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Sunday was a big day for "culture." There was  MET Orchestra concert in the afternoon, and in the evening a discussion, at the 92nd Street Y, of Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo, conducted by the author and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik.

The place was packed - not a seat to be had (although the one to my left remained vacant). Mr Gopnik announced at the beginning that the discussion would also touch on M Lévy's thoughts about the implications of the Hamas victory in Palestine. At this moment, I sensed a presumption that everyone in the hall was Jewish. M Lévy (hereinafter "BHL") would shortly pronounce the 92nd Street Y "the beating heart of liberal Judaism in New York," or words to that effect. This was not your ordinary book talk.

In France, they still have overt intellectuals, and BHL is certainly one of them. Mr Gopnik would probably not put himself forward as an intellectual, but that's clearly what he is. What is an intellectual? Like a prophet, the intellectual critiques the morality of the moment, both as a standard and in its breach. But the intellectual eschews the prophet's stripped-down message; he would not agree that complication is necessarily bad.

It is a habit of American intellectuals to hedge their judgments with enough qualification to convince the ordinary man that they are incapable of making decisions. This is not a failing of postwar French intellectuals, most of whom have always been ready to interrupt their mandarin analyses unequivocal denunciations. BHL has concluded that the way to deal with a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority is to refuse to deal with it, because while it is democratically empowered, it espouses an unacceptable program of anti-Zionism. Working up to this conclusion, he enumerated historical stages of ant-Semitism, noting a consistent displacement in their rationales. The latest brand of anti-Semitism, in BHL's view, is anti-Zionism. A century ago, Jews were hated ostensibly because they were an international group incapable of local allegiance. They didn't have a country. Now, according to BHL, Jews are hated ostensibly because they do have a country. What never changes is hatred of the Jews. Which is pre-eminently hatred of The Other, a premise that led to a neat discussion of the philosophy of Emanuel Lévinas.

But American Vertigo was not slighted. The discussion explored the difference between French and American conceptions of nationality, with America's seen as flexible and pluralistic; our country is currently inhabited by a hyphenated population. BHL was delighted to discover that the model for assimilation professed by the Arab-Americans of Dearborn, Michigan, is none other than the Jewish American. He also dismissed the idea of an "imperial United States." No - as he sees it, we're more like Carthage than Rome. A sobering comparison! 

Mr Gopnik and M Lévy spoke very highly of one another; sincerely, I thought. Mr Gopnik's Paris to the Moon, a collection of "Letters from Paris" to The New Yorker, is to some extent a counterpoint to American Vertigo - although, unlike Vertigo, it appeared in book form in its writer's native language first. It will be interesting to compare the two volumes. Friendly and like-minded as they appeared to be, however, I saw not two Jews but a New Yorker and a Parisian on the stage of the Kaufmann Concert Hall. Two ways of being intellectual; two different cosmopolitan accents.


This afternoon, Kathleen and I will be flying to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Kathleen will attend a conference, after which we'll retire to a seaside resort for a few days; we're to return on the eighth. I'll be taking the laptop that I haven't used in six months, but attaining connectivity may prove to be too much of a hassle for my somewhat low spirits. Having worked at my French for two years, I'm not a little miffed about traveling to a Spanish-speaking destination, but then I think I may have lost the taste for travel altogether. I have not set foot off the Island of Manhattan in over a year - since returning from Istanbul. (That can't be right, but neither can I remember anything to the contrary.) You'll probably attribute the touch of depression to that fact alone! But my Manhattan-bound year has also witnessed the greatest transformation in my life: discovering a vocation. Compared with writing here among my books, CDs, DVDs, and other scraps of information (beautiful and otherwise), anything that takes me away from it for more than a few hours feels worse than trivial.


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You will be missed. I hope the trip provides unexpected delights.

The Met Orchestra's performance Sunday reinforced for me the idea that it is in the top rank of world orchestras, and in the elite status here in the States. Levine now leads two of the 4 pre-eminent American orchestras and what he has wrought with the Met is amazing, if one remembers some of the playing in the 70s and 80s, especially in the horn section. But the Met's long-standing tradition prior to 1971 and Levine was to hire a mish-mash of conductors, and the Orchestra never could develop its own distinctive personaltiy.

I did not think a performance of the 'Sacre' would grip me as severely as one I saw in about 1980 with Solti and the Chicago; there was a moment's silence at the end--we were all just stunned. This was amazingly different, yet just as shattering. Instead of brute force, he went for colors and transparencies: it will long linger in my head.

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