Posts Tagged Intellectuals

Intellectuals or socialists?

I’ve been blogging recently about Paul Johnson’s book “Intellectuals”. Johnson points out similarities between the intellectuals he has chosen to focus on, particularly similarities in their faults:

  • they are self-deluded
  • they believe they have a mission to change the world, to change other people’s thinking
  • they lack self-awareness and humility
  • they exploit their womenfolk something dreadful
  • they fall out with just about everyone
  • they find it difficult to relate to individual people around them, but instead they claim to love “the world”, “society”, people in general, or a particular group or class.

Johnson’s implication is that it is because they are intellectuals. Intellectuals want to change the world and be seen to be doing so, believe it is their mission to do so. Writers, playwrights, poets, novelists, etc., can develop these tendencies. If they do, they become intellectuals.

However, there is another interpretation, one which focuses on human beings desire to change their fellow-man. Here is Frank Chodorov talking about socialism and socialists in his autobiography, Out of Step:

In a way, the basic urge toward socialism is in all of us, since every one of us is inclined to impose our set of values on others; we seek to “improve” the other fellow up to our own particular standards. But most of us will try to “elevate” the other fellow and, meeting resistance, will give it up as a hopeless job. The socialist, however, has an intuitive urgency for power, power over other people, and proceeds to bolster this urgency with an ethic: he seeks power for a humanitarian purpose. He would “elevate” all mankind to his ideal. Since the individual does not wish to be “elevated,” and lays claim to something called rights, the socialist undertakes to prove that the individual does not exist, that an amorphous thing called “society” is the only fact of reality, and proceeds to impose his set of values on this thing. Having made this discovery — that society is something greater than the sum of its parts, with an intelligence and a spirit of its own — the socialist dons his shining armor and sets forth on a glorious adventure for its improvement. He works for the “social good” — which is what he wanted to do since first he became aware of his instinct.

 I have never met a dedicated socialist who did not consider himself a leader — if not at the top of the revolution, then at least as commissar of toothpicks in the ninth ward. He is not a replaceable part of the thing called society but was destined, at birth, to be a regulator of this thing. This desire for power is quite common, even among nonsocialists, but while others seem willing to win their spurs according to the rules of the market place, the socialist claims the scepter because he has a mission. He is of the anointed.

This seems to me a more accurate, though still not entirely satisfactory, explanation. We can see the similarities with the faults of Paul Johnson’s intellectuals:

  • the socialist claims the scepter because he has a mission. He is of the anointed.
  • I have never met a dedicated socialist who did not consider himself a leader — if not at the top of the revolution, then at least as commissar of toothpicks in the ninth ward. He is not a replaceable part of the thing called society but was destined, at birth, to be a regulator of this thing. This desire for power is quite common, even among nonsocialists,
  • The socialist, however, has an intuitive urgency for power, power over other people, and proceeds to bolster this urgency with an ethic: he seeks power for a humanitarian purpose.
  • Since the individual does not wish to be “elevated,” and lays claim to something called rights, the socialist undertakes to prove that the individual does not exist…

Chodorov’s analysis explains why so many of Johnson’s intellectuals “fell” for Marxist propaganda and supported Stalin and the Communists. It was not fortuitous, it is explained by their desire to impose their values on their fellow beings, as does socialism, and it offers them the potential role of leader, an explainer, a teacher, a guide, but one who imposes his values on others, not simply informs. The cloak of respectability for this rather unpleasant and potentially violent enterprise (what are you going to do with those who disagree, or who do not accept someone else’s values?) is provided by the apparent humanitarianism of the whole enterprise.

In addition, their difficulty relating to the actual people around them as individuals, all the while claiming to love “humanity” is explained by Chodorov thus:  Since the individual does not wish to be “elevated,” and lays claim to something called rights, the socialist undertakes to prove that the individual does not exist…

Tags: , ,

Intellectuals 4 – what are they?

What is an intellectual? Johnson makes a clear distinction between writers, artists, men of letters on the one hand and intellectuals on the other. Of course, a person could be both, and Edmund Wilson is a good example: someone who started out as purely a writer, then became an intellectual, then gave that up and returned to being a writer, a process that Johnson seems to approve of.

