Describing the vibrant intellectual life of New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage is one of my favorite books. “Alienated from alienation,” Broyard was fascinated by the lively parties where people debated so intensely that “we didn’t know where books ended and we began.”
Recently, I had the good fortune to attend such a gathering: a celebration held in honor of the 50th anniversary of Telos, the lively, unpredictable highbrow magazine founded in 1968 by Paul Piccone, then a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Buffalo. Piccone died in 2004, but Telos, unsubsidized by any university and unwilling to bend to any ideology, has continued as an independent journal under the talented tutelage of his widow, Mary, and the current editor, Russell Berman, who has written insightfully about the great German writer Ernst Jünger. Telos began as part of the New Left but later broke with all orthodoxy, publishing the Schmittians of the Left and Gramscians of the Right (referring to hard-Right 1930s German political philosopher Carl Schmitt and 1930s Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, both back in vogue today, but in unexpected places).
For the first two hours of the party, my wife, Jan, and I spoke with Wodek Szemberg and Estera Bekler, a handsome couple from Toronto. They had come to Canada from Poland and were deeply knowledgeable about Canadian and European politics. Szemberg had been the first to put Jordan Peterson, a friend of theirs, on Canadian television. Szemberg explained a great deal, ranging from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s hard-to-fathom appeal to the reasons that Doug Ford, the so-called Trump of the North, was recently elected premier of Ontario, winning in such a landslide that the Liberal Party was reduced to insignificance in Canada’s largest province. Liberal pretty boy Trudeau, Szemberg explained, won national office because he was seen as a counterpoint to the competent but dour Stephen Harper, the center-right Calgary politician who had served as prime minister for nearly ten years. Ford’s appeal, he pointed out, was that he had a Bill Clinton–like ability to make every voter whom he came into contact with feel that he or she had his total attention, no matter how minor the matter.
After a while, our conversation was overshadowed by a booming African-American voice from behind us. I stood up to see who it was. It wasn’t Ken Johnson, who had recently edited a Telos issue on Martin Luther King, black theology, and natural law in honor of King’s death 50 years ago. Ken was sitting next to a heavyset man, unknown to me, who was holding forth in an extraordinary voice—I should say voices, since he was effortlessly performing a one-man drama, shifting from the cry of a preacher, the intonations of an intellectual, the singsong of the inner city, and the sounds of an ordinary Joe. Much to my surprise, he was vehemently criticizing a writer I had long admired—Albert Murray. A protégé of Ralph Ellison, Murray had written his classic book The Omni-Americans as an integrationist answer to the black nationalism popularized in the 1970s.
This speaker of many voices was a learned man with an engaging critique of the distinguished writer. Murray, he said, made a great deal of why the blues were crucial to understanding black life, but he overlooked the Negro spirituals from which the blues had emerged. That meant, he said, that Murray overlooked the centrality of the church to black life in America. The man of many voices then described black megachurches in Houston, Oakland, and Los Angeles, which, he said, were barely known to white America.
He made two key points about the black church. The first was to explain that it was devoted to the Old Testament plus Jesus, a formulation that made sense of my own confusions. The second point startled me: he said that Telos would be the vehicle by which intellectuals would come to understand how the enforced secularization of King’s teachings had exacted a considerable price.
Jan and I left not knowing to whom we had been listening so avidly. But he left a clue. He had written, he said, an article critical of Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates titled “On the Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack.” He was, we learned the next day, the famed Eugene Rivers, the pastor who had done so much to disarm Boston’s black gangs in the 1990s and who had, in the past, done work with the Manhattan Institute. Anatole Broyard’s name had come up in passing during the evening. As we drove home, Jan turned to me and said, “We just listened to people whose disquisitions were worthy of those described in Kafka Was the Rage.”