Tracts for the Times

Karl Miller

  • Intellectuals by Paul Johnson
    Weidenfeld, 385 pp, £14.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 297 79395 0
  • CounterBlasts No 1: God, Man and Mrs Thatcher by Jonathan Raban
    Chatto, 72 pp, £2.99, June 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3470 4

There can’t be all that many people who are willing, in the presence of others, to call themselves intellectuals. There may even be those for whom intellectuals are a fiction, like fairies. But most people would struggle to their feet to attest to their existence. ‘Intellectual’ is a word which is hard to use without irony or reproof; often, it is a slur, and it has often seemed to invite the qualification ‘so-called’ or ‘supposed’. An intellectual need not be intelligent, and may be a fool. We think of him as someone who has no religion, as someone who is concerned with ideas but unable to commit himself to any, or to do anything with them. There are intellectuals who have wished to change the world, and a very few who have managed to do so: but some intellectuals have been thought to have difficulty in changing their socks. Bertrand Russell, Paul Johnson reports, was unable to make himself a cup of tea. The term came to currency with the classifications employed in the Marxist system, and has been used to deplore the scarcity in this country of a certain someone supposedly thick on the European ground.

In Britain, over the past ten years, it has acquired a further meaning. It can now mean someone who is opposed to Mrs Thatcher’s politics, and has been exposed to redundancy by her success. She is seen to have made them failures, or to have driven them off to higher salaries in America, and to have encouraged them to be snobs. Intellectuals are people who call her common or suburban, who disparage her for growing up in a grocer’s shop and in a Methodist household. Such things have indeed been said, by some of those whom the cap would generally be reckoned to fit. Mrs Thatcher has shared the fate of her enemy Heath – of being sneered at, by politicians and by intellectuals, for her antecedents in trade.

Paul Johnson was once a socialist intellectual, and an editor of the New Statesman, but has long since changed his political allegiance. I’ve never had the impression, having worked with him on that paper then, that anything much happened on the road to Damascus to bring about the change: his socialism was youthful and ephemeral, a response to what was going on at the time, and perhaps, in particular, to developments on the left in France and to the career of Mendès-France. The temperament and many of the opinions that are apparent in this new book, in which intellectuals are shown to be scoundrels, were apparent then, on the part of the Bevanite puritan with a distaste for the working class. But it also has to be said that the new book looks very like a response to what is going on now, in Thatcher’s Britain. The scorn which it directs at intellectuals is in tune with the scorn which has been directed by the Government at sections of the community where, if anywhere, intellectuals are understood to be located: the media, schools, universities. If intellectuals exist, there must be somewhere for them to be. But I doubt whether there can be many university teachers who are, or are anxious to be thought, intellectuals.

A friend of mine said of the book the other day: ‘I secretly agreed with it.’ I expect he meant that the horrible behaviour depicted in the book – which consists of a series of brief lives based on debunking accounts of the guilty men – struck him as just as horrible as Johnson says it is. I was intrigued by the word ‘secretly’. There would certainly be those who would be offended if my friend were to publish his agreement. But there has never been a time when a denunciation of intellectuals could have been published with less fear of ostracism.

Paul Johnson’s crossing of the floor, or emergence from the closet, was a complex business, presumably. But perhaps it is in order to speak of there being two Johnsons. This helps one to deal with a question that arises for the reader of the book: how can anyone be so censorious, so unsparing of the element of disturbance and compulsion in human misconduct, unless he is censuring, among others, himself? A second Johnson may be responding here to a previous or co-existent first. It may also be possible, incidentally, to speak of a third Johnson. Paul Johnson and, in his opposite corner, R.W. Johnson are in some respects lookalikes and writalikes: red-headed adversarial journalists of great flair and pungency, denouncers and moralists formed by the Catholic Church and by Oxford University.

