A Parfit profile

Delayed appreciation for Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of the philosopher, Derek Parfit, in the New Yorker last month. The profile is such an elastic kind of article. People write up boring, arranged conversations with celebrities in cafés and dress them up as profiles: “She is taller than I expected.” “He looks down, as if he might not answer.” But the genre can go as big and deep as you want it. I thought MacFarquhar’s article (paywall) was particularly fine because it was built from a unity of form and substance. Parfit is not an ordinary guy:

“For years, according to a colleague, he made the same meal every morning for breakfast, which he conceived of as a recipe for maximum health: sausage links, green peppers, yoghurt, and a banana, all in one bowl. One day, the colleague’s nutritionist wife explained to him that this was not a particularly healthy meal, and suggested a better meal; the next day he switched to a new meal and never varied it.”

He also communicates in short, declarative statements, framed by logic and underpinned by feeling: “In all, strong emotion is audible under restraint”. MacFarquhar points this out early in the article and says that there is little difference between Parfit’s written and spoken words. Then come two technical coups:

1) Throughout the profile you never know whether MacFarquhar is quoting from interview, email or Parfit’s philosophical treatises. She puts his words in separate paragraphs, isolating them from her own. There is a moment, after Parfit has a terrible attack of stress and anxiety, when he briefly loses his mind and is asked if he knows who his wife is:

Yes. She’s the love of my life.

Adrift on the page.

2) Even more boldly, MacFarquhar decided to write the whole article in a way that echoes Parfit’s short, spare pronouncements. The simplicity of the phrases belies their broadness of their intentions, like Parfit’s statements on our moral universe. The profile himself speaks like it. This, for some reason, was my favourite passage, about Parfit’s emotionally close but difficult relationship with his sister, Theo:

“She tried to see her brother when he came to the East Coast, as he frequently did, to teach, but usually he didn’t call. He didn’t do this to annoy her – it simply didn’t occur to him, because he was thinking about philosophy.”