Leon Wieseltier: “I don’t believe that civility or tenderness is a primary intellectual virtue”

An interview with New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, winner of the US$1m Dan David Prize, on critical standards in a technological age, slowing the march of Big Data and Barack Obama's moral vanity.

On Sunday 9 June Leon Wieseltier will be presented with the Dan David Prize at Tel Aviv University. The New Republic literary editor will join French philosopher Michel Serres and MIT economist Esther Duflo in receiving awards worth US$1m for their “outstanding contribution to humanity”. The prize, conferred annually since 2002, emphasises interdisciplinary research and aims to “foster university values of excellence, creativity, justice, democracy and progress”.

A little biography: Wieseltier was born in Brooklyn in 1952. After studying philosophy, literature and art history at universities in Britain and the US, he was made a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He has been literary editor at the New Republic since 1983. His books include Nuclear War, Nuclear Peace (1983), Against Identity (1996) and Kaddish (1998) - part-memoir, part-cultural history, in which the writer traces the history of the Jewish prayer for the dead after losing his father. He also translates modern Hebrew poetry into English and appeared briefly in The Sopranos.

According to the Dan David board, Wieseltier is being honoured for “setting the standard for serious cultural discussion in the United States”. He laughed when I read this aloud to him: “It’s a terrible responsibility to bear…”. I asked whether he believed the award implied a degree of anxiety about declining standards, the influence of technology upon the humanities (he remains involved “at the level of a layman – perhaps a little less than that”), the condition of criticism and the sheer noisiness of intellectual life.

Leon Wieseltier: The cultural debate in America usually happens at quite a low level, and there isn’t that much of it, but right now it’s never been noisier. The new technology is ideal for generating noise, and I think there’s also a lot of – how shall I put this - worthless praise and empty friendliness out there. Every once in a while somebody has to come in and say something that may seem negative but nonetheless has the effect of making things a little stricter.

There are rules of engagement, are there not, where serious criticism is concerned?

People often accuse me of publishing or writing negative criticism, but I actually believe in negative criticism. When I write an article that seems to be an attack on a book or on a figure, my view is that I’m not attacking something, I’m defending something that has already been attacked. I don’t write ad hominem pieces, I’m not that sort of journalist (I’m not really a journalist at all), but I do believe that when one sees something that one values traduced in some way, the response should be forceful. There are stakes and sometimes the stakes are quite high. It’s not always a matter of life or death, but still, the quality of the culture in which one lives really matters.

There’s an award, the Hatchet Job of the Year, that sees itself in those terms – as a defence rather than an attack.

I’m against gratuitous cruelty in criticism but I don’t believe that civility or tenderness is a primary intellectual virtue, especially on important subjects. If one is in the business of what used to be called “the battle of ideas” one should thicken one’s skin.

Next year the New Republic will turn 100. You’ve been literary editor there for 30 years, and must have seen some big changes, particularly over the last few months. How has the magazine changed?

It’s changed in all sorts of ways in its external characteristics – physically, in the frequency of its publication and of course in the addition of a website and so on. In its internal characteristics – its essential characteristics – there’s been an extraordinary level of continuity. The discontinuities have never wildly outweighed the continuities so that it became unrecognisable. Quite the contrary. One of my roles there is to worry about this and work towards a high degree of continuity. We have a very different look right now visually, but we are still unmistakeably the New Republic, which is a wonderful thing.

My view of the digital revolution and what it’s doing to publishing and journalism is this: just because there are new bottles, it doesn’t mean the old wine was bad. Even at the very beginning of the internet period there was this idea that the medium would change the message and the form would have to be the content. It had to be quick and fast. I think things are calming down a little bit now. I think the first period of internet history – the dizzy, inebriated period – is ending, which is good. But as I say, I think that the challenge for us is to get ideas that are delivered at a high level of intellectual literary quality and to get them onto the new technology. Not to alter what we do because people have no patience anymore.

One could easily be forgiven for getting lost amid all the information, losing track of the value of any of it.

