For the High-Minded, It's Blah, Blah, Blah
By JESSE McKINLEY
With Old World rivals like Paris and Berlin and New World rivals like Seattle and Silicon Valley, New York City can hardly claim to be the brain capital of the world.
But you wouldn't necessarily know that from all the talking going on.
Call them seminars or lectures or discussions, but the city is truly brimming with forums for the thinking man, woman and child.
In any given week an intrepid ideas-seeker can find serious discussions about everything from the growing presence of Islam in America to the social history of popcorn.
Want to know how to cross-hybridize corn? There are talks at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. How about an in-depth look at democracy in Cuba? Check out the Brecht Forum on Tuesday.
In the age of Barnes & Noble and other super-size bookstores, literary discussion groups are meeting regularly to chat about Vietnam novels and science fiction and New Age tomes. Then there are the literary fan clubs, societies devoted to the work of late great authors like Yeats and Dickens.
Last week alone a New Yorker could find dozens of people sitting down to
learn about Surrealist film, beach erosion and the history of marriage
from a feminist perspective. There were appearances by seminar stars like
Stephen Jay Gould, the historian, who can pack a room on a topic like
"The Impossibility of Historical Prediction," and celebrity lecturers
like the composer Philip Glass, whose talent for artful digression rivals that of many more experienced speakers.
All of this tossing about of ideas gives rise to a curious question: could one, by visiting many of these lectures and listening closely enough, pick up some sense of the city's intellectual zeitgeist?
The short answer is no. To be sure, there is plenty of millennial reflection going on right now, and more than a few speakers tossing around words like "calendric" and "fin de siècle."
But rather than indicating a common theme, this profusion of talkers and listeners testifies instead to the city's enormously varied intellectual appetite. It also shows off the city as a place where people with specific interests -- sometimes, exceedingly specific -- can find like-minded folk to commune with.
What follows is an account of a weeklong survey of the city's educated chatter.
The first stop, as any lecture junkie will tell you, was bound to be a big-time bookstore. Hoping to lure buyers into the stacks, chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders Books have been aggressive about scheduling authors with new books to discuss and read from their work.
On Monday, the choices included a speaker on the history of coffee at Barnes & Noble on the Upper East Side and a discussion of the work of Bernhard Schlink at the Barnes & Noble in Forest Hills, Queens.
No. And no.
Instead, my choice was a lecture by Paul Levinson, a professor of communications history and philosophy at Fordham University, whose most recent book is "Digital McLuhan," a look at the lasting influence of Marshall McLuhan in the age of the Internet.
The locale was a Borders at the World Trade Center, with an audience of about 40, including a man who slept before, during and after the event.
Mr. Levinson, flanked by stacks of photography books and others merely labeled "Art," expounded on likenesses between the futuristic visions of Mr. McLuhan, who invented the term Global Village, and today's World Wide Web.
"Mr. McLuhan was not able to write on the Web, but his approach was
Web-like," Mr. Levinson said, citing Mr. McLuhan's propensity for short chapters and nonlinear thought in his books. The comments drew a round of emphatic nods.
"What would Marshall McLuhan have said about the Internet and the Web?"
Mr. Levinson said. "It's impossible to say." He paused and added with a laugh: "Except that he would have had a lot to say about it."
Tuesday's schedule was to begin early, with a 7:30 A.M. talk with the television commentator Cokie Roberts at the 92d Street Y. But upon arriving, I discovered a sacred rule of the intellectual set: they like to sleep late. The event had been canceled.
The 92d Street Y is one of the city's premier temples of talk, a list that includes the New York Public Library, the Asia Society and the Pierpont Morgan Library, which has a series of afternoon discussions. And while summer may be a slow time for the city's colleges and universities, they generally offer countless lectures that are open to the public.
Many churches and museums also offer issue-oriented events. Ms. Roberts, in fact, would make an appearance at Trinity Church later that afternoon, speaking on religion and politics.
For true intellectual heft, however, perhaps few spots can rival the Brecht Forum, where Mr. Gould spoke on Tuesday night. The first words I heard upon entering were "imperialist dialectic interpretation of history."
