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14 - 20 September 2000
Issue No. 499
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

A farewell to the intellectuals

Intellectuals, Paul Johnson, London: Phoenix Press 2000. pp385 Le Débat, No. 110, May -- August 2000. Paris: Gallimard.
L'Esprit, Splendeurs et misères de la vie intellectuelle,
No. 3 -- 4, March -- April 2000; No. 5, May 2000, Paris.

A glance at the index of the British writer and journalist Paul Johnson's book Intellectuals, recently reissued in paperback format and now available in Arabic translation, is enough to reveal the author's point of view on this subject. Under the entry intellectual characteristics one finds, arranged alphabetically, aggressiveness, cowardice, cruelty, deceitfulness, egotism, hypocrisy, ingratitude, intolerance, manipulativeness, self-deception, selfishness, self-pity, shiftlessness, snobbery and vanity. It is not all bad, however, for whoever compiled the index to Johnson's book has also managed to find in it instances of courage, passion for truth and even of a lack of egocentricity.

However such a contrast betrays the larger problem with Johnson's characterisation of intellectuals, for even if one accepts the excessively dark picture that he paints of his subjects' personal lives and qualities, it is nevertheless out of this gloom that their works, which even Johnson admits are of lasting quality, emerged. Even Jean-Paul Sartre, in Johnson's view "a supreme egoist... notorious for never taking a bath and being disgustingly dirty," an "intellectual sensationalist" having a sinister fascination with violence, was the author of a philosophy text, Being and Nothingness, and a play, Huis clos, that "inaugurated the golden age of St-Germain-des-Prés" in the 1950s. Even Bertrand Russell, found unfit to teach in New York by a judge who cited the "lecherous, libidinous, lustful, venerous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, irreverent, narrow-minded, [and] untruthful" character of the English philosopher and writer, thereby substantially agreeing with Paul Johnson, was nevertheless the author of a "brilliant survey, A History of Western Philosophy, the ablest thing of its kind ever written."

Monstrous they may be, but intellectuals, like film stars and certain political and show-biz figures, have had a certain glamour. Not every "supreme egoist" manages to achieve what Sartre achieved ; not all "mischievous cranks," which is what Johnson apparently believes Russell to have been, manage to write with equal authority on philosophy, mathematics and political affairs.

Johnson's method in the series of case studies that make up his book is to "focus on the moral and judgemental credentials of intellectuals to tell mankind how to conduct itself. How did they run their own lives? With what degree of rectitude did they behave to family, friends and associates?" Thus, in a succession of mini-biographies running from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "an interesting madman," through to George Orwell, "a potential defector from the ranks of the intelligentsia," he has presented the results of what must have been an extended period of research, scouring the biographies and letters of his subjects for evidence of wrongdoing.

There is an element of madness about this procedure of course, akin to that of those who went around nineteenth-century prisons hoping to establish a correlation between "criminal tendencies" and physiognomy. It was never clear that there was any such correlation, and similarly Johnson does not succeed in showing that there is any interesting relation between Sartre's personal life, for example -- which was probably not significantly more gruesome than that of scores of others -- and the philosophy expounded in his writings. Even if one agrees with the New York prosecutor (does Johnson?) who said that Russell should be "tarred and feathered and driven out of the country" for his allegedly poor standards of personal conduct, it is hard to see how these could have affected his teaching of formal logic, and Russell said as much at the time. What, however, Johnson's method does do much to illuminate is the reach of intellectuals' ideas and the challenge they have been felt to represent to established opinion. One could imagine a Russell who blamelessly conducted research into mathematics within safe university walls, a Sartre who taught philosophy in a high school while slowly climbing the academic ladder and a Bertolt Brecht, another of Johnson's subjects, who continued to write expressionist drama vaguely in the manner of his 1920s contemporaries, before sinking, as they have done, into obscurity.

Henri Fantin-Latour, A Corner of the Table, 1872
However these three individuals would have been far less interesting than are the three that we actually have, since these took enormous risks, had unusual energy and appetites and were not content to follow either a conventional career or the dictates of "public opinion". That they did not do so, managing instead to strike out in new directions they invented for themselves, has a lot to do with both their status as intellectuals and with why anyone should be interested in them, their ideas being freighted with a certain originality and excitement. Even Paul Johnson, who seems to believe that any interest in intellectuals is misplaced, has nevertheless not entirely escaped their allure, having written several hundred pages on the subject even if these are mostly filled with denunciation in the name of common sense and a desire to expose hypocrisy.

