On May 2, 2017, Willard Spiegelman spoke at a regional meeting of the ALSCW. The event was held at the highly agreeable Culture Center at 410 Columbus Avenue, on the Park, on Manhattan island, with twenty-five guests in attendance. The space was conducive to such convivium: a lovely, well lit room, with walls covered in images of the Buddha and mandalas; the food was very good and the wine poured freely.
Before his talk, “Me and Not Me: What We All Owe to Montaigne.” Professor Spiegelman (gracious in a smart coat and signature bowtie) made the rounds, welcoming old, well-known relations as well as those more recently arrived on the scene, making both feel welcomed. Perhaps this scene and its effects can be attributed to a Southern trait or constellation of traits, but a deep presence and sincerity suggested something much more serious. (Either that or I have been living in the Northeast for far too long. Perhaps this is what a lifetime in Dallas does to a public intellectual – renders him eminently pleasant company.)
Guests continue to stream in as Professor Spiegelman pulls each into conversation. Attendees browse the stacks of Spiegelman’s books on offer (Senior Moments and If You See Something, Say Something). Professor Spiegelman is the elder statesman in a room of elder statesmen. Guests finger the books and then purchase them; the stacks deplete.
Phillis Levin, whose most recent book, Mr. Memory, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in poetry, provided the night’s opening remarks, setting the tone for what would be an intellectually engaging and warm evening of lecture and discussion. These remarks were kept brief, with Professor Levin assuring the audience: “I know why you are here.”
Professor Levin’s reflection on the reason for this meeting brought her introduction around to The Little Prince and specifically the notion that all grown-ups were children, though few remember. Professor Spiegelman remembers. She observed quite rightly that he was a man, a writer valued for his “prickly wit and genius.” Levin closed her introduction by noting that Spiegelman’s work spoke to T.S. Eliot’s notion of a “dissociation of sensibility”; she sees in Spiegelman’s works a re-association of sensibility.
In Montaigne’s essays we find (and, upon returning, discover and rediscover) not only an art for living but a codex for reading. We read better, think better, and perhaps even live a bit better for setting ourselves to the task of reading and rereading these essays. And what a sweet task it is.
Spiegelman spoke about writing, as he meant to. He observed that he never set out to write a memoir, never set out for advancing age either. And, yet, here we are. This and other self-deprecations aside, ours is presently a moment in need of essays and Spiegelman has answered the call.
If this is an era in which attention is, at best, under duress, Spiegelman spoke to our cultural moment, expounding on the importance of focus – an important, prescient lesson in an age of divided and fleeting attention. He recalled teaching a course structured around six poems, but only getting to five of them, and, hearing in conversation with Helen Vendler that she would like to get it down to one. There is an implied crisis here – a crisis of attention.
Why essays? These are not tweets, not hash-tagged photographs of food. Memoir is for the young, practitioners of the abhorrently labeled “creative nonfiction”, a classification Spiegelman will not abide. Unlike creative nonfiction, Montaigne’s essays demand something of their readership, and yet meet them part of the way down the lane.
Spiegelman regards Montaigne as the master of the essay – observing that in Montaigne, as in Emerson, there is no thesis: the reader does not know where the text will go. The writing follows the process of the mind at work; hence the essay cannot be reduced to five paragraphs, or summed up by a thesis statement. But it is nonetheless discourse, never plodding – a mode which requires a patient and practiced reader, someone who wants to see where this goes. And we want to see where Spiegelman goes.
Speaking on Montaigne’s “On the Art of the Conversation,” Spiegelman observes the master of the essay’s motion from conversation to reading. He finds Montaigne’s efficacy to be evident – he is a master because he interests you in a subject that you might otherwise find unintriguing. This, Spiegelman posits, is the mark of a good essayist.
Spiegelman’s talk moved beyond writing during the following question & answer period, as topics regarding the Culture Wars and the academy inevitably stepped out into the center of the room. Guests eagerly awaited a diagnosis from Spiegelman, and they received one which walked the tightrope between the ideal and the pragmatic.
Responding to the age of Culture Wars, Spiegelman called for a time to focus on the development of the mind, doing so for a broad readership and with a limited wordcount at The Wall Street Journal. The ship is sinking, as Spiegelman prudently put it, and we are all going down together, conservatives and liberals alike. It is an age of crisis for intellectualism, for attention, and hence for the university.
And yet, Spiegelman is both an idealist and pragmatist. He knows where we should be, and, knowing where we are, he is willing to meet us on this side of the page. Spiegelman circled back to the virtues of the master, noting that Montaigne was “tolerant, conscious, a liberal in all senses” – “a best friend and Dutch uncle combined” – “telling you when you are straying and tolerating you all the time.” He concluded, appropriately, with a charge, a call for Liberal education to make us effective learners and ultimately effective citizens, people with our eyes and ears wide open. The call went out to all, beyond the enlightened Eastern-inflected walls of The Culture Center, from this agreeable audience to the potentially outright hostile. There is work to do, water to bale, and everyone’s shoes are wet.
For now, we’ll hold our breath and wait for a teased Al Jolson work (a truly understudied and undervalued Jewish American Treasure) – as for the nature of the project, be it article-length or a book in full, Spiegelman says only: “we’ll see what happens.” Yet whether or not he knows it (or if I knew it before this night), Spiegelman is, perhaps more than he knows, something between a best friend and Dutch Uncle both in person and in text, taking up the charge of the post-partisan public intellectual in an age of cultural ambivalence and entropy.