My mother subscribed to The New Yorker magazine, so I grew up with it around the house. I didn’t read the articles, but enjoyed the cartoons, which probably had a role in introducing me to what “educated adults” found funny, or at least ironic. Eventually, I began reading the articles, the writers singing to me like sirens from another shore, all the more seductive because their words consorted with the almost-pornographic advertisements for luxury goods. (Being then, as now, of a different economic stratum than the one the advertisers were interested in, I developed some high-minded resentment to the basic economic premise of the magazine, tinged inevitably with both envy and guilt. I still have it to some extent, but The New Yorker has worn me down; I’m inured to the ads now.)
But the writing was, and is, so good! So, too, the content and the editorial hand on the tiller, with the conspicuous exception of the exasperating upper-middle-class suburban ennui fiction, which drove me crazy in the 1980s and 90s. Strangely, for a relationship between man and magazine, once hooked, I became proprietary about its fortunes. Following the long editorial tenure of William Shawn, I wrung my hands with worry over the magazine’s identity and economic instability in the Robert Gottlieb (1987-1992) and Tina Brown (1992-1998) eras, and have rejoiced in the resurgence and clout of the magazine under the editorial leadership of David Remnick.
So a big shout-out to The New Yorker, which tickles my brain with almost every issue. The current issue, the anniversary issue with Eustace Tilley outlined in the lit windows of a New York City skyscraper, contains two articles that are a nice foil for each other. One, by longtime New Yorker “legacy” and baseball nut Roger Angell, is entitled “This Old Man,” and is a beautifully-written, pithy personal narrative of being 93 years old. The other (that I am going to cite) is by Adam Gopnik, one of the very best non-fiction writers in The New Yorker stable, and is a review of books about atheism, entitled “The Frankly Faithless.”
The Roger Angell piece captures the satisfying acceptance of a 93 year-old’s necessarily restricted life: “The surprise, for me, is that the accruing weight of these departures [“a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses”] doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but still stubbornly gleaming.”
Adam Gopnik’s piece, by contrast, is one of intellectual restlessness, true to the imperatives his generation. (Gopnik is 57.) “If atheists underestimate the fudginess of faith, believers underestimate the soupiness of doubt.” In chronicling the rise of New Atheism, Gopnik cites the rise of evolutionary biology as the dominant science narrative of the last 20 years, replacing physics, which in its cosmic language could “persist without actively insulting the language of faith.” Evolutionary biology, by contrast, “makes specific claims about people, and encounters much coarser religious objections.”
Gopnik quotes John Updike, who, despite writing a lot of the kind of New Yorker fiction that I never liked, became quite the sage in his last years: “The power of materialist science to explain everything – from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms, and their sub-microscopic elements – seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the human mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires, and – may we even say – illusions composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize, and placate these.”
My reading of Updike is that he is equivocal on the question of whether religion is a faith system or a set of beliefs. I, for one, believe that religious feeling is not contingent on a set of beliefs. For me, appreciation of the miracle of emergent, self-organizing systems is quite rich enough to sustain religious feeling. (See the contributions of one of my guy heros, Buzz Holling, introduced in this blog post.)
And I also agree with John MacMurray’s that the dualism of mind and matter is at odds with reality and fails to appreciate the organic properties characteristic of life. As MacMurray put it, “If the world consists exclusively of mental things and material things, where do cabbages come in?”
More on this tomorrow, but for today, encomiums (now there’s a $5 college word!) to The New Yorker for once again firing my intellectual engines.