April 1, 1994        


A propos of Vietnam, W. H. Auden remarked exasperatedly: “Why writers should be canvassed for their opinions on controversial political issues I cannot imagine. . . . Literary talent and political common sense are rarely found together:" One sees his point. And yet the habit is incorrigible: the habit, that is, of deference to the political opinions of artists and intellectuals. It is by no means universal, of course, and is even arguably declining. But the reflex remains widespread.

Auden’s remark notwithstanding, the assumption on which this deference is based is not hard to understand. As Lionel Trilling phrased it, art supposedly “makes one more conscious, more aware, more sensitive, and the more conscious, aware, and sensitive one is, the more sympathetic and responsive one is to other people.” Though Trilling himself went on to question this assumption, he admitted its plausibility.

Surely it’s at least plausible. The beginning of political decency and rationality is to recognize others’ similarity in important respects to oneself; that is, to identify imaginatively. Which is what one does when reading fiction. Literature is, in this sense, practice for civic life. “The great instrument of moral good is the imagination,” as Shelley wrote in A Defense of Poetry.

Besides largeness of imagination, art makes another gift to public life: fineness of discrimination, “A man with taste;’ observed Joseph Brodsky in his Nobel Prize speech:

particularly with literary taste, is less susceptible to the refrains and the rhythmical incantations peculiar to any version of political demagogy. The point is not so much that virtue does not constitute a guarantee for producing a masterpiece, as that evil, especially political evil, is always a bad stylist. The more substantial an individual’s aesthetic experience, the sounder his taste, the sharper his moral focus, the freer—though not necessarily the happier—he is...

Yet Auden’s complaint cannot be dismissed. A 20th-century dishonor roll of writers, including great writers, who’ve uttered left-wing or right-wing foolishness and even murderous rubbish could be drawn up with no difficulty. How is this possible?

The simplest answer is probably the most useful: don’t trust the teller, trust the tale. Art never purveys murderous rubbish, though artists sometimes do. A few masterpieces have been disfigured by—a few even, some would argue, partly animated by—politically pernicious sentiments, but they are so rare that they may reasonably be considered freaks, Opinions are secondary in literature; the primary effect, always benign, is upon the reader’s imagination and taste.

All true as far as it goes. Far enough, at any rate, for my purpose here, which is neither to address Lionel Trilling’s objection that teaching modern literature to young narcissists usually produces not brave and humane young citizens but only more cultivated narcissists; nor to arbitrate between the engaged and the skeptical, between, say, Sartre (“although literature is one thing and morality quite another, at the heart of the aesthetic imperative we discern the moral imperative”) and Thomas Mann (form is “in its innermost core, indifferent to good and evil”). Instead I want only to reflect a little on the changing situation of intellectuals.

There is, after all, also a long honor roll of 20th-century writers who’ve articulated important and difficult truths. I’m thinking of Bourne, Russell, Orwell, Macdonald, Silone, Chiaromonte, Camus, Merleau-Ponty, among others. Some were artists, others critics, but all were literary men. Their primary training and frame of reference were the humanities, usually literature or philosophy, and they habitually, even if often implicitly, employed values and ideals derived from the humanities to criticize contemporary politics. They were generalists: they drew, from a generally shared body of culture, principles of general applicability and applied them to facts generally available. Their “specialty” lay not in unearthing generally unavailable facts, but in penetrating especially deeply into the shared culture, in grasping and articulating its contemporary moral/political relevance with special originality and force.

But many large developments have combined to reduce the influence of such generalists. The public relations industry has far outstripped the intellectuals’ restricted access to the public. Formerly, propaganda campaigns like the one sponsored by the British to bring about American intervention in World \Var I were effective but rare. Propaganda routinized became p.r., which was soon a major ingredient in local newspapers and radio broadcasts. Serious journals, even the larger ones, could not compete with such mass outlets.

Nor could intellectuals and other independents begin to match corporate and government support for academic departments and research institutes. Ideologically congenial experts were funded and publicized, while dissidents, predictably, were not. As a result, the prestige of natural and social science was regularly enlisted behind business objectives or government policy.

Finally, authoritative interpretation of the humanities could only command moral and political influence among a populace who revered that tradition, or indeed knew of its existence. The decline of print literacy and the advent of the “electronic millennium” (Sven Birkerts’ phrase) has eroded not merely the extent but the basis of generalist intellectuals’ influence.

