The American Spectator
Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber, by David Gelernter, The Free Press / 160 pages / $21
Had circumstances been kinder, David Gelernter might have lived his life merely as the remarkable man of letters he is. A computer scientist and professor of technology at Yale University and well respected in his field, he nonetheless stands apart from it as one of our most thoughtful critics of the progress of technology. In a field given over to boosterism and instant millionaires, Gelernter has managed to achieve sufficient distance to describe both the good and the bad of the computer revolution. He is in the microworld but not of it. His true loves are elsewhere — painting, musical composition, poetry, writing. He has produced thoughtful essays on a wide range of subjects in Commentary magazine, and he is the art critic for the Weekly Standard. And then there are the pleasures of playing baseball with two young sons.
An extraordinary man in rather ordinary circumstances — until one morning in June 1993, when Gelernter opened a package in his Yale office that had been mailed by the Unabomber. Drawing Life is the story of the aftermath of the blast that maimed him and nearly killed him, as well as a meditation on the condition of American society and culture from someone who refuses to go along with that culture in identifying him now and forever as, first and foremost, a victim.
Drawing Life is slim and spare, a book that, refreshingly these days, doesn’t say too much. Gelernter describes the painful process of recovery from the explosion, the indignities of the injuries, the confused and sad realizations that there are some things he will never be able to do again: “Permanent damage brings the whole rest of your life into play, pulls everything out of every closet and drawer and dumps it in a pile in front of you, and wherever you go, there is the rest-of-your-life problem to climb over.” But climb he does, making painstaking progress reconstructing his everyday life, getting past the bouts of discouragement he feels, and through it all, rebelling against the phony consolations offered by our “victim culture”: “What bizarre tactless perversity could account for a person’s believing that anyone would want to be called ‘victim’? Would you want to be known as the ‘Robbed-at-Knifepoint Kid’? ‘Mr. Skin Cancer’? ‘Mrs. Three Car Pile-up’? All of us are unlucky somehow, sometime; many of us have suffered hard blows. Few of us are willing to see ourselves and our accomplishments blotted out by the word ‘victim.'”
His personal aversion to the effort to thrust victimhood upon him leads Gelernter into a series of striking observations about our cultural condition – – where we are and how we got there. This is the story of how a new sort of elite came to dominate American political, social, and cultural institutions and from there, impose its will and judgment on those it regards as benighted, from stay-at-home mothers to all-male military schools. In broad outline, this critique will sound familiar, especially to conservatives. Its power in Gelernter’s hands lies in its particulars.
During his recovery, he found himself increasingly fascinated by the America of the late 1930’s — in many ways, a different country. He would write a book about it, 1939: The Lost World of the Fair. Here was an elite culture — including business and political leaders and university presidents who took it as their mission to build students’ character — whose views were remarkably of a piece with those of ordinary Americans. This has all changed. Gelernter traces it to the growing role of intellectuals in American life, their takeover of elite institutions — or rather, the old guard handing those institutions over to them — and in particular, the civil rights struggle of the 1950’s and 60’s, which has become for the intellectual class a secular religion whose creed is the promotion of tolerance.
There was a time when the American intelligentsia had two components, what Gelernter calls “high-church” and “low-church.” The latter were determinedly non-intellectual, in the fashion of E.B. White, A.J. Liebling, and Joseph Mitchell. “Nowadays, the whole idea of a ‘nonintellectual thinker’ strikes people as odd, but low-church thinkers had their own distinct cultural profile. They tended to discount ideology and be infatuated with technique. Humor was basic to their world view. They prided themselves on skepticism and impiety but favored conventional family arrangements… They disliked abstraction and were gluttons for nitty-gritty detail about the look, sound, smell, taste and feel of everything around them.” And except in a few isolated cases, they are gone, having been superseded by an intellectual class with an ideological agenda and a will to impose it.
Gelernter himself, unsurprisingly, believes he was “cut out to be a low -church thinker, but the church had been abolished when the time arrived to join.” Instead, he “signed up (so to speak) with the conservative intellectuals.” But although liberals will find his critique of a tolerance -obsessed intellectual class intolerable, his heart is simply not in ideology, even of the conservative stripe. He is at home quoting favorite lines from the psalms and the Torah — distinctly non-modern, non-intellectual in the eyes of a modern intellectual, but sensible. He writes, “There is a crucial distinction between propositions you arrive at by reasoning (such as universal tolerance) and ones that are based on emotion or experience or horse sense.” It’s not that he prefers the latter to the exclusion of the former; it’s that he insists that reasoning be tempered by horse sense.
And while he is appalled by the extent to which elites believe they can do without horse sense, he remains buoyed by the extent to which ordinary people can do without the musings of the intellectuals. “The country is going to hell but its people are not,” he writes. And, at another point, “I am not sure whether each man cultivating his garden is not our only shot at saving the world.”
Drawing Life is a book grounded in well-turned phrases about well-observed things. Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker visits Gelernter at the hospital shortly after the bombing, prompting our author to remark, “Politicians are drawn to the targets of showy crimes like fruit flies to ripe bananas. They can’t help themselves and probably don’t even know they are doing it.” Gelernter has a deft and light touch, even though his observations are often caustic. His book is a model of reason tempered by experience.
It also invites some conclusions its author is much too subtle to spell out for us. It may be trite, but it is true, that Gelernter’s personal tale of “surviving the Unabomber” serves as a model for getting over our own cultural woes, first of all by cultivating our own gardens and by persevering despite our discouragements. And as to the validity of Gelernter’s general thesis about the role of the intellectuals in American culture, is there not substantial validation of it in the form of an evil recluse willing to blow people to bits in order to get his views published in the New York Times?