It’s the greatest single assault on human attention ever devised. It’s going to effect everything for better or worse. It’s a huge subject. I write about it sometimes. I certainly worry about it a lot.

You recently focussed on the limits of Big Data, and the “datafication” – ugly word…

It’s OK you can put it in quotes.

…of subjectivity. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier write confidently about Twitter's capacity to act as a kind of barometer of sentiment. It reminded me of that Emerson quote: “Life is what a man is thinking of all day”. I couldn’t help but think it really isn’t what a person is tweeting. Mind and Twitter will never converge. There is data and there is the human activity of contextualising and understanding and emoting and processing things. They are distinct.

I think two things about that: one, you’re right when you speak about Twitter as a barometer. Unfortunately, a great many people are now busy looking at the barometer once every five minutes. Imagine if you did that about the actual weather! The distinction between information and knowledge is the central point. I think that there are two things which differentiate information from knowledge – one is time and the other is method. The computer reduces all knowledge to the status of information. You can go online and you can Google my security number, you can Google God’s existence, but essentially they're the same type of request.

I don’t know how things are in the States, but here, “global competition” is being used almost as an excuse to reduce those areas of learning that are seen as in any way inefficient.

Oh yes, the attitude towards knowledge now is highly instrumental and highly pragmatic. Those are the values that are generated by a technological culture. There’s no question about that. Sometimes the things that most change one’s life or comfort one in times of sore need or enable one to help other people are the kinds of knowledge that are in some sense useless.

You have written about the “emotional efficiency” of the American response to the Boston Bombings. This story rolled on for weeks in the States, while in Britain it fizzled out after a few days – does this imply a greater trauma than the refusal to appear moved by terrorism implies?

Don’t be fooled. Efficiency in motion is in some ways an American value – in others you’d think that wallowing in emotion was more of an American trait, except of course wallowing in emotion is never really experiencing emotion – and yet the efficiency of emotion was in fact an expression of fear. Terrorism works. It scares people. I didn’t follow the British coverage of the American events but of course England has had more experience of this than the United States has had in terms of terrorism in the homeland. The United States is freakishly insulated by history, geography, culture. When these things happen they are especially startling, but Americans like to move on. To achieve “closure”. When all the stuff about the brothers emerged it felt like it was time to hold a memorial service. But they’d already held it – Obama spoke.

The way the mechanism springs into action as if it’s been pre-planned leaves even less room for reflection.

Speed is the central quality of technology. It’s about the acceleration of things, including the inner life, and you saw that in the response to Boston. What one has to do, not just as a writer or as a thinker but even in one’s own life, is look for those experiences that allow one to de-accelerate. In other words, to find those things that cannot be sped up and cherish them more.

You have spoken a great deal about Syria, which has been a case of analysis and hesitance rather than expediency. It is a daily horror show, and has been for soon time. After the attacks in Boston people in Britain were keen to point out what was happening around the world – in Iraq, for example, or Syria, on the same day – where death tolls were much far than in the United States. Where are you now on Syria?

I’m still for western intervention. I still think we have to build up a force that will be friendly to the west after Assad is gone. A political force that will owe us something and will fight the jihadists. It’s not too late to deny Al-Qaeda a government in Damascus. It isn’t too late to stem the tide of refugees. It’s a huge problem. Even on humanitarian grounds, I don’t think the west should sit back and watch a dictator rain scud missiles on civilians or use chemical weapons. In foreign policy there are such things as moral emergencies that require rapid deployment, and as I understand Syria’s not the only moral emergency. I never understood the argument that because we can’t act in one place we shouldn’t act in any. It’s late though, our options would have been better two years, or even one year previously.

And waiting is not a neutral action.

That’s exactly right. It’s been more than two years. It was quite a lot more than two years in Bosnia before the United States and the west decided to take action. One keeps at it, but it is not the job of the President of the United States to bear witness to anything. You and I have to bear witness to things because we don’t have the power to actually affect them, but there are people in the world, starting with the President of the United States, who can pick up the phone and actually alter the situation. It’s grotesque. Obama’s indecisiveness and the disconnection between his lofty moral rhetoric and his actual behaviour is the central feature of his foreign policy.

