John Leonard (critic)
Critic, writer, commentator
- There are too many ironies in the fire!
- My fathering had always taken the form of a friendly cloud that floated across the lives of the children, and paused occasionally to cast a shadow. That they would turn out to have their own weather, and that I would profit by the climate, was an immense satisfaction.
- Everybody remembers his or her first magic show. Mine was in a garage in the dark. I passed out bowls of peeled grapes and described them as the devil's eyeballs. After that, by the light of a lantern on a wall of cinderblocks, there were card tricks and some pigeons we pretended to decapitate. The attraction of magic, to the amateur magician, derived from the fact that it wasn't magic at all; it was science in the service of illusion. Having sent in the magazine coupon and received our kit, we knew how everything worked toward achieving the ecstatic grasp.
- "Books of the Times", The New York Times (6 July 1981)
- The magaicians of the 19th century, enthralled by the science of optics, photography and electricity, opened the door to motion pictures and thereby rendered themselves obsolete. Any amateur with a pair of scissors can cut and edit a strip of film in order to make a woman vanish, sever a head, burn a body down to the skeleton and reverse time. Talent went out of style.… People either didn't believe Houdini when he said that his tricks on film were real, or they didn't care. Illusion became big bigness, and the magicians were out of work.
- "Books of the Times" in The New York Times (6 July 1981)
- For every wicked witch there is, in our culture, a black magician, an alchemist, a Flying Dutchman, a Doctor Strangelove, a Vincent Price. The scientist, like the magician, possesses secrets. A secret — expertise — is somehow perceived as antidemocratic, and therefore ought to be unnatural. We have come a long way from Prometheus to Faust to Frankenstein. And even Frankenstein's monster is now a joke. Mr. Barnouw reminds us of "The Four Troublesome Heads" (1898), in which a conjuror punishes three of his own severed heads because they sing out of tune; he hits them with a banjo.
This book, at once scrupulous and provocative, reminds us of two habits of mind we seem to have misplace — innocent wonder and an appreciation of practical brain power. Peeled grapes are out and LSD is in. (Again, alas.) If we laugh at Frankenstein, we also laugh at Bambi. We are more inclined to shrug than we are to gasp. Isn't everything a trick? Am I putting you on? Of course not; you wouldn't fit. Hit me with a banjo.
- "Books of the Times" in The New York Times (6 July 1981)
- Do you suppose Latin American writers, trying to mix literary modernism with revolutionary politics, resent our blue-eyed exploitation of their continent as a sort of compost heap of the libidinal and the symbolic? Aren't D. H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Robert Stone and Paul Theroux imperialists? What do black Africans think of Conrad, Bellow, Updike and Edgar Rice Burroughs? Why don't the white guys look for the heart of darkness in their own bathrooms?
- "The Heroine: A Contraption of Attitudes", The New York Times (21 March 1982)
- Everybody is forever saying that the essay is dead. This is always said in essays.
- "Funny Things to Think About and Eat", The New York Times (4 July 1982)
- Run from the Furies, and they find you, as if fear were a homing device, as if literature itself, on contemplating the abyss, were an invitation to jump into it, while Wagner whistles.
- "Meeting at Winkel", The New York Times (6 September 1982)
- Every intelligent child is an amateur anthropologist. The first thing such a child notices is that adults don't make sense.
- "Books of the Times", The New York Times (23 September 1982)
- Crossing color, class, gender, and generational lines, the communities of addiction and recovery are as democratic as America gets. Twelve-step meetings are in fact downright radical: nonprofit and nonhierarchical, with a fierce etiquette of listening to and caring about everyone who wanders into the rooms.
- "Can't Get Enough", New York Magazine (23 May 1998)
- Addiction may be something to which some of us are predisposed, like diabetes, rather than a voluntary behavior — but it’s also reversible. A "disease model" of alcoholism and other addictions in no way diminishes our personal accountability once we know the facts. It simply suggests how hard recovery will be, and how much help we need.
- "Can't Get Enough," New York Magazine (23 May 1998)
- Rimbaud gave up poetry when it failed to change the world. Orwell at the end must have had his doubts about language, too, or he wouldn't have dreamed up Newspeak. Neither is remembered for his hard work at identity-making. Instead, the poet's name is worn by freaks, geeks and videodrones as if it were a logo on a T-shirt or a jet-propelled sneaker, and the novelist is propped up on a horse like the dead El Cid to frighten the Moorish hordes. They have both been turned into the standard-issue celebrity flacks of this empty, buzzing time, selling something other than themselves, unattached to honor, glory, kingship, sainthood or genius. They join a talk-show parade of the power-mad, the filthy rich and the serial killers, the softboiled fifteen-minute Warhol eggs, the rock musicians addled on cobra venom, the war criminals whose mothers never loved them and the starlets babbling on about their substance abuse, their child molestations, their anorexia and their liposuction. "I have never belonged to this race," said Rimbaud.
