Hail and Farewell in the Penny Press!

Like everybody else, I turned to the latest New Republic mainly to read Leon Wieseltier’s already-legendary evisceration of Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan. And while that piece definitely lived up to its billing (it’s a shame that the person who could most benefit from it – Ryan himself – will never read it), I was struck even more by Wieseltier’s “Washington Diary” in the same issue, in which he offers his personal tribute to the late Robert Hughes.

I was hoping for just such a tribute from him (like a few other people, I’m hoping for one tribute more, although it may never happen; some things really are just too painful for words), and it pleased me enormously:

He was a charismatic bundle of unmediated terms: refinement and ribaldry; extroversion and absorption; the analytic and the artisanal (in his virtuosity with the saws in his workshop I detected one of the sources of his prose style); floridity and precision; exaltation and black gloom; reverence and profanity. His spectacularly entertaining volubility was furtively supported by what he once called a “freely chosen solitude”: the fray was never all there was. Bob dispensed curses and blessings, and lived a life of both.

What surprised me was the stunning coda that followed this tribute:

I saw [after Hughes' death] a chilly picture of friends living dispersed and dying dispersed, of time wasted by distance, of the companionship of souls thwarted by all the mindless movement, the swirl and the bustle, the life-tourism that now passes for experience. I miss so many people, and some of them are not even dead. Too many cherished voices are unheard, and the silence of the infinite e-mails terrifies me. I do not wish only to remember. It is not good to commemorate one’s own life. But the world is who you inhabit it with; and it empties out.

The death of friends (or worse, their disappearance; I’ll remember that line “I miss so many people, and some of them are not even dead” for a long time) often prompts such dark and searching thoughts as these, but I don’t expect to see them written for the public, let alone written with such elegance and courage. Hats off once again to our Washington Diarist.

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