Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative, by Michael Novak (Image, 338 pp., $24)
Novelist, ambassador, vizier, poet: how fitting that some of Michael Novak’s monikers should parallel the rhythms of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” that classic Cold War title by John le Carré.
It is fitting, for starters, because a significant chunk of Novak’s daunting body of writing not only coincided with the years of that long war, but also influenced certain of its seminal events. His 1982 masterwork,The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, to offer the most obvious example, was read and digested on both sides of the Iron Curtain—but with extra appetite in an East starved for alternative moral and economic ideas. Vaclav Havel, later to become president of the Czech Republic, read the book in (illegal) translation with friends, and others behind the Iron Curtain would join Havel in finding in Novak’s writing a unique source of intellectual and spiritual morale. The coincidence of Spirit’s appearance on the eve of the Velvet Revolution could not have been more fortunate.
Yet the prism of the Cold War alone, helpful though it is in reflecting some of Michael Novak’s life work, remains too small to capture the breadth and depth of this singular thinker. Theologian, columnist, journalist, professor; blogger, saloniste, mentor, public intellectual: Over six decades, he has worn all of these hats and more. We now have his new memoir as a handy and engaging guide to at least some of the contributions of its author to America and the wider world.
Certain accomplishments the memoir touches on lightly or not at all, so a brief mention seems in order. Its author is, for example, the recipient of 26 honorary degrees—at last count—and, among other honors, he has been awarded (in 1994) the most prestigious annual recognition of religious thought on the planet, the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Then there is Novak the institution builder, the inspirational force behind a number of influential organizations: co-founder of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society, which has been nourishing future generations of Eastern European and other leaders for 20 years now, and co-founder of Crisis magazine. He has been a continuing intellectual presence at First Things; a formative figure behind a number of other bodies, including the Institute on Religion and Democracy, the Slovak Summer Institute, and Empower America; and a member of more White House and other government commissions and committees than can be counted.
There is also Novak as consigliere here and there to some of the great public figures of the day, which makes for absorbing stories chronicled in this new book: beginning on the left with Sargent Shriver, Gene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and continuing on to several presidents, left and right, as well as to that secular trinity of the Cold War, Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II. The book also mentions the two-way street of intellectual influences between Novak and his distinguished fellow travelers from left to right: Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Ben Wattenberg, and others.
From start to finish, Writing from Left to Right throws new light onto all that activity, intellectual and otherwise. “My first movement from left to right,” writes the author, “began in religion”—specifically, in the heady experience of Vatican II, which he covered in all its drama in Rome with new bride Karen Laub Novak at his side. It would be hard to imagine a better crucible than Vatican II for the themes that would later become the stuff of decades’ work.
As many people outside the Catholic world (and in it) do not understand, and as Novak himself has made clear, Vatican II was animated profoundly by an impulse decidedly not new—namely, the desire to effect a recovery for the modern world of Catholic rituals, teachings, and ideas. That is to say, he writes, the Council was “truly, deeply, probingly more traditionalist” than is commonly understood—including by many so-called Church conservatives of the times. And neither was the true spirit of Vatican II grasped by most Catholic progressives, who were too reflexively hostile to the authority of the popes and bishops to understand what was truly radical about the Council.
But such was not the case with Michael Novak. Within a few years of Vatican II, the author writes, he was finding himself “reacting more and more negatively to the large faction of the ‘progressives’ who failed to grasp the truly conservative force of Vatican II—its revival of ancient traditions, its sharper disciplines, its challenges to mere worldliness and politics.” It would take years for these early-warning signs of incipient religious conservatism to point the way to political conservatism. But like two future popes who were also part of the Council, Novak would ultimately take from his experience there a lesson not about radicalism simpliciter, but rather about something more specific: radical orthodoxy.
As for politics, this memoir is equally clear: As with many other contemporary political converts, this one was created in part by the experience of 1960s-style academia.
In retrospect, Novak’s stint as a professor at an experimental college—summarized in a short story that is included as part of this memoir—appears to have been decisive. Instead of rebellion there, the young professor found anarchy; instead of skepticism of authority, hatred for it (even as many students simultaneously harbored “a suppressed but ardent search for it,” he notes). Novak’s heart is on the side of the young and radical, but his head cannot help but know just how self-defeating their laziness and disrespect will turn out to be.