- "On Shooting at Elephants", The Nation (27 November 2000)
- It makes me itchy, this wry fatalism, but it doesn't make me itch nearly as much as the heroes of so many other modern novels for whom stalking the savage libido is more fun than kinship or community; who will leave town either to find their callow selves, as if they'd lost anything important, or, more transgressively, to kill a bear, a bull, a whale, a unicorn, a hippogriff, a signifier or, preferably, their fathers.
- "The Accidental Matriarch", The New York Times (20 May 2001)
- I am often wrong. For example, I liked Cop Rock, voted for Nader, and used to think that the preeminent philosophical question of the late twentieth century was whether the government intelligence agency or the semiattached policy-studies think tank represented America's best hope for a viable pluralism. But I may be right, after all, about Stephen King and Walt Disney. No matter how often King shows up on ABC, they haven't yet figured out how to merchandise his dread, how to turn his intuitions and intimations into action figures and fast-food tie-ins and Davy Crockett coonskin caps. It's homemade versus mass-manufactured; bootleg versus theme park; Cujo versus Mickey Mouse.
- "King of High & Low" The New York Review of Books (14 February 2002)
- Maybe the unconscious is overrated... What if your unconscious is full of false consciousness or bad faith? What if it's more like a trash compactor than a dreamcatcher? What if it's a diseased hump, a vampire bat, an alien abductor? Somewhere in Pieces and Pontifications, somebody asked him: "Why can't the unconscious be as error-prone as the conscious?" It was a Freudian question he never answered.
- "Don Quixote at Eighty", The New York Review of Books (13 March 2003)
- The words, the style always reflects a habit of mind. And the habit of mind comes in from a different angle. The habit of mind uses the colloquial here and uses the joke there. And then creates some discordant music and then something strange and wonderful happens.
And you see things differently. You see a different light is shed on it.
- The culture as a whole is losing its individual notes, its diversity. And this is… it's not only sad. It's devastating. It's devastating because routine language means routine thought. And it means unquestioning thought. It means if I can't — if new words cannot occur to me and new image does not occur to me, then what I'm doing is I'm simply repeating what I've heard.
And what we hear from an overpowering cultural force and the forces of homogenization, what we hear is sell, sell, buy, buy. That's it. That is the function.
- I don't have a sense of sanctuary. I don't have a place where I think I can go. I once went to the famous Kyoto temple with the Zen garden, the gravel, the little mounds and it's, you know, it's been pictured over and over and over again. And what they don't tell you is that this little acre or some acre of serenity is surrounded by millions of people taking pictures.
So it sounds like a storm of mosquitoes constantly. And it never stops. And there's no serenity. And so not even in Japan can I find sanctuary.
- Interview with Bill Moyers, Now, PBS (28 November 2003)
- The life, no matter how traumatic, never explains the work, if the work is any good. W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Doris Lessing, and Saul Bellow variously believed in faeries, funny money, flying saucers, and orgone energy accumulation, but so have millions of other people who never got around to writing even a mediocre poem or novel.
- "No Expectations", New York Magazine (12 December 2003)
- Where did all the liberals go? If the gringos in their villas dream at all, it's of sugar-plum stock options. Never mind social justice, what happened to habeas corpus? Faith-based globocops police the words in our mouths and the behaviors in our bed while sorehead cable blabbercasters rant them on. Blood lust, wet dreams, collateral damage and extraordinary rendition; Halliburton and Abu Ghraib; an erotics of property, a theology of greed and a holy war on the poor, the old, the sick, the odd and the other — when oh when will the Tatzelwurm turn?
- "Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind", The Nation (22 November 2006)
- Military people have a heavy investment in rules against torture, not only because we want to protect our own POWs from reciprocal brutalities, as a former general counsel for the Department of the Navy explains here, but also because war is so terrible that it desperately requires any limits anyone can agree on, any gesture toward dignity, any mitigation suggesting civilized scruple. There isn’t even persuasive evidence that torture makes its victims tell their secrets, instead of saying whatever we want to hear. From an international leader in the cause of human rights and democratic values, the U.S. has turned into an unaccountable bully.
