Secession of the Intellectuals

(Photo: Dimitry Romanchuck/Dreamstime)
An inner defection

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the December 1, 1970, issue of National Review.

At a patriotic rally in Seville during the Spanish Civil War the founder of the Foreign Legion, General Millan Astray, a colorful and frequently wounded figure, made a speech that has long been remembered. His climactic utterance has been variously reported, but he seems to have shouted “ ’Abajo la intelligentsia!’ ” — Down with the intelligentsia! Doubtless the general was caught up in the tumultuous enthusiasm of the rally; nevertheless, he gives you, as they say, something to think about, for his words point to the special, the peculiar moral problem of the intelligentsia, or, as we would be more likely to say, the intellectuals — i.e., their habitually antagonistic, and sometimes even treasonous, relationship to their social setting, to their surrounding society.

This settled antagonism, this spirit of inner defection, exists in its most concentrated form in the academy (the only American institution, let us note, that is entirely run by liberals, and, not coincidentally, the institution furthest along toward disintegration). But the attitude spreads out beyond the academic foci and affects those who participate in one way or another in what we can very broadly call intellectual culture: the media, the arts, publishing. Madison Avenue and so forth. The key assumption — it may be powerful and aggressive, or muted though still very much there — is that all insight, imagination, refinement, all spirituality even, spring from, or at least are inextricable from, an initial nay-saying to the surrounding society: to the Babbitts, the boobs, the “alumni,” the Legionnaires and TV watchers, the whole array of insensate philistinery. When the negation is felt with special force, distance can lend enchantment to the alien and to the actual enemy: to Che, the Vietcong, Ho. The negation can become treasonous. Abroad, our enemies are always somehow admirable, our allies (a shrinking group) always corrupt, despicable, laughable — for after all they are connected with America. At home, the Panther and the SDSer become sympathetic figures.

This peculiar syndrome has become a political problem rather than a matter of merely private pathological interest because we now have a mass intelligentsia: through mass higher education, through the permeating effects of the media, through affluence, through paperbacks etc., a sizable segment of the population participates to some degree in intellectual culture and — again in varying degrees — absorbs its habitual attitudes.

But what is the source of the attitude itself, seemingly so perverse? Many suggestions have been made, and there is some truth in each of the most familiar ones. One analysis derives from Nietzsche and holds that liberal moralism is a decay product of Christianity. Self-interest, winning, are bad. Pride is to be brought low. You win spiritually through losing, and the Vietcong are the agents of our salvation. This may apply to some of our more deliquescent Protestant circles. Other explanations are more Tocquevillian in style. Thus, in a democracy there is no formal social hierarchy, a fact which gives rise to a frantic search for other ways to be superior, to rise above the herd. One way to achieve instant superiority is to reject, to invert, the emotions and values of the majority. They, so to speak, cheer the cavalry; you root for the Indians. They are patriotic; you will be the reverse. The Social Climber as Traitor. Or, one can look to concrete social relations for an explanation, and derive the moral perversity of the educated from their perception that they are at once superior to and dependent upon — even at the mercy of — the philistines, a paradoxical and ignominious position to be in. And there are countless “history of ideas” explanations: Gnosticism or some other millenarian view has resurfaced, formal socialist ideology has had its influence, and so on. But the fundamental answer, I suspect, is much more specific, and lies in the cultural history of, at most, the last two hundred years.

Critics of society, to be sure, there have always been, often very useful ones. It is the assumption of fundamental antagonism that is new — and how new, indeed, is seldom recognized. Virgil, for example, celebrated the Rome of Augustus and the real and legendary history which had led up to it — all those cities destroyed, Troy, Carthage, the Italian tribes subdued, even — and there is no doubt where the poet’s sympathies lie — an “underdeveloped people” tricked and tormented: the Cyclops. But move forward in history to comparatively modern times. Shakespeare, Spenser, and Sydney, the poetic glories of the English Renaissance, hailed the new Tudor dynasty. Swift and Pope could be savage in denunciation, but those they denounced were the malevolent or misguided enemies of norms Pope and Swift shared with the rest of their countrymen. Satire works only to the extent that those norms are shared.