No less important than these external developments is a change in the role or definition of intellectuals. In a classic essay on the intellectual vocation (“This Age of Conformity”), Irving Howe observed that “the intellectual is a man who writes about subjects outside his field. He has no field.” In another, perhaps even more famous essay (“The New York Intellectuals”), Howe referred to “the idea of the intellectual as anti—specialist, or as a writer whose specialty was the lack of a specialty: the writer as a dilettante-connoisseur, Luftmensch of the mind, roamer among theories.” These descriptions were especially true of the New York/Partisan Review intellectuals, but apply to all 20th-century “public” intellectuals, to all politiques et moralistes. Their breadth of reference was the source of their authority: they wrote on political and cultural matters as men and women upon whom nothing—at least nothing relevant—had been lost.

But this combination of range and authority may no longer be feasible. The cultural conversation has grown, and now includes too many voices and perspectives, too much information. To be, or at any rate to seem, an expert on everything—which is implied by Howe’s definition—is now not a challenge but an invitation to vertigo. To retain an active mastery of the humanities, to keep in touch with new art and new interpretations, is difficult enough. But political and social criticism has grown far more empirical, more specialized, than in the high season of the New York intellectuals. As we know from many a memoir, everyone in the City College cafeteria in the I930s had a position on everything. Throughout the next couple of decades, everyone at Partisan Review meetings and Greenwich Village parties still had a position on everything. Today only Gore Vidal and Hilton Kramer seem to have positions on everything, positions usually generated simply by applying familiar rhetorical strategies to a new topic, without any complicating adjustment to new facts or perspectives. One sympathisizes: the grand old anti-capitalist and anti-communist intuitions still have important work to do. And they unify the sensibility, supplying the abundant moral energy that makes both Vidal and Kramer (in spite of everything) admirable. But a unified sensibility and the critical self-confidence it bestows are, for most of us, no longer to be had.

Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals persuasively identified the financial and institutional constraints on the freelance life. The intrinsic, evolutionary pressures mentioned above may be just as much to the point. The very ideal of cosmopolitanism, of the intellectual as “anti-specialist,” uniting political and aesthetic interests and able to speak with some authority about both, may be obsolescent. Though almost always decried, this is an ambiguous prospect. The culture of professionalism and expertise, the bureaucratization of opinion and taste, are not merely mechanisms of social control or a failure of nerve. They are also in part a response to genuine intellectual progress. There’s more to know now than in the ‘30s, and more people have joined the conversation. Perhaps the disappearance of the public intellectual and the eclipse of the classical ideals of wisdom as catholicity of understanding and of citizenship as the capacity to discuss all public affairs are evidences of cultural maturity. Intellectual wholeness is an almost irresistibly attractive ideal; but nowadays too determined a pursuit of it must end in fragmentation and superficiality.

Actually, that’s not just true of nowadays. More than a century ago Matthew Arnold lamented:

It requires in these times much more intellect to marshal so much greater a stock of ideas and observations.... Those who should be guides for the rest, see too many sides to every question. They hear so much said, and find that so much can be said, about everything, that they feel no assurance about anything.

Alas, the stock of ideas and observations relevant to political and cultural criticism has continued to increase. It might seem plain, for example, that Reaganomics was bad for ordinary Americans —this, if nothing else, a contemporary left-wing intellectual ought to be able to affirm with confidence. Unfortunately, some undeniably honest and intelligent people affirm the contrary. One who is determined to see “all sides of every question” must then learn how to distinguish among ways of measuring median family income, job creation and job loss, unemployment, and several other economic indicators, as well as the basis of monetary theory. For a literary intellectual, this is a chore.

Formerly a stance, a posture, a gesture, an eloquent affirmation or ironic negation was what was required of the literary-political intellectual. But as the print culture declines, eloquence is devalued. Allusions lose their resonance, rhetorical devices their effect; the habit of close, eager attention to, and the capacity to be intensely affected by, words on a page gradually dwindles.

The problem of scale is equally fundamental, The typically abstract and comprehensive political pronouncements of generalist humanist intellectuals can now no longer hope to be morally or rhetorically adequate. The phenomena in question—the state, the global or domestic political economy, the environment—are too big, and the arguments about them too many and too technical. To draw from a generally shared body of culture principles of general applicability and apply them to facts generally available is no longer possible. The relevant facts are not generally available anymore, but must be dug for; and which principles are applicable is fiercely contested.

