Paragraphs achieve greatness when they reach beyond their immediate subject to touch the wider world. It may explain why we live in an age awash with throwaway one-liners but almost bereft of enduring thought.
Almost bereft, but not entirely. We have the good fortune, after all, to live at a time when Joseph Epstein is writing essays that are superabundant with bon mots, rich with wisenheimerisms and, above all, serving up series of sentences confined to a single topic that are masterpieces of the writer’s craft. For those not familiar with Epstein, his Essays in Biography is a wonderful place to start. Suffice it to say that the workmanship is of such superior quality that it passed muster even with that intellectual and literary arc welder Rex Murphy, who recommends it be read cover to cover.
There are innumerable examples citable to justify that recommendation, but one in particular stands for all the rest. Discussing the American critical curmudgeon Alfred Kazin, Epstein writes: “He was a man perpetually ticked off, a walking wound in search of a salt shaker. He genuinely believed that anyone who didn’t agree with him could only have the lowest possible motives for doing so.”
A walking wound in search of a salt shaker. Whether it is true or not of Kazin is, of course, open to argument. That it is a devastating nine-word characterization of Kazin is indisputable. What matters, though, is that it describes not just an individual but an era: ours. What expands it from the man to the age is the observation of the sentence that completes the paragraph: the genuine belief that those who disagree do so out of malice and nothing but.
Here is a mirror held up not just to one person’s phizog but to the moodiness of our moment. Rich, pampered, coddled, neurotic, we are the people of the relentless kvetch, “perpetually ticked off” and desperately seeking sodium chloride. But we are something worse.
We are actors in a cycle of cynicism where the mere assumption of positive intent is seen as a sign of a cruelly sheltered childhood. To believe is to be deemed utterly naïve if the belief requires faith that someone else’s approach proceeds from good intentions. Giving the benefit of the doubt leaves us dubious about the giver’s a) mental health or b) true intentions.
One of the most succinct—and refreshing—descriptions of this cycle is found in a brilliant recent interview that my Cardus colleague James Smith did with New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Brooks elaborates expanding circles of Epsteinian salt-shaker-seeking that both bedevil the American political system and perpetuate falsehoods about it.
“(T)he media is more cynical than the politicians and the voters are more cynical than media . . . (B)ut if you go into those buildings (in Washington) as I have, (if) you sit in the meetings, you’ll see something different. We would never cover it in the media, of course; it’s just too boring. But the people are very high quality. They’re not getting paid a lot of money, and they’re really committed to public service. That’s the real stuff of government.”
Brooks then goes further, pointing out that the Washington political people he deals with on a daily basis are
“actually decent people. They are usually in it for the right reason. They’re caught in a pretty miserable system right now but that doesn’t mean they themselves are miserable. They’re trying their best within the system that exists around them . . . the people who are away from politics, who just sort of look at it on cable TV, are more cynical than the people who are actually in the middle of it. Many of them are doing remarkable work for the right reasons.”
What I read in the above paragraphs is more than a warning to take with a grain of salt what the media dishes out daily. It is a cultural challenge to dispense with the habit of being “perpetually ticked off”, of reflexively making everything a grievance, of habitually making every grievance more painful, and of turning derision into the default language of public discourse.
It is a worthy caution and one that corresponds well to something I re-read recently about a certain Saviour who called us all to be salt, and who offered his own wounds as a place for us to put our hands whenever we are bedeviled by doubt. Now those are paragraphs that touch the world.