An oil painting probably by Melozzo da Forli, and now in the collection at Windsor, can stand as a kind of emblem of the relationship traditionally — from the Renaissance until the end of the eighteenth century — presumed to obtain between the poet and man of letters on the one hand, and state or society on the other. In the painting, the Duke of Urbino, Federigo da Montefeltro, wearing his robes of state, sits in a large rectangular hall, his left hand resting upon a folio. His eleven-year-old son Guidobaldo, dressed in yellow damask, stands at the Duke’s knee. Behind the Duke and his son stand three men, one in the red suit of a cardinal, the second in black ecclesiastical garb, the third, perhaps a councillor, in secular clothes. All are listening to a grey-haired man of letters, dressed in black robes, who sits in a pulpit opposite the Duke. Open on the desk before him is a large volume. We see that he is reading aloud, as was the custom, and doubtless commenting on the text as he proceeds. The meaning of the picture is clear: literature, moral philosophy, scripture — these are sources of wisdom, yes, but wisdom that will guide the ruler and help to produce the good state. Virgil, Ben Jonson, Pope would have understood the painting instantly.

Literature, art, the life of the mind, conceived of as forces within society, recalling it to its own norms, reminding men of who in fact they are — this was the dominant conception of the role of the artist and the intellectual until nearly yesterday: until, that is. the early nineteenth century, when special, not to say unique, historical conditions opened a chasm between the artist and the intellectual and what by then had become a largely bourgeois and commercial society. Placed in its best light, the antagonism of the artist and the intellectuals to the bourgeois majority was a protest against materialism, against complacency, against selfishness, against Gradgrind, Bounderby, and Scrooge, against the narrow conception of human destiny that seemed to be epitomized by Louis Philippe, the “bourgeois king.” To be sure, this idealism sometimes provided a noble pretext for the deployment of much less magnanimous motives. Baudelaire, for example, cordially hated his stepfather. General Aupick, and regarded him as a usurper of his mother’s affections. At one point during the Revolution of 1848 Baudelaire was seen, rifle in hand, on a Paris street corner haranguing the crowd. “We must go and shoot General Aupick,” cried the poet. “Down with General Aupick!” It remained for C. Wright Mills to erect into a veritable doctrine this kind of confusion between the private and the public. At the end of The Sociological Imagination Mills urges his readers to move their private psychological difficulties into the political arena and work out their amelioration there.

During the nineteenth century the spirit of antagonism to a new, raw, and, in many ways, narrow ruling class brought into alliance many disparate and even mutually contradictory impulses. The aestheticism of Flaubert and Mallarmé, the bohemian diabolism of Baudelaire, the various kinds of political radicalism represented by Daumier, Hugo, and Marx: all shared an attitude of detestation toward a dominant and apparently invincible “respectable” society. Art, in Matthew Arnold’s summarizing phrase, was to he a “criticism of life” and he meant, specifically, that it was to be a criticism of bourgeois narrowness, a criticism of — to employ his terminology — the Philistines, who lacked all joy, imagination, refinement, spirituality. The artist and the intellectual would henceforth be a permanent member of the spiritual Opposition; they would make up a “saving remnant.”

Thus were the great antagonists established: society — monolithic, immovable, granitic. The counting-houses of Coketown and the mills of Manchester. And arrayed against society, the men of spirit and imagination. So powerful was this polarization, so useful in many ways, that it continued to be definitive, to shape our conception of the artist and the intellectual long after the specific social conditions which gave rise to it had ceased to exist.

Virtually everywhere you turn in nineteenth-century culture, the antagonist relationship proves definitive. Thus the shades of a psychic prison house close upon Wordsworth’s growing boy, and custom and habit — the psychic representatives of society — lie “like a weight” upon him. For Rousseau, man was born free but is everywhere — everywhere! — in chains. Society here becomes a veritable Bastille of the human spirit. Rameau’s nephew, in Diderot, is freer, more spontaneous, more powerful than his respectable uncle. Shelley, meeting Death upon the way, saw that he looked like Castlereagh, the Foreign Minister. Blake sought release through vision from the mind-formed manacles of his culture. From Rousseau through the Romantics and on to Eliot, Yeats, Pound, Picasso and the other great moderns, one proposition is clear. Art stands in an adversary relationship to existing culture, and this remains true even when the “doctrine” espoused by the artist is conservative or traditionalist, as in Eliot and Yeats. This is why, for example, Partisan Review, in its best period, could be Marxist politically even while espousing the modernist poetry of the Anglo-Catholic Royalist Classicist, Eliot.

The adversary style is a broad cultural phenomenon, by no means confined to literature and the fine arts. For Freud, civilization imposes “discontents” — pain — upon the infant mind, upon the adult unconscious. For Marx, analogously, society crushes the working masses. Lionel Trilling, who has written so well on this aspect of cultural history, speaks of the “clear purpose” of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature as being one of “detaching the reader from the habits of thought and feeling that the larger culture imposes, of giving him a ground and vantage point from which to judge and condemn, and perhaps revise, the culture that produced him.”

