The Latest From Leon
It's been fourteen years since I left TNR and Leon Wieseltier is still obsessed with his long-standing and at this point tedious personal vendetta against me. I will try and defend myself from these dark insinuations of anti-Semitism one by one in due course (allow me a little time to respond to a 4,300 word ad hominem). But just for the record, let me grapple with Leon's first claim that my citation of W H Auden's letter to Ursula Niebuhr represented some dark and ugly attempt to convey anti-Semitic tropes and code.
Now it's impossible to refute mere insinuations about my true motives for posting a random quote. But really: does Leon really believe I was making a swipe at the Jewish faith? To give just one of countless examples of my own passionate defense of the Jewish people from Catholic bigotry, see my review here. But as luck would have it, I have the email trail that gives the full context of this one-line post, so you can make your mind up yourself.
Here's the first email from a close friend, alerting me to the quote.
He's a Niebuhr scholar who had been reading Niebuhr's correspondence, and with whom I frequently talk about faith, theology, life, Oakeshott, Niebuhr, et al.:
From Auden to Reinie's wife, Ursula, via letter (circa 1944) while W.H. was teaching at Swarthmore:"It was such a pleasure to see Reinhold again, looking more of a benevolent eagle than ever. His Destiny is grand, I think, and is already on the required reading list for my seminar in romanticism which starts tomorrow. Poor things, they have no idea what they have let themselves in for -- Kierkegaard's Unscientific Postscript, for instance. Seminars last from one-thirty to six, so I have to provide refreshments. Quakers or no Quakers, I shall serve bread and cheese and beer at four o'clock..."
For some reason this cracked me up ... just something a bit lighter for you! (I'm reading the letters between Reinhold and Ursula, and there's an appendix of her correspondence with W.H. Auden.)
And also, a special quote just for you, Andrew (from a letter dated June 2, 1944, from WHA to Ursula): "Trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to readers of the New Republic is not easy."
So you can see the context is clearly about how hard it is for truly highbrow theological and philosophical subjects to be taught to Swarthmore students - with an extra dig at TNR's very secular lefty readers of the day, who, as Leon rightly notes, were living in a spiritually shallow time. Now it's perfectly true that the New Republic reference also made me chuckle because, as Leon Wieseltier once said, TNR is a kind of "Jewish version of Commentary." So I was also implying a little joke about the contemporary irony of such a remark.
This, by the way, was the kind of joke ubiquitous at TNR when I worked there, as we teased each other for years about my being one of the few goyim at the place, that I was a function of affirmative action, etc. Leon was particularly and often mordantly hilarious on this kind of theme.
I recall once asking if an extremely long essay in TNR's literary section might be cut a little. "Six million Jews died and you want to cut the piece?" was his reply and we all cracked up. And, so I found the Auden quote funny enough to forward the whole email to the current editor of The New Republic, my old friend, Frank Foer, with a note from me to him, as part of a small fellowship of TNR editors:
love the auden quote
I emailed him the quote before I posted the piece. Frank responded in the same jokey vein:
That’s just perfectand before we entered our High Shul phase even!
If you think all this is yet more proof that I am an ugly Jew-baiter, well, there's not much else I can do to persuade you.
My attempt to respond to the rest of the screed in due course.