One of Yakov Smirnoff’s signature jokes is about getting off the plane in the United States and seeing on a billboard “America Loves Smirnoff,” which he follows with the line, “What a country!” But here are two excerpts from one morning’s NY Times, which Larry read to me while I made breakfast.
The combination made me grateful for such a country, in all it’s crazy diversity.
The first is about the journalist Jayson Blair, who managed to hoodwink the Times for years, plagiarizing stories and inventing interviews and facts. The first is from a new film about Mr. Blair and his career:
“But perhaps the most potent of all the films commentaries comes from the soon-to-resign executive editor on that walk, Mr. Raines, who says ‘We were dealing with a disturbed individual exhibiting sociopathic behavior, two primary traits of which are lack of empathy and a highly manipulative personality.’ Jayson Blair is now, the film reveals, working successfully as a life coach.”
The last line made me drop the knife, I was laughing so hard. And then a couple of paragraphs from David Brooks, writing about a legendary meeting of Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova, whose work I’ve translated:
“Berlin and Akhmatova were from a culture that assumed that, if you want to live a decent life, you have to possess a certain intellectual scope. You have to grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and make subtle moral and emotional judgements.
“That Berlin and Akhmatova could experience that sort of life-altering conversion because they had done the reading. They were spiritually ambitious. They had the common language of literature, written by geniuses who understand us better than we understand ourselves…
“Their communion was primarily intellectual, emotional and spiritual, creating a combination of friendship and love. I’m old enough to remember when many people committed themselves to this sort of life, and dreamed of this sort of communion–the whole Great Books/Big Ideas thing. ”
This is the kind of life it is still possible to pursue. It was the vision of that kind of life that made me pick Larry 44 years ago, much to the bewilderment of my parents. I think in our own way we still pursue it–allowing some time for computer games and bad TV, of course.
2 thoughts on “What a country!”
I hope one day we shall meet in person. I have read neither Berlin or Akhmatova (sad but true), but I have lived on and off in a former Soviet Republic since the mid-1990s. There are still old school intellectuals left there— my friend Murat who reads 100 books a year; our old driver who used to beat all the ‘real’ intellectuals at chess on a regular basis, and my friends who love nothing better than to spend an afternoon over tea in a Chekhov-like setting discussing life. The ability to reach deeply into the souls and minds of others is an art that we lose so quickly in a world of instant gratification!
What a lovely comment, Claudia. I, too, hope we will meet sometime–I am going to St. Petersburg this fall. Any chance you will be in Russia then?