Down With Indifference

There’s been an interesting convergence lately of worry about passion and its absence, detachment and its dangers, or on the other hand about the intrusiveness and intolerance of passion and engagement. The two stances – passion and dispassion – have been exemplified in two thinkers: Richard Dawkins and Louis Menand.

David Bromwich took Louis Menand to task in the New Republic in January for his lack of a ruling passion or driving enthusiasm, excitement or anger, for being too easily unimpressed, too cool, too responsible and distant.

The idea of a radical break in thought is alien to Menand. The leveling of distinctions also serves as an intellectual labor-saving device. Nothing is very new; nothing, maybe, ever was; nothing matters as much as you think it matters.

Then last week Leon Wieseltier renewed the charge, again in the New Republic. This time the subject was George Orwell, and an essay Menand wrote about him for the New Yorker. Wieseltier is far more indignant than Bromwich (in fact it would be an interesting exercise to set up a Passion-o-Meter for all the participants in this argument).

“We don’t live just by ideas,” he observes in his sedative way, as if anybody believes that we do live just by ideas. Of course, it is precisely because we don’t live just by ideas that we must live also by ideas; but I am getting heavy. Menand sneakily makes Orwell over in his own diffident, perspectivist, mildly anti-intellectual image, so as to relieve us of Orwell’s obligations.

It’s exhilarating to see all these middle-aged or elderly intellectuals speaking up for passion and extremism of opinion. But then we hear from a former Anglican bishop who reviews Richard Dawkins’ new book A Devil’s Chaplain in the Guardian. He makes a very interesting comparison between Dawkins and Darwin, comparing the latter to the polite tactful non-interventionist Anglican (this is an ex-bishop, remember) and Dawkins to the pesky intrusive intolerant Evangelical.

A friend of mine once remarked that he liked Anglicanism, because it didn’t interfere with your religion or politics, whereas Evangelicalism couldn’t leave anyone alone and meddled endlessly in people’s lives. If Darwin was a non-interventionist atheist, Dawkins is a great believer in the pre-emptive strike.

Well possibly, but then again it’s important to remember that Dawkins is a writer and teacher. They are supposed to intervene, that’s their job, that’s the even socially-approved work they do. Teachers are meddlesome and interventionist when they teach pre-literate children to read, too, and innumerate ones to do math, and ignorant ones history and biology and poetry. And a good thing too. Personally I’m with the old geezers speaking up for passion and excitement and commitment. Leave languid tolerance and not caring much to the young, they’re so much better at it.

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