- "The Ad Hoc Behavioral Laboratory", New York Magazine (8 February 2007)
- My whole life I have been waving the names of writers, as if we needed rescue. From these writers, for almost 50 years, I have received narrative, witness, companionship, sanctuary, shock, and steely strangeness; good advice, bad news, deep chords, hurtful discrepancy, and amazing grace. At an average of five books a week, not counting all those sighed at and nibbled on before they go to the Strand, I will read 13,000. Then I'm dead. Thirteen thousand in a lifetime, about as many as there are new ones published every month in this country.
It's not enough, and yet rich to excess. The books we love, love us back. In gratitude, we should promise not to cheat on them — not to pretend we're better than they are; not to use them as target practice, agit-prop, trampolines, photo ops or stalking horses; not to sell out scruple to that scratch-and-sniff info-tainment racket in which we posture in front of experience instead of engaging it, and fidget in our cynical opportunism for an angle, a spin, or a take, instead of consulting compass points of principle, and strike attitudes like matches, to admire our wiseguy profiles in the mirrors of the slicks. We are reading for our lives, not performing like seals for some fresh fish.
- Acceptance speech, National Book Critics Circle 2006 Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award (8 March 2007)
- Prisons are a growth industry in a country that has stopped building schools because we would rather not pay our property taxes. And we seem remarkably comfortable with a criminal-justice system that locks up and "disappears" people we fear or hold in contempt — with prisons as closets to hide our unmentionables and as factories for processing spare human parts until there is nothing left but waste.
- "An Extreme Danger to Society", New York Magazine (7 May 2007)
Private Lives in the Imperial City (1979)Edit
- Knopf, 1979, ISBN 0-394-50170-5
- You marry to be worthy of a gift, and want to say so out loud, but without shouting. One doesn't shout a prayer. Marriage is one of the few ceremonies left to us about which it is impossible — or at least self-demeaning — to be cynical.
- "Next" (p. 5)
- Granted, religion is wishful thinking, but there is no other kind of thinking.
- "Good News" (p. 17)
- One advantage of remorse is that it sets the stage for consolation.
- "The Pampas" (p. 41)
- We are getting to be of an age when it is difficult to grow new friends; we haven't the energy, the time to cultivate; each one gone is a permanent impoverishment.
- "On Being Stupid" (p. 44)
- In God's body shop, each of us was customized. But science came along to substitute statistical inference for free will. We are now a tribe of likelihoods.
- "On Being Average" (p. 49)
- Suppose, deep down, you suspect that you are dull, and your public works are a form of vengeance. You talk a good poem, and think by numbers. Once upon a time, you were interesting; then Mother died and you had to give it up.
- "The Power Party" (p. 62)
- Every fall I imagine once again that something wonderful will happen at a party. This is like imagining that the telephone book will prove to be a wonderful novel.
- "Perfect Knowledge in Final Things" (p. 108)
- When the state murders, it assumes an authority I refuse to concede: the authority of perfect knowledge in final things.
- "Perfect Knowledge in Final Things" (p. 110)
- A bohemian imitates the manners of the class below him.
- "Snapshots" (p. 135)
- In our brave new world, blushing is a form of nostalgia.
- "On Being Embarrassed" (p. 139)
- You can't invent yourself as you maunder on. Your fabrications aren't going to impress the blood test, the urinalysis or the chest X-ray. Science is not amused.
- "On Being Embarrassed" (p. 139)
- To be capable of embarrassment is the beginning of moral consciousness. Honor grows from qualms.
- "On Being Embarrassed" (p. 140)
- Isn't it amazing the way the future succeeds in creating an appropriate past?
- "Dash" (p. 146)
- Somewhere in the Bill of Rights is a Pig Amendment; our freedom to stuff ourselves cannot be abridged. Having so stuffed, we demand a technological solution to the fat problem. Give me cyclamates, or give me death! This is not only immoral; it is also boring.
- "The Diet" (p. 195)
- Monotheism was a terrible idea, leading directly to Lenin.
- "Dolphins" (p. 203)
- It may be that the Greeks had it easy, with their light and their mountains and their plains and their islands waiting around for tourists. It was easy for them to believe that man fit in rather well. This fittingness may have given them the idea that we are seemlier than other evidence suggests. The heads of Rameses II at Abu Simbel and, for that matter, the skyscrapers of New York, have another idea of man. So do the artifacts of Albert Speer. It is depressing to wonder whether the Greeks just happened to be lucky, and the dream they left us is a lie about ourselves.
- "The Caryatid" (p. 208)