Untimely Observations

Remembering Jonathan Bowden

To hear Jonathan Bowden speak was like witnessing Pallas Athena emerge clad in armour straight from the godhead. I only met with the man once, but that was quite recently and I vividly recall the event as a rare privilege—for me. Last September we had both been invited as speakers to a discussion forum in London, held in what had once been the Edwardian board room of the Hongkong Bank, nowadays part of a ubiquitous pub chain, hence our presence on these prestigious premises. Of the four speakers that afternoon he appeared last. How wise this was on the part of the organizers, I only realized when he finally opened his mouth to announce the theme of his lecture: “The history of the Western feminist movement.”

Let me put it this way: Jonathan Bowden, as an orator, lecturer, speaker, was in a league of his own. I have never in my life come across a man who, with such linguistic and intellectual precision, with such economy of style and purpose, was capable of extemporating on practically any given cultural theme. Not only was it a sheer joy to relish his careful selection of words and his stentorian tenor. Perhaps even more impressive was his ability to develop, like a distinguished writer, and in real time, several themes simultaneously and bring them to a happy and in all respects satisfying conclusion. I don't doubt that one would have to go back to classical times, or at least to the days of Pepys, Gibbons, and Johnson, to find a parallel to this man's erudition in pair with such a flawless rhetorical performance. And all this without as much as a scribbled note to guide him through the complexities of exposition.

People that knew Bowden more intimately—if that might be said of a man who seemed almost autistically aloof when not charged with a speaking mission— afterwards assured me that this particular speech hadn't been anything outside the ordinary. To this statement I can only reply, that if I as a young man had enjoyed lecturers like Jonathan, I would never have left university but made sure to remain an ardent college student for the rest of my life!

It made me almost relieved to hear from my own editor that the man's writing (I have never personally read a line by his hand) is just as opaque as his speaking is clear, because if his written literature were as outstanding as his orations, we'd all be put to shame. It may thus be fair to surmise that Jonathan's lasting legacy to us will be found in his speeches and interviews. By all means, I'll be among the first to avail myself of a copy of the volume apparently under way containing a selection of his contributions in these genres.

I only learned this week, a whole month after the fact, about the sudden, unexpected demise of Jonathan Bowden. I didn't know the man personally, and when, during the conference, I enthusiastically walked up to him to thank him for his brilliant speech, posing what I felt to be a pertinent question, he absent-mindedly turned round and busied himself with another person as though I had been thin air to him. Later that afternoon I confronted him about his ostentatious rudeness, and he did excuse himself. Still, he did it like someone who knows he can't be held entirely responsible for his actions. As for the man's mind, I'll defend its sanity any time. His logic and creative use of the same ought to be remembered as the clear voice of reason and lucidity in a confused age of sound and fury.

To me, Jonathan Bowden was a genius with a social short coming rather typical of hyper-intelligent savants. Like the albatross in Baudelaire's famous poem, he could seem both clumsy and helpless when found outside his element. But when he soared into his own realm: what a sight and what an inspiration to all of us!

It is indeed sad that such immense talent as his has been prematurely silenced by inscrutable nature. The loss of Jonathan is at least double. On the one hand there was his fierce, beautiful mind, operating in willing subordination to his intellectually disciplined nature. To the political organizations he apparently endorsed and supported, the loss may on the other hand prove to be even more significant. It is a standing prejudice among the leftist intelligentsia, dominating practically all higher education in the West, that right wing politics and ideology presupposes intellectual hara-kiri. Although this may be entirely true as far as the Christian fundamentalist rejection of evolution in favor of the Bible sagas is concerned, Jonathan Bowden's thought was a powerful argument to the contrary.

I suppose one could label him as popularizer of difficult and sometimes hard to digest philosophical subjects. But the rank and file of the political right is in dire need of general education to be able to stand its ground and even advance against its opponents. Loosing Jonathan in the process is a drawback that the members of these movements will have to make up for by turning the example he set into a guiding principle: never succumb to baseness and intellectual dishonesty in the quest for meaning and – well, let's apply a word that Jonathan, a disciple of Nietzsche, would have been very careful not to abuse – truth. To defeat your enemy you must first understand what his strength is, then use it against him. Jonathan did exactly that, and as far as I know without ever breaking the rules of the game.


I hope this Magister Ludi is now among players of his own calibre. May he never find lasting peace in their company!