Justin E. H. Smith
A few nights ago I hosted a reception for an old friend, a respected scholar and most recently the author of Citation Techniques in Duns Scotus. We were celebrating the sale of the 100th copy of his book.
Now ordinarily this sort of event is attended by only the dustiest of academics, so you can easily imagine my surprise when a former colleague of mine –a newly minted global-justice theorist who left academic philosophy in order, as she put it, to 'work the Davos circuit'– showed up accompanied by the prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
The two of them had just come from the opening session of the ‘Mini Davos’ forum, which this year my adoptive city had the honor of hosting. My former colleague (let us call her ‘Juliette’) had just led a session on ‘The Universal Right to Clean Water’, in which her performance was judged by Stephen Harper, Desmond Tutu, and Bono alike to be of ‘Oscar calibre’.
“Water,” exclaimed Bill Gates, “now there's something people can get excited about.”
“She's gonna take this act all the way to Switzerland,” Bill Clinton himself was heard to say.
I had already known Friedman to be a small and twitchy man, and was now able to confirm that this is at best a mild understatement. Yet almost immediately I sensed that there was something unusual, that this man, however awkward he may ordinarily be, was at this very moment in a tremendous amount of discomfort.
“It's a pleasure to meet you Mr. Friedman,” I said smoothly and, I hoped, with just the right amount of ambiguous sarcasm. “I'm a big fan of The Lexus and the Olive Tree. It really captured the moment. When I read it I was like: forget about On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense, it's Friedman who's really got his finger on the pulse.”
“Thanks,” Friedman groaned. “Call me Tom.”
This was all he managed to say, after which he just kept standing there, sweating and wincing. I imagined Juliette might be able to bring him back to life if I were to disappear, so I excused myself and went to mingle among the other guests. Things were proceeding as usual. Reginald, it seems, had read Gunther’s new book, Kenelm Digby’s Qualitative Corpuscularianism. The babysitter-deprived and therefore absent Gunther, Reginald reported to the crowd’s amusement and surprise, had based his study almost entirely upon The Nature of Bodies of 1644 while completely ignoring the Discourse concerning the Vegetation of Plants of 1661.
Thirty minutes in or so, when I simply could not stand to see my most distinguished guest suffering anymore, and when conversation with the others had weakened from Digby to dental insurance to daycare, I leaned in and, in a whispered tone, asked Juliette what was wrong. She knew the man better than I did, after all, and I had long known her to be what Nietzsche would call a penetrating 'psychologist'. Was she ever! Thomas Friedman, Juliette whispered to me discreetly in the elegant Ciceronian Latin she still retained from her years as a scholar of Imperial Stoicism, was in the throes of a fluxus ventris.