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Playing Changes

Washington Diarist

“Here’s how I play,” John Coltrane remarked in an interview in 1961. “I start from one point and go as far as possible. But, unfortunately, I never lose my way.” It was not long before Coltrane escaped the confinement of what he already knew, and made exploration itself into his highest value; but it must also be said that an ethic of unending exploration, a life of serial certitudes, may also be shallow and a mark of mere restlessness. There are many ways to be lost. (Coltrane at the end of his questing life certainly sounds lost to me. The master of Crescent revised himself out of beauty and even coherence.) I have nothing against adventure, obviously, especially when it is an expression of dissatisfaction with oneself; but sometimes one finds oneself where one really should be, in a rich and deep place that demands and rewards toil, within defensible limits, with justified beliefs, and the meretricious course would be to move on, to take one’s instructions from the fickle world, to keep up. In our society, there is almost no greater apostasy than the refusal to keep up. Often this narcosis of the new, this unreflective centrifugality, is disguised as a high dream of transformation--as the courage to change. What about the courage not to change? The American adage that change is my friend is a catechism for people with little to lose, or who are panicked by the prospect of stillness. Transformation is often a gorgeous form of escape. Perhaps there is something more precious than the sense of possibility, and it is the capacity to actualize a specific possibility--to stay with it. One should always be more promiscuous in principle than in practice. There are small corners in which large things can be attained. Some years ago Harold Bloom wrote a glowing and uncomprehending review of a book I had written about a year in mourning, in which he wondered why I displayed so few “signs of change.” “He departs pretty much as he arrives,” Bloom complained. He was right. I was not born again. Being born once was mandate enough.

The tedium of steadfastness, about which Coltrane complained, is a trap also in political thinking. I have no defense to make of dogma, but there is a certain kind of mutability among political intellectuals that makes me nervous. There has been a lot of this in the Obama years, with the change in the weather. (Climate change!) Liberals who recently believed in the primacy of democracy and human rights in American foreign policy, and in the responsibility of American power to do good in the world, are suddenly realists who sagely explain why the United States cannot find a way to work with the Iranian dissidents but must find a way to work with Hamas and the Taliban. (From Obama’s Darfur policy they simply look away.) I understand that this transformation is a consequence of the Iraq war, and I understand also why people may have changed their minds about the Iraq war. I myself wrote years ago that if I had known that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, I would not have supported the war; but I do not, for that reason, believe that the Iraq war has been a catastrophe for Iraq and its region, or that the Iraq war is all or most of what we need to know about America’s role in the world, or that the Iraq war should be promoted into the primal scene for all subsequent American foreign policy. I do not like the fact that George W. Bush has had more influence on the direction of present-day liberalism than any present-day liberal. The formation of belief is a complicated affair. It must be active and reactive, philosophical and empirical. Political conviction cannot be indifferent to events, but not every event is an occasion for new thinking. For the articulation of principle, it should not matter who the president is. There are transformative events, but not many; and the frequent insistence upon the unprecedentedness of one’s own time is evidence only of excitability. There is no need of breaking news for the purpose of arriving at one’s fundamental beliefs. The study of history should suffice. It is a better guide for moral and political understanding than experience, which is commonly a narrowing influence, and certainly for those of us who enjoy the West’s insulation from almost every enormity: when we are schooled only by our experience, we become trivial. In the lurid universe of the Web, moreover, with its ceaseless revolutions and emergencies, its sleek engines of volatility, steadfastness is an even more sterling virtue. The object of one’s steadfastness is what tells most, of course: steadfastness in the cause of error or evil is a vice. Everyone has a right to change his mind. But a knack for turmoil does not enhance your intellectual authority. And breaking ranks just isn’t what it used to be. Conscience is supposed to be an inconvenience. If you were with Reagan during Reagan and with Obama during Obama, if you were for the Iraq war when it looked good and against the Iraq war when it looked bad, if somehow you were always at the cutting edge of every discussion, then you may have represented merely your moment. 

A few weeks ago the painter Avigdor Arikha died in Paris. I knew him for many years and I loved him. He was one of my tutors in seeing. Away from his brushes and his pastels he was also a scholar, and a man of immense cultivation: I still recall my gratitude for what he heard in Schubert’s B-flat Sonata or Britten’s Third String Quartet. But here I wish to record his steadfastness, and to praise it. Avigdor changed--“Alberto, no more abstraction,” he told his friend Giacometti in 1965, “I’ve started drawing from life and you were right”--once, and for good: thereafter the glory of his hand was owed not least to his mutinous unwillingness to evolve. He had no more periods. Instead he remained militantly faithful, for half a century, to optical experience, to the truthful recording of the phenomenal world. He was a hero of the eye. Immune to the seductions of contemporaneity, Avigdor came increasingly to feel, and to look, out of his time. He was not a revisionist, he was a refiner. When he found his field--the saga of perception, the vicissitudes of light as it met people and objects in space--he saw no reason to quit it. He mastered even his agitation--my friend was a stranger to serenity--by turning it, too, into a subject for veridical representation. Again and again Avigdor made beauty out of “the same thing”; but his work taught that finally there is no sameness, because the light always changes. Fortunately, he never lost his way

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

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