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The Imaginative David Gelernter

David Gelernter (Doc Searls/Flickr)

Conor Friedersdorf last week published an excellent interview with the Yale computer scientist David Gelernter.  In it, he says that “the best scientists aren’t the dedicated drudges who have no other interests.

The best take after Newton, Einstein and tens of thousands of lesser lights in their devotion to science and other things too. As a scientist handing out advice on the study of science, something I do as a college teacher, one of my main messages is that you can’t be an educated human being on the basis of science alone; another main message is that, sometimes, you can’t even be a scientist or technologist on the basis of science alone.

If I were loosely gathering topics of study into categories, I might call them arts, religion, scholarship, and science. As important as scholarship and science are, arts and religion are more important. Those were my main goals (my wife’s, too) in educating our two boys, who are now both in their 20s. Arts and religion define, in a sense, a single spectrum rather than two topics. And this spectrum is where you find mankind’s deepest attempts to figure out what’s going on in the universe. A student who doesn’t know the slow movement of Schubert’s B-flat major op post sonata, or the story of David and Absalom, needs to go back to school and learn better.

He also says:

The ideological narrowness of mainstream commercial magazines is one of the deep, deep frustrations of my life.  We have a thriving conservative intelligentsia in this country; it includes many (in fact most) of the smartest people I’ve ever met. (Think about Norman Podhoretz, George Will, Bill Bennett, Donald Kagan—radically different sorts of thinker, all four strikingly brilliant. There are a few dozen more even at this exalted level.) It’s a pleasure and a high honor to be part of America’s conservative culture. But the Left hears nothing we say: nothing. Nothing. Most have shrugged this off; only a few of us care. Because I teach at Yale and, more important, because I belong to the art world & have since birth, I can’t help caring—and sometimes being outraged, sometimes just grief-stricken. What a damned mess we’ve made of intellectual life in this absurdly wealthy, lucky, blessed nation.

The Left hears nothing we say. I think that is true. Gelernter is not talking about popular conservatism, à la Fox News or talk radio. He’s talking about at the level of deep ideas. For example, there are some really interesting critiques of liberalism coming from intellectuals on the Right (I’m thinking about Patrick Deneen and Ryszard Legutko, but there are others), but as far as I can tell, these are as yet making no impact beyond a smallish circle. The fact that Roger Scruton has been exiled from the academy is a scandal. As Gelernter writes, “Most have shrugged this off; only a few of us care.” It is fruitless to care insofar as an expectation that the closed, insular, immensely self-regarding intellectual caste in Western life will ever open its minds and its doors. But to think of where the lack of comprehensiveness, diversity, and vitality in intellectual life means for the future of our nation and our civilization — well, you can see why someone like Gelernter could become “grief-stricken.”

(Or you can laugh hysterically at the absurdity of it all. Follow the terrific Twitter feed of New Real Peer Review for real-life examples of leftist crackpottery in academia. One imagines that if the academy had any real intellectual diversity in it, there would be a lot less of this nonsense in it, because it would have developed the antibodies to fight foolishness.)

When Gelernter complains about how hard it is to get a wide range of ideas before the American public, Friedersdorf pivots rather brilliantly to ask him for a few ideas that he, Gelernter, has wanted to get before the public, but hasn’t been able to because he hasn’t found the right forum. Gelernter gives him twenty. Some of them are odd, some strike me as not so great, others are brilliant — but all reveal an intelligence that is vibrantly alive, visceral, and engaging. Here’s my favorite:

We don’t understand great medieval churches properly.

The extent to which western churches are based on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is implicit in parts of the literature, but doesn’t seem to have been studied thoroughly, especially in the way that a Christian’s progression from the west-end to the sacred east-end recreates the pilgrimage in miniature—in the sense that the Christian’s steps trace an easterly path which is a literal part of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Thus the font at which Christian life begins is usually at or near the west end. (Southern cathedrals such as Florence’s, with the baptistery as a separate building west of the main church, underline the start of the pilgrimage.)  A pilgrim heads eastward through the nave and arrives at the crossing; moving into the choir, he is usually approaching the high altar, east of the choir.  A saint’s shrine, in England especially, was apt to be east of the high altar (thus the Confessor’s shrine at Westminster Abbey, Becket’s former shrine at Canterbury, and many, many other cases).

The east end of the church is a re-creation of the Celestial Jerusalem—of Paradise, of the goal of the pilgrimage. This is true of the traditional French apse or chevet, concave to enclose the pilgrim—but also of the great eastern window at Lincoln (for example) or the glass wall at the east end of York or Gloucester. The English tradition of siting a lady chapel in the easternmost position—east of the altar, east of the shrine, as in Salisbury or Winchester or Exeter or Wells, and in some parish or former abbey churches (such as Abbey Dore)—underlines the pilgrimage theme. At Wells, for example, the great east window hovers above the altar. This is the main source of light from the east, the light of Paradise towards which a Christian life leads.

But beneath the great east window, light enters from a distance, from the beautiful reticulated windows of the octagonal lady chapel. Just as a choir within the west façades of Wells and Salisbury, singing through hidden sound-holes, welcomes pilgrims and processions into church on feasts such as Easter, the light of the easternmost windows sneaking in beneath the great east window, beyond the altar, calls pilgrims east, to the lady chapel and the celestial Jerusalem and Paradise.

Yes, and we don’t understand great medieval churches properly because we have lost what the medievals knew about the truth of the Christian faith, and how it is a pilgrimage. Our churches reflect the loss of the internal imaginative structure of the faith, and how the culture of Christianity (which includes church architecture) transmits that vision.

You really need to read the entire Friedersdorf-Gelernter interview. More like it, please! Readers, I’d love it if you’d take a look at the piece and talk in the comments section about your favorite of his suggestions (or your least favorite). I wish there were a David Gelernter Quarterly to subscribe to.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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