Thursday, May 24, 2018

'The Essential Distinction of Humanity'

I had never heard of Mike Potemra while he was still alive but reading the eulogies makes it clear the loss was mine. Rich Lowry describes a sort of person I almost never meet: “He read more books per week than anyone I have ever known and had a deep knowledge of culture and politics.” As does Jay Nordlinger: “Years ago, he gave me a list of books — ones that he especially admired. At the top of the list was Proust.” I wasn’t aware such people still existed. Potemra was literary editor at the National Review. I looked online for what he had written and was quickly rewarded. This is from a piece on Dr. Johnson, his cat Hodge and Nabokov. It suggests Potemra was a writer who acted on impulse and was gifted and charming enough to pull it off:

“This compassion is the essential distinction of humanity. The way I like to put it is, Man is the only creature who can say ‘No.’ The rest of the universe does what it does simply because that is what it has always done and that is what it always will do. To the extent that human beings are part of nature, they behave that way too: Why not crush and kill and grab, when we are stronger? But to the extent that man is different, and sees himself as — in the traditional phrase —- ‘made in the image’ of something that is different, man can declare that he has values, and knows truths, that are higher than these ‘natural laws.’”

What could have been a stuffy gloss on Pale Fire is, instead, a meditation on humans as free agents, wielders of moral choice, all accomplished in eight-hundred words. I detect in Potemra a realist not given to wish-fulfilling fantasy who nevertheless instinctively sympathizes and celebrates. Two years ago he attended a Beach Boys concert at the Hollywood Bowl. In “Brian Wilson and Lincoln’s ‘Better Angels,’” he writes:    

“In addition to the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds, I was celebrating a very personal anniversary. It was one year ago Saturday that I arrived in Los Angeles to become a resident of California, after spending basically all my first 51 years on the East Coast. I am a temperamentally conservative person, one not given to drastic changes, and I had no reason to expect that this new life would work out as well as it has. So I am immensely grateful for everything, and all the help I have received in making this change happen.”

Expressions of heartfelt gratitude and reminders that life is essentially good are rare and sorely needed. Belatedly, I’ll keep reading Potemra.

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