Editor Ian Malcolm comments on Mario Vargas Llosa

In 2007 Mario Vargas Llosa dropped by the Press to talk to our assembled sales reps about The Temptation of the Impossible, his new Princeton book on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. As I introduced him, a pack of cheerleaders mysteriously appeared outside the huge window of the conference room, jumped and shouted for a few seconds, and ran away to bang arbitrarily on the windows of some other building.

This semester, Vargas Llosa is back at Princeton to teach a course on the techniques of the novel, and I hope cheerleaders deliberately seek him out this time. With yesterday’s announcement that he has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he deserves some cheers, and he certainly would have heard a few from Press offices if he had been around yesterday.

Congratulations from the publishers of The Temptation of the Impossible for achieving the nearly impossible!

PUP Editor Ian Malcolm reflects on the life of G.A. Cohen

G. A. (Jerry) Cohen died of a stroke early on the morning of August 5. Poignantly, an advance copy of his newest publication, the pocketbook Why Not Socialism?, reached his office only a few hours later. Though he never saw it finished, he’d been delighted with its progress and especially with its cover, which shows the red rose of socialism rising up from the “Y” of the title’s “WHY.” It’s a fittingly positive image for an optimistic, or at least sunnily determined, work. Despite the very real obstacles in socialism’s way, Cohen writes: “I do not think the right conclusion is to give up.” It’s also a suitably uplifting image for Cohen himself.

Cohen was born in Montreal in 1941 to Jewish parents who worked in the rag trade, and was raised and initially educated in a staunchly communist environment. He always held fast to the egalitarian ideals of his childhood. Over his long academic career, mainly at University College London and Oxford, he became one of the world’s leading philosophical explorers and exponents of socialist ideas. Along with Jon Elster, he pioneered the application of analytical (he called them “no-bullshit”) methods to Marxism. And he produced penetrating analyses of the concepts of equality and justice that underlie socialism, and what they require of us if we care about them. With many articles and five books—most notably Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence and 2008’s Rescuing Justice and Equality—he became a giant of political philosophy, a thinker to stand alongside Rawls, Nozick, and Dworkin, with whose views he deeply and publicly disagreed.

He never wavered in his core convictions, but he did at least slow down in his academic life. In his final year, his only year of retirement, he said that he had done almost all that he wished to do, that he had few new ideas to work on and looked forward to a new phase of life, harvesting. At his valedictory lecture, he said that the line from Tennyson that he recited to himself almost weekly—“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”—lately sounded better to him rewritten as: “To strive, to seek, to find, and then to yield.”

Obituaries (links below) make his place in the canon of political philosophy clear. They also make plain what an extraordinary man he was, crackling not just with intelligence, but a dazzling, almost superhuman wit that, mischievous as it could be, was cotton-padded by his exceptional personal warmth. He was a professional philosopher, but he could have been a professional comic, and was renowned for his regular stand-up routines in Oxford and for the entertainment that peppered his lectures. Two links below convey his combination of brilliance and zaniness (one is hard to hear, but it’s worth persevering, especially for his 10-minute imitation of a lecture by Isaiah Berlin).

He published two books with Princeton, Karl Marx’s Theory of History and Why Not Socialism? We’re lucky to have them on the lists. Those of us who worked with him are even luckier to have known him.

The Times
The Guardian
The Independent
The Montreal Gazette
Crooked Timber
Crooked Timber

Jerry Cohen in action:
Jerry Cohen’s closing comments at a conference held earlier this year–Rescuing Justice and Equality: Celebrating the Career of G.A. Cohen
Jerry Cohen’s retirement speech in 2008

Additional links of interest:
Simon Tormey interviews Jerry Cohen for Contemporary Political Theory
Nicholas Vrousalis offers a “a rough summary of Jerry Cohen’s intellectual voyage”

(9/2/09 – we corrected the number of books in the piece above per the comment below)