Under optimum circumstances, this procedure is clearly beneficial. If the audience for adversary art is highly developed aesthetically, if its members know how to use the adversary art as an agent of liberation and criticism, if they have the intelligence and the balance to so use it without permitting it to destroy through its very critical power and its mythogenic capacities what Yeats called “the common good of life,” then, but only then, can the adversary art function as it should within society. Prior to World War II the adversary writers were read by tiny audiences, avante-garde audiences. At their best, they understood the art as critical, as corrective. Yes, we should recover our sense of heroic possibility (Yeats); yes, we must attend to the things of the spirit (Eliot). But not at the sacrifice of all other mundane good. The adversary art is part of a cultural dialectic.

Since World War II, however, the avant garde, vastly expanded and coarsened, has become a kind of mass adversary culture, and it has become institutionalized. During the past 25 years there has occurred a sort of cultural explosion: paperbacks, Eliot reading his poems to fifty thousand students in a Midwestern football stadium, LP records, Mailer and Genet “covering” the Democratic Convention, Mailer and Genet and de Sade appearing in mass circulation journals, the op-art and pop-art and porno phenomena.

All of these things, along with affluence, the GI Bill and the assumption, implicit in democratic theory and increasingly the premise of government action, that absolutely everyone must go to college, has now given rise to a vast student proletariat. Twenty-five years ago, about 10 percent of the college-age population attended college; today the percentage approaches 50 and it will continue to climb. Much of this proletariat absorbs the attitudes of the adversary culture, which pervade the academy and percolate down in some form to the very dullest student, who could not, as a matter of fact, tell Mallarmé from Huey Newton.

Precisely because the adversary stance has become a mass phenomenon, and because it has become institutionalized, it has also become fixed, habitual, and coarse. The symbolic moment, surely, was when the avant-garde Picasso created the mass symbol of the Peace Dove.

Thus far we have approached the current cultural and social circumstance by way of aesthetics, of art and feeling. But it is possible to move to the realm of doctrine, of explicit formulation, of idea. Insofar as the mass adversary culture feels the need to translate attitude and style into formulation and idea, it reaches for the most readily available structures of critical political ideas; to liberalism and radicalism. It is remarkable how the adversary assumptions have shaped our sense of political “idealism.” Political idealism tends, almost by definition, to become oppositional, to “protest.” The ordinary bourgeois undergraduate today, casting around for something of an elevated character politically, desiring, vaguely, to express some political idealism, would never identify himself with, say, Ben Jonson’s tribute to Queen Elizabeth, cast in the form of a hymn to Diana;

Queen, and huntress, chaste and fair.

Now the sun is laid to sleep,

Seated in thy silver chair.

State in wonted manner keep:

Hesperus intreats thy light.

Goddess, excellently bright.

The attitude is unthinkable. Our young bourgeois’ model is bound to be something like the Zola of the Dreyfus case: J’Accuse! Or Kunstler, or someone equally absurd.

It is worth pausing for a moment over the nature of this political idealism, and over the kinds of intellectual structure shaped by it. We have already noticed that there has come into being during the last quarter century — through mass education, through the media, through widespread quasi-literacy — a rather large class of people located somewhere between the few who exercise direct responsibility in governing and a large body of others who, though not necessarily stupid, are preoccupied by the immediate and the local. This vast, intermediate and as they say “educated” class is affected at least intermittently by the adversary culture, and sometimes is profoundly affected. It is also energetic and, in a confused way, anxious to do good. To the individuals in this class, correct opinion, virtuous opinion, is very important, though the opinions they do form lack the anchorage of direct involvement and specific responsibility.

The chips are seldom really down, and they are seldom faced with the alternatives of correct judgment or concrete loss. Nevertheless, the educated class — perhaps we should call it merely the Bachelor of Arts class — does succeed in defining the terms in which matters of public importance can be discussed; its views prevail in our public discourse, and though our statesmen often act in contradiction to those views, they do so only with great circumspection. As Edward C. Banfield, the Harvard urbanologist, has aptly pul it, we once were governed by the smoke-filled room, but now we are increasingly governed by the talk-filled room. And yet, for all its power, the contemporary educated class has succeeded in imposing upon our public discourse a structure of ideas that is suffocating in its narrowness.

An English political philosopher, Kenneth R. Minogue, has had a number of penetrating things to say about the conception of “virtue” prized and energetically sought by the mass of modern educated opinion. Such opinion, Minogue notices, views history as a series of recurring moral melodramas in which villains or oppressors are continually defeated by their victims. One after another, kings, religious establishments, slave-owners, malefactors of great wealth and tyrants of various kinds, have been brought to earth by those whom they have wronged. It is a secularized version of “the last shall be first.” It is also a highly abstract version of the history of the last two hundred years or so — of, that is, the triumph of middle-class values over opponents of different kinds. Moreover, there will be, in fact, a final triumph. Conceiving of all conflict as arising out of the relationship between oppressor and victim, this view of history looks to a time far off in the distant future when there will he no more conflict because there will be no more victims.

