John Leonard’s Criticism Sang With Deep Thought and High Art

Reading between the lines.
March 3 2012 12:08 AM

The King of the Delirious Professions

The critic John Leonard brought a scimitar to a knife fight.

(Continued from Page 1)

Fluttering off to Montreux to check the texture of time in Nabokov’s Ada, Leonard makes an explicit claim for his practice, for rescuing the master from the academy. "Why leave the explications to the exegetes? Or the execration to those radical critics who keep trying to put N. down as some sort of recidivistic White Russian ingrate?" Finding ideas in translation, he makes profitable trips to Palestine and Israel, to Egypt and South Africa, to magic realism as practiced behind the Iron Curtain and under a Fatwa. It is telling that the collection devotes little space to British writers—almost as if Julian Barnes and his friends never happened. The implication is that those chaps can look after themselves; this author was an American spirit.

John Leonard.
John Leonard.

Photograph by Rodney Brooks.

Which reminds me: To use one of Leonard’s pet phrases—one of the constructions that looked like tics and tricks on the passing paper but sparkle in this book like leitmotifs—he died from putting burning leaves in his food hole. If we are to learn any lessons from this critic, the first should be that smoking kills.

So that covers the lungs. To understand other important rules, we move onto other vital organs. In a postscript to Reading for My Life, Leonard’s daughter shares some things that he, a baseball fan, taught her about guts. “You can always root for the underdog. … You always root against the Yankees. This rule may be modified, depending on the season and sport, to substitute the Dallas Cowboys, Notre Dame, or Duke.”

You feel on every page that Leonard took to heart Kurt Vonnegut's idea about maintaining dignity and morality in criticism: "Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” But also it must be said that Leonard—filleting a golden calf or doing a drive-by take-down of a school of thought in a subordinate clause—could write in the style of a man who has brought a scimitar to a knife fight. Or consider the piece—titled “Smash-Mouth Criticism,” and not included here—in which he took up an epée to flick the ear of Dale Peck and suggested “some hard-won guidelines for responsible reviewing”:

For instance: First, as in Hippocrates, do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite. Fourth, look with an open heart and mind at every different kind of book with every change of emotional weather because we are reading for our lives and that could be love gone out the window or a horseman on the roof. Fifth, use theory only as a periscope or a trampoline, never a panopticon, a crib sheet or a license to kill. Sixth, let a hundred Harolds Bloom.


Because the culture has shattered—chaos, heat, fractals—Leonard’s achievement is unrepeatable. We might yet salvage the word unique from the barbarians. We need to, if only so that we can live in a place where a people properly understand this ultimate lesson of—and this is another pet phrase—the “delirious professions.” Here is a riff in the blazing Bonfire piece:

By the “delirious professions,” Paul Valéry meant “all those trades whose main tool is one’s opinion of one’s self, and whose raw material is the opinion others have of you.” In other words, Creative People, who in New York are not merely artists and writers, actors, dancers, and singers, but journalists, editors, critics, TV and radio producers, anchorpeople and talk-show hosts, noisy professors of uplift or anomie, vagabond experts on this week’s Rapture of the Deep at the 92nd Street Y, even (gasp) advertising account execs and swinging bankers and Yuppies in red suspenders on the Stock Exchange. Each is asked every minute of the day to be original: unique. Only then will they be lifted up by their epaulets to Steinbrenner’s box in the Stadium sky, there to consort with city presbyters the likes of the late Roy Cohn, where you can’t tell the pearls from the swine.


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