Commentary Magazine


Buckley and Gratitude

To the Editor:

Norman Podhoretz [Books in Review, November 1983] says that the hostility William F. Buckley, Jr.’s Overdrive has encountered is based less on political antagonism than on the offensiveness, in critics’ eyes, of such an unabashed celebration of life. Overdrive is offensive, but not quite for this reason. I suggest that what it celebrates is not so much Buckley’s delight in his privileges as his pleasure in his own discrimination. His house is beautiful, his friends distinguished or enchanting, often both; his wine and food are perfect, his servants lovable, loyal, and efficient; even his writing, however he may hate to get down to it, is accomplished seemingly without effort and certainly without misgivings as to its quality. All this not merely gives him delight but is, incontrovertibly, delightful; it is all, somehow, his. It is not Buckley’s happiness that makes the book intolerable, but his complacency.

One interesting detail of the style supports this interpretation: the repeated use, before some fulsome adjective, of the phrase “quite simply.” Mr. Podhoretz’s review contains an example: the peanut butter Buckley eats, which is “quite simply incomparable.” That “quite simply” is a recurring motif. It brooks no contradiction, or even modification. Mr. Podhoretz himself has misgivings about Buckley’s judgment, but he attributes Buckley’s lapses to “carelessness and inattention” without asking why these should invariably produce “hyperbolic tributes.” The impression I came away with is that Buckley is indeed in love with his own life (rather than life itself) and certainly more than normally self-gratulatory. In Overdrive, it is himself he celebrates.

`

Irene Neumann Brown
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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To the Editor:

While it was most amusing to read Norman Podhoretz’s attempt to pile fulsome praise on what must surely be an inferior addition to William F. Buckley’s ever-expanding bibliography, I was relieved to find that even Mr. Podhoretz could not fail to observe some signs of “carelessness and inattention” in Overdrive. Its author shows unmistakable and clearly pathological signs of terminal smugness, a deadly trait in any mind. While Buckley may, indeed, be in love with life, he is even more in love with himself.

Marion Hunt
Paris, France

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To the Editor:

. . . In Norman Podhoretz’s piece, we have what purports to be a “review” of a book; what we get instead is a public-relations piece on one William F. Buckley, Jr., who for all his erudition, scholarship, knowledge of domestic and world affairs, to say nothing of his impeccable prescience, is a charter member of the worst group of people that 20th-century America has produced. That Mr. Podhoretz and Buckley come out of the same pod, notwithstanding any disparity in age or background, and are thus predisposed toward the same rigid orthodoxies regarding political and social matters, will come as no surprise to anyone over the age of ten, with an IQ over 50 and some semblance of reading skill. . . .

Harold B. Somer
Westbury, New York

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To the Editor:

I liked Norman Podhoretz’s review because of the last section on gratitude. It seems to me that thankfulness for a gift is not totally lacking today. I find it constantly expressed in ecological thought. The great gift is nature. The implicit religion of ecologists is to praise the beauty of nature’s balances, to treasure and defend what no man produced (but can destroy).

Of course some (I do not know whether I should write “few” or “many” or even “most”) do give thanks to God for His gift of creation. But to what extent can theology now ride on the back of a moral virtue? I say “virtue” because gratitude in the quotation from Buckley Mr. Podhoretz cites is not merely an emotion but an obligation to be carried out in action. Hence virtue must be a habit. As St. Augustine repeats Cicero, “virtus habitus animi est.”

Certainly Mr. Podhoretz is right that here is a virtue as Jewish as it is Christian. Doesn’t Barbra Streisand’s Yentl convey it? The old rabbi praises the Lord because he has a daughter, and the daughter expresses thanks to her departed father, holding the candle and singing for him. Is this a human basis for continuing to believe that “the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God”?

Paul G. Kuntz
Emory University
Atlanta, Georgia

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Norman Podhoretz writes:

Is Buckley complacent or is he grateful? That seems to be the question. If there were world enough and time, I think I might conceivably be able through detailed literary analysis to persuade Irene Neumann Brown, who clearly knows how to read, that my interpretation of Overdrive has a better textual foundation than hers. I doubt, however, that even then I could convince Marion Hunt, whose hostility to Buckley seems unshakable (and, I would guess, politically inspired). This goes even more for Harold B. Somer. Anyone who thinks that Buckley and I come out of the “same pod” is beyond the reach of any argument I could ever make.

If I understand Paul G. Kuntz correctly, he is saying that the ecological movement is pantheistic rather than monotheistic. I agree. But even so—and I hope I am not being ungrateful here to Mr. Kuntz for his kind words about my paragraph on gratitude—I have to confess that the ecological movement does not seem to me an exemplar of that virtue. In fact, while the thinking of the movement may reveal appreciation for “the beauty of nature’s balances,” it shows—to put it mildly—no gratitude at all for the blessings brought by modern technology. And those, surely, are the most salient and distinctive of the blessings that we today enjoy and that we should therefore be especially grateful for.

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