My tentative thesis, or hypothesis, on Hesburgh’s life is that he seems to have been one of a rare breed in the so-called “Catholic Intellectual Tradition.” Namely, he seems to have lived out a balance between being a Catholic and a public intellectual. He was more than a university president, he was an intellectual.
This is clearly a compliment, but partially by way of contrast. That contrast rests on an acknowledgment of John Tracy Ellis‘s contextual disparagement of midcentury Catholic intellectual life.** As a Catholic historian, historian of Catholicism, and a public intellectual, Ellis thought poorly of the general run of Catholics who had taken on intellectual roles in American history. In what follows I’ll elaborate on the typological distinction posited above, my first encounters with Hesburgh’s work, and my tentative evidence that Hesburgh achieved some kind of religio-intellectual balance. I’ll cover the first two today, and the last next week. (more…)
When we think about humor in America usually Benjamin Franklin’s witty common-sense or Mark Twain and the comical frontiersman first come to mind. Americans—particularly white men—seem to relate most to Franklin’s ‘Poor Richard’ persona, or the tall-tale-telling comical frontiersmen, such as Davy Crockett or Mike Fink. Those less Anglophone minded, might also think about African American humor or Jewish humor. Few people, however, think of aristocratic Augustan wit in association with America—we leave that to the Brits, for the most part. Nonetheless, during the first years of the early republic, elite gentlemen assumed that social hierarchies and cultural cues in America would conform to the British model. In this vein, particularly young eager American gentlemen, sought to found a tradition of Augustan wit in America that would cement its claim for a place among the refined nations of the world.
When surveying a period of history not really in my normal purview—in this case, Victorian America—reading around feels something like walking about another person’s house in the dark, maneuvering my way around corners and down staircases by keeping one hand on the wall, comparing the shape of the house to a rudimentary floor-plan in my head, one pieced together from basic reference works, fugitive references in more specialized monographs, and general knowledge. Occasionally, out of curiosity, I will tap on the walls to confirm their solidity, their conformity to the floor plan. And every once in awhile, the wall unexpectedly proves hollow: a makeshift of plasterboard and paint blocking off a room that’s been ignored or forgotten, maybe even disavowed, deliberately walled in.
Such is the sensation—uncanny, tenebrous—I’ve gotten from pursuing Thomas Carlyle through a couple of thickets of US intellectual history, both in relatively recent historiography and in primary sources coming from the American Renaissance through the Second World War. Carlyle is one of these Cask of Amontillado enclosures in US intellectual history, at least so far as I can tell. On the one hand, his extraordinary friendship with Emerson, his influence on Thoreau, his acquaintance with the generation of Higginson and Norton—these are faits connus, part of the background knowledge of these figures and of the broader intellectual context of the nineteenth-century Atlantic. But background knowledge is seldom re-sifted, and even if it is, it is most commonly returned to the background, relegated to inert allusion or a latent awareness. (more…)
Nicolas Guilhot, ed. (2011). The Invention of International Relations Theory: Realism, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the 1954 Conference on Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.
Review by Jessica Blatt
In May 1954, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) brought together a group of scholars, foundation officials, and foreign-policy practitioners including Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Lippmann, Arnold Wolfers, Dorothy Fosdick, and then-RF President Dean Rusk. As Rusk set it out, their task was to arrive at “basic philosophic aspects of the … theory of international politics” in order to do some “sorting out of intellectual factors in our foreign policy” (240).
In this, they failed miserably. As Nicolas Guilhot puts it in his introduction to The Invention of International Relations Theory, the transcript of this two-day conference reveals mostly “unfocused discussion, misunderstandings, equivocal notions, disagreements about fundamental concepts, and much soul searching that remains inconclusive down to the very end” (11). That participants were “realists” was clear, but the precise theoretical content of realism was not. However, the essays in this fascinating volume—all departing in some way from the conference—show that arriving at a theory, while it would have been nice, was only one of the conference’s goals.
By now you’ve read one of the many tributes to Leonard Nimoy, the actor who was best known for the role of Spock in Star Trek for nearly fifty years. There’s not much more I can say here to add to the great tributes. Living in the age of the Internet, it has become a tradition for dozens of pieces to pop up within hours of the announcement of a celebrity’s death. These pieces talk about how much the actor’s most important roles meant to us personally, how they changed our lives, etc. Nimoy’s death is no different. Already, I’ve had the pleasure of reading pieces about the Jewish origins of the famous Vulcan salute, Nimoy’s own advice to a biracial child in the late 1960s, the ways in which Trek and other television shows became useful fodder for cultural studies, and his standing up for fellow cast member Nichelle Nichols to be paid equally to everyone else.
[Note to the readers: this is the first installment of a four-part series of posts by James Livingston.]
What Is Called History at the End of Modernity?
by James Livingston
In his foreword to the new Modern Library edition of Absalom, Absalom!, which first ran in the New York Times Magazine, the celebrated essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan equates the “collapsing of time” in William Faulkner’s great novel with historical consciousness as such: “The book attempts something that had never been tried before in the art of fiction, and as far as I know has never been since—to dramatize historical consciousness itself, not just human lives but the forest of time in which the notion of human life must find its only meaning.”
Sullivan could not be more wrong about the art of fiction, nor about what Faulkner attempted and achieved in Absalom. Go ahead, forget Faulkner for the moment, try to name a novel or short story that doesn’t enrich rather than erase the centrifugal times gathered by memory—not even Robbe-Grillet will serve this purpose. But about historical consciousness, which once presupposed acknowledgement of profound differences between past and present, he is perhaps right. For in offering these preposterous assertions about Faulkner’s achievement in Absalom, Sullivan adopts the same attitude that animates the new “history of capitalism,” a field convened by the denial of elementary differences between here and there, this and that, now and then—present and past—as if the night in which all cows are black has finally fallen. (more…)