Having crossed the floor, Paul Johnson went on to issue bulletins from the other side, in the form, mainly, of didactic histories. What, then, does this latest bulletin have to say? For Paul Johnson, intellectuals are conspicuously ruthless and self-interested males. They are secular: he makes use of the term ‘secular intellectual’ as if there were other varieties, but none is exhibited. They are violent and drunken. They are ungrateful to the ‘kind’ persons who assist them, and who are described as ‘poor’ in the sense of unfortunate. Intellectuals refuse to be poor in the sense of hard-up; they are usually, indeed, avaricious. Their works are frequently described as ‘brilliant’, though this brilliance is seldom examined: their sins were scarlet but their books were read, and their politics were red. The book completely bypasses, at such points, one of the mysteries of its subject, one of the questions that might have arisen for its author – the relationship between conduct and creation: how was it that Tolstoy, for instance, behaved as he did while writing as he did? Johnson’s intellectuals are liars, furthermore, and they are cruel. ‘Thousands’ of them conspired to run the Hitler and Stalin despotisms: Hitler himself, but for that relatively insipid private life, might have been recruited for the book as an exemplary intellectual. Lastly, these intellectuals have, or imagine they have, something wrong with their penises.

This is a book about writers of whom the writer disapproves and who can only in certain cases be firmly classified as intellectuals. Johnson has written about a barrelful of rotten apples in order to bring the genus into contempt. What happens with Rousseau is indicative of what follows. Rousseau was an intellectual and he was also a brute. Diderot was kind to him. Diderot was an intellectual. But there is no chapter on Diderot. Nor, with the equivocal exception of Edmund Wilson, described as an admirable writer and investigator who was also a violent drunk, are there chapters on any other virtuous intellectuals. Orwell is named as a man who tried, as Wilson did, to investigate and verify: but the qualities of this good intellectual are not investigated.

For the regenerate Johnson, intellectuals are people who do not believe what they were brought up to believe. At one point, a catalogue of Hemingway’s physical injuries is brilliantly supplied: ‘In 1953 he sprained his shoulder falling out of his car, and that winter there was a series of accidents in Africa: bad burns while drunkenly trying to put out a bush fire, and two plane accidents, which produced yet another concussion, a fractured skull, two cracked spinal discs, internal injuries, a ruptured liver, spleen and kidneys, burns, a dislocated shoulder and arm, and paralysed sphincter muscles.’ Those intellectuals! Hemingway was an intellectual who longed for death. ‘His contemporary Evelyn Waugh ... likewise longed for death. But Waugh was not an intellectual: he did not think he could refashion the rules of life out of his own head but submitted to the traditional discipline of his church, dying of natural causes five years later.’

Immediately before comes a fleeting reference to one of Europe’s leading intellectuals of the period: ‘Walter Benjamin once defined an intellectual (himself) as a man “with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart”.’ Benjamin appears not to have been nasty enough to be chaptered in the book, and it also appears to me that the words about spectacles and autumn are a self-description of Isaac Babel’s. There may be some mistake here, and there is another elsewhere, when a roll-call of prominent Modernist writers carries the name of Maxwell Anderson. It has been noted that Johnson has been capable of confusing the two Andersons, Sherwood and Maxwell.

So the excoriator of lying intellectuals makes (as everyone does) misstatements of his own. Intellectuals have ‘scant regard for veracity’ on page 269. On the next page Sir Israel Gollancz ‘virtually created the English department at London University’. But there is no English department at London University, and Gollancz did not create the oldest of the English departments of the colleges that compose it. The one at University College, a college created by Whig intellectuals, including the exemplary Brougham, pre-dated Gollancz’s activities by a hundred years. An intellectual might claim that this detection of untruth can sometimes pose a version of the conundrum spoken of as the Cretan Liar paradox: look how unreliable these intellectuals are, says this intellectual.

The book ends by attacking and assimilating mid-century permissiveness and the Welfare State. The literary critic Cyril Connolly created the permissive society, it is made to seem, and we are told how the disciplined Evelyn Waugh detected the ‘enormity’ of a ten-point programme for the future which Connolly had published in Horizon and which spelt out the prerequisites of a civilised society. The ten points, as given here, encompass the abolition of the death penalty and of censorship, ‘the end of phone-tapping or the compiling of dossiers on people known for their heterodox opinions’, ‘reform of the laws against homosexuals and abortion, and the divorce laws’, ‘laws against racial and religious discrimination’, ‘free medicine’.

