On the Sophistry Of ‘European Sophistication’

Of all the aspects of the Monica Lewinsky frenzy, the one I find most fascinating-and irritating-is the misuse, no, the abuse , of the idea of “sophistication.” I’m referring to the way that flourishing the concept of “sophistication” has given an inordinate number of people-some of them perhaps genuinely sophisticated, but most, well, less sophisticated than they evidently think they are-the opportunity to deliver themselves of certain kinds of self-congratulatory remarks. Remarks on the order of “Europeans are so much more sophisticated about these things.” Or “Imagine how Europeans must be laughing at us, they’re so much more sophisticated about things like this.” (Even the estimable Mike Nichols felt compelled by the Lewinsky affair to contrast unsophisticated America with “France, [where] they have no problem with such things” as the exploitation of 21-year-old interns.)

Translation: I (the speaker) am possessed of a truly European sophistication about sex and politics which my boorish and crude fellow countrymen have not attained. And I (the self-congratulatory speaker) am embarrassed by the way they’re making people like me look to my many sophisticated international contacts with their impeccably sophisticated savoir-faire.

One wonders if those who feel the need to vaunt their supposedly superior sophistication in this manner realize how their transparently self-promotional, smugly self-congratulatory air betrays what can only, charitably, be called an impoverished vision of sophistication. A sophistication which has more the air (in every sense) of Pepe Le Pew than Georges Pompidou, although it must be said the French-accented cartoon skunk and the former president of France have more in common than either might imagine.

It is the faux sophistication of the Zagat restaurant guide respondents, so eager to broadcast their cosmopolitanism they are forever comparing dinner at some East Side bistro to “an evening in Provence,” or “a night in Capri.” Perhaps it might be worth considering-or reconsidering-the notion of “European sophistication” that has so bedazzled these types that they need to identify themselves with it by means of ostentatious hand-wringing over its absence in their crude countrymen.

Any history of European sophistication would have to begin with the Spanish Inquisition, of course, and the invention of what are invariably referred to as “sophisticated instruments of torture.” Let’s not neglect the sophistication of the European colonial system, in which techniques of great sophistication allowed relatively tiny countries like Belgium to slaughter millions, by some estimates, in their Congo enterprise. (Have the self-congratulatory Europhile sophisticates read Heart of Darkness , which, in fact, evokes the bestiality at the heart of such sophistication?)

And how about the sophisticated triumphs of diplomacy and military strategy European nations displayed to bring about the First World War, in which highly sophisticated statesmen and generals sent millions of unsophisticated youths to be slaughtered in the trenches, and whose only achievement was to pave the way for another, worse war of slaughter two decades later, which saw the death toll rise to 40 million during the six years between 1939 and 1945.

It was in those years that European sophistication achieved its true apotheosis. The French ability to look the other way , so celebrated by the self-congratulatory sophisticates who wish to identify with it, rose to become a great national art during the Vichy years, as super-sophisticated Frenchmen preserved the sophisticated values of French civilization at the slight cost of ignoring (or abetting) the transshipment of a few hundred thousand unsophisticated aliens “elsewhere.”

Still, the supreme attainment of European sophistication may have been achieved by the civilian population of Germany during the war. I was reminded of this recently when participating in a panel discussion at the Museum of Television & Radio on the subject of recent German television documentaries on Hitler and the Holocaust. Most of the documentary material was exemplary, but toward the close of the discussion two of my fellow panelists-an official of the German Embassy and a German historical scholar-engaged in a colloquy about some polls that seemed to show that only a minority of the German populace knew what was happening to the Jews among them during the War. A colloquy that focused on the sophisticated and subtle ways in which people knew not to ask certain questions in order not to know what might be uncomfortable truths. The two well-intentioned postwar-generation Germans seemed to be taking those polling reports seriously, and at a certain point I found myself unable to restrain myself from asking my fellow panelists the following question: “What did the German people think was happening to the Jews who were disappearing from their midst-they were going on vacation ?”

From the reaction, it was clear I had asked an unsophisticated question.

Of course, this is unfair, wildly disproportionate, associating this sort of sophistication with the merely annoying variety envisioned by slavish Europhiles who invoke some Pepe Le Pew vision of Continental sophistication to justify looking the other way at the Monica Lewinsky affair. (I’m not taking a position on the factuality of the affair-only on those who airily pretend to be above even considering it and who profess deep concern that the oh-so-civilized French might be laughing at us.)

Nor do I intend here an assault on European sophistication in all its manifestations. (Although I would commend to you, as a useful corrective to the slavish inferiority complex some half-educated Americans display toward their culture, Michael Lind’s recent polemic in Harper’s Magazine entitled “Where Have You Gone, Louis Sullivan?” on the half-baked kowtowing toward anything European displayed by the arbiters and institutions of American culture, so enthralled by every new fashion from the Continent they have neglected American works of genius not modeled upon them-allowing students to emerge from college knowing the works of, for instance, expatriate Europhiles like T.S. Eliot but not his equal and esthetic counterpart Hart Crane.)

The problem, I think, is failure to make a distinction between true sophistication and sophistry. Sophistry: It’s a word I feel has been unduly neglected as a descriptive epithet in a culture rife with it. Both words-sophistry and sophistication-are derived, of course, from the Sophists, a loosely knit group of fifth-century B.C. Athenian philosophers, so few of whose manuscripts have survived that their true views about most matters may forever be lost in the mists of time. There’s a fascinating centuries-long debate among classical scholars over whether the Sophists were irreverent skeptics or cynical, mercenary opportunists. The pejorative use of the word “sophist” derives from Plato’s abusive characterization of them as thinkers who argued out of bad faith, who argued for the sake of argument to deceive with meretricious and sophisticated rhetoric.

