Culture Is Armor: On Adam Gopnik and the Necessity of the Cultural Intellectual




THE FIRST TIME I meet Adam Gopnik, he is reading aloud from Swann’s Way at 192 Books, a bookstore in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. He is there as part of a night-to-morning marathon reading, celebrating the centennial of Marcel Proust’s seven-part masterpiece. Outfitted in a casual gray blazer, Gopnik begins with: “For a long time I went to bed early,” reads a bit more, receives applause, and stands around warmly chatting with strangers, a flute of champagne in hand, before slipping out the door.

There are few others who could have filled this highly specific role of “celebrity Proust reader.” At once a well-known cultural critic and a best-selling author, Gopnik is also, among much else, a historian of art, a critic of gun laws, and a Proust devotee — a bizarrely eclectic and comprehensive presence in the American media landscape. He eschews the title of public intellectual, preferring instead “private scholar”; but, whatever we might call him, he is an exceptional phenomenon: a popularly read dissector of American and Western European culture whose purview is not just art or literature or politics or fashion or history, but all of it at once.

Gopnik was born in Philadelphia and raised in Montreal, in part inside Habitat 67, a boxlike, concrete apartment complex designed in a style favored by the postwar Japanese architectural movement Metabolism, which aimed for buildings to look like webs of prefabricated rooms — a utopian ideal of the 1960s. His parents were professors of English literature and linguistics at McGill University, and two of his siblings — Alison, a developmental psychologist, and Blake, an art critic — have carved out fame of their own. But it is Adam who is the best known — at once widely read, as a staff writer at The New Yorker, and widely celebrated, with three National Magazine Awards for Essay and Criticism, a George Polk Award, and a French knight’s medal (a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres).

The reason that Gopnik has become such a beloved cultural critic working in the United States today is due largely to his ability to mix self-deprecating personal stories with incisive analysis of high culture, providing the reader with historical, philosophical, and observational knowledge structured in narrative form. Like the best of The New Yorker’s critics, Gopnik is, at heart, a scholar and storyteller who has learned the trade of journalism. This mixture of narrative memoir with cultural analysis is familiar to readers of Gopnik’s previous memoirs: the best-selling Paris to the Moon (2000), which examined the particularities of French life and the experience of being an expatriate, and Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York (2006), which celebrated the complex pleasures of raising children in Manhattan.

In one of his all-time great essays, “A Tale of Two Cafés,” he analyzes why the Café de Flore in Paris is chic and the Café aux Deux Magots — just across the street — is passé, thereby exploring the creation of trends. “The relationship between the modishness of the Flore and the unmodishness of the Deux Magots isn’t just possibly arbitrary; it’s necessarily arbitrary,” Gopnik recounts a “more dour” friend telling him. “A world in which everything is fashionable is impossible to imagine, because it implies that there would be nothing to provide a contrast.” The creation of trends is a grand cultural subject to take on, but it is one that Gopnik is able to tackle so well precisely because he spends so much time with the very creators of these trends.

Gopnik now resides on the highest cultural rung of both the Anglophone and Francophone worlds. A side effect is that he is commonly criticized for pretentiousness and for being out of touch, as when James Wolcott wrote in the New Republic that “Gopnik tends to universalize his impressions, to generalize from his insulation.” This is typical of the classic Gopnik critique: he is a relatively rich white guy who writes about highbrow subjects that only a few people around Fifth Avenue and the Boulevard Saint-Germain will care about. Not only is this a misleading critique for what it implies about the kinds of writing that should be legitimized or discounted, but it also misunderstands Gopnik’s core motivation for so much of his writing and way of life. Gopnik is not insulating himself so much as he is protecting himself. And his latest memoir, At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York, shows how that attitude first came into play.

