The much loved Arts & Letters Daily is dead and gone. Tran Huu Dung and Denis Dutton, the editors, are not giving up, though. They have a new site, Philosophy & Literature, doing pretty much the same job.
If I were a cat, Arts & Letters Daily would have made me purr. The judgment of the editors was impeccable. One simply needed to click on the three new pieces linked on Arts & Letters Daily to have a fairly reliable sense of the significant public intellectual debates going on in English around the world.
But why am I so excited about a blog like Arts & Letters Daily?
I was an undergraduate student in the evening program (working in the day) of a provincial Third World university when I first discovered a journal of opinion in its library, Melvin Lasky’s Encounter. I was as excited to discover that such magazines existed as I had been as a child to discover libraries, and before that, as I had been when I learned to read.
In 1989 and 1990 we lived in Cape Town, where I discovered in the library of the University of Cape Town bound back copies of two more journals of opinion: Commentary and The Public Interest . I have ever since been in the thrall of the mystique of the New York intellectuals and the possibilities of journals of opinion for the nurture of public intellectual life.
The New York intellectuals (the part-journalist/part-academic coterie that emerged in the 1930s around the little magazine Partisan Review ) can fairly be said to have been the chief American champions of literary modernism and anti-Stalinist leftism in the 1930s, of political pragmatism in general and liberal anti-communism in the 1950s, and of neoconservatism in the 1970s-people like Daniel Bell, Saul Bellow, Irving Kristol, William Phillips, and Lionel Trilling.
What enthralls me about the New York intellectuals, though, is not their particular ideas over those many decades but how seriously they took ideas as such. Reading their essays and disputes in the armload of magazines they spawned over the years, and reading about the conversations and debates at their various get-togethers, it is impossible to be unmoved by the passion with which they took to the intellectual exploration of philosophical, literary, and political ideas, and the tenacity with which they pursued the life of the mind.
While it would seem that a real intellectual circle still requires the sustenance of lots of face-to-face conversation at parties and seminars, in lecture rooms and coffee houses, within the limits of a single city, the technology of blogging is opening up the possibility of far-flung intellectual circles of a less tangible but still coherent kind, interacting in a global public sphere. Arts & Letters Daily is emblematic of the possibility of such a global intellectual life.
Thinking back to my idea-hungry self in the late 1980s, I imagine some young person in urban Uganda or the Congo ferociously reading worn, second-hand copies of intellectually stimulating books in English or French, finding little intellectual companionship in their own city, and then happening upon something like Arts & Letters Daily via the Internet. (Somehow.) Ah! The world of ideas now available to us! And, as at least Richard Weaver once said: ideas have consequences.