Exclusive: Adam Gopnik talks about the language of Darwin, Lincoln, and Obama

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In Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life , released to coincide with Darwin and Lincoln’s shared bicentennial birthday, Adam Gopnik — who recently quipped to the New York Times‘ Paper Cuts blog “my stuff is usually filed in the out-of-the-way, additional interest sections” — dissects the strengths of Darwin and Lincoln’s approaches to language, liberalism, and family. Heady stuff, but what else would you expect from an intellectual essayist who has been writing for The New Yorker since 1986? After the jump, Gopnik talks to Flavorwire about the economy and the Internet through the lens of his book.

Flavorwire: You recently spoke with Bernard-Henri Lévy for an event at Cooper Union. What do you think the role of intellectuals and philosophers, such as yourself and Mr. Levi, is in the modern world, particularly given the events of the last six months or so?

Adam Gopnik: I don’t think of myself as an intellectual or philosopher, really. I’m a writer and an essayist, so I play a somewhat more modest role. If there’s a value to the kind of conversation we were having, I hope it reflects a kind of osmosis, a slow progress. That ideas that people who care about them are arguing about today will be what people are talking about tomorrow. The last six months – are you talking about the Obama election or the financial catastrophe?

FW: Both, but more so the financial catastrophe.

AG: Well, the financial catastrophe is one where ideas matter. That is to say, for the first time in a long time people are reading John Maynard Keynes, for instance, and saying what were we missing, what’s the secret here? If you re-direct to something as popular as, say, Paul Krugman’s blog, you’ll see that he’s engaged in a very violent argument with other economists about the nature of our economy. I think that inevitably and always, but particularly in times of crisis, ideas count. Ideas count for a lot. My hope would be with this book, it’s certain ideas about liberalism, about the limits of liberalism in science and in literature, might not be self-evident.

FW: Where did the concept of this book first come from? It made us think of Lawrence Weschler’s book of convergences.

AG: I’m a big fan of Larry Weschler’s, but I hadn’t thought of that. I had written independently about Darwin first and then later Lincoln, and more specifically about their language. Then I discovered, and weirdly, I don’t remember when I discovered, that they had this common birthday. So we had the bicentennial coming up. It struck me that because those two essays, that eventually grew into this book, were both really about language, they were about literary style in a way, about the power of words, that they came together in an intriguing way. That you could write about the powers of speech, so to speak, by using these two guys. The trouble was I didn’t want it to be a book of convergences, that to me is the least significant thing in the way each of these guys resemble each other. I really wanted it to be an essay looking back to try to find out how their lives and words resemble ours. Once I got started on it, then I needed to find a form for the book that would work. Because I didn’t want simply to do two adjacent essays, one about Darwin and one about Lincoln. I wanted to try and wind them together a little more artfully. Then I found there was a break point in 1838, that was a year of enormous significance for both of them. Not surprisingly, because that’s when most of us have our breakthrough moment, our late twenties. I was able to find a way to organize the book in a slightly more artful way.

FW: In the book’s preface, you say “They shared logic as a form of eloquence, argument as a style of virtue, close reasoning as a form of uplift…This was a revolution in rhetoric that we still live with, and within, rhetoric remade by suspicion of rhetoric.” In light of that perspective, can you comment on Obama’s rhetorical style?

AG: I deliberately left Obama out of this book, because I didn’t want either to date the book or to make it hostage to Obama’s fortunes. But obviously I was writing it while Obama was on the ascent and he was on my mind. I think that where Obama’s words really do bow out of exactly the transmission that you just read is not so much in his inspirational rhetoric, in his campaign speech with the guitars in the music video. It comes in his gift for the eloquence of explanation, is what I call it, and I’m thinking of the speech he made in Philadelphia about race, the “More Perfect Union” speech. Faced with a crisis in his own campaign, with Jeremiah Wright playing 24 hours a day on Fox, instead of simply rejecting and denouncing Wright or defending and justifying his own conduct, Obama made a very complicated, nuanced, subtle argument about the history of race in America, the role of the black church, how it was possible for a good man to say stupid things. Then he then extended that same argument and asked his own followers to apply that logic to people on the right, even on the far right, who were also good people saying foolish things. I thought that was an immensely respectful, serious, complicated explanation in argument about a subject that it’s very easy to vulgarize. When he made that speech and made it as successfully as he did, I genuinely felt that there was a kind of revival of the eloquence of explanation that I’m trying to describe in this book.

FW: Over the past few weeks, Obama’s speeches have been described as full of teaching moments. To quote the BBC, he is “sometimes accused of being professorial.” Is “professorial” what you mean by “eloquence of explanation”?

AG: I guess I’m saying professorial is good. There’s nothing wrong with being a little professorial. If he was Lincoln — as I say in this book, Lincoln at the time was called “lawyerly” in his outlook. Karl Marx said that the Emancipation Proclamation itself was like the summons of one small-time lawyer to another. He thought it was inadequate. But had Lincoln been only lawyerly, he would not have been Lincoln. He would have been just a lawyer. If he always used a lawyerly tone, there would have been very little sinew and muscle to his words. The same is true of Obama. If he was professorial all the time, he wouldn’t be a successful politician. But by being professorial he gets a certain heft to what he has to say.

FW: Most periods have a manner or style or form that’s primary to the way the people of the time organize their feelings about the world…We are…essentially a society of images: a viral YouTube video, an advertising image, proliferates and sums up our desires; anyone who can’t play the image game has a hard time playing any public game at all.)” Going straight to YouTube and advertising might be a bit reductive, but there seems to be a shift in that passage from literal images that we see on a screen to image in a broader sense, in the way that an individual’s actions and manners add up to the public’s image of him or her. Can you comment further on your own rhetorical shift, and on our current manner/style/form?

AG: I meant, as often with parenthetical remarks in this book and other stuff I write, I meant it to be 9/10th’s serious and 1/10th conceit. Not a joke, exactly, but a deliberate overstatement. I do think it’s true that image in the much broader sense, sound bytes, stereotypes, plays a very large role in our culture. I went to a party of a kind last night, and people were asking about, is not the kind of language I’m describing of Lincoln and Darwin’s, isn’t it over, really? Isn’t it very old fashioned? I don’t think it is. Both in the example of Obama, for instance, and then when I think about how my own children actually go about doing the business of spreading ideas, they do it all through words. They do it in emails and IMs and Twitter and so on. Not the same kind of words that I use, or that necessarily have the same kind of heft that we want, but these are language-based systems. So I was probably wrong. I probably overstated that a bit.

* If you live in New York, on Thursday Gopnik will be moderating a Slate panel of designers on “how the economy is changing design, how the Internet is changing design, and how design is changing everything else.”