With A Happy Eye But..." is a collection of his essays from the past five years, put into the context of a post-Sept. 11 world. From Whitewater to Monica to the impeachment trial; the endless debates over partial birth abortions, hate crimes, and human cloning; the death of Princess Diana; the election of 2000, Will's collection offers illustrations of what he refers to as the "sober optimism" needed to constructively confront life and the World.
Also included in the book are profiles of C.S. Lewis, Joe DiMaggio, Don Zimmer and John Adams; and touching obituaries for his father, Professor Frederick Will, and his mentor, Meg Greenfield.
Read an excerpt from the Introduction:
We can only do what it seems to us we were made for, look at this world with a happy eye but from a sober perspective. -- W. H. Auden, "The Horatians"
What? Look at the world with a happy eye, even after 9/11/01? Yes, indeed, especially after the terrorism that abruptly rang down the curtain on a remarkably carefree, and remarkably uncharacteristic, era in modern American history.
Who are the "we" who supposedly are "made for" a happy stance toward life? Auden intended the pronoun's antecedent to be humanity generally. And maybe humanity is so made. That depends on a philosophical, even theological judgment as to whether all of humanity has a common Maker, as well as an opinion on His disposition. Be that as it may, for the portion of humanity privileged to be Americans, looking upon the world cheerfully is simply doing what comes naturally. And the reasons why Americans should be of good cheer were underscored by the nature of our nation's enemies, who announced themselves at 8:48 a.m. Eastern Daylight Savings Time on the eleventh day of the second September of this millennium.
When the first hijacked aircraft, traveling much faster than commercial aircraft are authorized to fly in that space, came screaming low over the Hudson River and into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, the country was paid a huge, if unwitting, compliment. To the perpetrators of this mass murder, the United States is a provocation. It is because it is, as the sixteenth president said, a nation dedicated to a proposition: that all men are created equal. And that proposition is a distillate of the rich cultural inheritance of Western civilization, with its due regard for individual autonomy and rights, and a society of duties and disciplines that incubate respect for rights and competence in the exercise of autonomy.
The scream of the incoming aircraft was a howl of negation. As such, it was remarkably sterile. The terrorists' critique of Western society lacked the analytic rigor of Marxism, and consequently it lacked the brio that Marxism briefly acquired -- until events proved uncooperative -- from its doctrine of historical inevitability. History was supposed to have an inner logic. The unfolding of that logic -- the "march of events" -- could be accelerated or retarded a bit by this or that political program, but the outcome was predetermined. The terrorism was neither logical nor deterministic but reflexive, a wild recoil from what America is. Terrorism does not articulate or advance an alternative vision of human community remotely capable of coping with the world of applied reason that the West has made, a world the vast majority of people desire once they have glimpsed its possibilities. It is a sobering responsibility for America to be the clearest expression of this vision. However, it is safe to say that on 9/10/01 many Americans did not look upon their circumstances, or those of their nation, from a sober perspective. It is not even clear what counted as sobriety during the years covered by the columns and other materials in this collection.
In the last years of the last century, and through the first twenty months of this one, looking upon the world with a happy eye was easy for Americans. Indeed, their challenge was to avoid giddiness about their good fortune in living in such times. The nation was not merely at peace, it was feeling less threatened from abroad than at any time since the 1920s. And Americans were almost startled -- somewhat as in the 1920s, come to think about it -- by their own prodigies of wealth creation.
Certainly sobriety was utterly absent during the mass irrationality and exhibitionism in the week following the death of Princess Diana, an episode that historians will, I suspect, find deeply symptomatic of the temper of the times before the eruption of terrorism. Auden once wrote that
Our intellectual marines, Landing in little magazines, Capture a trend.
Columnists try to be trend capturers, and this columnist wonders whether the Diana death hysteria tapped, among other things, a hitherto unsuspected hunger for a poetic dimension of life, a dimension sometimes scanted by that of the West's commercial civilization.
Money, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a very American thinker, represents the prose of life. In the years covered in this collection Americans were preoccupied even more than usual with how money is made -- and lost. If one were to pick a Person of the Era, politically speaking, he would be the unelected head of the Federal Reserve Board, an institution the arcane workings of which few Americans understand. Think about that. These pretty much happy years have been presided over by a man, Alan Greenspan, who, even when he is mildly happy -- which is about as happy as central bankers ever are -- has a demeanor about as cheerful as Woodrow Wilson's must have been when he learned of the sinking of the Lusitania.
So the prose of life has been much with us. "Poets," noted a pretty good one, G. K. Chesterton, "have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese." He was, of course, being droll. That silence of the poets is not mysterious. Cheese does not summon poetic thoughts. Still, money and other prosaic things are the normal preoccupations of journalists, as Chesterton, a very good one, knew. And even when, as in the 1920s and again seven decades later, politics is especially prosaic, that does not preclude a vigorous enjoyment of civic life...
"With a Happy Eye, But..." by George F. Will. All rights are reserved. Any or all of the following excerpt may not be duplicated in any format, online or offline, without the written permission of the copyright owner.