The forum is on the 10th floor of 122 West 27th Street in Chelsea, a loft space where papier mâché wall hangings and pamphlets jockey for visitors' attention.
Mr. Gould had drawn a standing-room-only crowd dotted with older men with ponytails, older women with spectacles and graduate student types scribbling notes on legal pads.
The amiable Mr. Gould, with a pair of glasses hung around his neck, hit upon Karl Marx's funeral ("Only nine people were there"), the year 2000 ("a wonderfully arbitrary transition") and Yogi Berra's wisdom ("The future ain't what it used to be")
before finally alighting on his thesis: that people, especially scientists, are terrible at predicting the future.
As an example, Mr. Gould told the story of an early chairman of Mercedes-Benz who once predicted that Europe would never sustain more than a million cars. The reason? That the Continent's citizenry could only ever produce a million chauffeurs.
Mr. Gould's point was that the underlying biases of class, race and economics often skewed any possibility of prognostication. "Scientific biases prevent accurate prediction," he said. "And always have."
There was much scribbling as I left.
The next stop was the Kitchen, the venerable experimental theater space on West 19th Street, the site of a batch of summertime lectures by members of the Kitchen's artistic family.
The seats were nearly all filled with a younger crowd than that at the Brecht Forum. The lights dimmed theatrically as Mr. Glass approached a small table draped in black and lighted by a single overhead spotlight. He immediately said that his lecture, titled "Collaboration and the New Technology," presented a problem.
"I made up the title months ago," Mr. Glass said. "Now, I've had to
figure out what it was about."
Speaking in a voice barely above a burble, Mr. Glass touched on the miraculous technology of the piano (see lecture title), and his artistic collaborations (see lecture title) with everyone from Jerome Robbins to Martin Scorsese. But the most absorbing moments came when Mr. Glass's focus strayed a bit.
"CD-ROM is already on the way out," he said at one point, seeming alarmed
and amused all at once. "Did you know that?"
Or: "I've noticed my cat doesn't watch television. Does yours?"
Or: "The only place the composer is the boss is in the opera house. That's why I write so many operas."
At evening's end a young composer asked Mr. Glass's advice about the profession. Mr. Glass puzzled for a bit and finally answered: "Think what you could do that would make your teachers really angry. That would probably be the most interesting thing to do."
The following night I tried a couple of the city's newer venues, the two-year-old Newseum and Joe's Pub, the recently opened cabaret spot at the Public Theater.
The Newseum auditorium is a sleek Madison Avenue lecture hall popular with that famously loquacious breed, the journalist. Booking reporters as speakers has its drawbacks, of course; a talk on Monday by the photojournalist Harry Benson was canceled when he was called away on assignment.
Helen Thomas, veteran White House correspondent and recent author of a memoir, spoke about her experiences. Beltway reminiscences ensued: of Lyndon B. Johnson, who "couldn't stand anybody speaking for him"; Hillary Clinton, who "just hates the press"; and President Clinton, who "has been very nice to me."
The crowd, unswayed by Ms. Thomas's assertion that reporters shouldn't be celebrities, ate it up.
Joe's Pub, which usually presents music, turned literary Wednesday with a selection of readings from The New Yorker's latest fiction issue. Special attractions included celebrity readers, girls in slinky dresses looking to impress New Yorker editors and lots of cocktails.
The final evening of talk, Thursday, highlights what may be the seminar scene's most important contribution to the city's intellectual landscape: bringing together people with particular interests. At the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in the West Village, for example, E. J. Graff, a writer, discussed same-sex marriages.
Then at Borders Books at East 57th Street and Park Avenue, four African-American authors gathered to discuss the topic of "The Importance of Writing About Contemporary Black Life." The audience was almost exclusively black, a marked change from most of the other events I attended. One at a time, each author discussed pressing issues for black artists, including stereotyping by publishers and the complications of success for blacks in America.
"I started writing because I wanted to write about where we are now,"
said Benilde Little, a novelist. "We are the most educated, most affluent, and probably the most confused."
Events like this, she said, offer an opportunity to reflect on those confusions.
"You have to have a community where we can be ourselves," Ms. Little
said, "drop the masks and let our hair down."
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company