Balliett was different from the other jazz writers I was discovering back then, whose quirks and personalities I gradually picked up from the printed page. In my library retreat, I became familiar with all of them. At one extreme were cozy insiders like Gene Lees, Nat Hentoff, and Leonard Feather, who hung out with the musicians, called them by their first names, and treated them as close friends—Feather, for example, enlisted Billie Holiday as godmother to his daughter and was a pallbearer at Charlie Parker’s funeral. He even wrote a book called Inside Jazz, almost a taunt at his peers, who would never be as much inside as he. At the other extreme were the musicologists and analytical critics such as Gunther Schuller, André Hodeir, and Martin Williams, who maintained more distance in their writings, aspiring to a kind of academic objectivity. They proved invaluable guides, teaching me about the rigorous rules and steely discipline that underlay this seemingly most spontaneous of art forms.
Balliett didn’t belong in either of these camps—or in any camp, as far as I could tell. He retained the enthusiasm of a fan, but it was married to the expressive virtuosity of a master writer who could extract from his typewriter something akin to what others drew from their saxophones and trumpets. It was almost as if he were a jazz musician himself, but one who wrote essays for The New Yorker instead of soloing over “I Got Rhythm” chords.
Just as our new civil religion does not promise atonement and redemption, neither does it offer real hope for the restoration of political community. Del Noce perceived this when he called the new totalitarianism a “totalitarianism of disintegration” bent not on imposing a new order on the world but destroying all traces of the old one. The fundamental question at this point of our history is not whether political rule can be restored, but whether this interminable process of disintegration can somehow be arrested before it destroys what is left of the last properly human civilization we are likely to have. It is not clear that this process can be stopped. It is clear, however, that politics cannot save us, and certainly not the sophistic parodies of politics characteristic of our post-political age. The broken political mechanisms at our disposal might still be used to provide some redress for social and economic inequalities. They could still be used to enforce civil rights, to protect civil liberties, or to enact police reform. They could even be marshalled to break up the tech giants and their ever-tightening grip on the flow of information, though it is doubtful this would lessen the ability of the press to mediate reality or stop the virtual public square from replacing the real one. But political instruments cannot fix a ruined system that has mistaken ignorance for education and renounced all but pragmatic conceptions of truth. They cannot liberate us from our technological regime of necessity, which carries all of us along by its own momentum. They cannot undo the conditioning of whole generations attached to the internet from birth and trained by social media to exhibit their interior lives exteriorly and perform their virtue virtually before the world. They cannot put the surveillance genie back in the bottle or constrain the power to call down violence (rhetorical or otherwise) on anyone at any time. One cannot solve a humanistic crisis by technological and political means, and politics cannot cure the sickness of mind and spirit that has infected us. It cannot heal our self-hatred or end the desperate and futile attempt to absolve ourselves of the guilt of being. The dream of mastering fortuna by political and technical means was an illusion that has left us enslaved and sickened. The burning flames of our civilization are fueled by an intellectual and spiritual fever for which we possess no cure.
Yet the West was once defined by its belief in a power not our own that did not need our wickedness to show its generosity, a power that created our nature with an essential goodness our wickedness cannot unmake, that recreates us without destroying us or, impossibly, erasing the past: a power Whose image we bore in the reason we all share, a power that could—and did—effect the atonement that we are powerless to provide for ourselves, that frees us to live with ourselves and each other. If this was ever true, then it must be true even now, however deeply we or our ancestors have betrayed these convictions. And so, this truth must perdure even beneath the abyss of our nihilism, showing itself in the resilience of nature and in human and superhuman acts of courage, charity, forgiveness, and forbearance that mostly pass beneath the gaze of the social media panopticon. The question of whether we can be rescued from the spirit of nihilism that we have unleashed is ultimately the question of whether this power and its truth can somehow be rediscovered from within an anti-culture premised on their attempted annihilation.
Daniel Bell and Pei Wang’s Just Hierarchy is a colorful exploration of the moral justifications behind elements of China’s success. Their thesis — a simple truism among Chinese but a potential setback for Western progressives — is that not all social hierarchies are bad, some are good, and a fixation on equality leaves little room to appreciate the benefits of the good ones. The authors are quick to denounce hierarchies on the basis of ascriptive categories such as race, sex, caste, and appearance (a qualification that injects a dose of progressivism into the aging corpus of Confucian thought). But this leaves other kinds of hierarchies, such as those based on age or merit, unexplained. We do not, for example, instinctively write off relationships between parents and children or teachers and students even though inequality is a shared feature of them all. What, then, makes these hierarchies different?
