U.S. Intellectual History Blog


I wanted to share two articles with our readers. While I suppose they are thematically similar in that they both deal with a form of inflating things to make them seem bigger than they are, mainly I just think they are hilariously crochety. If anyone is charting the unlikely migration of the content of USIH from a site of intellectual and academic concerns to an Andy Rooney style grouch-fest, mark today’s date!

In the first, Leon Wieseltier grouses in The New Republic about how we elevate our contemporary culture by comparing it to past works of much greater stature, as when Bono sees his efforts on the new Spider Man musical as reminiscent of the work of Rilke. The New York Times reviewer just named that show “among the worst” ever to play on Broadway, a judgment that might irritate Walter Rodgers, the writer of the second piece I’m highlighting here. Rodgers, writing in the Christian Science Monitor a week before the Super Bowl, vents his spleen on the widely prevalent phenomenon of overused hyperbole that he associates with that annual rite. This tendency, he argues, has leaked from sports into news and politics, and has infected our ability to think clearly and make distinctions. (A soldier, he suggests, should need to do something that all other soldiers didn’t do, in order to be called a “hero.”)

I don’t really have a dog in the fight raised by either of these two columns. (OK, that’s not totally true. I have long made the point raised in the second, even championing the phrase “linguistic inflation” to invoke the lost effectiveness of words like “awesome.” But that’s not my point in mentioning them here.) I merely suggest them to any readers who enjoy the occasional piece of dyspeptic humor.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think there’s a plausible case to be made that the Spider Man musical is indeed the worst ever. just sayin’.

  2. Rilke = Signaling. Just like everything. High minded intellectuals do it *just as much too* so don’t get too excited.

  3. I agree, Marcus, both about how Bono and Lady Gaga are using Rilke and that we (assuming for a minute that I’m a “high-minded intellectual”) do it, too.

    But my (half-serious) question was more specific: why has Rilke become a popular figure to signal with? (Though, admittedly, we’re dealing with only two instances and the plural of anecdote is not data.)

  4. The Wieseltier piece is a tour-de-force in high-culture curmudgeonliness, and I would have sung along with the chorus if not for one dissonant note (yes, only one) introduced early in the piece: Wieseltier calling Cornel West “clownish.” That seems like a pretty loaded word to use in describing a pre-eminent African-American scholar.

    The essay ends beautifully, and I’d love to sing Amen at the end, but that word choice gives me pause. Perhaps my current research interests make me overly sensitive to picking up on certain tonalities. But I found that word jarring, and it diminished my appreciation of the whole.

  5. Am I to take your last paragraph as a sad lament on the lost effectiveness of the number one hyperbolic term of the Eighties: Awesome! …Really? (I say in my best Seth Myers voice). 🙂 – TL

  6. In *The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism*, Daniel Bell likes Saul Bellow’s *Mr. Sammler’s Planet,* which is a sympathetic treatment of a curmudgeon and a takedown of late 60’s intelligentsia… Sam Tanenhaus calls it “the only Neoconservative novel.”

  7. i recently read this novel. it *is* neoconservative. it’s about a european jewish intellectual, a survivor, dealing with new york, with counter-culture…i never thought of it that way, but it is exactly a neoconservative novel.

    i’d be interested to know where Sam Tanenhaus says that.

Comments are closed.