Johnson  compares Hemingway to Kipling and Byron, and in the process reveals a little more of his definition of an intellectual (the emphases are mine):

It is the subtle universality of the Hemingway ethic which makes him so archetypically an intellectual… But Kipling was not an intellectual. He was a genius, he had a ‘daemon’ but he did not believe he could refashion the world by hiw own unaided intelligence, he did not reject the vast corpus of its inherited wisdom. On the contrary, he fiercely upheld its laws and customs as unalterable by puny man and depicted with relish the nemesis of those who defied them. Heminway is much closer to Byron, another writer who longed for action and described it with enthusiastic skill. Byron did not believe in the in the utopian and revolutionary schemes of his freind Shelley… but he had fashioned for himself a system of ethics, devised in reaction to the traditional codehe had rejected when he left his wife and England for good. In this sense, and only in thise sense, he was an intellectual… It is a system of honour and duty, not codified but illustrated in action. No one can read these poems without being quite clear how Byron saw good and evil and especially how he measured heroism.

Heminway worked in a similar manner… His novels are novels of action and that makes them novels of ideology because to Heminway there was no such things as a morally neutral action… The framework is personal and pagan; certainly not Christian.

You might expect Johnson to continue exploring his definition of intellectual through Hemingway, but he stops there. Instead, he goes on to point to similarities between Hemingway and other “intellectuals” he has written about: the lying, the creation of a public persona that may or may not coincide with reality; the self-publicizing; the drinking and womanizing; the quarrels with and meanness towards former friends (“As with so many intellectuals – Rousseau and Ibsen for instance – his quarrels with fellow writers were particularly vicious”. p. 159…. By 1937 he had quarreled with every writer he knew.” p. 160 …)

Hemingway, like many other intellectuals of the time and like some others described in Johnson’s book, was a supporter of Communism and Stalin: “It was Hemingways’ line, in accordance with CP policy, to play down the role of the Soviet Union [in the Spanish Civil War].” (p. 156.)

Is Johnson suggesting that quarreling bitterly with friends, and falling for Marxist ideology are definitions of an intellectual? At times it seems like it.

Another characteristic seems to be gross selfishness, a further one is someone who believes in total solutions, and a third is to lack self-awareness.

So, if an intellectual is someone who wants to change the world based on an idea or set of ideas, what about Ayn Rand? Hannah Arendt? Mary McCarthy? And if Tolstoy and Rousseau and Shelley had “messianic” tendencies, what about the original Messiahs, Jesus and Buddha? Would they qualify as intellectuals under Johnson’s definition?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the difference between Camus and Sartre: Camus believed that people were more important than ideas. Perhaps another part of the answer is that neither Jesus nor Buddha wanted to change the world, although some might disagree. I think Jesus and Buddha felt that people were more important than ideas, and that people had to come to an understanding of their own free will. I also think they were interested in individuals, not people as a whole or as a group.

By contrast, Johnson quotes Tolstoy’s wife Sonya on the question of whether Tolstoy “ever really loved any individual human being, as opposed to loving mankind as an idea.” (p. 125):

‘My little one is still unwell and I am very tender and pitying. You and Syutayev may not especially love your own  children, but we simple mortals are neither able nor wish to distort our feelings or to justify our lack of love for a person by professing some love or other  for the whole world.’ (p. 125)

Such an extreme cerebration is also close to Ayn Rand’s definition of the sin of altruism: putting other people’s interests before one’s own and those of one’s dependants and loved ones.

Tags: ,

Intellectuals 3 – Brecht and Sartre

Women of the Seraglio by Diaz de la Pena

Women of the Seraglio by Diaz de la Pena

Intellectuals 3 – Brecht and Sartre

(Part 1 here, and part 2 here.) I’ve just finished chapter 9 Sartre (I’m not blogging about Hemingway chapter 6 or Bertrand Russell chapter 8). Would you believe it? Sartre and Brecht were complete bastards, especially to their women, just like Rousseau, Shelley, Tolstoy, Ibsen and Karl Marx! (Why did all these intellectuals seemed to require their own harem?)

I haven’t read any Bertrand Russell except for a few quotes on the Internet, and only read “The Old Man and the Sea” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Hemingway. I read Sartre’s “Les Jeux sont Faits” for A-level French, and read and watched several plays by Brecht as part of my university German studies (“Leben des Galilei“, “Mutter Courage und Ihre Kinder“, “Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan“, “Die Dreigroschenoper“).

