Ninety years old and still going strong. Almost twenty years after the age when that other great left-wing public intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre was already utterly frail, uncommunicative, pliable in the hands of his handlers, and prone to haplessly spilling egg and mayonnaise on his face while eating, Chomsky is still constantly giving interviews, traveling to distant countries to give talks on the political issues of the day, and in general is just as lucid as he always has been. It's an unusual constitution that guy has.
A few years ago I wrote a long article about why I find Chomsky important, but I'm now embarrassed by that piece and unable to read it. Nor did it succeed in communicating what he has meant to me. So I thought that on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday I'd take another stab at it. A lot has been written about him, but little from the "personal" perspective I'll adopt.
I'm well aware of Chomsky's aversion to personalizing things, and to an extent I share his taste. There's something inegalitarian about singling people out and praising them to the sky, something anti-democratic and anti-anarchistic about treating them as authorities (particularly if they're perceived as nearly infallible). Even aesthetically one might object to doing so, if one prefers the coolly rational and objective aesthetic of classicism, of Bach and Mozart, the purity of a vision elevated above the spots and blemishes of the concretely existing. I've always much preferred the realm of ideas and perfection to that of personality and politics. It's just so much cleaner, so much nobler and more sublime, timeless, transporting, this realm of philosophy, science, intellectual and art history, music from the Baroque and Classical eras, all things not merely time-bound or particular. The universal is what's healthy; the particular slides into decadence.
But this is exactly why I can't help but be fascinated by Chomsky. For he seems, at least from afar, to be a unique fusion of the particular and the universal, of personality and reason, a person who exists above the personal. I've never seen anyone so reluctant to say a word about himself or his private life, his personal grievances or feelings or experiences, so completely self-effacing that it's hard even to believe he has a family or a life at all. He seems to be the disembodied voice of reason, compassion, and morality. I remember years ago jotting down some thoughts in my journal comparing him to certain other intellectuals, his antipodes:
For the last couple of hours I watched videos on YouTube of Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens and such characters. It was almost an unreal experience. These people and evidently their circles were/are not ordinary, in the worst possible way. I was watching degenerates, narcissists, poseurs, boors, and bores. No doubt brilliant in their own diseased way. But I couldn't help thinking I was in the electronic presence of personified decadence. Hitchens of course was the embodiment of sleaze, his whole being icky, greasy, slimy.Those are the adjectives that come immediately to mind when I look at him. The perfect emblem of this group of people, this whole literary cocktail-party subculture, would be a picture of Hitchens' face in the midst of an attempted smile. A grotesque, false image. Pop culture meets pretentious intellectualism meets Roman homosexual orgies.
The essence is simple: with those people, as with most pop culture, I can feel myself being lowered--to the particular. With Chomsky, as with much classical music, I can feel myself being elevated--to the universal. It's pollution versus cleanliness. Shiny pollution versus radiant cleanliness.
I can think of no one else as intellectually, morally, and humanly clean as Chomsky (or as his persona, at least). And we should all, I think, strive for such "cleanliness," a concept, incidentally, that moral theorists might expound on for its pithiness and evocativeness.
In any case, while there are dangers in personalizing or in hero-worship, there can also be gains. And insofar as humans are oriented towards humans and not only abstract principles, personalizing can never be wholly escaped. From childhood onwards, we enjoy putting certain people on a pedestal and perhaps emulating them; and this can be a quite important means of self-development, of the youth's sculpting of his own identity--in the likeness of his hero. Chomsky is wrong to dismiss--if he does--the importance of role-models, and of his own status as a role-model, in his conviction that each person should follow his own inner light, realize his creativity in his own peculiar way unencumbered by subordination to an authority. On this point, at least, Nietzsche was nearer the mark, for Nietzsche saw that sometimes to revere an "authority" can serve precisely to liberate, not to enslave:
Your true nature lies [he wrote], not concealed deep within you, but immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you usually take yourself to be. Your true educators and formative teachers reveal to you what the true basic material of your being is, something in itself ineducable and in any case difficult of access, bound and paralyzed: your educators can be only your liberators.
