Denis Dutton, RIP

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 29 2010 5:33 PM

Denis Dutton, RIP

In the late '90s, I started an awkward—some might say excruciating and as yet incomplete—transition from graduate student to freelance journalist. For the young, lordly know-nothing, this might seem like a natural progression. It's not. Early on in your new career, you discover that no one gives a fig about your soon-to-be-former pretensions. They want your prose to be precise and matter-of-fact; they want you to get to the point, and briskly; and they don't, as a rule, find you charming. Every word you write for a general interest publication is examined through the anticipated experience of an imagined ideal reader, leaving no eye whatsoever trained on your genius. It's the best capstone to a liberal education one could ask for.

Nonetheless, just as grad school can coddle the pedant, the marketplace has been known to chasten away, in addition to the pretentious and overblown, the weird, the nuanced, the not needlessly complex. I was very lucky. My first editor was an ex-grad student who allowed me to write, out of the blue, about the philosopher Richard Rorty, an old professor of mine. He published my piece, and when I woke up the next morning, I discovered it had been linked to by a new Web aggregator called Arts & Letters Daily .

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

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In its design, Arts & Letters was modeled on the 18th-century broadsheet: a stroke of genius, as the Internet, in addition to making everything new, is a regressive medium, returning print culture to the early and buccaneer days of competitive pamphleteering. Arts & Letters' founder/editor/curator was Denis Dutton, who died on Tuesday from cancer at the age of 66. He was the scion of the Dutton publishing family, a Californian who had moved to New Zealand to be a professor of philosophy and aesthetics at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch.* I traded e-mails with Denis, then joined him for lunch when he next passed through Manhattan. He was unlike anyone I'd ever met.

Denis was a very sly, very funny, supereducated, and widely allusive lunch companion. He struck me as a natural bon viveur , someone who delighted in talking smack about those not present. His eye gleamed differently from other humanities professors I'd known, his shoulders lacked the obligatory apologetic slump. When our lunch ended, he insisted I Town Car it out to Kennedy Airport with him to keep our conversation going. (No worries, he made sure the car, gratis, returned me to Manhattan.) Art and pleasure and the honest buck were in no ways distinct enterprises for him. Furthermore, he had been a liver: He had passed through the Peace Corps in South India and studied the sitar with Pandarung Parate, who had been a student of Ravi Shankar's. He appeared to exist for classical music, was an impassioned advocate for public radio, and fancied himself a one-man scourge upon pompous writing.

To the latter end, he created the annual Bad Writing Contest, an award he seemed inclined to bestow annually, as Lassie once cornered the PATSY , on Judith Butler. And here it must be said that any honest remembrance of Denis will reckon him a man of avid hobbyhorses. It was what made Arts & Letters work. His ambition for the site, he told me, was to fashion a headline that would completely fool the reader about its source: Expecting a rant from the National Review , one would click through to a Ciceronian discourse from the Atlantic . Equally, one would click on a link expecting a smug pat on the liberal back and find a rant from the National Review .

Still, it was not tough to discern, even if you had never met him, and only from catching the drift of his Web site, Denis' preoccupations. He clearly loved classical music, philosophical monism, evolutionary psychology, and free markets. He clearly detested Heidegger, literary theory, organic foodies, government bureaucrats, and the gathering consensus on global warming. (Denis made this last his most avid hobbyhorse and rode it vigorously, certain that global warming represented left-wing groupthink and junk science.) I found Denis refreshing and catholic and a little odd; he finally found me a little, let's say, pink for his tastes. Eventually, after about six or eight pieces, he banished me from Arts & Letters.

No matter. It remained my home page, as it is today. What I love—Heidegger, organic food, government overreach—Denis clearly detested. I don't care.  What I learned from Denis, and at exactly the most precarious moment, is the lesson that's on display every day at ALDaily.com : that one can be precise and brisk, and nuanced and weird, at no cost to either camp; and that the distinction between the ivory tower and the real world is not only a false but a callow one. To a new technology, Denis Dutton brought an ancient and enduring grace—the belief in a free and contentious marketplace in ideas. He is sorely missed.

 

* Correction, Dec. 29: This piece originally misstated the location of the University of Canterbury.

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