One clarification: although all the intellectuals in the book so far have been writers and artists, it is not as artists that Johnson is analyzing them, but as intellectuals. This is particularly clear in the case of Tolstoy, who wanted to do more than just be a writer, even if a superlative one, and in Johnson’s opinion this was Tolstoy’s tragedy because he was so unfit for the roles he wanted to play. Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: ,

Intellectuals 2 – Tolstoy

The only known colour photo of Tolstoy (from Wikipedia)

The only known colour photo of Tolstoy (from Wikipedia)

This post is about Paul Johnson’s book “Intellectuals” and follows an earlier post on the first few chapters of that book.

In the chapter on Tolstoy, we read that the “great man” was, like all the others  in this book so far, undoubtedly a great writer, but also an egotistical monster, a liar, an ungrateful scoundrel. Why am I not surprised?!?

Johnson’s analysis is convincing. His main point is that Tolstoy was a great writer, possibly one of the best ever, yet he did not realize it! More precisely, he knew he could write well, but he did not realize that writing was what he did best. He suffered from the egotistic delusion that he was destined to be a great leader, a great teacher, or founder of a new religion. Johnson quotes from Tolstoy’s wife’s diaries in which she wrote that while Tolstoy was writing, there was relative calm in the house; it was when he was not writing that the storms came.

Tolstoy found his metier almost by accident, while serving as an apprentice officer in the army… Yet this drive to write was intermittent, and therein lay Tolstoy’s tragedy… From the enormous trouble Tolstoy took with his work at its best it is clear he was conscious of his high calling as an artist… Unfortunately, writing alone did not satisfy him. He had a will to power… We think of Tolstoy as a professional novelist, and of course in a sense this is true… But most of his life he was not writing fiction at all… The rest of his long life he was doing and being a multitude of other things, which in his view had higher moral priority.

Aristocrats under the old order found it difficult to shake off the notion that writing was for inferiors. Byron never regarded poetry as his most important work, which was to assist the subject peoples of Europe to achieve their independence. He felt himself called to lead, as befitted his class. So did Tolstoy. Indeed  he felt called to do more than lead: to prophesy, at times to play the Messiah. What, then, was he doing spending his time writing?… So from time to time, and increasingly as he grew older, he would renounce art and exert moral leadership. Now here was a disastrous case of self-deception. (My emphasis.)

Self-deception, or lack of self-awareness or self-knowledge is a common characteristic of the intellectuals Johnson describes. Shelley, for instance, had a powerful imagination and knew it, yet he seemed curiously unable or unwilling to  use it to understand the point of view of other people, even people close to him.

It is remarkable that Tolstoy, who thought about himself as much as any man who ever lived – including even Rousseau – who wrote about himself copiously and much of whose fiction revolves around himself in one way or another, should have been so conspicuously lacking in self-knowledge. As a writer he was superlatively qualified; and while he was writing he was least dangerous to those around him and to society generally. But he did not wish to be a writer, at any  rate of profane matter. Instead he wanted to lead, for which he had no capacity at all, other than will; to prophesy, to found a religion, and to transform the world, tasks for which he was morally and intellectually disqualified. So great novels remained unwritten, and he led, or rather dragged, himself and his family into a confused wilderness.

It is hard to read this book and not ask oneself: how well do I really know myself? Am I misjudging my qualities or abilities?

Searching the Internet for background info on Tolstoy, I came across this interesting essay by George Orwell on an essay or pamphlet by Tolstoy on the subject of Shakespeare, specifically on King Lear. Orwell delves into Tolstoy’s motives for writing this essay and draws interesting parallels between Tolstoy and Lear.

George Orwell – Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool – Essay

Tags: , ,

Intellectuals? Bah, humbug!

scrooge

In his book Intellectuals, Paul Johnson takes a close look at some key figures of modern times whose thoughts and writings have had a huge effect on people’s thinking for a long time, right down to today. Johnson examines the personal lives of these famous men (Lillian Hellman is the only female intellectual in this book), and asks, did they live up to their own dicta and ideals?

I’m up to chapter 4, Henrik Ibsen, and the answer so far is a resounding, “NO!” They all seem to have outscrooged Scrooge in meanness, bitterness and contempt for their fellow man. Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , , , ,