On the death of John Leonard at 69 after a long and tireless fight with lung cancer, it’s tempting to reach into those dense whirlwinds of prose and pluck out sentences that evoke his greatness. That’s certainly doable. There are thousands. He wrote a ton. But it’s not so much the individual phrases as the voice itself, its rhapsodic cadences, its ebb and flow (and flow), its opening of doors and blowing out of walls, that sweeps you up and changes how you think, how you think about thinking. The transcendentalism is contagious. You can hear Leonard’s voice rippling through Emily Nussbaum’s e-mailed reminiscence: “John's signature move was what my friend Laura Miller called ‘the cascade,’ a wild, ramshackle, electrical spill-off of references to everything on earth, from Freud to Darwin to literary allusions to political idioms — a poetic and outrageous technique that imbued a Whitmanesque enormity to any art he was exploring.”
For New York, from 1984 until two weeks ago, that art was television, and if he saw it too often as a piece of “furniture we look to as a cure for loneliness,” as something that “ambushed [us] into sentience,” if he didn’t approach it with the same headlong passion as, say, the novels of Don DeLillo or Toni Morrison (whom he accompanied to Sweden when she picked up her Nobel), he was wired to experience its possibilities. He could sing the tube electric. Reviewing a Dickens mini-series, he wrote, “Television and Dickens are also both weirdly psychoanalytic — as if the very act of serializing opened the closet to easy access to Freud's ‘primary process,’ dumping the dreamy stuff all over us in condensations and displacements.” Television was part of the great cultural continuum, and through it he could plumb our collective unconscious.
Did anyone write as evocatively about the collision between this cozy medium and our longing for dislocation as Leonard in his 1990 cover story on the Twin Peaks phenomenon, which begins with much of New York’s intelligentsia ruminating on a singing dwarf? After recounting its characters and characterizing its David Lynchian artifacts — “the sinister fluidity, the absurd detail … the deadpan jokes, the painterly pointillism, the erotic violence, the lingering close-up camera, the rampaging of non sequiturs, the underlining and italicizing of emotions, the warping of the light, the appetite for all that’s grotesque and quirky, a sense of unconscious dreaming … moon thoughts … sadness … demonic possession” — he identifies the way in which TV domesticated the weirdo auteur, and ends by demolishing (with affectionate) his friends’ and his own literary projections. No, the show does not engage with DeLillo, Antonioni, the Hudson River School, or (shudder) Wittgenstein: “Twin Peaks has nothing at all in its pretty little head except the desire to please. In this, and only in this, it resembles everything on television. But beautiful is better. Must we, like the Deconstructionists, moisten everything with meaning?”
Why was Leonard a wonderful TV critic? Because a man who used art to delve so deeply into the recesses of his own imagination knew enough — and wasn’t afraid — to celebrate surfaces.
Critics define themselves as much by what they hate as what they love, and Leonard, the dogged liberal, had a sacred antipathy toward The New Republic and its culture editor, Leon Wieseltier. To him, the magazine was anti-liberal in the broadest sense, home to the sneering takedown, run by people who had turned on the very artists and thinkers who had liberated their minds. As editor of The New York Times Book Review in the late seventies, Leonard turned that fusty organ into a disputatious but essentially civilized salon, a place to hash out politics and culture without fear of shame. It was in that same place that twenty years later, Leonard focused his wrath on The New Republic’s demolition artist Dale Peck. In a lull, he indulged in a rare bit of preaching, “some hard-won guidelines for responsible reviewing”:
“First, as in Hippocrates, do no harm.
Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle.
Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite.
Fourth, look with an open heart and mind at every different kind of book with every change of emotional weather because we are reading for our lives and that could be love gone out the window or a horseman on the roof.
Fifth, use theory only as a periscope or a trampoline, never a panopticon, a crib sheet or a license to kill.
Sixth, let a hundred Harold's Bloom.”
And that was John Leonard, whose rancor never smothered his idealism; whose idealism never hardened into any other ism; whose moral certainty only deepened his humility; who believed that the critic must be the enemy and not the fount of shame; who pointed to art — even, occasionally, television — as our liberator, without which we’d be lost. We will be lost without him.