Category: Why X Matters

The Amorality of the State: An Excerpt from Why Niebuhr Matters

Famously cited as one of Obama’s favorite philosophers, midcentury religious and political thinker Reinhold Niebuhr offered “a political realism that refuses to abandon high moral principles to short-term practical compromises.” In Why Niebuhr Matters, from Yale University Press’s Why X Matters Series, author Charles Lemert explores the continued relevance of this morally demanding realism—and the value of Niebuhr’s writings more broadly for politics today.

In this excerpt from Chapter 5, “Nations, Global Politics, and Religion: Irony and American History,” Lemert focuses on the ideas Niebuhr lays out in such writings as Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Irony of American History, which question the capacity of the state to undertake moral actions. Beginning with a look into Niebuhr’s early fascination with the Hebrew prophet Amos, the chapter moves on to examine the ethical status of the nation, and the concept of “civil religion” of both the Cold War-era Soviet Union and the individualistic American democracy.

While Niebuhr’s position may be read as fundamentally pessimistic, it bears remembering that the philosopher was a Protestant preacher before he ever ventured into political thought. Indeed, Niebuhr’s religious convictions allow for a broader perspective on politics, in which the state may be ultimately imperfect, but “wisdom about our destiny is dependent upon a human recognition of the limits of our knowledge and power” on both the personal and political levels.

Literature Matters; Lionel Trilling Matters

In Why Trilling Matters, from Yale University Press’s Why X Matters Series, Adam Kirsch makes a compelling argument for why mid-century American literary critic Lionel Trilling might matter thirty-six years after his death. Yet the importance of a literary critic rests on the more fundamental question of the importance of literature, and just as Kirsch’s book is a statement on why Trilling matters, we might read Trilling’s oeuvre as a statement on why literature matters at all.

As a professor at Columbia, Trilling defended the value of literature to several generations of students, teaching “Important Books” in tandem with his colleague Jacques Barzun as part of Columbia’s developing core curriculum. In the public sphere, the essays Trilling published in The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere demonstrated the way that, in Kirsch’s words, “Trilling was the rare kind of writer for whom an idea is itself an experience.”

For Trilling, literature was far more than entertainment or even art. Rather, literature was a window into the most complex human behaviors and desires, and thus, the words he found on the page furnished the key to understanding everything going on outside of the library. In short, “More than any twentieth-century American intellectual, Trilling stood for the principles that society and politics cannot be fully understood without the literary imagination.”

Trilling was known for his liberal, anti-Stalinist politics, which, rather than being accessory to his literary works, were intimately entwined with them. As Kirsch puts it, “Trilling, thinking through the medium of literature rather than history or political philosophy,” came to “the same kinds of conclusions that can be found in the work of Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt.” In spite of their status as fictions, Trilling found justice and virtue in the novels of Henry James; from authors and their characters, he drew wisdom about the real world in which we live.

Kirsch rejects the popular interpretation of Trilling’s biography as the life of a “great literary critic, but a failed novelist, and therefore an unhappy, unsatisfied man,” an interpretation evoked by Louis Menand in his 2008 New Yorker profile, which begins with the sentence, “Lionel Trilling was not completely happy about being Lionel Trilling.” Regardless of Trilling’s own opinion of his success, Kirsch argues that we must learn from what Trilling did accomplish rather than pitying him for that he did not do. Besides, Trilling’s work as a writer provided him with insight into the writing process that could only be useful to a critic, so that although his 1947 novel The Middle of the Journey was not everything Trilling had imagined, it is by no means an embarrassment to a man who was, by 1971 “the most famous and authoritative literary critic in the English-speaking world.”

Trilling spent almost his entire academic life at Columbia, beginning as an undergraduate there in 1921, completing his doctorate in 1938, and later, becoming the first Jewish professor in the department to receive tenure. He made brief jaunts to Oxford, Harvard, and elsewhere, and was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities to give the first ever Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in 1972. Yet a look at Trilling’s academic career offers only a partial perspective on his legacy—in addition to being a professor, Trilling was, of course, both a critic and a public intellectual.

Indeed, Trilling was an incredibly prolific writer of critical essays and cultural commentary; according to the Columbia University library, “Bibliographies have been begun and abandoned due to the “sheer size of his oeuvre.”” His books, among them The Liberal Imagination (1950), The Opposing Self (1955), Beyond Culture (1965), and Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), were more widely read than most literary criticism before or since.

One reason for this, Kirsch asserts, is that his essays, rather than belonging to the genre of literary criticism, “belong to literature itself.” In this capacity, Trilling’s writings are “something more primary and more autonomous…Like poems, they dramatize the writer’s inner experience; like novels, they offer a subjective account of the writer’s social and psychological environment.” Whereas most criticism is secondary to the literature to which it refers, Trilling’s essays are ends in themselves.

In an essay Kirsch wrote for the New York Times on “Why Criticism Matters,” he refers to Trilling as an example of a tradition of critics whose “books are classics of criticism because they each show a mind working out its own questions — about psychology, society, politics, morals — through reading.” Such works of criticism, Kirsch continues, “show us what reading can be: a way of making one’s self, one’s soul.” This, of course, is why Trilling matters, for even though Cold War politics may not bear the same weight as they did in the 1950s, selves, souls, and reading are as relevant as ever.

One of Obama’s Favorite Philosophers

Reinhold Niebuhr’s best known contribution to contemporary culture is rarely associated with his name. “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other,” Niebuhr wrote in 1943, and although most modern Americans know the words of the Serenity Prayer in the slightly altered format that was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, the sentiment is a familiar one.

In Why Niebuhr Matters, the latest in Yale University Press’s Why X Matters Series, Charles Lemert explores the way in which this familiar sentiment—along with Niebuhr’s other theological and political thought—has ramifications far beyond the struggle for individual fortitude with which we most frequently associate the Serenity Prayer.  In a 2007 interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks, Barack Obama called Niebuhr “one of my favorite philosophers,” and Lemert makes clear the significance of the theologian’s import for the current president, along with others such as Jimmy Carter and Madeleine Albright, both of whom also acknowledged Niebuhr’s influence.

Niebuhr lived through both World Wars and bore witness to American efforts to fight communism, meaning that the thinking he did during those years is particularly relevant to our world today. Indeed, Lemert describes the United States as being at a “what-now?” moment in history, rife with anxieties about the relationship between religious and political cultures and the declining dominance of the West, and suggests that Niebuhr’s thinking offers “a moral guide to a politics that took seriously the world as it is.”

In describing his interpretation of this moral guide to David Brooks, Obama cited Niebuhr’s emphasis on the need to find a way of working somewhere in between “naïve idealism” and “bitter realism.” As Obama told Brooks, “there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.” According to Lemert, Niebuhr matters because he offers us “intellectual seriousness,” just what we need “in the face of realities none alive today could have been taught in childhood to imagine.”

November Theme: American History

For a month that annually celebrates the Thanksgiving holiday, the heritage of Native Americans, election season, and towards the end, a shopping frenzy that fuels the cycles of capitalism and consumerism, November brings with it many opportunities to reflect on the current state of American culture and the history that shaped it.

We’ll have a chance to cover Sister Citizen, but no doubt you’ve seen author Melissa Harris-Perry all over media outlets this fall, guest hosting the Rachel Maddow Show, in theaters reviewing The Help, writing her column for The Nation. And since our publication of David Margolick’s Elizabeth and Hazel, that famous photograph of two young women is once again all over the headlines.

From Paul Starr, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and senior advisor to President Clinton on health policy, comes Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar American Struggle over Health Care Reform, which is already starting discussions on Facebook.

Two new books in our Why X Matters series recreate the picture of mid-century public discourse: Adam Kirsch’s Why Trilling Matters and Charles Lemert’s Why Niebuhr Matters; American Modernism and the Steiglitz circle of influence created an inimitable legacy of twentieth-century art; William Thomas’s The Iron Way returns our consciousness to the Civil War and Reconstruction, with the railroad playing a central role in the shaping of modern America; and Julie Flavell takes us even further into the days when London was capital of America.

And as we lead up to the holidays, we’ll have a contest quiz about Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, featuring the personal libraries of Alison Bechdel, Stephen Carter, Junot Díaz, Rebecca Goldstein and Stephen Pinker, Lev Grossman and Sophie Gee, Jonathan Lethem, Claire Messud and James Wood, Philip Pullman, Gary Shteyngart, and Edmund White.

Be sure to read and follow along; as is often the case in America, there’s more…!

Say Good-bye to Your Dragon Tattoo: Why Translation Still Does and Will Always Matter

The importance of translation in bringing new books and ideas into English is crucial. Although no one has declared a universal language since Louis XIV, the dominance of English in international commerce, media, and even academia is impossible to ignore. Yet merely an estimated three percent of the hundreds of thousands of books published in the United States have been translated from non-English languages, and the volume of new, translated work from modern and contemporary writers is even less.

What would readers in English do without translation? Steig Larsson wrote the Millenium series in Swedish. Paulo Coelho penned The Alchemist in his native Portuguese. Consider: The Bible. And it goes without saying that classics like Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote would be otherwise lost to English audiences were it not for the continuance of translation. Heralded as the “Glenn Gould” of translators by Harold Bloom, Edith Grossman’s translation of the sixteenth-century Spanish novel has been considered itself a masterpiece.

How could a translation be considered separate from the original if it’s the same thing? IT’S NOT. Translation never is. When Garry Wills reviewed Sarah Ruden’s new translation of The Aeneid for the New York Review of Books, he called it “a great English poem in itself.” As Grossman herself often expresses: “[You] don’t do translations with tracing paper. No two languages match.” Writing in her book, Why Translation Matters, the experience of not one, but two artists comes alive:

In the process of translating, we [translators] endeavor to hear the first version of the work as profoundly and completely as possible, struggling to discover the linguistic charge, the structural rhythms, the subtle implications, the complexities of meaning and suggestion in vocabulary and phrasing, and the ambient cultural inferences and conclusions these tonalities allow us to extrapolate. This is a kind of reading as deep as any encounter with a literary text can be.

It is thanks to the adamantine commitment and dedication of organizations and publications like Words Without Borders, Three Percent, Asymptote Journal, Literary Translation at Columbia, and the American Literary Translators Association that the craft and presence of translated writing persists in American circles, that translators find the outlets for their difficult work, few though they may be. For our own part as an English-language publisher, Yale University Press has its Margellos World Republic of Letters series and many other translated titles that we are celebrating with our “Lost Without Translation” section of our blog. It’s certain that no one will speak all of the world’s languages, though they may be shrinking in number. Nevertheless, you might never know what you’re missing or how you can relate to an existence elsewhere, elsewhen, if it is never accessible to you in your own familiar words.

Here is a brief clip of Edith Grossman on translating Don Quixote, her art, and process from her 2009 talk presented by Words Without Borders and Idlewild Books. The full series of clips from the talk is available from the Words Without Borders YouTube channel.

Why Architecture Matters

Why Architecture Matters: Paul Goldberger Paul Goldberger knows a little something about architecture. As the architecture critic for The New Yorker, writing his celebrated “Sky Line” column since 1997, he also holds the Joseph Urban Chair in Design and Architecture at The New School in Manhattan. After beginning his career at the New York Times, he received a Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism. When he has something to say, there is a definite reason to listen.

The title of his book, Why Architecture Matters, might seem self-evident, even more so than the other books in the Why X Matters series, because architecture seems such a fundamental and foundational (no pun intended) part of civilization. Where would we be without buildings? Yes, that seems a dumb question. But, of course, that is not what Goldberger is writing. As we come to the end of National Poetry and Architecture months, Goldberger’s aesthetic appreciation of architecture, with his beautiful literary style, seem fitting to close:

The making of architecture is intimately connected to the knowledge that buildings instill within us emotional reactions. They can make us feel and they can also make us think. Architecture begins to matter when it brings delight and sadness and perplexity and awe along with a roof over our heads. It matters when it creates serenity or exhilaration, and it matters just as much, I have to say, when it inspires anxiety, hostility, or fear. Buildings can do all of these things, and more.

Clare Cavanagh and Edith Grossman at the 92nd Street Y

Why Translation Matters: Edith Grossman Before her NBCC win, Clare Cavanagh already had events lined up at the 92nd Street Y. The first on Sunday, March 20 is a conversation with Edith Grossman titled “Why Translation Matters,” and Grossman’s book of the same name has just been published in paperback from YUP. Both authors are critically-acclaimed translators of the first order; Grossman has often been called one of the most important of our time, particularly for her work on Spanish-English translations of Latin American writers and her hallmark translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

CLyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West: Clare Cavanagh On Monday, March 21, the second event with Cavanagh pertains more directly to the studies of her award-winning book, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics. In conversation with Robert Hass and Adam Zagajewski, she will discuss the works of Czesław Miłosz for the centenary celebration of the Polish poet’s life. The blog at Little Star, a journal of poetry and prose founded by Ann Kjellberg and Melissa Green, has more information on upcoming events celebrating Miłosz. Be sure to grab tickets to the Y events while they’re still available, and if you’re under 35, purchase them at the amazingly discounted price of $10. These are conversations not to be missed.

J’Accuse! (Heard That One Before?)

On February 7, 1898, French writer Émile Zola was brought to trial for libel in his publication of “J’Accuse” in L’Aurore, a daily, leftist paper in Paris. His indictment of the French military’s treatment of the Drefyus Affair catapulted the anti-Semitic, pro-nationalist conspiracy to international recognition. The sympathetic camp of Dreyfusards finally had a popular face to put with their campaign. Zola’s voice as he listed the targets of his accusations could not be ignored.

The nascent Third Republic in France was still settling its differences between l’ancien regime and newfound, lasting republicanism. First and foremost at that crossroads was the aristocratic, militaristic French Army, where the traditions of monarchy were more prominent than most sects of French culture. The duplicitous, institutional cover-up of guilty Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the true spy in the ranks who traded secrets with the Germans, was a divisive moment in France, splitting political parties, religious groups, families, even the very identity of the nation. Meanwhile, Dreyfus withered away in penal exile on Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana. For cases of discrimination and bigotry alike, the Dreyfus Affair has had a lasting impact on how we interpret justice in our modern democracies.

As part of our Why X Matters series, attorney and novelist Louis Begley has penned Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters. Writing for the New York Review of Books, Robert Gildea noted that Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters: Louis Begley “[Begley’s] writing is particularly powerful in drawing lessons for American society after September 11.” Indeed, the book itself opens with a reflection on cases at Guantánamo Bay, written on the day after President Obama’s inauguration as Begley put the final touches on the manuscript. Begley goes on to wonder:

Times and circumstances change. Some Guantánamo detainees may be as innocent as Dreyfus; some surely are not. But before January 20, Guantánamo detainees could look forward only to trials that would be as unfair and lacking in protections for the defendant as the court-martial that convicted Dreyfus.

When considering those charged—then and now, innocent and guilty—it is hard to escape the legacy of this most infamous modern scandal of accusations, wrong or otherwise. The poems, plays, films, invocations and exclamations echo over and over: J’accuse! And we are instantly transported to turn-of-the-century France and how it revealed its own internal struggles on a global stage.

The Legacy of Philip Johnson

Today is what would have been Philip Johnson’s 104th birthday.  Philip Johnson was a renowned architect whose work covered the 20th century and many of its architectural styles.  Coincidentally, questions of 20th and 21st century architecture have been appearing in the news recently, as Vanity Fair has published results of a survey on the most important works of architecture since 1980.  The clear top choice was Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, a building that Gehry says encompasses his vision of what was next for architecture—his reaction to the postmodernist style in which Johnson was a major player during the latter part of his practice.Why Architecture Matters

Philip Johnson clearly stands as a predecessor and inspiration for the architects who are nominated in Vanity Fair.  The accompanying article by Matt Tyrnauer in fact opens with Philip Johnson as he visits Bilbao (a moment you can also see in this Charlie Rose segment with Matt Tyrnauer), a work that led Johnson to declare Gehry the “‘greatest architect we have today.’”  Vanity Fair’s poll mirrors Johnson’s sentiments; twenty-eight votes were cast in support of the Museum in Bilbao, gaining it the top ranking in the survey.  Paul Goldberger, the author of the Yale Press book Why Architecture Matters, explains to Tyrnauer that Bilbao marked a major turning point in architectural history, one on which all agreed.

Philip Johnson’s works were also culturally significant, though not as universally well-liked as is the case with the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.  His AT&T building becomes one of the icons of postmodernism, but what makes it an icon—above all its roof which mimics Chippendale furniture—also makes it extremely controversial when built.  His buildings have even become infamous beyond the architectural world; three floors of Johnson’s Lipstick Building became the headquarters of Bernie Madoff’s company.

Philip Johnson: The Constancy of Change In Philip Johnson: The Constancy of Change, sixteen major figures in architecture, both study and practice, offer their perspectives on Johnson and his work.  The volume matches multiple people with multiple notable and complex aspects of Johnson’s work and life.  The essays focus in closely on Johnson, or cover broader subjects which relate to his architecture.  With this variety of scholars commenting on the same and similar issues, the book offers up a variety of critical perspectives on the life, work, and ideas of Philip Johnson.

As Emmanuel Petit notes in his introduction, the “life span of an architect” is unclear, not necessarily limited the days of their birth and passing.  Johnson must live on in his buildings, and in studies like Constancy of Change.  There is much left to discuss and debate about Johnson and his buildings.  The same will undoubtedly become true of Frank Gehry and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

The Economist review of Begley’s Dreyfus Affair

The Economist has a positive review today of Louis Begley’s Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters.


“As a primer on the affair, this is a first-rate narrative and a heartfelt plea to modern democracies to stick to their values and defend basic liberties, however threatened they feel.”—Economist