This pivotal experience “made me face the full implications of the deep leftist principles, and face them in an overruling left-wing context, without any palliative or other form of reason,” he writes. By the end of it, only two things would stand between him and full-blown conservatism: his ties to the Democratic party and—ironically enough, in light of his best-known work—a lingering antipathy to capitalism. How these totems, too, eventually fell makes for fascinating reading.
Part of the appeal of Writing from Left to Right is the author’s charming, almost bashful sense of perspective on his former selves. Here, for example, is the student at Harvard, effusively grateful to his mentors (especially theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and French existentialist Gabriel Marcel). Following a “first, shy meeting” with Marcel, Novak learns from this teacher that “human dignity springs from the inexhaustibility of the human person, outrunning scientific descriptions and human verbalization.” Here as elsewhere, one sees the former student taking every influence to heart—and mind.
About Niebuhr, the young Novak determines to read “every word,” and indeed to model himself on the theologian “in two chief respects: his realistic resistance to utopianism, and his habit of unmasking the pretensions of elites—in particular, the so-called political reformers.” These themes, too, become prominent features of Novak’s contributions through the years. Yet as the memoir repeatedly makes clear, the avid student’s relationships with his teachers was not just a matter of arid lessons learned; even 60 years later, the enduring earnestness and affection of these relationships shine through.
So, too, does a sly sense of humor about life in the higher circles the author goes on to enjoy. Here, for example, is the Honorable Michael Novak, Reagan’s newly appointed ambassador for human rights in Bern. He is green enough and (once more) bashful enough to worry about his every diplomatic move—but savvy enough at a diplomatic cocktail party to throw his vodka shots into potted plants during a particularly hard round of negotiations with the Eastern bloc, while the opposing team got, well, potted. (Given what other diplomats of the time thought of Ronald Reagan, “they would be relieved that I did not wear cowboy boots or carry pearl-handled pistols,” he observes.)
Yet also present in these pages is the son of a Slovak working-class family in Pennsylvania, sincerely and even relentlessly puzzling out over the course of the decades a terribly important question: What really helps the poor? This question, too, drew Novak initially to the left, as it so often does those who know the face of genuine poverty. But in seeking an actual answer to that question, he was pulled over time far away from the precincts of early socialism, and into the mental orbits of thinkers like Hayek, Weber, Adam Smith, and others making a different argument: the moral case for capitalism.
Though this is largely a political memoir, it cannot help but be held together by forces quite beyond mere politics—in particular, by the late Karen Laub Novak, the wife and artist who was the touchstone of the author’s life. Her presence as muse is a constant of these pages, whether to the young, ambitious, and relatively unknown novelist and academic in 1962, or to the writer who would later enjoy global scope and recognition. Throughout, theirs is the duet of a marriage in full, including three children, an extraordinary shared social and intellectual life, and twinned ambitions to work long and hard toward discerning artistic and religious truths.
One other constant of this memoir may be even rarer than such an enviable match, and that is gratitude on a scale seldom seen in the first-person accounts of important men or women. Anyone impressed with his own stature can report back with excitement about what it is like to be, say, a diplomat in Grindelwald, Switzerland, the sort of thing featured in scores of lesser memoirs by lesser public folk. But only someone who is impressed with matters beyond his own stature will write instead that such an experience makes one “grateful for the majesty and beauty of these God-given mountain ranges—whole ranges after whole ranges. Down the centuries, tens of thousands have seen this view; they are gone now and all their immense cares forgotten. Human failures fade; the breathtaking beauty remains.”
Gratitude also graces the literary parade of eminent people known to (and sometimes influenced by) the author over the years. Surely no recent political memoir has so successfully communicated the sheer marvelousness of the political whirl to someone on the inside of it—and simultaneously the clear understanding that much is expected from those who are given much.
A related theme writ large here is magnanimity, including magnanimity of the mind. To read Michael Novak’s work—any of it, including this book—is to be struck by its intellectual pantheism. It is no wonder that the author began his literary life as a novelist, because his curiosity about everything on earth is practically boundless. Similarly does the novelist’s itinerant touch of color and whim distinguish his thought and his prose from that of other authors, including like-minded ones. Throughout his writing, he embraces lines of argument and alternative ideas, admiringly turning them this way and that, with an intellectual openness rare to see—especially among intellectuals.
Reading Novak’s reflections elsewhere on Jacques Maritain, in tandem with reading this memoir, I was struck particularly by his description of that great French Catholic thinker. “The key to Maritain’s intuition of being,” Novak wrote, was
a way of seeing in which so many other philosophers simply could not follow him. Maritain approached each day with a certain wonder—at the color of the sky, the scent of the grass, the feel of the breeze. He marveled that such a world could have come to be. . . . He could sense it, his every sensible organ alive to its active solicitations of color, sound, scent, taste, and feel. More than that, his intellect would wonder at it, knowing that it did not have to be as it was on that particular day, or any other day.
Much the same can be said of the supple mien of Maritain’s admirer here, whose work springs so often from not only willingness but also desire to understand whatother human beings are actually doing in the world.
It is precisely this intellectual magnanimity that lies at the heart of one of Novak’s most piercing insights, which animates, among other works, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. That is the idea that “inventors and discoverers in many fields of business” were not the secular demons of all progressive insistence since at least Karl Marx, but rather human beings who were “benefactors of the human race”: “Better eye care, dental services, hygienic products, vaccinations, and ‘miracle cures’ were saving lives in almost every family known to me,” as he puts the point here in plain English. “Older people who a generation earlier would have been dead were still living, and in many ways living better.”
For exactly this insight, of course, Novak has been excoriated by critics who spied in this re-humanizing of capitalists something sinister—a “blasphemous” “sacralization” of democratic capitalism, as one particularly emotional dissenter put the charge. But such arrows have always missed the moral mark, as a reading of the memoir also affirms. The failure to understand that arguments on behalf of capitalism might be driven by something other than sinister motives is, in the end, a failure of charity. Moreover, such ad hominem detraction characteristic of many on the left has itself been a force pushing people toward the right side of the political spectrum for some time now—as Novak would be the first to agree, even as his book passes in silence over the role of that kind of enmity in his own political journey. In refusing to use this book to settle old ideological scores, he has once again and magnanimously done his adversaries a favor.
Those interested in the differences between early and later Novak might find themselves wanting to reach beyond this political memoir for a fuller account. The author has himself repeatedly identified the continuity in his thought, particularly in the essay “Controversial Engagements” (published in 1999 in First Things), which might bear rereading alongside this book. There, he emphasizes half a dozen intellectual preoccupations that remained the same throughout his work: the existentialist challenge of meaninglessness; the importance of caritas; “the eros of inquiry,” or the meaning of our unlimited drive to ask questions; the “incarnational dimension of theology,” meaning the effort to see the workings of divine grace in every act, culture, and moment in history; the importance of the body in Christian thought; and what he calls “intelligent subjectivity,” or the effort to find rational structure beneath the ostensibly nonrational surface of empirical events.
As several of his political fellow travelers on that shared journey have observed over the years, it was not so much that they moved politically as that the ideological ground shifted radically beneath them. In that sense, along with some of his closest friends, Michael Novak is a quintessential neoconservative. In another sense, though, no “ism” quite captures one more trait that unites his work from left to right over six decades, which is his willingness to take intellectual risks all over.
How many other theologians could write a book like The Joy of Sports, let alone make the observation that even God must be a fan? Similarly, he tells Kathryn Jean Lopez during an interview for National Review Online that everyone should write poetry: “Poetry sharpens our touches, tastes, the scents we smell. Open a bottle of cologne—is it even close to the one your father sometimes wore? Brings back no memories at all? Poetry grabs onto passing things and fully dwells in them awhile.”
Fully dwelling in things is what Michael Novak’s voluminous mind has been doing since he first took up a pen, and American life and letters are all the better for that. Better off, too, is the Church whose truths he has held to throughout this extraordinary career; in this arena as well, continuity rather than change would seem the accurate summary of his work.
“Every one of my books had a place in the journey whose route I announced in A New Generation in 1964, and I never deviated from it,” he noted in 1999, in a summary of what was then already almost 40 years of work. That route, he wrote, was to bring to the issues of Americans and Catholics in America “a consistent point of view . . . . empirical, pragmatic, realistic, and Christian.” He concludes: “To this day, I think I have been faithful to that vision.” And so Michael Novak was, and is. That is one point on which his readers from left to right can also agree, profitably as well as happily.
Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (Templeton Press).