There are example from recent history of course – Bill Clinton famously spoke of his regrets over the Rwandan genocide. Will Obama speak similarly about Syria?

I don’t think so. Obama’s moral vanity is so large I don’t think he’ll ever apologise. I thought Clinton’s apology on Rwanda was a little cheap – that’s easy enough, I’ve apologised – but no, Obama’s bearing witness. It’s the strangest thing. The most powerful man in the world has decided for reasons I don’t entirely understand to be genuinely passive about the most important challenges.

“We have to look for those experiences that allow one to de-accelerate. To find those things that cannot be sped up, and cherish them more”. Leon Wieseltier in his office. Photograph: Books Kraft.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Are we taking Woody Allen for granted?

In some ways, Allen is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect.

Do you know what a state Annie Hall was in when it first emerged from the editing room? Maybe you’ve heard that its original title was Anhedonia – referring to Alvy Singer’s inability to experience pleasure – but it wasn’t just a title. That was the film that Allen shot: a Fellini-esque stream of consciousness, honeycombed with flashbacks to Alvy’s Coney Island childhood, featuring a murder mystery, a Nazi interrogation dream, an elevator trip to hell and a basketball game between a team of philosophers and the New York Knicks.

“Terrible, completely unsalvageable,” said Allen’s co-writer, Marshall Brickman, of the film they saw as a rough cut in late 1976. Only one thing worked: the subplot involving Alvy’s romance with Annie Hall. “I didn’t sit down with Marshall Brickman and say, ‘We’re going to write a picture about a relationship,’” Allen later said. “I mean, the whole concept of the picture changed as we were cutting it.”

His reaction to the success of Annie Hall – his biggest hit at the box office at the time and the winner of four Academy Awards – was the same reaction he had to any of his films that went over too well with the public: he disparaged it, while quietly absorbing its lessons. Bits and pieces of Annie Hall showed up in his other films for the next two decades – Alvy’s Coney Island childhood resurfacing in Radio Days, the murder mystery in Manhattan Murder Mystery, the elevator trip to hell in Deconstructing Harry – while reshoots and rewrites became a staple of most of his pictures, granting him the freedom almost of a novelist working through successive drafts.

“It was remarkable what he did for me,” Diane Keaton later said of Allen’s ear for Annie’s Chippewa Falls language: self-conscious, neurotic, a little jejune in her attempts to sound smarter than she is, “flumping around, trying to find a sentence”. Annie Hall was a breech delivery, as indeed it had to be, as the first film of Allen’s that was almost entirely taken over by another performer, a voice other than his. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Allen studied the great magicians and in many ways his greatest achievement as a director has been to make himself disappear.

Introverts often grow up thinking that they are invisible – a fear, perhaps, but a strangely comforting one and something of a sustaining fantasy should they become famous. These days, Allen has the invisibility of ubiquity, noiselessly producing a film every year for critics to take a whack at: is it good Woody or bad Woody?

Allen is a figure occluded by the scandals and speculation of his private life, which still sends tabloid Geiger counters crackling, some two decades after his break with Mia Farrow. The headlines could almost be the pitch for a Woody Allen film, were it not that Allen has already made it. In Zelig, the chameleonic hero is, you may remember, “sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages and performing unnecessary dental extractions”, before finding redemption in some Lindberghian derring-do – an accurate forecast, in a sense, of Allen’s return to making crowd-pleasers in the mid-1990s. Except that Zelig was released in 1983. On the rise and fall of Woody Allen, Allen, it seems, was there first.