“Fitzgerald’s idea was that you could make a little armor for yourself and you could make a little armor out of improvised glamour,” Gopnik tells me from New York. In At the Strangers’ Gate, he shows the extent to which he and his wife, Martha, “improvised glamour” in the F. Scott Fitzgerald style. Newly married, they lived in a “romantic shoebox” on the Upper East Side, where they made up for their relative poverty by window-shopping at Bloomingdale’s, Gopnik eventually saving up to buy a beloved suit. This becomes his armor. Gopnik, in effect, begins his process of living up to his suit, complementing it with various high-culture jobs, like decorative epaulettes, bringing to mind the artist David Wojnarowicz’s assertion: “I want to create a myth that I can one day become.” Gopnik begins work as an assistant at the Frick Art Reference Library (a “keeper of the authority file,” updating the museum’s death certificates) before becoming a docent at the Museum of Modern Art, where he spins stories to lunchtime tour groups. He works at GQ coming up with glib men’s fashion copy before a lucky break in which he becomes literary editor. He befriends the photographer Richard Avedon and lives in SoHo surrounded by then-up-and-coming, now-well-known artists. He writes “Talk of the Town” stories and breaks into writing features at The New Yorker. He is young and he is prodigious and he and Martha are very much in love.

What all of that armor was protecting, exactly, is the more difficult question to answer. When I ask whether he still maintains some of the initial insecurities that pushed him forward in his earliest New York years, he is understandably reticent to make too decisive a statement. “It’s one of those questions where my candor and my caution are at war,” he says.

If I say, “Yes, of course, I still feel that insecurity,” it makes it sound as though I’m somebody who suffers from galloping insecurity at every moment, which I don’t really. I hardly think my accomplishments are amazing, but I’ve made a family and a life and I’m not wandering the streets gnawing my knuckles at my social awkwardness. On the other hand, it’s a near-universal truth that nobody feels secure in their place … Everybody who’s sitting at the card table thinks that they’re the sucker; that’s certainly been a truth that I’ve noticed throughout my life.

Gopnik’s current cultural positioning as a renowned intellectual, as well as his original positioning as an ambitious neophyte, give his writing its particular value, making At the Strangers’ Gate an important book for understanding both Gopnik the Man and Gopnik the Writer. Gopnik says the book is “a series of fables about a young couple arriving in a new place trying to make a new world.” It is, in standard Gopnik style, a memoir with a near-universal narrative; but it is also about how that experience allowed him to access — and to explain — meaning in high culture. That is, the book is also a critical analysis of critical analysis. “Forgive me because it sounds a bit pretentious,” he says, but the book is meant to provide “an anthropological dimension of the many anthropologies of the art world and the literary world and the fashion world.”

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Why, though, do we need a highbrow cultural critic like Gopnik at all? The world is falling apart in so many ways, so what is the point of reading about how cafes are deigned fashionable or how Richard Avedon altered modern photography or how, as Gopnik wrote in his first feature for The New Yorker, parallels might be drawn between baseball and Renaissance art?

“I was working on this book through the rise of Trump,” Gopnik says about At the Strangers’ Gate, “and there was a little piece of me that felt, ‘Wow why am I writing this book about losing my trousers in 1980 when the apocalypse is upon us?’ But I hope that in something that might be perceived as being an exercise in the style of nostalgic storytelling, there’s a political function as well.” He adds:

One of the things that we [as cultural critics] offer as a kind of alternative to Trump is to say that there are values that are not simply the values of power and domination. There are values of pluralism, of coexistence, of building meaning and even a little poetry for yourself, however absurd that pursuit may be.

Successful cultural criticism is inherently political, even if its political relevance is surreptitious. By spending time on cultural questions — by paying them any attention at all — the critic asserts that pleasure is also a value, that beauty and aestheticism are values, that there is more to being human than the accumulation of power and capital.

Gopnik’s cultural criticism is a weapon against domination and against drudgery; and, if he seems pretentious because he focuses almost exclusively on highbrow culture, one need only look at how refinement better stakes itself as authoritarianism’s enemy. Gopnik’s unapologetic desire to write essays about Argentine-Israeli pianists, Michel de Montaigne’s invention of liberalism, or dining at Le Veau d’Or — these are, in fact, important additions to the cultural landscape, precisely because of their unabashed highbrowism.