Setting aside its historical origin, the word sophistry is an incredibly useful and underused descriptive term for the kind of argument that is superficially sophisticated but is self-serving or self-aggrandizing rather than truth-seeking. Self-serving in that it is frequently designed to show off the arguer’s rhetorical facility, to distract the gaze with balletic look-at-me leaps of logic from the emptiness at the heart of the matter.

You could think of sophistry as fashion prose designed to praise the Emperor’s new couture. In a recent column, I argued that this was what was going on with the widely unquestioning acceptance of the fashionable new cosmological model of Alan Guth, proponent of the “inflationary universe” theory, which purports to explain the origin of existence-how something (the big bang)-came from nothing. In a two-part essay on the concept of nothingness (Dec. 15 and 29, 1997), I called the inflationary theory sophistry. Largely because I couldn’t abide Mr. Guth’s claim that he had refuted the dictum of the visionary poet-philosopher Lucretius (in De Rerum Natura , his beautiful first-century B.C. cosmological epic poem) that “Nothing can be created from nothing.” When you run down Lucretius, son, you’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me (as Merle Haggard put it). Lucretius is the equal of certain cabbalist sages in capturing in poetic language a vision of Being and Creation that still eludes the jumped-up pretensions of contemporary cosmological sophists. Particularly Mr. Guth.

I was gratified recently to see my view of Mr. Guth’s sophistry affirmed and expressed by someone far more mathematically knowledgeable than I. In an important essay in the February issue of Commentary (“Was There a Big Bang?”), David Berlinski pulls the rug from under the pretensions to certainty of Mr. Guth and his fellow cosmological sophists. Mr. Berlinski, author of A Tour of the Calculus , observes that “Guth writes in pleased astonishment that the universe really did arise from ‘essentially … nothing at all.’ As it happens, he means a ‘false vacuum patch …10-26 centimeters in diameter and 10-32 solar masses.’ It would appear, then, that ‘essentially nothing’ has both spatial extension and mass. While these facts may strike Mr. Guth as inconspicuous, others may suspect that nothingness, like death, is not a matter that permits of degree.”

And yet Mr. Guth is regarded as a god in the pop-cosmology culture, the guy who’s figured it all out , who’s finally explained how something came from nothing. All by means of logic that is worth less than nothing-sophistry on a cosmological scale.

If cosmology is the most unexamined source of sophistry in contemporary culture, for sheer quantity nothing can compare to postmodern literary criticism, where sophistry has been refined into an art, a virtual language, a principle of Being all its own. For some time, I’ve been thinking of establishing an equivalent for sophistry of Pseuds Corner, the notorious feature of London’s Private Eye in which passages of high-flown and overblown prose are singled out for exposure (for a long time the selections were made by the great poet and translator-transmuter of Homer, Christopher Logue, whose Homeric efforts I celebrated in one of my first Observer columns).

My proposed “Sophists Corner” (“Sophs Corner”?) will not deal exclusively with literary criticism, but with examples that range from current conversational culture (“Europeans are so much more sophisticated than us about these things”) to the cosmological. My first nominee does, however, emanate from the sophistical cosmology of lit crit and can be found, unfortunately, in the fall 1997 issue of Raritan .

I say unfortunately because to my mind, Raritan is that rare intellectual quarterly which prefers to publish academics smart enough to write without the incantations of cant and jargonic sophistry endemic to their trade. Raritan indeed belongs in the anti-sophistry Hall of Fame for having the courage to publish, nearly 10 years ago, long before the Alan Sokal hoax in Social Text in 1996, a brilliantly crafted parody of lit-crit sophistry (“Historicizing Phrenology,” written pseudonymously by David Bromwich and Edward Mendelson)-a hoax so brilliantly crafted, in fact, that many of Raritan ‘s mainly academic readers didn’t know it was a parody, and it still can be found in serious scholarly databases (see my column on this, June 17, 1996, the first to reveal the Raritan hoax in print).

But even Homer nods, and in an otherwise fairly illuminating essay on “Hamlet, [William] James, and the Woman Question,” the author argues that it is not the murder of Hamlet’s father but solely the sexuality of his mother that disturbs and deepens Hamlet’s consciousness (I thought Europeans were more sophisticated about these things). He then cites as gospel, with great reverence, the following passage from the work of a psychoanalytically-oriented literary critic, Ned Lukacher:

“… Hamlet is the first character in Western literature to be able to reflect upon the nature of his subjectivity, to look at it as if from outside himself and reflect not simply on the content of that subjectivity but on its capacity for self-reflection. [And] it is precisely in the discursive space that has been opened up by the feminine that Hamlet is able to represent himself to himself in an entirely new way.”

Hamlet, the first ? As if the 2,000 years of disillusioned lyric love poetry that preceded Hamlet is not about the self-reflective “discursive space opened up by the feminine.” As if Catullus had never written a line. But this is one of the key tactics in contemporary lit-crit sophistry, the purportedly daring declaration that something everyone has done for centuries is actually a recent invention, a literary device, the text precedes the thing itself. Romantic love was created by Provençal love poets, had never existed before, that sort of thing. It’s popular because it reassures the lit-crit sophists that textuality is everything, that consciousness and emotion are mere artifacts of language, and (a minor but satisfying corollary) they don’t have to bother with the illusory human “subject” because subjectivity is a creation of texts which you can stay at home and decode without ever having to bother with real people.

Still, it sounds good, it sounds novel, it sounds sophisticated to say Hamlet invented the examination of subjectivity. (It sounds like the French would like it.) Stay tuned for further nominations for Sophs Corner.

On the Sophistry Of ‘European Sophistication’