An early casualty of Johnson's biographical approach to intellectuals is that it more or less rules out a consideration of the intellectual's role in society or of the history of intellectuals as a class. Do intellectuals thrive in some circumstances more than in others? Do they need institutional arrangements in order to survive, or are they bohemian figures who launch polemics against society even as they are excluded from it? Is there still an audience for intellectuals, or did the intellectual's role, at least in Western societies, end with the Cold War?

While Johnson no doubt has view on these issues -- he even dates the rise of the intellectual as a familiar figure in Western European societies only to the European Enlightenment -- it is to the French that one has to turn for genuine conceptual analysis. In France, where intellectuals write letters to newspapers and even appear on television to the bewilderment of foreign and particularly of Anglo-Saxon visitors unused to such a class (in the United States one finds chiefly the expert -- not at all the same thing), such issues tend to get seriously discussed, and indeed they have been in the most recent numbers of Le Débat and of L'Esprit, respected Paris reviews.

Despite their public presence, all is not well for intellectuals in France, and according to the authors in Le Débat the familiar figure of the French intellectual may recently have disappeared from view. Each generation since the Second World War has defined its intellectuals differently, according them differing roles and greater or lesser degrees of influence. Each, however, has tended to take the polarisation of French society during the Dreyfus Affair (1898), and, more particularly, the role the novelist Emile Zola played in it, as a reference. Here, in Zola's famous open letter to the president of the republic, J'accuse! [I accuse], the intellectual found his, and presumably also her, defining public role as the guardian of human rights, exposer of injustice and spokesperson for those otherwise denied a voice.

Today, however, it seems hard to credit this traditional function for several reasons. According to the review's editor, the historian Pierre Nora, the kind of commonly agreed issues no longer exist around which opinion can form and which it is the intellectual's function to articulate. Such issues of universal interest have, he says, been replaced by particular ones that more narrowly modelled professionals push for. On a similar note, according to the author of another article the intellectual in France has lost the traditional "unmasking" function dear to those who saw him or her as a saboteur of accepted discourse, someone who deconstructed the ideas of mainstream society from the rooftops in the manner of a Marx, Freud or Nietzsche. Intellectuals need now to adopt a chastened view of their function in a more complex, "post-modern" society.

The writers in the two issues of L'Esprit devoted to intellectuals reach rather similar conclusions. One theme that comes out strongly is the sheer promiscuity of today's intellectuals as a result of the media explosion of the last two decades. According to the review's editor, Olivier Mongin, "the notion of the intellectual is today a useless one." Nevertheless, it is unclear whether one should be "speaking of the end of the intellectuals or of their proliferation" in today's cultural bull-market. Elsewhere Michel Winock, author of The Intellectual's Century (1997), comments that the media "has never consumed as many intellectuals as it does today," staging battles in which intellectuals are invited to take sides and having a constant need to enliven dull television programmes with their opinions or to fill the columns of newspapers. In the space of a century we may have moved from the "critical" intellectual incarnated by Zola to the merely "decorative" one represented in contemporary figures, he says.

Paul Johnson would have us believe that intellectuals have had too much influence. Yet, one of the oddities of his book is his own apparently unbounded, if prurient, interest in them. In contrast the writers in Le Débat and in L'Esprit in general see intellectuals as increasingly irrelevant before public indifference and before the colonisation of what had been public space by special interests and by various kinds of expert.

Of all the writers represented here, Michel Winock makes this worrying shrinkage most explicit. One of the intellectual's key roles is to articulate areas of public debate, he says, and thereby to stimulate democratic society. Yet, while in the past intellectuals had passionately debated great issues of the day such as "the struggle against colonialism, the question of Communism, the denunciation of totalitarianism", today, Winock argues, major issues are pushed forward without public debate and in answer to economic imperatives.

That this is so can only be a loss, and on this point one imagines that even Paul Johnson might agree.

Reviewed by David Tresilian

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