The Lady and the Luftmensch

The Lady and the Luftmensch

Why do we still care about the New York Intellectuals? Partly, perhaps, because they embodied, conceivably for the last time in American history, a venerable modern ideal, practiced also by the philosophes and praised by Goethe and Marx: vielseitigkeit or manysidedness. Their versatility was astonishing. “The intellectual,” Irving Howe wrote in “This Age of Conformity” (1954), doubtless with his fellow New Yorkers in mind, “is a man who writes about subjects outside his field. He has no field.” Their apparent mastery in pronouncing on both culture and politics, and in relating one set of judgments to the other, now seems as attractive as it does unattainable. In the Age of Information, mastery even of a single field is an implausible aspiration, and casual authority over a whole range of them an anachronistic one.

Then, too, their pronouncements seemed to matter. To the live moral imagination, all times are dark times; but the late thirties and early forties have a special pathos. Rarely can so many catastrophes—global economic depression, world war, the Gulag, the Holocaust—have thronged a single decade. The need to make sense of these traumas was widely felt; and with so many people listening, even those tough-minded erstwhile historical materialists may be forgiven for forgetting about the structural irrelevance of radical ideas in a capitalist democracy—or, to put it less theoretically, for taking themselves so seriously.

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