A few days ago David Brooks published an op-ed entitled “A Love Story.” It refers to an encounter between the British intellectual Isaiah Berlin and the Russian poet Anna Akhmotova. They met in 1945, in Leningrad, and talked all night. They spoke of literature and history and, of course, their lives. It was a luminous conversation, life-changing, unforgettable–and never to be repeated, as Akhmotova had only begun to be persecuted by Stalinism.
Brooks writes: “Berlin and Akhmatova were from a culture that assumed that, if you want to live a decent life, you have to possess a certain intellectual scope. You have to grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and make subtle moral and emotional judgments. Berlin and Akhmatova could experience that sort of life-altering conversation because they had done the reading.”
And he concludes: “I’m old enough to remember when many people committed themselves to this sort of life and dreamed of this sort of communion – the whole Great Books/Big Ideas thing. I am not sure how many people believe in or aspire to this sort of a life today. I’m not sure how many schools prepare students for this kind of love.”
I’m old enough to remember that too. The quest wasn’t always about literature, of course. In my college years it had more to do with protest against the Vietnam war. People could, they did, spend all night talking about the agony of the draft. Nobody I ever knew hoped to start a business, and very few thought of their education as being mainly about qualifying for a job.
“Today we live in a utilitarian moment,” Brooks says. “We’re surrounded by data and fast-flowing information. “Our reason has become an instrumental reason,” as Leon Wieseltier once put it, to be used to solve practical problems.”
Now: my son Silas put the lid on the romanticism inherent in these thoughts when he pointed out that the Great Recession has a lot to do with the current mood. He’s right that in earlier generations, including mine, you could count on a decent job if you went to college. Indulging in Dostoevsky is more attractive if the bills are paid, and will be.
Nevertheless I’ll stand by my belief that the greatest aspiration in life is not to lead a successful start-up. In faith, art, culture, conversation, family, books, beauty, goodness–in these we find our best selves, and our deepest satisfactions. We owe it to our children, and to our friends, to hold on to such hopes.