Contrition

This season of late comeuppances for sexual misconduct has reached Leon Wieseltier, long-time literary editor of The New Republic. He was both loved and hated, exercising for a time a kind of influence in the media world that one could scarcely imagine someone who edits a back-of-the-book exercising today. He was also, by many reports and now his own admission, a chronic workplace harasser.

It is too late (probably by a few thousand years) to imagine that these facts–the outsized influence and the predation–are only incidentally related. They aren’t incidentally related in business, politics, or academia. They aren’t incidentally related in the invisible fiefdoms of the service sector, the shop, or the cubicle farm. They are intimately intertwined.

After the accusations were made public, Vanity Fair unearthed its apparently famous profile of Wieseltier from 1995. In it, amid the Jenga-like tumble of names (Isaiah Berlin, Shirley MacLaine, Tipper Gore at a metal club?), Wieseltier comes off as a very American intellectual type–an F. Scott Fitzgerald character lost in a David Lodge satire. Two details in particular struck me. First, the book Wieseltier was supposedly writing at the time:

“It’s an attack on sighing is what it is,” Wieseltier explains, “because to sigh is, sort of, you go up, up, up, and instead of going the whole way you very cozily shrink back. It’s something between complacence and resignation. . . . I’m not going to tell you a lot about it, but there’s stuff about breathing. . . .”

As Whet Moser pointed out on Twitter, this sounds like something “cut from a Whit Stillman screenplay.”

The second was Wieseltier’s account of his abandonment of observant Judaism late in his college career:

 That was also the year he wrenched his yarmulke from his head. “I remember it was the winter,” he says. “I remember it was a rainy night and I was on College Walk, alone. For me it was not a Karamazovian gesture. I didn’t shake my fist at the heavens and say, ‘God is dead.’ To this day, I feel not that the yarmulke disappointed me but that I disappointed the yarmulke. What happened was that my faith was not sufficiently strong to withstand my desire to taste wine, eat food, and kiss women.”

I find it impossible not to appreciate the frankness of this. There’s no difficulty in rationalizing a defection from faith in entirely disinterested, even noble terms (not that this account is without its own duplicitous romanticization).

The book on sighing never did get written, to no one’s evident regret. But Wieseltier did write a book a few years after this profile–Kaddish, a journal of his year of prescribed mourning for his father (who was still living at the time of the profile). I read it in 2003, a few years after I’d started reading magazines like The New Republic, and when I was rather new to Christian faith and life. And it hooked me quite effectively because it was, among other things, the account of someone who had traveled a path opposite mine, from a religious upbringing to a wholly worldly adulthood. It’s a witness to the uneasy conscience of the lapsed son of a pious family, revisiting his own history and the way of living and believing he’d chosen to neglect, by keeping the thrice-daily obligation of the kaddish prayer. I read about Leon darting in and out of weekday shuls in Washington, New York, Chicago, nodding respectfully to an Ash Wednesday crowd moving against him, feeling remorseful or empty or burning like a lit match afterward. I read the quotes of the rabbis pondering the status of the sinful and apostate, before and after death. I was haunting the Episcopal churches of Chicago every weekday I could, pleading for my late grandfather, lamenting my own business, plunging ahead through my own spiritual peaks and valleys.

When a couple years later I had the chance to take a class on Maimonides’ Guide from Wieseltier, there was no question I would, and no question that I would work as much as I had to to master the material. He flew in for the class each week and kept office hours afterward before flying back home. I don’t think I worked harder in any class in graduate school, in the twinned shadows of genuine admiration and imagined patronage. That term I got some money for proctoring law school exams and I would bring my stack of Aquinas volumes, going through each reference Thomas made to “Rabbi Moses.”

I loved that class and I liked Leon. I say this not at all to mitigate the offenses. My interactions with him were a tiny scale in the armor of regard that people build around themselves as they get away with disgraceful conduct. And I had my own reasons for wanting to believe that a clear line can be drawn between the mere cad and the vicious creep, between the imperious intellect and the domineering bully, between the academic improviser who reaches too far and the ordinary fraud. I’ve learned otherwise. There is no sufficient substitute for virtue, even in what we choose to admire and aspire to.  A student of the Hebrew scriptures and the rabbis and the philosophers of antiquity is accountable for knowing this–and for knowing that the exchange of virtue for anything else will, in the end, prove to be a false and destructive bargain.

Last night I took down my copy of Kaddish and browsed through my marginal notes. I stopped at this passage:

You want to mourn for yourself? Then it is not grief that you feel, it is regret. But regret differs from grief significantly. It has an ethical dimension… With respect to yourself, sorrow is never all that remains for you. There is also contrition.

However sincerely or not this was meant, it is true. To know it, at any time in your life, is a kind of gift. To forget it is a disaster.

 

 

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