One justification, according to the authors, is reciprocity. We often assume that hierarchies result in an uneven distribution of benefits. But this is because the kinds of hierarchies we imagine — such as those based on race, class, and caste — are expressly designed to advantage the powerful. Some hierarchies, however, are meant to benefit the subordinates. Ask any teacher and they will likely tell you that their relationship with their students can be mutually beneficial. The authors even contend that some hierarchies exhibit more reciprocity than egalitarian relationships. In countries that value filial piety, for example, parents retain a higher status relative to their children over their entire lifetime. Generational hierarchies create a set of reciprocal obligations that are hard to replicate otherwise: parents must oversee their child’s emotional and moral growth when they are young, and, in return, children must take care of their parents when they’re old. This makes the egalitarian alternative — where children, upon reaching adulthood, are regarded as independent equals — seem less reciprocal by contrast.
In The World as Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer proposes, as the truest epitome of “the perfect resignation, which is the inmost spirit of Christianity, as of Indian wisdom,” the “Face, especially the eyes,” of a Renaissance Madonna. The transcendent peace that clothes Mary as represented by the old masters distills the detachment at the heart of that perennial philosophy which Schopenhauer claimed to have discovered in the Upaniṣads and in the great texts of the Western tradition alike.
Like Schopenhauer, T.S. Eliot saw a kind of detachment from one’s actions as central to both Eastern and Western philosophies, and he takes up this theme in works from The Waste Land to the Four Quartets. Also like Schopenhauer, Eliot explored this resignation by meditating above all on the figures of Mary—especially as she appears in Dante’s Paradiso—and of Kṛṣṇa, hero of that honorary Upaniṣad, the Bhagavad Gīta. Although Eliot’s earliest attempt, in The Waste Land, at bringing together Eastern and Western accounts of detachment proceeds, like Schopenhauer’s, by way of simple juxtaposition, his later poetry—and particularly “Dry Salvages,” the third of his Four Quartets—takes up the more ambitious task of allowing Kṛṣṇa’s insights to harmonize with the theme given in Mary's fiat mihi.
Struve was not entirely alone in trying to alert educated society. In 1909, he joined six other thinkers to publish Landmarks: A Collection of Essays on the Russian Intelligentsia. In addition to Alexander Izgoev, another prominent Kadet, the contributors included Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergei Bulgakov, and Semyon Frank, who would reshape Russian Orthodox theology; legal scholar Bogdan Kistyakovsky; and literary critic Mikhail Gershenzon, who edited the volume. One of the most important documents of Russian thought, Landmarks is a must for anyone investigating the mentality of the intelligentsia.
Landmarks caused unprecedented scandal. It went through five editions in about a year, and the fifth included an appendix listing more than two hundred books and articles answering (mostly vilifying) it. If the contributors aimed to promote reasoned dialogue, foster intellectual tolerance, and sway liberal opinion away from automatic radicalism, they failed spectacularly. Most Kadets dissociated themselves from the book, and the party leader Milyukov toured the country to denounce it for betraying the sacred traditions of the Russian intelligentsia. The volume’s unforgivable sin, Frank explained, lay in its criticism of the basic sacred dogma of the radical intelligentsia—the “mystique” of revolution. This was regarded as an audacious and quite intolerable betrayal of the age-old sacred testament of the Russian intelligentsia, the betrayal of the tradition handed down by the prophets and saints of Russian social thought—Belinsky, Granovsky, Chernyshevsky, Pisarev.
To follow the volume’s argument, one needs to grasp how the contributors used the words “intelligentsia” and “intelligent” (member of the intelligentsia). “Intelligentsia” is a word that originated in Russia, where it was coined about 1860. Used in its strict, proper, or classical sense, it means something entirely different from its English equivalent. To be an intelligent it was by no means sufficient (or even necessary) to be well-educated. And if by “intellectual” one means a curious person thinking for himself or herself, then intelligent was close to its opposite.
Three characteristics identified a classical intelligent. To begin with, an intelligent identified primarily as an intelligent, rather than by his social class, profession, ethnic group, or other social category. No one would have considered Tolstoy an intelligent, for example, in part because he used his title “Count.”
Unless an intelligent was wealthy or, like Lenin, could become a professional revolutionary living at his party’s expense, he had to work, but as a matter of honor he did not take his profession seriously. As Izgoev remarks,
The average, rank-and-file intelligent usually does not know his job and does not like it. He is a poor teacher, a poor engineer. . . . He regards his profession . . . as a sideline that does not deserve respect. If he is enthusiastic about his profession . . . he can expect the cruelest sarcasm from his friends.
"Instead of challenging the pressures that capitalism puts on child-rearing, liberals surrender to it."
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor