Is It Glamorous?

David Simpson

  • Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain by Stefan Collini
    Oxford, 544 pp, £16.99, July 2005, ISBN 0 19 929105 5

George Orwell is commonly invoked as the ideal role model for the intellectual: feisty, independent, outspoken and contrarian, active in the public sphere, and famous. So it’s a surprise to learn that the combined circulation of the three periodicals in which most of his essays appeared was only about half that of the publication you are now reading. On the other hand, A.J.P. Taylor wrote some 1500 book reviews in the course of his career, many of which appeared in the Sunday Express, which in the late 1950s had a circulation of four million and paid him up to £100 a time – a very considerable sum.

These are among the many striking items of information in Stefan Collini’s Absent Minds, whose title appears to accept the myth that the book disputes: that there are no British intellectuals – intellectuals are always elsewhere – or that those who think of themselves as intellectuals are really empty-headed populists or mere showmen. To anyone who supposes that Britain is uniquely inhospitable to its intellectuals, while the French give them their proper due, Collini has a story to tell: the grass is not greener across the Channel and it is not so bad here after all. The myth of British exceptionalism is a key component of the governing assumptions about intellectuals, but it doesn’t square with the facts. France may be a special case, especially France between the 1930s and the 1950s, but the British situation should be regarded as ‘one distinctive variant of a larger international pattern’. Germany, Russia, Italy and the United States, among others, share with Britain a set of habits and rhetorical conventions for discussing intellectuals.

The term ‘intellectual’ has been passed down through modern history, even in France, with explicit or implicit scare quotes, as a sneer, a dubious attribution, implying a kind of malfeasance. Those who upbraid the failings of intellectuals most vigorously are often intellectuals themselves, while those who deplore the narrow specialisms of others often depend on their own reputations as specialists in one discipline or another. Not until the late 20th century does the word ‘intellectual’ begin to circulate ‘without requiring introductions, bodyguards or identity papers’. This suggests that whatever the actual functions of intellectuals (and Collini is not so much concerned with these as with what is said about them), it is not the case that they are to be considered simply objects of nostalgia, figures from some heroic past. Unless, that is, the dropping of the scare quotes indicates a dilution of whatever threat or challenge intellectuals were formerly supposed to carry.

What is an intellectual? Intellectuals are not a class; they are not by definition significantly political (though the Russians once thought they were); they can’t be relied on to speak truth to power – but they must be something. Collini finds little to interest him in two of the three modern senses of the word he brings up for inspection: the sociological sense, which implies a distinct occupational category, and the subjective sense, which is merely self-ascribed or idiosyncratic. He finds it more useful to work with what he calls the ‘cultural sense’, which recognises that the intellectual performs a role before a certain sector of the public, using media that reach audiences different from and larger than those addressed by specialists. To call someone an intellectual should involve neither praise nor opprobrium, and no one medium should be considered uniquely important or effective. Above all, intellectuals are not always elsewhere, or better off elsewhere: they are always here and always now. Besides looking to France, the British have long enviously cited the careers of New York intellectuals, whose world, Collini finds, was always smaller than we like to think; meanwhile, both the Americans and Raymond Aron have imagined Britain as the place where the intellectual can live a happy and well-rewarded life. Collini’s book ought to put a stop to such fantasies.

Not least among the virtues of Absent Minds is that it spares us another extended account of the life and times of Isaiah Berlin – I would have put money on his place in this story, along with F.R. Leavis and C.P. Snow, who also feature sparsely. Many of the exemplary careers it does describe are full of surprises. The account of ‘Mr Facing-Both-Ways’ Eliot focuses vividly on his membership of a group called The Moot, where he crossed swords with Karl Mannheim about the best ways to be ‘planning for freedom’. Orwell comes in for another mild debunking, as the intellectual who can’t stand other intellectuals and as the man who said: ‘I think Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot.’ Best of all are the accounts of the first generation of public intellectuals, television dons and celebrities, none of whom was so described at the time. It’s especially useful to be reminded of the careers of A.J. Ayer and A.J.P. Taylor: both, as Collini tells it, became successful media intellectuals partly by conveying the message that what intellectuals say or do hardly affects the public interest. Such a display of professional modesty speaks for a different time; similarly, Noel Annan’s model of a tightly related British intellectual aristocracy driving the national culture, and Edward Shils’s celebration of postwar Britain as a haven for intellectuals (‘Outside the China of the Mandarins, no great society has ever had a body of intellectuals so integrated with, and so congenial to, its ruling class, and so combining civility and refinement’), will seem shocking to anyone whose idea of the intellectual goes no further back than The History Man. In the middle of the Cold War, Shils seems to have felt the warm glow of Britain’s appreciation of people like him.

Absent Minds has a cheering message: that things are not so bad, that there are plenty of ways to circulate ideas outside the academic sphere, and that the public or the various publics are ‘neither as doped up nor as dumbed down’ as is often suggested. And yet Collini raises the possibility that wanting to lower the temperature and refine the terms of the debate about intellectuals might seem ‘dispiritingly unambitious’. He is happiest when exposing clichés about intellectuals and their national cultures, but less willing to ask why intellectuals so often think of themselves as alienated or misunderstood. Collini’s commitment to a level-headed occupation of the middle ground between optimism and despair doesn’t allow much room for the urgent aspirations of the more passionate figures in the tradition. His attraction to the middle is in the spirit of the left intellectuals (like Taylor) who criticised the Stalinist apologetics of the 1948 Wroclaw conference, and the liberal intellectuals (like Ayer) who stood out against the equally coercive pro-Nato atmosphere of the 1950 Berlin conference. But not every intellectual has been comfortable when arguing against extreme positions, or when the mark of approval goes only to those with average views.

Take the case of R.G. Collingwood, who had no radio or television career and did not write for the newspapers, who was an exceptional scholar and philosopher, but who never lived up to his own expectations, and who figures here as an example of ‘one distinctively British way of being an intellectual manqué’. He had no public reputation in his lifetime, though he very much wanted one; he saw his vocation as that of a Capitoline goose – ‘cackling is my job, and cackle I will’ – and philosophy as a weapon against the rising tide of European Fascism. Collini thinks this is an instance of ivory-tower self-deception: Collingwood fooled himself into thinking that getting philosophy straight would somehow stop the Panzers. But Collini makes no place for any equivalent consideration of the careers of Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson, C.L.R. James and others whose impact on the political sphere was arguably greater. The price Perry Anderson pays for being discussed at length here is to be regarded as an example of an ‘intellectualist’ tendency that arranges a list of big names into the patterns of a ‘stark geometry’. Taylor’s CND activism is treated more favourably, perhaps because Taylor was an opponent of civil disobedience, but Ayer is mocked as the signer of too many petitions.

Collini leaves right-wing activism out of the story, too, but it seems symptomatic that the figure he finds most wanting is Edward Said, who was not British, and whose 1993 Reith Lectures on the public intellectual (a British event, at least) tempt Collini to step way beyond the historical period with which most of the book is concerned. He makes short work of the critics and journalists who opposed the choice of Said as Reith lecturer in the first place, but this is largely a way to give himself permission to attack the book that came out of the lectures a year later. Collini finds it a ‘poor book’ marked by ‘simplistic binary alternatives’, a ‘kind of political free association’ and a proclivity for ‘graceless abstract nouns’. Above all it succumbs to an ‘insidious kind of glamour, that of being the champion of the wretched of the earth’. Why is this insidious, and is it glamorous? Said responding patiently but with evident distress to the long lines of pre-organised questioners who would hog the microphone ten minutes before the end of his talks and prevent anyone else getting to it never looked glamorous to me, nor did the death threats and public abuse he had to put up with throughout his career as a defender of those who couldn’t speak for themselves or get a fair hearing when they did. To be sure, Said’s Representations of the Intellectual does not attempt what Collini is aiming for: a comprehensive, academically detailed history of a disputed and misunderstood term. The core of Said’s argument is quite different: that there is no middle ground, or none worth inhabiting.

Said, in other words, had a very different idea from Collini about what the intellectual should be doing. For Collini it seems to be a matter of sorting out one’s histories, sharpening the terms, debunking the regnant myths and keeping’s one’s feet firmly within a discipline while making a modest effort to address a wider public. These are worthy enough goals, but Said thought that intellectuals should do more than mind their manners (or preserve what he calls a ‘smug heedlessness’) while the world’s haves and have-nots drift further apart. They should call our attention to ‘all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug’ and should universalise every crisis so as to bring it into line with as many other crises as possible, to the point of being ‘embarrassing . . . even unpleasant’. I do not find this insidiously glamorous, but rather the admirable opinion of a man who worked hard to make a difference in the world. For Said, the image of ‘stability’ masks a ‘state of emergency threatening the less fortunate with the danger of complete extinction’. Collini, on the other hand, is pleased to record a steady-state history marked by small, local variations, in which activists are an embarrassment and should be dismissed.

Collini worries that Said’s misuses of the word ‘intellectual’ will, if left unchallenged, ‘infect and disable one’s own account’. Collini, who is not merely descriptive but also prescriptive, convinces me that more intellectuals might remind themselves of their ordinariness and work harder to achieve a rational middle ground between ‘self-effacing specialism and self-promoting vulgarity’, but he does not persuade me that all intellectuals are just ordinary, or that Said (who was not ordinary) has betrayed that middle ground. Collini does not like Said’s ‘existential drama’ and its ‘inescapable logic of choice’, and he finds there – as he does with Orwell – the symptoms of a pathology, a ‘strong personal anxiety or fantasy at work’. Is he, then, in his dogged level-headedness and determination to find the same story (or non-story) almost everywhere, immune to anxieties of his own? Is Said really ‘culpably romantic’? How exactly is romanticism culpable? Is the damage to the world of intellectual historians as significant as the damage Said talks about, that done by nation-states and their military and economic executors? The baroque archness and tortured impersonalism of Collini’s prose on this occasion (he refers to Said as ‘a figure whom one has defended, perhaps on rather high-principled grounds’) seems more than a little anxious; the lively wit that marks so much of his writing is lost here, and turns sour.

If Collini is right that with a few variations and exceptions the view of intellectuals has been much the same across the West in the 20th century, that there is a ‘larger international pattern’ at work, what is the common influence or structure that would explain it? He says at the end of the book that there is such a structure, but somehow the matter of ‘structural rather than merely local explanations’ dwindles down to a matter of ‘alarmist cultural pessimism’ which he has ‘taken issue with on other occasions’. There might be interesting reasons why capitalist economies in tandem with representative democracies are felt to have the power to impose despair or desperation on their intellectuals. But do they do so on all of them? Are there not some who maintain an optimism of the will, and must it be ‘culpably romantic’ to do so?

Collini’s book, for all its virtues, is an exercise in limitation. He announces early on that he will be confining his attention to ‘a somewhat limited range of established literary and academic figures’ that will not include ‘various groups defined in terms of their political activism or their provincial location or their working-class origins, and so on’. ‘And so on’ includes a good number of women, who, a few paragraphs on Iris Murdoch apart, figure not at all. ‘And so on’ also includes the events of 1968 and 1989 (which made all sorts of intellectuals think about their obligations to political causes), the Vietnam War, apartheid, the feminist movement, and many other intellectuals who (like Said) were not British but very much part of a British debate: Derrida, Althusser, Foucault, Fanon, Chomsky, Beauvoir, to name a few. Collini would say, I think, that the existence of activist intellectuals who saw it as part of their job to work to change the world can be understood as one more instance of a tradition of tolerance that we misrepresent by paying attention only to the alienated and dyspeptic voices. But one thing intellectuals have said about themselves is that not all intellectuals are the same, or are treated the same way by the societies in which they subsist.