Leiter was unhappy to find Derrida described as a philosopher. He assured his readers that Derrida was not one, and had never taken the least bit seriously within the profession, at least here in the United States.
I read that with great interest, and with the sense of discovery. It meant that Richard Rorty isn't a philosopher, since he takes Derrida seriously. It also suggested that, say, DePaul University doesn't actually have a philosophy program, despite appearances to the contrary. (After all, so many of the "philosophy" professors there are interested in deconstruction and the like.)
One would also have to deduce from Leiter's article that the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy is playing a very subtle joke on prospective members when it lists Derrida as one of the topics of interest they might choose to circle on the form they fill out to join the organization.
An alternative reading, of course, is that some people have a stringent and proprietary sense of what is "real" philosophy, and who counts as a philosopher. And by an interesting coincidence, such people once ruled Nietzsche out of consideration altogether. Until the past few decades, he was regarded as an essayist, an aphorist, a brilliant literary artist -- but by no means a serious philosopher. ("A stimulating thinker, but most unsound," as Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, if memory serves.) The people who read Nietzsche in the United States a hundred years ago tended to be artists, anarchists, bohemians, and even (shudder) journalists. But not academic philosophers.
In short, it is not self-evident that the most suitable reviewer of a new book on Nietzsche would need to be a professor -- let alone one who had published a book or two on him. (Once, the very idea would have been almost hopelessly impractical, because there were few, if any.) Assigning a biography of Nietzsche to a novelist instead of a scholar is hardly the case of malfeasance that Leiter suggests. If anything, Nietzsche himself might have approved: The idea of professors discussing his work would really have given the old invalid reason to recuperate.
Vollmann throws off a quick reference to "the relevant aspects of Schopenhauer, Aristotle and others by whom Nietzsche was influenced and against whom he reacted." And at this, Leiter really moves in for the kill.
"As every serious student of Nietzsche knows," he writes, "Aristotle is notable for his almost total absence from the corpus. There are a mere handful of explicit references to Aristotle in Nietzsche's writings (even in the unpublished notebooks), and no extended discussion of the kind afforded Plato or Thales. And apart from some generally superficial speculations in the secondary literature about similarities between Aristotle's 'great-souled man' and Nietzsche's idea of the 'higher' or 'noble' man -- similarities nowhere remarked upon by Nietzsche himself -- there is no scholarship supporting the idea that Aristotle is a significant philosopher for Nietzsche in any respect."
Reading this, I felt a vague mental itch. It kept getting stronger, and would not go away. For the idea that Aristotle was an important influence on Nietzsche appears in the work of the late Walter Kaufman -- the professor of philosophy at Princeton University who re-translated Nietzsche in the 1950s and '60s.
Kaufman published an intellectual biography that destroyed some of the pernicious myths about Nietzsche. He made the case for the coherence and substance of his work, and was merciless in criticizing earlier misinterpretations. He has had the same treatment himself, of course, at the hands of later scholars. But it was Kaufman, perhaps more than anyone else, who made it possible and even necessary for American professors of philosophy to take Nietzsche seriously.
So when Kaufman wrote that Nietzsche's debt to Aristotle's ethics was "considerable" .... well, maybe Leiter was right. Perhaps Kaufman was now just a case of someone making "superficial speculations in the secondary literature." But for a nonspecialist reviewer such as Vollmann to echo it did not quite seem like an indictable offense.
So I wrote to Leiter, asking about all of this. In replying, Leiter sounded especially put out that Vollmann had cited both Schopenhauer and Aristotle as influences. (For those watching this game without a scorecard: Nobody doubts the importance of Schopenhauer for Nietzsche.)
"To reference 'Schopenhauer and Aristotle' together as important philosophical figures for Nietzsche -- as Vollmann did -- is, indeed, preposterous," wrote Leiter in one message, "and indicative of the fact that Vollmann is obviously a tourist when it comes to reading Nietzsche. The strongest claim anyone has made (the one from Kaufmann) is that there is a kind of similarity between a notion in Aristotle and a notion in Nietzsche, but not even Kaufmann (1) showed that the similarity ran very deep; or (2) claimed that it arose from Aristotle's influence upon Nietzsche."
Well, actually, yes, Kaufman did make precisely that second claim. (He also quoted Nietzsche saying, "I honor Aristotle and honor him mostly highly...") And there is no real ground for construing the phrase "Schoenhauer and Aristotle"Â to mean "similarly and in equal measure."
There are preposterous things in the writing of William Vollmann. But a stray reference to a possible intellectual influence on Nietzsche is by no means one of them. Nor, for that matter, is the novelist's willingness to venture into a lair protected by fearsome dragons of the professoriat. I wish Vollmann had read more Nietzsche, and more scholarship on him than the biography he reviewed. But whatever else you can say about the guy, he's not a pedant.
In fact, the whole situation leaves me wondering if the problem ought not be framed differently. There is, obviously, a difference between an article in a scholarly journal and one appearing in a publication ordinarily read during breakfast (or later, in, as the saying goes, "the smallest room in the house"). It need not be a difference in quality or intelligence. Newspapers could do well for themselves by finding more professors to write for them. And the latter would probably enjoy it, not in spite of the sense of slumming, but precisely because of it.
But does it follow that the best results would come from having philosophers review the philosophy books, historians review the history books, and so forth?
The arguments for doing so are obvious enough. But just as obvious are the disadvantages: Most readers would derive little benefit from intra-disciplinary disputes and niggling points of nuance spill over into the larger public arena.
It is probably a crazy dream, even something utopian, but here is the suggestion anyway. The Times Book Review (or some other such periodical) should from time to time give over an issue entirely to academic reviewers commenting on serious books -- but with everyone obliged to review outside their specialty. Hand a batch of novels to a sociologist. Give some books on Iraq to an ethicist. Ask a physicist to write about a favorite book from childhood.
It might not be the best set of reviews ever published. But chances are it would be memorable -- and an education for everybody.
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