Saturday, January 1, 2011

We Like to Watch

I've read Garry Wills's books erratically over the years, having first read some of his articles in The New York Review of Books. Never got around to Nixon Agonistes, but I think I read some of it in Esquire, where parts of it originally appeared. Though he's a conservative, of sorts, he mostly transcends that category, enough that I can usually read him without getting too annoyed. Most of the time, anyway: What Jesus Meant (Viking, 2006) was terrible, full of factual errors, almost as bad in that respect as John Shelby Spong's Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. I should probably back up that judgment at more length sometime...

Now he's published a short collection of autobiographical essays, Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer (Viking, 2010). He won me over right away with the introduction, "A Bookworm's Confession."
My father thought I was guaranteeing my inability to make a living when I got my doctorate in classical Greek. That, he thought, would make me a perpetual sideliner. He had always feared that my bookworm ways guaranteed that life would pass me by. It bothered him that, when caddying for him as a boy, I carried a book in the golf bag and pulled it out whenever his party was held up by those playing ahead. One summer when I was in grade school, he paid me money (I think five dollars) if I would go a whole week without reading anything. I took the offer, and used the money to buy a new book. Far from keeping me out from life, books opened door after door, not so much for me to go through the door as to look through. ... In my home as a child, I read books by flashlight under the bedcovers. This so worried my mother that she asked a doctor if I were not ruining my eyes by reading so much. In the Jesuit prep school I attended, I read in the john at night, the only place where lights were kept on. I was devouring Dostoevsky novels, which my friend Lew Ellingham had pressed on me. I saved weekends for books I especially hoped to savor, beginning them under a favorite tree. One reading feast I was able to indulge when a traveling statue of Our Lady of Fatima came to the school, as part of Catholic prayers for the conversion of Russia. For three days and nights, an around-the-clock vigil was held before the statue, each student kneeling for a half hour. The lights were on everywhere all night, so I plunged into War and Peace and read nonstop for three days and three nights, with only short catnaps, until I finished it. Lew told me it was the greatest novel ever written -- and he was right [3-4].
So that's why Russia was never converted! (Even today it remains Orthodox, not Catholic.) It was all Garry Wills's fault, for reading the schismatic Tolstoy when he should have been praying. Little Russian children who are burning in Hell now know whom to blame for the eternal torment they must suffer.

Seriously, though, I found myself bonding with Wills the Reader as I read this, and more -- he does run on. His self-characterization as an observer rather than a participant in life also is familiar, though luck and his capacity for hard work brought him into contact with people (William F. Buckley and other editors and publishers) who situated him to observe a lot of interesting things -- the Civil Rights Movement, the movement against the war in Vietnam, and others. I wish I had been the kind of observer Wills has been!

Nobody's perfect, of course, and Wills's ambivalences lead him to some odd and sometimes entertaining contradictions. Wills claims to be a conservative, which means bucking the judgment of his mentor William Buckley (see page 2, on Wills's Chestertonian "Distributism"), but in his portrait of Studs Terkel, whom he considers a "labor-union" liberal, he reports:
In 2000, remembering work with Ralph Nader in his earlier campaigns for car safety, Terkel spoke at a rally for Nader as President. We had knock-down-drag-out arguments over that, and Terkel told a shared friend that he was afraid I would never speak to him again if Nader caused Gore to lose (as he did). But Terkel did not in the end vote for Nader, and Illinois was unaffected by Nader's disastrous interventions [141].
Except that Nader did not cause Gore to lose; he was, at most, just one factor in Bush's seizure of power. (Along with Republican purges of eligible Democratic voters in Florida, the confusing ballot system there [Florida has a long history of racially-motivated election corruption], Republican packing of the Supreme Court, Gore's own uninspiring campaign performance, and much more.) Was Terkel's the deciding vote in the disposition of Illinois' electoral votes? And why would a self-styled conservative like Wills want a liberal like Gore to be President anyway?

The peer pressure worked both ways, though. Terkel
would never cross a picket line. When I crossed a teaching assistants' strike line to give a series of lectures at Yale, I was careful not to let Terkel know [141].
I read this in light of an earlier passage:
Terkel and such old friends as the medical reformer Quentin Young and the civil rights lawyer Leon Despres called themselves "old lefties." They fought the first Mayor Daley's Chicago regime with high spirits. Theirs was not the bitter or recriminating leftism of a Noam Chomsky. When they were together I heard mainly laughter, and the mutual teasing that prevents self-importance [140].
I suspect that if Terkel had found out about Wills's crossing that Yale picket line, Wills would have experienced some bitter and recriminating leftism, as well he should have. And Terkel experienced Wills's bitter and recriminating conservatism over Nader. Terkel also took a swipe at Christopher Hitchens, for example, for his ad hominem attacks on critics of Bush's terror war. Chomsky's temperament is of course quite different from Terkel's, but he shares with Terkel not only political views but a respect for, and a comfort with, "ordinary" people that on Wills's own account he lacks: Wills needs guides and go-betweens (including his wife Natalie, described in a lovely essay in Outside Looking In) when cast among the great unwashed. I'm probably more like Wills in this respect, so I'm not condemning him for it, but I do get tired of these gratuitous, ignorant, yet obligatory slams of Chomsky. (Jon Schwarz let loose with one last week at A Tiny Revolution; more on this topic soon, I hope.) Like too many people, Wills is confusing politics with personality here.

These are minor criticisms, though. I enjoyed Outside Looking In quite a lot. Writers are usually observers more than participants, and what matters is how well they observe. Wills mostly observes very well.