There is another obstacle: the very legacy of Bourne, Orwell, Silone, Camus, Macdonald, et al. The success of these intellectuals in elegantly and forcefully articulating general truths of modern political morality leaves their succession problematic. Just as the great achievements of realist and modernist fiction has bequeathed contemporary novelists a crisis of narrative form, so in a sense have the achievements of the public intellectuals of the early and mid-2Oth century exhausted the possibilities of the political essay. (At least in the West: Konrad, Michnik, and others seem unfazed.) Of course the truths of political morality need frequent restatement. But much of what commands attention and respect about these writers cannot be recaptured: the authoratitive tone and sense of responsibility produced by their immersion in European literature; the impression of high specific gravity produced by the historical circumstances and by the fact that all literate Europe and America was their audience; finally, their sheer virtuosity. Attempts to find some contemporary equivalent of the form and voice of the public intellectuals of the ‘30s and ‘40s are futile, for all the above reasons and also because, in the history of art, once is enough. Their best essays have something of the specificity and uniqueness of art, which means that their true successors (Alexander Cockburn and Michael Kinsley, for example?) will doubtless look, superficially, very different,

Early in Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer reminds himself that “one’s own literary work was the only answer to the war in Vietnam’ Later in the book, having disregarded his own advice, he finds himself sharing a jail cell with Noam Chomsky. That most influential of intellectual opponents of the war would eventually tell an interviewer: “I’ve always been resistant to allowing literature to influence my beliefs and attitudes with regard to society and history." Mailer’s account of their mutual respect and mutual incomprehension is amusing. Inasmuch as it can stand for a division of labor and a division of sensibility among contemporary intellectuals, it is also, in retrospect, poignant.


In my favorite communist manifesto, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde writes: “To the thinker, the most tragic fact in the whole of the French Revolution is not that Marie Antoinette was killed for being a queen, but that the starved peasant of the Vendee voluntarily went out to die for the hideous cause of feudalism.” Before and since then, the masses have fairly consistently disappointed their well-wishers, including me. Savage enthusiasm for the First World War among the supposedly gentle and kindly English people astonished and permanently embittered Russell, Shaw, and Lawrence. Wittgenstein renounced his wealth and his career to teach children in rural Austria, only to conclude that peasants and children alike were as vile as Cambridge dons. The failure of the European proletariat to become a revolutionary subject hurt Gramsci, Lukacs, and Adorno into magnificent Marxist poetry. The American electorate’s embrace of Ronald Reagan and George Bush— unaffected by almost daily news reports of procurement waste and fraud, failure to enforce environmental, occupational-safety, and consumer-protection regulations, the Executive Branch continual usurpation of Congressional prerogative, the appointment of young and inexperienced but ideologically congenial judges, and plenty of straightforward sleaze—all but broke my own heart.
Of course the people aren’t always wrong. They made the Velvet Revolution. Danish and Scandinavian trade union members appear to be astonishingly enlightened. A large minority of American voters did, after all, vote against Reagan, and a majority (eventually) against Bush. Nevertheless, the problem for the utopian and the radical democrat (both of which I still consider myself, though on fewer days of the week than formerly) is what to make of the typically great gulf between the people’s vision, or lack of vision, and our own.

There are at least two rationales for despair. One is the reproduction of culture, the ways political attitudes and beliefs are transmitted in each generation. The study of this process is a signal achievement of recent social science, from feminists on child-rearing (and innumerable other practices) to Stuart Ewen, Jackson Lears, and others on the historical roots of consumerism to Frances Fitzgerald on American-history textbooks to Mark Crispin Miller and Todd Gitlin on television advertising to Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman on the “manufacture of consent” through the news media, among very much other fruitful work. The upshot of all these investigations is, from one point of view, entirely predictable: who pays the piper calls the tune. Donors, sponsors, stockholders, and trustees—in nearly all cases, businessmen or government officials—set the framework of critique, usually not by outright suppression or censorship, but indirectly, by declining to support work that calls into question, even implicitly, their prerogatives, interests, or values. There is nothing in the least conspiratorial or hypocritical about this, once it’s granted that people ought to be able to do whatever they like with “their” money. Now at bottom it is a critical, skeptical attitude, a lack of automatic deference for official or corporate pronouncements—anything that reduces lethargy, passivity, credulity—which threatens the reproduction of social and political orthodoxy. A generalization therefore emerges: work which receives significant institutional or commercial support is likely to be mediocre, conformist, or esoteric. This is as true of popular culture as of academic social science.

The left’s discouraging achievement consists in laying bare how subtly this control is exercised and how far it reaches. Considering the disparity of resources between right and left—and I don’t mean between Republicans and Democrats—I can’t see that a case for, say, the democratic control of production and investment will get a hearing in my lifetime. It would take tens of billions of dollars to mount an effective ideological challenge to contemporary industrial authority relations (a mouthful, this last phrase, but “capitalism” is no less difficult to specify nowadays than “socialism”), since this would include having formulated and if possible tested an alternative, Have-nots haven’t got that kind of money.

The other case is less rigorous, but in a way even more troubling. It is the argument for elitism: that most people will always be incapable of the energy, imaginative range, sensual and familial detachment, and inner poise required for citizenship in a republic. There is no disgrace in this; most of us are not gifted musicians or mathematicians and feel no shame. It is not, obviously, a precise analogy: fellow citizens influence and sometimes govern us, musicians do not. But in another respect the analogy may be valid and actually encouraging. Mathematical and musical ability can be fostered, up to a point, especially if the effort begins in childhood. And generations of what might be called equal early-environmental opportunity may level differences in aptitude. Might a similarly benign civic pedagogy produce a similarly vast rise in the general level of republican virtue?

Once again, conservatives without imagination will wearily or indignantly object that civic pedagogy on a mass scale—any effort to produce rather than merely permit social virtue—must end in totalitarianism. Conservatives (and liberals and radicals) without imagination are always numerous and influential enough to be worth arguing with. Some other time, though_what haunts me most keenly are not Isaiah Berlin’s and Leszek Kolakowski’s pontifications nor the grandiloquence of the nouveaux philosophes, but rather, for example, these sadly, quietly authoritative observations of Ortega y Gasset:

The most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are; without imposing on themselves any effort toward perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves.... As one advances in life, one realizes more and more that the majority of men—and women—are incapable of any other effort than that strictly imposed on them as a reaction to external compulsion. The few individuals we have come across who are capable of a spontaneous and joyous effort stand out isolated.... These are the select men, the noble ones, the only ones who are active and not merely reactive, for whom life is a perpetual striving.

Any number of objections will doubtless spring to a generous mind, but one that can hardly do so is that the distinction Ortega proposes is not “the most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity:’ If humanity will always be a mass of dough leavened sporadically by a yeast of heroes, then why talk of “radical democracy”? Capitalist democracy requires only consumers, fermented occasionally by entrepreneurs. The result is not very nutritious, but a lot more so than Stalinist or premodern brands. And if Ortega is even roughly right, what other kind of democracy is possible?

I’ve found two paths leading, if not altogether out of despair, at least toward endurance and a provisional hope. One is renunciation always an attractive option for the beleaguered leftist. What has recently made this, for me, a live option is the example of Richard Rorty—whom I consider an (perhaps the) exemplary contemporary intellectual. Rorty has associated himself, far more often and more explicitly than most of his philosophical peers, with a humane, egalitarian politics. And so my reflexive resistance is suspended when he urges, delicately and persuasively, that, the sweet dreams of perpetual progress notwithstanding, we may have to concede to Nietzsche that democratic societies have no higher aim than what he called “the last men”—the people who have “their little pleasures for the day and their little pleasures for the night.”

But maybe we should just make that concession, and also concede that democratic societies do not embody anything, and cannot be reassured by anything, larger than themselves (e.g., by “rationality”). Such societies should not aim at the creation of a new breed of human being, or at anything less banal than evening out people’s chances of getting a little pleasure out of their lives. This means that citizens of those societies who have a taste for sublimity will have to pursue it in their own time, and within the limits set by On Liberty. But such opportunities might be quite enough.

The other path, or tactic, is a frankly tenuous, even willful, faith in the utopian visionary tradition. As with all the other problems I’ve
touched on in this essay, I’ve dealt scarcely at all in evidence, almost exclusively in quotidian impressions. And this not solely for brevity’s sake. The perennial philosophical questions, the immemorial answers, may gradually fade away, as Rorty and I hope and expect, or may at any rate mutate into now unimaginable forms. A good reason to think so is that now as always, one argues about them by opposing a single idiosyncratic (though, one hopes, somehow persuasive) vision to another, Ortega himself splendidly disdains evidence: “As one advances in life, one realizes more and more...:’ To his distressingly plausible pessimism I can only oppose the (to me) hearteningly plausible utopias of Wilde and William Morris. In News from Nowhere, there is virtue and (infrequent) transgression, happiness and (infrequent) grief, but no mechanical miracles; it is undeniably heaven, but undeniably no more than human; and there is no distinction between an inert “majority of men” and a few heroes “for whom life is a perpetual striving.” Life for all is an exquisite balance of striving and rest. The Soul of Man Under Socialism is less graphic and less convincing, but Wilde’s rhetoric is nearly irresistible; and he almost seems to have anticipated Ortega when he redefines socialism as “Individualism”: “It is the differentiation to which all organisms grow... the perfection that is inherent in every mode of life, and towards which every mode of life quickens:’ Where Ortega saw fixity, Wilde saw evolution. I agree—I want to agree—with Wilde.

For quite a while, it appears, the question may be moot. Even the most fervent faith in the heroic capacities of ordinary people may need to be passed on “in a sealed envelope" as Rilke says of love between selfish lovers. Class stratification, sometimes violently enforced, and ethnic or religious civil wars are the immediate human prospect, for which no intensive pedagogy will be required to enlist most ordinary people.

In a sealed envelope, then, along with many of the values adumbrated by the writers I most admire, whose works are a small flotilla bearing that envelope towards other generations, less and more enlightened than ours, who will make their own unforeseeable use of its contents.