Adam Gopnik was in town recently with the Salisbury Forum. He called his talk “notes of a reluctant pundit” and opened with a funny story about what he called his first experience with punditry, in the mid 1980’s in New York.
The short version of that story is that Gopnik gave a keynote, with almost no advance notice, to the Pluralism and Individualism Society. He had no idea what the group did but he figured the topic of pluralism and individualism was sufficiently broad to allow him to talk about modern art, which was something he knew about. The conference organizer told Gopnik afterwards that his remarks were healing. I mention this detail because Gopnik had a very similar effect for me.
In the weeks prior, I had been distraught about my relationship with the news media — I wanted to re-engage after our travels, but I couldn’t figure out how or where to do so thoughtfully, especially post-election. My interactions with radio news, newspapers, dinner-table conversation, the writing of friends, and snippets of television went badly. I was, at times, hysterical (and I don’t mean extremely funny).
Writing, thinking, reading, and talking weren’t helping me move through my efforts to re-engage. I was terrified and stuck. With examples from philosophy and history, Gopnik persuaded me that “writing sanely about politics in a less than sane America” is possible. To accomplish this, he cited Camus, Darwin, Lincoln, and many other people, many ideas about irony, (deadly) abstraction, truth, empiricism, tone, and civil society.
I’ve been trying to sum up that “spark” — how and why this moment shifted my thinking — and I’ve concluded it’s not possible to do so in a brief way. It was a long talk, the effect is a sum-of-the-parts. You had to be there. Gopnik did a good job of threading together complex ideas in a coherent and accessible way, and I think it resonated with the audience: they laughed, hmmed and mmmed, and asked questions at the end. His remarks also had personal resonance for me, because of the ways I try to understand the world. That’s all difficult to distill, as are the ideas of thinkers like Camus. In awarding Camus its prize for literature in 1957, the Nobel Prize committee cited his writing’s:
clear-sighted earnestness [that] illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.
That’s not too much to want, is it?
Here are my notes.