Sobran Judgments

I've been wondering how to note the passing of Joe Sobran, whom I hadn't seen in years but once counted as a friend. He was a gentle, kind soul and yet, as the cliche about the Irish goes, also someone who broke the heart of anyone who ever loved him, and so far no one has been able to remember him without glossing over either the good or the ugly, leaving only caricature. Matthew Scully gets its exactly, exactly, exactly right in this wonderful piece.
As a generation of NR readers will attest, along with friends who knew Joe Sobran longer and better than I did, such talk [about his flaws] does a grave injustice to a good man, to his work, and to those final years when even his judgment deserted him. And it’s certainly no way to speak of the finest writer ever to pass through National Review. To paraphrase Joe in his defense of Laurence Olivier (another Sobran hobbyhorse) against the disparagements of fellow actors, the critics might as well belittle him; there is no hope at all of rivaling him.
Part of the delight of the article is simply so many excerpts from Sobran himself --certainly the most elegant essayist of our time, and for reasons Scully captures perfectly.
His case for the Earl of Oxford rested in part on “voiceprints,” the signature patterns, technique, and tone that could be no one else’s. Joe left his own on 40 years’ worth of essays, columns, and reviews that someone needs to finally gather up into a published collection by our era’s master of plain-English prose. Don’t bother checking his house for the old clips, either, because Joe himself hardly thought to save his own writings, and this in a way was part of his secret: He wrote with so little self-regard. It was a style so natural, comfortable, and unpretentious that even praise like “graceful,” “elegant,” or “polished” — though it was all of those — doesn’t exactly fit Joe’s writing because it suggests intended effect, a desire to impress. And Joe was so convincing because he couldn’t have cared less about impressing — which might also help explain his troubles later on.
Scully pulls out these excerpts for example.

There are natural limits to our sympathies, limits liberalism can only condemn, never respect. And there is no reason to credit its attitude with “idealism.” A robin that took worms to every nest in the forest would not be an ideal robin; it would only be an odd bird.
Joe elaborated:
Nothing is easier than to imagine some notionally “ideal” state. But we give too much credit to this debased kind of imagination, which is so ruthless when it takes itself seriously. To appreciate, on the other hand, is to imagine the real, to discover use, value, beauty, order, purpose in what already exists; and this is the kind of imagination most appropriate to creatures, who shouldn’t confuse themselves with the Creator.

The highest form of appreciation is worship. I don’t insist that there is a correlation between formal religion and conservatism. But there is an attitude prior to any creed, which may make a healthy-minded unbeliever regretful that he has nobody to thank for all the goodness and beauty in his life that he has done nothing to deserve. One might almost say that the crucial thing about a man is not whether he believes in God, but how he imagines God: as infinitely good and adorable, or merely as an authoritarian obstacle to human desire? The opposite of piety is not unbelief, but crassness.