death of Melvin Lasky,
editor of Encounter
June 9, 2004
LONDON - At the height of Indira
Gandhi's "emergency" when democracy, India's most
precious asset, was suspended, India's great
intellectual, the late Minoo Misani, used the pages of
Encounter magazine, the Cold War's "journal de combat",
to sound an eloquent clarion call against her misrule.
Where else at that time in the English speaking world
was there a better place to sound off against
authoritariansm, didacticism and the paronoia of
rulers who, by their petty acts of repression, clearly
thought that the pen was indeed mightier than the sword?
Encounter has been dead a dozen
years or more, a victim of the end of the Cold War, the
resurgence of democracy and liberty and the urge of
today's younger readers to forget the old intellectual
battles of the past. Two weeks ago, just as the Indian
electorate had demonstrated once again its democratic
maturity, the long time editor of Encounter, Melvin
Lasky, an 84 year old American, died in Berlin, the
city of his adoption. If he heard the result before he
died I know he would have smiled with satisfaction- he
had a wicked smile like Lenin whom he physically
resembled- and made a telling quip, probably to the
effect that the grave yard of those who played with
religious and ethnic bigotry was filling up.
Encounter was the magazine that
gave birth to Nancy Mitford´s "On English
Aristocracy" with its "U´s" and "non-U´s", C.P.
Snows's description of the two cultures, and Isaiah
Berlin's dazzling evocation of the great age of the
Russian intelligensia before the Crimean War. "Its
purpose", wrote George Urban in a memoir, "was simply to
reclaim the political heritage of the Enlightenment from
the disaster that had befallen it in 1917 and,
specifically, to challenge Leninism/Stalinism on its own
Politically where was Encounter?
Lasky once answered the question for me. "We upset
Lukacs, angered Brecht, pleased Djilas, elated Pasternak.
In the West we broke with Andre Malraux, dropped Dwight
McDonald, remained loyal to Gunter Grass, rallied to
George Kennan, and thought the cult of Guevara,
Charles Reich and R.D. Lang just too ludicrous." Perhaps
that just placed it where the 1950s CIA thought it should
channel its money- a scandal, although unresolved, that
haunted the magazine until its demise. In London, where
it was based, liberal intellectuals publicly derided it
but secretly read it, and later on one by one began to
write for it.
They found it difficult to swallow
the notion that perhaps it was better that America spent
some of its government funds on paper and ink rather than
more missiles- and the CIA bankrolled great orchestras
too, of which no one speaks. They could not easily
acknowledge that in its long time columnist, Goronwy
Rees, who I dare to say was the best political
commentator of the late twentieth century, it had an
ardent voice for civilized, non confrontational
behaviour, even during the darkest days of the Cold War.
If controversy was the weakness of
Encounter it was this very weakness that presumably won
it friends in high places in Washington. It could not
have prospered if Washington and numerous private
American benefactors had been more narrowly zealous or
single-minded. Perhaps, too, was the urge to batter the
left with its own stupidities. Not content merely to
analyze, Encounter polemicized. And sympathetic articles
on Malcolm X (by this writer) or Frantz Fanon have to be
weighed against the over frequent italicized boxes that
revealed the editor's strong feelings for the latest
nastiness of the Black Panthers , the European students
of the ´68 generation, the Labor party of the 1980s,
the unions and always Jean-Paul Sartre.
Encounter struggled financially.
Lasky's friend, the sovietologist, Leo Labedz, blamed it
on a "deteriorating elite" - the inability of modern man
to read anything longer than a couple of thousand words.
Lasky reminded me once that in Erasmus's time a print run
of a book was about 2,000 and now it is about the same.
An indication, he said, that intellectual growth over the
last 400 years has not quite amounted to progress. Yet an
hour or so later he contradicated himself, a typical
Lasky way of conversing,: "A couple of hundred years ago
one could in a couple of years read all the influential
books there were. Now that is impossible
So our job
is to mediate between the really knowledgeable
specialists and the general intellectual audience who try
to influence the world".
Sadly for him, once Encounter
finally ran out of money, he found it hard to acknowledge
that that tradition remains alive and well- in Prospect
magazine in Britain and the Atlantic Monthly in the U.S.,
among others. The baton had been passed to a different
generation with new interests.
The world of ideas isn't such a
bleak place as he sometimes liked to think.
Copyright © 2004 By
I can be reached by
phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail: JonatPower@aol.com
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