His 46th film opens in cinemas on 11 September. In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dishevelled, alcoholic philosophy professor who decides to pull himself out of his funk with a spot of murder, which has long replaced masturbation as the favoured activity of the Allen male. I’ll leave it to Allen’s old shrinks to tease out the connection between comedy and murder, spotted by Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious – why else do we talk of comedians “killing” it, or “slaying” their audience, if not for the release of hostility common to both? And I’ll leave it to the critics to decide the relation of Irrational Man to the earlier Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The problem with late Allen is not that the films are bad necessarily but that they are sketchy: spindly and dashed off, the result of a too-easy passage from page to screen. Allen’s has to be the shortest in show business. A film a year, as regular as clockwork, with zero studio interference. He is the one genuine success story to emerge from the big, hairy, super-freak auteurist experiment of the 1970s – the auteur of auteurs. Francis Ford Coppola crashed and burned. Martin Scorsese crashed and came back. Robert Altman was driven into exile, Terrence Malick into early retirement. Who would have guessed that the only film-maker to keep chugging along would be the writer of What’s New Pussycat?

It may tell us something about auteurism as an idea, certainly as a production model in Hollywood, which has always reacted to success by throwing money at it, granting film-makers ever greater control – a dubious drug denying them the artistic constraints and collaboration in which their creativity first flourished. It vacuum-packs their talent.

The one-man-band aspects of Allen’s career mask the juice that he gets from his co-conspirators: Keaton, but also Dianne Wiest, Farrow and Judy Davis. Most of his biggest box-office successes have been co-written: Annie Hall and Manhattan (with Brickman), Bullets Over Broadway (with Douglas McGrath). “The first thing he says is, ‘If you’re not comfortable, change it,’” said Wiest of working on Hannah and Her Sisters.

“It’s as if he’s got a feather in his hand and he blows it and it goes off in a dozen directions,” said Jeff Daniels after starring in The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s a lovely image, for that is what the film is about: the unruliness of creation running disobediently beyond its creators’ grasp. This is the great Allen theme. It is the theme of Bullets Over Broadway; of his other great farce about artistic creation, “The Kugelmass Episode”, his New Yorker short story about a professor of humanities who drops into the pages of Madame Bovary to conduct an affair with its heroine; and of his one-act play Writer’s Block, in which the characters of an unfinished manuscript push open the drawer and take over the author’s Connecticut house. It is the theme of all of the romances, too, in which women grow, Pygmalionishly, beneath the green fingers of the Allen male, only to outgrow and leave him.

The biggest dead patches in his work, on the other hand, have come when he was most cut off from collaborators: the run of movies he made in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Farrow, clenched in silent agony and overdosed in brown; or the series of comedies that he dug out of his drawer for DreamWorks in the early 2000s – The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Any­thing Else – long after he had lost interest, or could summon the energy for farce.

In some ways, Allen today is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect. He encourages his actors to change his scripts as much as they want, but who is going to pluck up the courage to tell the quadruple Oscar winner that kids don’t “make love” any more, or fall for “nihilistic pessimism”, or name-drop O’Neill, Sartre and Tennessee Williams? Jason Biggs, the star of American Pie and American Pie 2 and Allen’s lead in his 2003 film Anything Else? I think not.

One should, however, resist the temptation to give up on him. Midnight in Paris moved with the sluggishness of melted Camembert but Blue Jasmine had the leanness of a cracked whip, in part because in Cate Blanchett Allen found a collaborator willing to go the distance with him on a theme close to his heart: female vengeance. “Take after take after take of very exhaustive, emotional scenes,” recalled Alec Baldwin. “I sat there at the end of the day and thought, ‘She is unbelievable.’”

If Allen’s early films mined comedy from Thurber-like fantasists and romantic Machiavels and his mid-period work drew rueful comedy from reality’s refusal to co-operate, his late work seems most preoccupied by the painful urge to peel the world of illusion, to see it stripped bare. He is now at work on his 47th film, starring Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Parker Posey and Bruce Willis – and the excitement there is surely at the thought of Willis, once the king of the wisecrack and exploding fireball, now 60, collaborating with a film-maker deep into his own twilight. Both men could well find each other’s groove, or, better still, shake one another out of it. Yipikaye, pussycat.

Tom Shone’s “Woody Allen: a Retrospective” will be published by Thames & Hudson on 11 September

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism