Malcolm Gladwell has found God (and Glenn Beck)

On Beck’s show Gladwell went well beyond anything he said in his book.

This piece originally appeared on newrepublic.com

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of numerous best-selling books and a writer for The New Yorker, recently made a surprising stop on the publicity tour for his latest effort, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. At Glenn Beck’s television studio in Dallas, where his online show is filmed, the two men discussed faith, the mainstream media, and Gladwell’s career. Beck, dressed in a suit and donning a colorful blue bowtie, was nevertheless playing it cool: far from the ringmaster presiding over a circus of conspiracy-theorizing and racial pot-stirring, the former Fox host was calm and relaxed.

Indeed, Beck seemed surprised to see Gladwell in the flesh, but the tone of the conversation – pleasant, agreeable, religiously-themed – struck me as surprising. The interview began when Beck scolded the mainstream media for ignoring the faith-based aspects of Gladwell’s new book. “It’s an odd thing,” Gladwell responded. “By the end of the book I realized what I really wanted to talk about was faith...The weapons of the spirit.” Beck asked whether Gladwell himself was spiritual, and Gladwell responded that although he grew up in a religious household, he “drifted away,” and “with this book I am coming back.” He added: “This book was a weird journey for me.”

Listening to all this seemed like a weird journey for me, as someone who has closely followed Gladwell's career. I have read nearly everything Gladwell has written – I wrote a long piece for The New Republic about him in 2009 – and I had never sensed a spiritual or religious dimension in his work. (I did criticize him for writing a form of self-help book, a genre that often has a religious tinge.) So I decided to call Gladwell up and discuss some of these issues with him.

Gladwell was working on an article, but he was solicitous and engaged, and answered all my questions. When I asked him why he had chosen to go on the show of someone known for racially insensitive remarks and deranged political commentary, Gladwell said that Beck was an “important member of the media community,” and that when you enter into a contract with your book publisher, you are obligated to get the book out to as many people as possible. (After we got off the phone, Gladwell also emailed me a “disclosure statement” he wrote on his website about book writing, and how book authors and magazine/newspaper writers have different obligations and responsibilities.) He added that it isn’t necessary to agree with the views of everyone who is interviewing you.

What most interested me was Gladwell’s claim about the book’s religious content. On this subject, Gladwell seconded what he had said to Beck, essentially arguing that different people read the book in different ways. “It’s a very interesting experience—I was in Salt Lake City...and everyone read the book that way,” Gladwell told me. “I must have done six interviews and all they talked about was the faith part. I think it depends where you stand.” He added, in a phrase that one could hear Beck uttering, that “people on the coast” seemed to be ignoring the faith-based aspects of the book. (On his show, Beck claimed that the book was something he himself could have written.)

Gladwell’s book has an index: Neither “faith” nor “God” nor “religion” appear in it. Faith is not mentioned on the cover flap. It’s true that some of the stories he tells involve religious people, but he shies away from religious language and lays almost no stress on the religious dimensions of the various tales.

When I pressed him to identify the spiritual aspects of the book, he more than once mentioned the epigraph, which is a quote from the first Book of Samuel. (There is also the title, of course.) When I pressed for more, he said there was not a “specific passage of the book,” but that the idea of faith coursed through it. He used none of the language that he used with Beck, where he stated, “Sometimes people of faith don’t understand how powerful their faith makes them.”

I am not going to review David and Goliath here – in our next issue of the magazine, John Gray has written a detailed essay on it – but on Beck’s show Gladwell went well beyond anything he said in the book. For example, in the book Gladwell talks about a French town run by Protestants who decided to shelter Jews. Some reviewers have taken issue with the lesson Gladwell draws from the story, which is essentially that underdogs do stand a fighting chance. But on Beck’s show, Gladwell exclaimed, approvingly taking the voice of the French resisters, “Woah. Armed with the spirit of the Lord, we can actually hold our own against a bunch of [Nazis] with tanks.”

In the book, Gladwell attributes some of the French Protestant defiance to their difficult history of being persecuted, but the chapter is not about religion. (The chapter also makes clear that there were other factors that led to the strange situation in this particular town.) I did not ask Gladwell whether he actually thinks faith is the best resistance to totalitarianism and genocide.

Gladwell seemed disappointed that, as he said, some of the people who had criticized his book had not read it, and he was also clearly thankful that Beck himself certainly appeared to have consumed David and Goliath with interest. He told me that this book was different from the other books he had written, and returned to the idea of a journey: “one the book will take the reader on.”

This piece originally appeared on newrepublic.com

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser