“O chom kolonka?” asked my son on the telephone. We’ve always spoken Russian to each other, he and I, even though Nikolai was born in London and never so much as visited the country of his father’s birth. “What’s your column going to be about?” I must admit I hadn’t known the answer till he’d asked, but then all of a sudden it hit me. “O chom, o chom . . . ” I grumbled. “O Chomskom!”
Noam Chomsky has been making Nikolai’s first year as an undergraduate at Oxford something of a misery, a fact not lost on his paternal grandmother, who now sends him chocolate-covered apricots and other consolations of bourgeois civilization from New York City, where she lives. At 84, Mother is retired in the wake of a long career as a science editor, though not retired enough to miss the chance to call Chomsky a fascist. “A fascist, Mom?” I queried, doubtfully. “I thought that’s what I was.”
She had an answer ready: “No, you’re a feudalist. That’s about as big a difference as there is between Stalin and William Morris.”
At Oxford, Nikolai’s “major,” as we of the land of the free would have it, is called Russian Soul. I kid you not: That is the official name of the subject my son is “reading,” as they who have lost an empire would have it. To me, such Daily Mail levity best illustrates the pandemic intellectual enfeeblement of kinder, gentler Britain, though Nikolai has put forward the name of another candidate for this honor, a subject called Economics and Management.
Russian Soul has a nasty component, as well it ought, and that is linguistics. And linguistics, in a left-wing—sorry, academic—environment, means Chomsky. “You know how real-estate agents are supposed to talk about location, location, location?” Nikolai said ruefully. “Well, here it’s Chomsky.” For a boy who reads Greek and Latin, speaks four languages, and has inherited his father’s unquenchable fascination with semantics, this is like convincing Errol Flynn to buy in the Bronx.
In the Stalinist 1940’s, Philadelphia-born Chomsky, who is but a few days younger than my Moscow-born father, moved in a circle of intellectuals grouped around the Chicago magazine Living Marxism and was close to another Marxist group, the Leninist League. Now, my father had known that Lenin was a megagangster, of the kind Plato mentions in the preamble to The Republic, since the age of six; all that Chomsky had figured out by age 25 was that Stalin may not have been the true embodiment of living Marxism and a beacon of liberty for all mankind.
Linguistics is not adamantine, like mathematics or physics, nor does it whisper sweet nothings, like music or painting. A physicist of genius like Enrico Fermi may turn out to have been a Soviet spy, but it seems unlikely that an apologist for Stalin may turn out to be a linguist of genius. Similarly, I would not rely on Pablo Picasso’s political nous, yet plainly the man could paint himself out of a corner, whereas a theory of linguistics spawned in the mind of a “true Leninist” like Chomsky can’t be anything but a lot of balderdash a priori.
All I ever knew about Freud, for instance—psychology being another discipline that is neither concrete, like physics, nor dreamlike, like painting—was that the charlatan whined for most of his adult life about a suite of furniture that had been promised by his in-laws before the wedding, yet never seemed to materialize in his dining room afterward. For a thinker who garnered world fame by sexualizing everything from door handles to Dostoyevsky, this was a bit rich, I concluded. Was that fine Viennese dining table, so wantonly promised and then so cruelly denied him, likewise a manifestation of somebody’s oral fixation? And were those richly upholstered chairs, in some intractably pansexual way, Oedipal phenomena?
There is, however, a twist to the story of Chomsky the charlatan a priori. At least Freud’s theory of the human soul has proved to be of no use to anyone, apart from the 4,000 members of Division 39 (Psychoanalysis) of the American Psychological Association, the 11,500 members of the International Psychoanalytical Association, and, last but not least, the numerous Freudian constituency of the American Psychiatric Association. Chomsky’s theory of language, by contrast, is widely credited as the intellectual foundation upon which the first computer languages were created at the dawn of the cybernetic era.
“So, what do we have?” I said to my son. “The scourge of the military-industrial complex, the bitter moqueur of a free Western press, the Vietnam refusenik par excellence, the anarchosyndicalist to the marrow of his nonconformist bones, is actually a running dog of imperialism, a whorer after new world orders, a Werner von Braun in pacifist clothing. Your grandmother is more right than she realizes; he is a fascist!”
It remains to be seen how Nikolai’s Oxford dons will take to these frenzied calumnies. Frankly, I think he should give it a try. If Chomsky can say that grammar is noncontextual, why can’t Nikolai say that Chomsky’s mother wears army boots?