Today, there are desperately few American public intellectuals. The magazine Foreign Policy annually lists their “Top 100 Global Thinkers,” focusing on “thought leaders” and “public intellectuals.” The men and women listed most frequently in the 10 years they’ve published versions of their list include Angela Merkel, The New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman, Hillary Clinton, and former chairperson of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke. None of those people have any cultural bona fides, except, perhaps, Friedman (although to call Friedman culturally influential seems a stretch). The French, on the other hand, have perhaps the strongest current tradition of the public cultural intellectual, with the likes of Bernard-Henri Lévy and Pascal Bruckner, who maintain a strong influence on governmental decisions, such as the NATO interventions in Kosovo and Libya. They write newspaper op-eds, go on news shows to share their views, and have bent the ear of the Elysée toward them. Like the late André Glucksmann and other members of the “French New Philosophers,” these men come from a cultural background. They are philosophers, writers, literary critics, and historians. American public intellectuals — if we are to believe Foreign Policy’s list — are mostly career politicians or economists, not cultural figures.

This distinction is important. The views of outspoken public intellectuals really can sway matters of governance. Whether the loudest opinions are coming from those with cultural backgrounds or from political and economic backgrounds can fundamentally alter political decisions. And, although Gopnik says he does not think of himself as a public intellectual, he does group himself within “an American tradition” of the “amateur scholar.”

“I don’t think of myself as a public intellectual in the sense that I don’t often make interventions,” he says. “I don’t feel obligated to offer a view on every public question. But I do think that there’s an American tradition, and I think about Edmund Wilson, and in another way about Garry Wills and so on, where there’s a tradition of the ornery amateur scholar, and I would like to think that I fit into that tradition, too.”

The truth is, Gopnik could probably safely consider himself a public intellectual as well. He writes on incarceration and gun laws. He defines himself as “a 19th-century liberal humanist,” and he is currently working on a book about liberalism. He offers a number of opinions, especially on Trump. Indeed, he holds much of the same expertise and power as any of those he calls public intellectuals who are working today.

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On a recent evening in Paris, at the Mona Bismarck American Center in the moneyed 16th arrondissement, Gopnik had traveled from New York to speak with the French author Philippe Labro in front of an audience of mostly well-heeled American expatriates and NYU study-abroad students who had come en masse. Labro praised Gopnik for his “eclectic way of approaching any subject.” Gopnik accepted the admiration, but wanted to set the record straight: “It’s hugely flattering when you say that, but there’s no mystery to having a wide range; there’s two words: read books.” Gopnik then added (while admitting, “I probably shouldn’t be saying this”): “My dream, Philippe, is to make a popular entertainment — a musical, a play, a children’s book.”

Gopnik has written a children’s novel called The King in the Window (2005), but it didn’t make a huge splash. He has also tried his hand at musical theater, writing the book and lyrics for The Most Beautiful Room in New York, which premiered earlier this year at the Long Wharf Theater in Connecticut. Yet neither has stuck quite like his cultural criticism. It is for his more rarefied pursuits that he is still best known and for which he will probably always be best known. This inability to create popular mass entertainment is nonetheless a point of frustration for Gopnik, and it complicates the typical image of him. “I have a weakness for highbrowism,” he admitted to Labro. “Whenever I try to go lowbrow …” He trailed off, genuinely sad. “I would love to do that.”

One of the most frustrating aspects of creativity is that we cannot choose where our talents lie, but it is particularly intriguing with Gopnik given what a gifted critic he is. To desire more is, of course, only human, but one hopes that, even if he does find success in the lowbrow, he maintains his highbrow commitments. Perhaps he might even embrace his role as the public cultural intellectual that he has been for quite some time, whether he admits it or not.

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Cody Delistraty is a writer based in Paris.


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