The Corner


In Appreciation, and against (Too Much) Nostalgia

Bernard Lewis (Portrait: Alan Kolc / Princeton University)

To put it a little self-pityingly: It seems that my gurus are going, and the world’s. Richard Pipes, the great historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, died on Thursday; Bernard Lewis, the great historian of the Middle East, died yesterday. We had them both for a long time. Pipes was born in 1923, Lewis way back in 1916. Still . . .

I have written an appreciation of Lewis, here. I have written an appreciation of Pipes for the next issue of the magazine, and will amplify it here on the site. To read William Grimes’s excellent obit of Pipes in the New York Times, go here.

The temptation (in some of us) is to think that this is the end of the line. Never again will anyone have so great an understanding of Russia and the Soviet Union; never again will anyone have so great an understanding of the Middle East.

When Robert Conquest died in 2015, I thought, “Well, now we’re really in trouble. He lived through so much, and came to understand so much. And now there is simply ignorance and mediocrity.”

Human beings have thought this in every generation, no doubt. I can just hear the likes of me in ancient Greece after Thucydides passed from the scene: “Who will ever be able to write history again?”

Music (a field I know well) is cursed with nostalgia. Drowning in nostalgia. “There will never be another Caruso.” Yeah — but how about Gigli, Bjoerling, and Pavarotti, to name just three? Future generations will envy people today for having heard Vittorio Grigolo.

Now, indulge me in some golf. After Bobby Jones, there was Ben Hogan. At the 1960 U.S. Open, the old Hogan was paired with the young Jack Nicklaus. Hogan told someone, “I played with some fat kid from Ohio today, and if he had a brain in his head, he’d win this tournament by ten shots.” Then after Jack, Tiger . . .

You never run out. It only seems that way. I was so relieved to meet Douglas Murray, because it proved that Britain was still producing all-purpose intellectuals.

Richard Pipes and Bernard Lewis are unique, yes. (But then, isn’t everyone?) They seem irreplaceable. But think of their influence: on their students, on their readers. They have leavened the world, so to speak.

Also, consider this: Pipes and Lewis arose when society had great need of them — Pipes for the Cold War (and other things), Lewis for the War on Terror (and other things). Will others arise when we need them? I can only say yes.

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