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Earl Shorris passed away on May 27, 2012. He was a long-time contributor to Harper’s Magazine, authoring more than two dozen reports and essays, including one on the development of the Clemente Course in the Humanities. His last feature for the magazine, “American Vespers,” ran in the December 2011 issue.
John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the Providence Journal on July 18, 2012.
I’ve delivered a few eulogies over the years, and they don’t get any easier with practice. If you’ve just lost someone close, the circumstances are particularly painful. How does one sum up a life, or even one aspect of a life, in a few minutes, in a few thousand words, when one is already so sad?
After my friend the writer and social critic Earl Shorris died, on May 27, I thought I might be asked to speak at his memorial service, along with others, and I fretted about what I would say. As it happens, one of Earl’s sons assigned me a topic: He wanted me to address Earl’s writing, which in some ways was a relief. Three other non-family speakers would each talk about another aspect of Earl’s life; I wouldn’t have to plumb the depths of my relationship with him.
So I compared two works of Earl’s fiction, which I felt would illustrate his compassion for the suffering of ordinary people, not just the poor ones Earl spent his life trying to help but also the comfortable upper-middle-class executive types whom he’d met in his advertising career. Since my comparison involved reading passages from the books, I soon passed the recommended three-to-five-minute limit. There was little time left to get personal.
When I sat down after I spoke, however, I felt like I’d failed. Something was clearly missing from my rendering of Earl’s texts—texts that I had selected for their insight and authenticity. I’m no actor, but I read the lines with as much verve as I could muster, and a few people even complimented me on my presentation.
But something seemed wrong. What exactly had or hadn’t I done? Imitate an English teacher? Conduct a mini-seminar in comparative literature? Get myself off an emotional hook by reading someone else’s words, even though the words were written by my late friend? I’d covered myself, and not with glory. In contrast with Earl’s writing, I felt, in a word, inauthentic when authenticity was most urgently required.
A few days after the memorial, to help me sort through my confused feelings, a friend recommended a book, Sincerity and Authenticity, by the celebrated literary critic Lionel Trilling, who had taught at Columbia for many years. On reviewing what I’d written, I concluded that I’d been sincere in my intentions to please, to play the correct role. But sincerity, as Trilling points out, is nowadays a poor second to authenticity.
“The last temptation is the greatest treason,/ to do the right deed for the wrong reason,” says Archbishop Thomas Becket in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. Some would argue the contrary; “Whatever I was really feeling, at least I did the right thing by Earl and his family,” I hear myself say. This might be called the sincerity defense: I sincerely meant to do the right thing in my eulogy.
Nevertheless, as Trilling points out, “sincerity” isn’t what it used to be. We should be aware, he writes, of “the sharp diminution of the authority it once exercised,” since “the word itself has lost most of its high dignity.” Trilling’s book grew out of a lecture at Harvard in 1969–70, and I suspect that he was influenced by his observation of Presidents Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s patently false expressions of sincerity and candor during the Vietnam War (LBJ: “I come to you with a heavy heart”; Nixon: “Let me make one thing perfectly clear.”) But Trilling was onto something deeper. Shakespeare startles us, Trilling notes, when he selects the manifestly mediocre Polonius, in Hamlet, to exhort Laertes with such brilliance:
This above all: to thine own self be trueAnd it doth follow, as the night the dayThou canst not then be false to any man.
Yet Shakespeare’s play is shot through with ambivalence about sincerity, and with dissembling behavior. If only it were easy to follow Polonius’s advice. “With what a promise the phrase rings in our ears!,” writes Trilling, but few of us are up to the challenge. As sincere as my “sincerity” may have been at the service, its “very considerable originative power” has been supplanted by what Trilling calls “the marvelous generative force that our modern judgment assigns to authenticity, which implies the downward movement through all the cultural superstructures to some place where all movement ends, and begins.”
So here’s what I hope is my authentic remembrance of Earl Shorris, one that goes beyond a merely sincere tribute: He was the most steadfast of friends, who remained by my side through thick and thin, who defended me against unfairness and calumny. I was his sometime publisher, but he was my mentor, in morals, philosophy and, not paradoxically, in business. He did more for me than I for him.
He grew up in El Paso and spent years traveling in Mexico and writing about it, including a novel based on the life of Pancho Villa. He loved the country and its various peoples (who would have included my cousins and uncle) with a passion I saw in only one other American—my own father—but Earl’s love was more genuine and more compassionate. He was deeply learned but he was never a snob about it. Earl was authentically generous: He wanted to share the humanities with poor people because he thought that they were just as entitled to learning, and humanism, as anyone else. He was a true democrat. And he was a nag whom I had difficulty refusing.
The last thing Earl wrote me was to see if I could reach George Clooney and ask him to rescue one of Earl’s Clemente Courses in the Humanities, operating in Darfur, that had lost its funding from a rich foundation: “I want to ask Clooney if he would help us get going again with IDPs [internally displaced persons] and perhaps in the Kalma refugee camp near Nyala.” I told Earl it was a tall order and dropped it. But what about it, Mr. Clooney?
More from John R. MacArthur:
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Rethinking the best way to introduce Shakespeare to the young
Chances that a deep breath inhaled today will contain a molecule from Julius Caesar’s dying breath:
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