OK so I talked the other day about how enamored I was of Noam Chomsky after listening to a three-hour interview he gave in 2003 and so what ended up happening—and it’s happened severaltimes with Chomsky over the past few years—is I went on a 48-hour binge where I read his articles, listened to the Zoom interviews he still takes part in (he’s in his 90s), and skimmed the two movies that’ve been made about him—and I feel like it’s normal for me to do that kind of deep dive. I’m not shy to say that I did it. But what I don’t think is all that normal is how much I suddenly wanna know about Chomsky’s private life. What does he eat for breakfast? What’s his favorite movie? (I once did a similar deep dive on Warren Buffet: his favorite movie is Bridge on the River Kwai). And so I started digging around for details and I came upon a New Yorker profile from 2003 in which Larissa MacFarquhar writes a portrait of Chomsky that isn’t so flattering.
He’s got three kids and apparently he likes junk food and boating. The sofas in his nondescript Boston home have exotic pillows. The article mentions that he once owned “a fleet” of boats and it got me thinking of the mind-bending (and apparently health-harming) frequency with which Chomsky goes around doing speaking engagements and that if he got paid only a couple thousand dollars for half of those speaking engagements, well, he’d be sitting pretty. Add to that the earnings (probably modest) from his 100+ books and what I have to imagine is a six-figure teaching salary for the past thirty years or so.
Prettily seated indeed.
But I’ve heard Chomsky bristle about this profile and how a reader of it would have to see how much they could actually verify—and what I think he bristled at was…me, frankly.
Or partly he was bristling at me.
MacFarquhar points out that the reason we don’t know very much about Chomsky is because he “disdains” the “cult of personality”—a cult consisting, presumable, of people who hear his lectures and interviews, become starry-eyed about their intellectual rigor, and then start speculating about his favorite movies and what he has for breakfast.
But MacFarquhar also describes how Chomsky can be pretty cruel to his students, shredding their ideas in front of class, antagonizing them. She points out that he prides himself on only discussing facts, and being able to cite the sources of everything he reports—to which Christopher Hitchens says, “As if empiricism of the crudest kind were the best that we can do. I mean, that’s very vulgar. And that’s the authoritarian personality.”
Then I heard a podcast (I’m forgetting its name or the guy who hosts it) where the showrunner talks about a contentious interview he recently had with Chomsky, and characterizes the polymathic nanogenarian as somebody very similar to the brute we see in MacFarquhar’s profile, and then he goes on to make some pretty solid points about the shortcomings in Chomsky’s approach to certain issues, particularly how Chomsky isn’t that interested in the motives behind political events. What he cares about are the events themselves. The facts. The things that happened and the consequences.
And I think that this is what I kinda needed: two strong voices making cases against my adolescent impulse to deify the intellectuals I admire. Are these portraits of Chomsky accurate? Maybe. Maybe not.
But also, it’s an occasion for me to ask myself why I give so much a fuck about these kindsa things. Is it totally normal that, having come to respect and resonate with a person’s work, you should then want to connect with the person? Or is this just a kind of obsession on par with how, at seventeen, I wanted to basically be Norman Mailer. Knew just about everything a reader could know about his private life. I knew the names of all his wives. It was unhealthy.
If Chomsky’s always been on guard about this cult of personality thing, it must be something he’s seen firsthand. People being weird with him. I think I heard a story about somebody going through Cormac McCarthy’s trash looking for…something.
Steve Donoghue would be the first to tell me it’s unhealthy and that it’s gonna make me inflate the quality of this dude’s work, that it’s gonna blind me to its foibles.
But it’s a recurrent thing, the way I’ll read somebody’s book and then wanna know everything about their life. Holden Caulfield mentions it in Catcher in the Rye, kinda. Says he knows he’s reading a great book when he wants to be friends with the author afterward. Something like that. It’s a weird impulse with a stalkerish vibe, and I do wanna get more scrupulous about policing it.
But I’m gonna try, at the same time, not to beat myself up about it.