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Let me not to Wieseltier’s fulsome toast of a power marriage admit impediments

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The flip side of Leon Wieseltier’s vicious-turgid attack on Andrew Sullivan is a toast he made to Samantha Power and Cass Sunstein– then-Harvard powerhouses, today Obama aides– when they got married in Ireland a year and a half ago. Wieseltier was so proud of the toast he sent it out by email to friends. As they say in rodeo, and social-climbing, This is how it’s done. Presumably Wieseltier issued similar praise to Sullivan back in the day, and circulated those performances, too. 

I’m copying the speech below. A few comments ahead of time:

Since their wedding in July ’08, Power and Sunstein were called, just as Wieseltier predicted, to "honor’s seat": they joined the Obama administration, Sunstein as a czar, Power as a foreign policy adviser. Wieseltier was at Sunstein’s confirmation hearing, and was praised there by his friend the Israel lobbyist/senator Joe Lieberman. And note that Sunstein’s nutty/scary 2008 paper calling for government action against conspiracy theorists finds an echo in Wieseltier’s statement in his attack on Sullivan that seeing a conspiracy is the sign of a weak mind (a foolish assertion on its face; Shakespeare is full of conspiracies, Abe Lincoln’s message in the Douglas debates is all about conspiracy).

The lingering question from his Sullivan accusation is How could Wieseltier be so deluded as to imagine that his sniggering piece was clever, and thereby to fire his piece at his own foot? There’s an answer in the toast in the line, "We are accustomed to celebrating ourselves, and to being celebrated…" This doesn’t reflect ordinary human experience outside the asskissers of D.C.– in spite of the the beautiful Spenser warning Wieseltier quotes at the end: "to love the low degree."

Another good line in the toast is when LW says he resolved on first sight to help Power and be helped by her. The New Republic certainly played an important part in her rise as a writer. In her bestselling book on genocide, Power described Wieseltier "as the wisest man in Washington and the most stirring moralist around." Today Power is something of a realist in foreign policy who has apparently pushed the Palestinian issue. And meanwhile, Wieseltier operatically claims that the Obama administration has declared war on the Netanyahu gov’t. So could Wieseltier turn on Power? Only when she’s out of it.

Note that the toast calls for torture to be repudiated, but in his Sullivan attack, Wieseltier defends Charles Krauthammer’s argument for torture as owing to "a deep and sometimes frantic concern for American security."

Finally, I think there’s a lot of genuine wisdom in this toast, like the passage about consenting to marry is consenting to be known, and one can be a hero to one’s spouse but not an idol. Well-turned. The toast:

A wedding is a ceremony that marks the progress that a man and a woman have made, each under the impact of the other, in his and her sense of what is significant. All of us here live our lives in plenitudes, even excesses, of  significance. We serve our field, our art, our profession, our community, and our country importantly; we believe that we are important enough even to change the world, and in some ways we may be right. We flourish in the awareness of what is larger than ourselves, though it does not always leave us with the awareness that we are small. We are ceaselessly in motion, spinning up and out, mentally and physically; we roam the globe the way our ancestors roamed the town, or the hills just beyond the town. We deny distance and we revere speed, not least as proof that we may bend reality to our wishes and our needs; and we have taught ourselves to think swiftly, and also to feel swiftly. We are accustomed to celebrating ourselves, and to being celebrated, and what we accomplish in our various callings is often worthy of celebration. On our best days, we are moral, smart, purposeful, strong, glamorous, useful, and wide; influences on our history; patriots and cosmopolitans; public people, giving and gaining; the ornaments, and the trustees, of our traditions. This is our time.

 And yet none of these attainments and none of these flatteries are pertinent to what has transpired here today. For a wedding is an instruction in the varieties of importance. And a marriage? Well, I have crossed an ocean and traveled to this far paradise to declare to my cherished friends that marriage is a process of de-globalization, and that is its splendor. Brides and grooms are people who have discovered, by means of love, the local nature of happiness. Love is a revolution in scale, a revision of magnitudes; it is private and it is particular; its object is the specificity of this man and that woman, the distinctness of this spirit and that flesh. Love prefers deep to wide, and here to there; the grasp to the reach. It will not be accelerated, or made efficient: love’s pace is its pace, one of the fundamental temporalities of mortal existence, and it will not be rushed or retarded by even the most glittering pressures of service or success. Love is, or should be, indifferent to history, immune to it — a soft and sturdy haven from it: when the day is done, and the lights are out, and there is only this other heart, this other mind, this other face, to assist one in repelling one’s demons or in greeting one’s angels, it does not matter who the president is. When
one consents to marry, one consents to be truly known, which is an ominous prospect; and so one bets on love to correct for the ordinariness of the impression, and to call forth the forgiveness that is invariably required by an accurate perception of oneself. Marriages are exposures. We may be heroes to our spouses, but we may not be idols.

 We are in Ireland, so my authority is Yeats. In 1918, when he came to compose a tribute to his wife, the poet was exotically drawn to the romance of Solomon and Sheba. This is the last stanza of his poem:

Said Solomon to Sheba,
And kissed her Arab eyes,
There’s not a man or woman
 Born under the skies
 Dare match in learning with us two,
 And all day long we have found
 There’s not a thing but love can make
 The world a narrow pound.

