History is affected by discoveries we will make in the future. – Karl Popper
It’s been more than twenty years since the publication of Adam Gopnik’s review in The New Yorker of Wittgenstein’s Poker, which comes with a surprising account of the author’s youthful pilgrimage to meet Karl Popper. It’s a rich and evocative read today, especially in light of Popper’s ever-increasing relevance as one of history’s most powerful advocates for liberal democracy; in The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper contrasted the open society, in which every person has inalienable rights, with the closed one, in which a ruling elite decides who has rights, and who doesn’t. This elegant defense of a politics of fairness, based squarely in egalitarianism and heedless of left or right, makes Popper the 20th-c.’s most clear-sighted champion against totalitarianism.
Anyhow, the review is as funny as it is insightful, with lots of precious but riveting Gopnik-style gossip: Popper was a teeny tiny man but with huge ears, it emerges, and also he was a very combative and even paranoid guy, full of injured pride at the inadequate recognition of his genius (an estimation with which, for sure, a lot of philosophers and historians have come to agree); one of his shirt cuffs was missing a button, and he loved The Catcher in the Rye, which he described as “a very good study of adolescent psychology.”
On finding, all those years ago, that Gopnik was headed for the great man’s cottage in Buckinghamshire, his taxi driver exclaimed, “Ah, Professor Pop! A very smart man.”
”You’ve met him?” I asked.
”Oh, many times. He never talks. All the time he is busy thinking, thinking.”
”His books are very famous.”
”I tell you, this is no surprise to me. People going to pay good for all that intelligence.”
But the pilgrim was shocked to find his hero lacking in the very intellectual humility and beneficence that had inspired the pilgrimage in the first place. How could Popper, the titan of philosophy who’d almost singlehandedly made doubt itself the reigning principle of scientific inquiry, also be such a monumental brat? “The greatest living exponent of the value and necessity of criticism would fly into a rage at the least breath of criticism.”
To explain away his shock, Gopnik attributed the weird disconnect between Popper’s personality and his writing to “a perversity of human nature so deep that it is almost a law.” He calls this, “The Law of the Mental Mirror Image.”
“We write what we are not,” Gopnik mused twenty years ago, sleek and certain as an otter. “It is not merely that we fail to live up to our best ideas but that our best ideas, and the tone that goes with them, tend to be the opposite of our natural temperament.”
Hang on now, how are our best ideas “what we are not?” Aren’t they what we most are?
The masters of the wry middle style, Lionel Trilling and Randall Jarrell, were mired in sadness and confusion. The angry and competitive man (James Thurber) writes tender and rueful humor because his own condition is what he seeks to escape. The apostles of calm reason are hypersensitive and neurotic; William James arrived at a pose of genial universal cheerfulness in the face of constant panic. Art critics are often visually insensitive—look at their living rooms!—and literary critics are often slow and puzzled readers, searching for the meaning, and cooks are seldom trenchermen, being more fascinated by recipes than greedy for food.
I’ve met plenty of cooks who are good trenchermen (and -women); also I believe that Thurber was on intimate terms with his own cruelty, rage and depression, just as he was with the whole world of giddiness and fizz he brewed up somewhere in his better self. More to the point Thurber, like Kafka, wrote in the certainty that there could be no real escape, that his condition was yin and yang, indivisible. Humor itself, Thurber once said, is “a kind of emotional chaos told about quietly and calmly in retrospect.”
One seeks in one’s work to touch and make real and whole all the things that are missing, but it’s not possible to repudiate, let alone transcend the struggle; it’s possible only to establish a certain degree of ascendancy; a truce with the darkness. (“Das ist komisch.”)
I wonder what Adam Gopnik thinks about his old review, then? Especially in light of his (excellent) performance last year in Tár, a story that treated the genius of its eponymous star as entirely inseparable from her monstrosity.
In any case, Wittgenstein’s Poker is great and you should read it.