There’s no better writer on the lives and ideas of intellectuals than the New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar. Her profiles, frequently of academics, and often of philosophers, are always good reading. As someone who opens the New Yorker and thrills to a MacFarquhar profile as most do to an Anthony Lane review, I’m excited that MacFarquhar will be in brief residence at Stanford with the Program on Ethics in Society in mid-January.
In addition to conducting some writing workshops with seniors working on their honors theses and meeting with freshman in the Structured Liberal Education program, she’ll be giving a public talk on January 15, 2013 with material drawn from the book she’s currently writing on Extreme Morality, profiles of people whose moral commitments lead them to extraordinary acts and exceptional lives, often at seeming great cost to themselves and the people they love and who love them. Details on the poster below.
I think her specialty is capturing the strange beauty of monomania. If you’ve seen the recent documentary on Bill Cunningham, eccentric fashion photographer for the New York Times, or on Jiro Ono, eccentric genius from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you will know the kind of monomaniac I have in mind: individuals who cannot do other than passionately devote themselves to a single activity. MacFarquahar’s profile of Momofuku chef David Chang fits this mold. So does her article on Pat and Paul Churchland, philosophers at UC San Diego who work on the mind-body problem.
My personal favorite is her 2011 piece on Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit, How to Be Good [gated]. Parfit is one of the most important living philosophers. In addition to nimbly conveying the substance of his views on the objectivity and unity of morality – hardly the stuff of a page-turning New Yorker article – she captures the person behind the ideas. I have never met Derek Parfit, but I know and admire the type:
He moved into rooms at All Souls and settled into a monk-like existence. There was usually a woman in his life somewhere, but he spent very little time with her. Almost all his waking hours were spent at his desk. All Souls resembles a monastery. Its fifteenth century stone arcades surround a vivid lawn that is immaculate because it is seldom used: All Souls has no undergraduates and is not often open to the public – its gates are shut. All his needs were taken care of by the college: he was housed, fed, and paid, and nothing in the way of emotional output was required of him. This was how his life had been since he went to boarding school, at ten, and it suited him. He had become, he realized, what psychiatrists call institutionalized – a person for whom living in an institution feels more normal than living in a family.
. . .
Other than his trips to Venice and St. Petersburg, the only reason he left All Souls for any length of time was to travel to America, to teach. He had appointments at Harvard, Rutgers, and N.Y.U.: he wanted students, because he found that it was discouragingly difficult to persuade older philosophers to change their minds. He also needed students, because only they would talk philosophy with him for twelve hours at a stretch and then wake up the next day wanting to do it again. Older philosophers (and his students from past years were now in this category) had children and spouses; they sat on academic committees and barbecued in their backyards.
I am not capable of this kind of devotion, nor would I wish for such a life, were I capable of it. I have a spouse and children. And I both serve on academic committees and barbecue. I am happy, and better off, for all of these. But I admire Parfit’s life and am grateful that our social arrangements make possible such lives. Monomania need not be madness. It can be greatness.