Johnson ‘understands’ Waugh’s suspicion that this amounted to ‘the virtual elimination of the Christian basis of society and its replacement by the universal pursuit of pleasure’. Both this statement and the one about Sir Israel Gollancz are qualified by a defensive use of the word ‘virtual’, a word which intellectuals are fond of and which is apt to prove a preface to error. Connolly decreed the tawdry pleasure dome of the permissive society, designed this ‘pandaemonium’. Norman Mailer and James Baldwin made things worse by recommending violence. And Noam Chomsky had the nerve to protest against the violence of America in Vietnam.

Paul Johnson’s is a forceful and funny book; even those who don’t like it could well enjoy it, for the most called-for of its biographical diatribes. It is nevertheless a sinister performance. It belongs to a time when the pursuit of a public interest democratically conceived has become easy to insult, when Conservative politicians have felt able to seize the occasion of A.J. Ayer’s death to rubbish the country’s achievement in philosophy, when heterodox opinions have been classified as blasphemy and threatened with death. Margaret Thatcher’s traditions, and Waugh’s, are not the only traditions we have. There are others and they are in danger.

Jonathan Raban presents himself, in his CounterBlast pamphlet, as an intellectual who perceives, in the Prime Minister’s ‘scant’ address last year to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, meanings that plain people might miss. Mrs Thatcher’s sense of the ‘distinctive marks’ of Christianity was expressed in a three-point programme which started with the proposition ‘that from the beginning man has been endowed by God with the fundamental right to choose between good and evil.’ Her text differentiates between the social and the spiritual dimensions of Christianity, subordinates the former, and suggests that the latter has a lot to do with the acquisition of wealth.

These thoughts of hers tend far more towards eliminating the Christian basis of any society than the arguments for a welfare state are ever likely to do, and it must have required a considerable indifference to the history and origins of the Church of Scotland to address them to its General Assembly. The Protestant Christianity of Scotland has held that we are in the hands of God (‘the best that we can do is a little to be pardoned,’ though we must endeavour to do our best), and has thought in terms of duties, rather than rights; and the rights now being pursued by ministers who want to turn the Kirk towards a concern with suffering and injustice are not the rights which Mrs Thatcher, the spiritual individualist respectful of wealth, has been eager to advocate. Raban comments: ‘The Three Articles of Mrs Thatcher are remorselessly reductive. They boil down Christianity to provide a theological legitimation for the doctrine of the individual’s right to choose. The word choice is hammered into each Article, and by Article Three the meaning of the Crucifixion itself turns out to be that Christ was exercising His right to choose.’

Jonathan Raban has risked being associated with the visiting of condescensions, by intellectuals, on Mrs Thatcher and her style. He finds deficient the choice of pictures ordered on her behalf for 10 Downing Street: the list ‘hardly suggests an informed or keen artistic taste. Perusal of it only makes her extravagant remarks about wonderful artists and craftsmen sound doubly mystifying.’ But the remarks in question are not mystifying at all; they are what tasteless public speakers feel they have to come out with on the subject. Later she is taken to task for referring to Lincoln’s ‘neat definition of democracy which has since been widely and enthusiastically adopted’. ‘Its widespread adoption,’ Raban writes,

is rendered subtly suspect by the word enthusiastically, as if people had gone a bit over the top about it. Enthusiasm is not a term of praise in the Nonconformist vocabulary; it suggests excess and delusion. Wesley himself wrote: ‘It is the believing those to be Miracles which are not, that constitutes an Enthusiast.’ So democracy is ‘one of those Miracles which are not’?

Dissenters and Evangelicals could be seen as enthusiasts in the 18th century, and Wesley seems to be defending his followers against the charge. But Wesley’s words do not prevent us from continuing to think of them as enthusiasts, in our own sense of that word, and Mrs Thatcher herself, after all, is a well-known enthusiast. There may be no strong need to suspect a subtle dispraise, at this point, of ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’. I mustn’t overdo these rejoinders of mine, however. Raban has made a good job of something that deserved to be done. He has weighed the words of a leader to whom, for ten years, the country has given a bewildered and uncritical assent.