Solomon, you will recall, was the wisest man in the world, and also the worldliest man in the world. But Yeats has him praising, in his wisdom and his worldliness, the limiting effects of love. That is his ideal of marriage: a narrow pound?; an introversion of extroverted souls; an unconfining confinement. Mundanity is, even etymologically, another form of worldliness.And marriage, the poet says, is in its essence an invitation to the

I have never before been to a wedding at which I have known the bride and the groom both so well and loved them both so much. When Cass called to tell me about Samantha and Samantha called to tell me about Cass, I experience their convergence as the confirmation of some of my heart’s finest and oldest inclinations. It has been my honor to call Cass a friend, and to regard him  increasingly as a brother, for thirty-two years. When I met him, what he knew  most about was Samuel Beckett –the beginning of his long road to Ireland, I suppose. When Cass and I talk about Bentham now, I remember Beckett then; and I further reflect that the supple and concrete and wry view of human behavior that Cass has developed in his groundbreaking work of recent years may be  described as Bentham diversified by Beckett. Cass, as is well known, is a prince of reason, not least because he relishes the cunning of unreason. He gives his logic with a twinkle in his eye. About the force of his mind, its natural clarity and candor; its unrelenting concern for the integrity of argument; its adventurous impatience to follow wherever justified concepts and supported facts lead; its almost erotic delight in complication, and in  the frustration of philosophy by reality; its uncanny talent for moderation in deeply held beliefs, or to put this differently, its natural, or temperamental, liberalism. About all this I need not go on, except to declare that it is a blessing for our country that Cass has made himself into one of the great stewards of its law.

But Cass is here to receive a wife, not an honorary degree; and so I want to praise him instead for a quality of his person at which I have regularly marveled and to which I have been regularly indebted. I have met people who are brilliant and I have met people who are fierce and I have met people who are brilliant and fierce — but Cass is brilliant and fierce and tender. The tenderness behind this man’s pride is immeasurable. Ellen knows this. The eruptions of sweetness never end. The way he coddled my little dog used to melt me; and now I dissolve in gratitude when he coddles my little son. The mutual delight of the formidable godfather and the formidable godson has been one of the primary scenes of the happiness of my house. When my boy grows older, I will teach Cass to him, which is to say, I will teach him that smart and sweet can, no, must — go together. What is the use, or the beauty, of reason if it is not human reason?

I first encountered Samantha at a pool table most of two decades ago. She was, of course, startling. She had hot, laughing eyes and a free, probing mind and a chronology of the Bosnian catastrophe: a woman of ardor who made conscience seem sensuous. I resolved immediately to help her, and to helped by her, in our common cause of comprehending the savagery in the world and shaming the powers that could still be shamed into acting against it. Her vitality was extraordinary, even a little pathological. As you know, Samantha is either intense or asleep. But I do not wish to laud her more right now: she understands that I am severe about such things, and she has heard quite enough already, all of it true; and her union with Cass leaves me not only joyful but also solemn. The gravity of this gorgeous day must not completely overtaken by its high spirits.

And so I wish only to say, on this Fourth of July, that I prize my darling Samantha as one of the keepers of idealism in America. As my own generation has grimly shown, youthful idealism is often more a commitment to youth than a commitment to an ideal; but Samantha remains almost giddily unreconstructed in her imagination of justice. She demonstrates by example that idealism is for adults. The foulest consequence of injustice, aside from the suffering that it inflicts, is the damage that it can do to our sense of possibility; but Samantha has risen up to defend that sense, and to fortify it, and to prove it. Her good cheer, properly understood, is itself a call to action.

 In my tradition we break a glass at weddings, so as not to omit what we know about the darkness of the world from the gaiety of what we know about its light. In spirit the Jewish custom is also quite Irish. There are not many epithalamia in Irish poetry, but there are many elegies for love doomed or destroyed. So to be married in Ireland is to charge a marriage with the memory of hardship; to make courage into one of the conjugal virtues. Whether or not love is blind, marriage must keep its eyes open. After almost two decades in Ireland, Edmund Spenser wrote a long poetic testament to what he learned on this island, and this was its lesson:

 to love the low degree,
 And if that fortune chaunce you up to call
 To honours seat, forget not what you be.

This bride and this groom have been bountifully favored by fortune: not the luck of the Irish or the luck of the Jews but the luck of the Americans, which really is luck. They will surely be called to honor’s seat. The large things will come, and I expect they will be equal to them; and then the large things will go. But the allegedly small things: they are the steadfast things. Like all of you, I wish Samantha and Cass a lifetime of hedonic gains, but mainly I wish them, for their many years together, the pleasures of a narrow pound and the comforts of a low degree.

So may decency and honesty be restored to our government, and our Constitution be rescued, and the terrorists be defeated, and torture be repudiated, and the atrocity in Darfur be halted, and the needs of the poor and the sick be recognized and relieved, and the seas and the skies be protected from our greed — but whether all of this, or some of this, or none of this come to pass, may Cass and Samantha cleave always to each other, and they to us, and us to them, because our love is also a version of justice.

Leon Wieseltier
 July 4, 2008

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