March 28, 2011

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

While I am praising, not famous men, but veterans of life, I have to mention Steve Weiss. Weiss was born in Brooklyn in 1925, and he studied at ordinary public schools until he volunteered for the US Army in 1942. The Army and the French state decorated him for his bravery during the war, and he is the only American awarded French citizenship, the Croix de guerre, and the Legion of Honor for services to the French Resistance. He was also a deserter, one of many apparent contradictions in any worthwhile life. (His life is one of those I am recounting in a book I am writing now for Penguin, Deserter, about American soldiers who fled from battle in World War II.) After the war, he became a photographer, a sound engineer, and a psychologist. Nearly eighty-six, he lectures on war studies at King’s College London. As I write, he is touring China. His interests seem more wide-ranging than anyone’s of my generation or younger. He can tell you what goes inside a Patek Philippe watch just as he can sing Neapolitan arias from eighty years ago.

When I was in London a couple of weeks ago, I had breakfast with another ancient titan. Noam Chomsky is two years younger than Steve Weiss and nine years junior to Stéphane Hessel. A man who more or less invented modern linguistics, he refused to confine himself to one discipline. Psychology, philosophy, and politics are his other realms. His work rate is prodigious”€”teaching, lecturing, and writing at a rate that would kill me (and probably you too, dear reader). His optimism, in spite of his cogent analysis of man’s self-destructiveness, astounds me. A good speaker, he is a patient listener. As with the poet Terence, nothing that is human is alien to him. He has traveled to and taken up the causes of the downtrodden in Central America, Colombia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. He thrives on a punishing schedule. Like me, he is skeptical about American intervention in Libya. And he is outraged at American financial and military support for Israel’s domination and displacement of the Palestinians.

Modern culture does not nurture the intellects and spirits of men like Hessel, Weiss, and Chomsky. Maybe it is bad education or commercial values or an absence of values. Their like are unlikely to return, so we should cherish their presence among us for as long as we are able. When they go, we lose.

Observing Stéphane Hessel’s wandering eye at dinner after his lecture, as well as my recollections of Krikor Mazloumian and Steve Weiss, I conclude that making it into the twilight years with one’s intellect and sense of humor intact coincides with a healthy interest in women. Although his wife Christiane sat opposite him in our little Paris restaurant, Hessel’s head never failed to turn when young women in diaphanous dresses wandered past the table. Flirting mercilessly with Sylvia Whitman, twenty-nine-year-old proprietress of Shakespeare and Company, he said he knew her namesake, Sylvia Beach. Miss Beach, founder of the original Shakespeare and Company in 1919, lived with her female lover, Adrienne Monnier, when Hessel was growing up in Paris. As a youngster, he probably flirted with the original Sylvia as well. I doubt he got far with sapphic Sylvia, but the ones who keep on trying keep on going. And the women love them.


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