By fixing your gaze on a star and struggling to raise yourself to its height, you unwittingly find your way to your true self and perhaps, in the end, even become your own star, shining confidently apart from the distant celestial body you once worshiped. For it's true you should never simply copy another; you should only use others to liberate yourself from the dreck and slime of your surroundings and finally, using what you have learned, "become who you are."
Even Chomsky shouldn't be followed everywhere. He may be the least decadent person in history, the least culturally polluted--"he's a pencil-and-paper theoretician who wouldn't know Jabba the Hutt from the Cookie Monster," Steven Pinker has said--but sometimes a little decadence can be a good thing, can add depth and richness to life. To be as perfectly masculine, as rock-like, as Chomsky, nothing but the Enlightenment, can be limiting; there is also a place for the feminine, for, say, existentialism, phenomenology, popular music, dancing, receptiveness. And even Chomsky is just plain wrong from time to time. (For instance, he's wrong to rarely mention particular left-wing organizations that could use donations or members.)
In the following, though, since it's his birthday (soon), I'll focus on the positives.
n fact, to be blunt, with this article I'm in the myth-making business. Again as Nietzsche understood, human life has need of illusions and is even grounded in them. The necessary illusion of our own importance, of the great value of our own little contributions, of the very existence of oneself as a substantival self, some coherent and enduring entity called "Chris Wright" or whatever (an illusion Buddhists, and not only they, have recognized as such--but can nonetheless not fully escape)--these and other lies are in some sense ineluctable. Easier to escape is the lie of traditional religion, but we still need values despite the death of God. The death of the human species itself is now a glimmer on the horizon, and yet we still, somehow, have to ward off nihilism. In a time of monsters and "morbid symptoms" (to quote Gramsci), of triumphant relativism and mass degeneracy, we need an anchor. My thesis is that Chomsky can serve as that anchor.
"Some people say, 'What would Jesus do?'" remarks Lawrence Krauss. "I say, 'What would Noam do?'" Myths, by inspiring and vivifying, can help ward off the rot and decay that creeps underground and far above ground in the White House, to seize on the living and sap their will to resist.
Living in this society, many years ago I woke up to find myself hemmed in and threatened on all sides by mediocrity. And in myself too I was more than disconcerted to see layer upon layer of mediocrity. But it was mostly the external mediocrity that troubled me, because it seemed so over the top. Everywhere I looked I saw stupidity, irrationality, meanness, proud ignorance, thoughtless conformity, an impossible lack of empathy, self-deception, hypocrisy, status-worship, an unbelievable amount of flakiness--just try internet dating for a few years if you want to become a misanthrope or a misogynist--in general a world governed by assholishness and idiocy. And cowardice. So I retreated into my music, my reading, and my writing. I was comforted by thinking of Karl Marx, or reading Schopenhauer, Byron, Leopardi, Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Nietzsche, and many other writers who gave lyrical expression to existential dissatisfaction.
Let's just reflect for a minute on how objectionable the human species is. Actually, one has only to think of two words to decide that insects are morally superior to humans: Nazism happened. But let's leave that aside. The mundane indignities of life are more than enough to justify ambivalence toward the species. I've always been disturbed, for example, by what the phenomenon of "charisma" says about humans. What a primitive quality it is, or can be! Just look at Donald Trump, or any number of oafish alpha males: big body, big head, tall stature, loud voice, overflowing self-confidence (with or without deep insecurities), and"that's it. That's all you need to be an "alpha male," and thus to dominate, have influence, be taken seriously, be popular with women, have power. Or think of the frat-boy type, hideously common in the spheres of business, finance, politics, law, sports, and entertainment. I'm reminded of Tucker Max, the superhumanly sleazy self-proclaimed a**hole who's made a career of being an a**hole and advertising how popular his assholishness is with the ladies. What does it say about men that everyonerecognizes this personality type? And what does it say about women that such an immense proportion of them are attracted to these jackasses?