At its root, says Minogue, this view of history informs a sensibility, now, indeed, a pervasive sensibility, that is dissatisfied with the world, and dissatisfied with it not because it too seldom manifests any will toward heroism or honor, not because it lacks beauty, or holiness, or because things pass away, not, that is, for any of the countless reasons men have found for melancholy or despair, but because it contains suffering. “The suffering of any class of individuals is for liberals a political problem, and politics has been taken as an activity not so much for maximizing happiness as tor minimizing suffering.” Sir Kenneth Clark, the art historian, has made the same point in the course of reflecting upon the development of Western civilization. “Ask any decent person in England or America what he thinks matters most in human conduct: five to one his answer will be ‘kindness.’ It’s not a word that would have crossed the lips of any of the earlier heroes of [civilization]. If you had asked St. Francis what mattered in life, he would, we know, have answered ’chastity, obedience, and poverty’; if you had asked Dante or Michelangelo they might have answered ‘disdain for baseness and injustice’; if you had asked Goethe, he would have said ‘to live in the whole and the beautiful.’”

In itself, of course, the impulse toward kindness, toward the amelioration of suffering, is surely a good thing, but when it becomes the animating force of the moral life and of political principle, it produces a crippling standardization, and it does so because, in the interest of making kindness efficient, it tends habitually to structure reality in terms of what Minogue calls “suffering situations.” As a matter of settled moral habit this sensibility instantly structures events in the political realm in terms of suffering, in terms of oppressor and victim. But this habit, as a moment’s reflection will show, involves inevitable distortions and, on moral grounds, is always shying away from reality. First, even if the oppressor-victim relationship does obtain in a given situation, this may not be the most important thing to say about it. To insist on that structure necessarily pushes into the background other structures and features which may be very important indeed. All too often, furthermore, the desire to structure a situation in terms of oppressor and victim — a desire, often, of overwhelming power, since for this sensibility the oppressor-victim structure is the source of meaning and value — results in a complete imposition upon reality: The structure being imposed does not correspond to anything at all in the reality being perceived.

Indeed, the structuring of reality in terms of suffering situations so often collides with the commonsense observation of reality that the structuring requires quite sophisticated elaborations and extensions in order to “cover the facts.” On the face of it, the Negro gunman who sticks up a liquor store, shoots the owner, and leaves with the booze and the till might seem to be the oppressor and the store-owner the victim. On the face of it, the juvenile delinquent who pours lighter fluid on his junior high school teacher and sets him aflame might seem to be the oppressor, and the blazing pedagogue his victim. Not at all. Both forms of aggression tend to be explained by means of the presumption of prior suffering. The Negro has suffered at the hands of white America, the juvenile delinquent because of unloving or unstable parents. The doctrine of “implied suffering,” clearly enough, rests upon the assumption of natural goodness. Since the Negro gunman and the juvenile delinquent are naturally good, their violence must be the product of their environment. This entire approach can be, and often is, pressed to the point where the judgment is totally discountenanced: The nastier and the more violent the act, the greater is the presumption of unseen suffering. The more outrageous, the more noble. And of course this entire overlay of theory and assumption obscures the particular and concrete reality. The Negro gunman may have suffered. But he may also desire money, power, and pleasure, and have decided to take the shortcut of crime.

When it is politically applied, the suffering-situation structure does similar violence to reality. In its actual operation, the structure tends to absolve the violent acts of the Left, but not of the Right: Che Guevara, but not Franco. The Left, as Minogue nicely puts it, is allowed to make out its own credentials as victim. And the Left revolutionary may in fact be a victim. But he may also he inspired by the love of power, the desire for excitement, and downright sadism, as well as by his “suffering” past and his ideal goals for the distant future. But the reality, the world itself, all concreteness fades as the ideology takes over.

The ideology of the suffering situation, indeed, as Banfield has noticed, tends to falsify the reality of the individual applying it. In his own eyes the ideologist is neutral, standing outside the situation, bestowing praise and blame. But this interpretation leaves out of the picture his own will to power, his own greed and cruelty. For the ideologist, if only in the process of passing judgment, becomes an actor within the situation, and on occasion he himself can have a shattering impact upon both “victim” and “oppressor.”

The sensibility pervasive among our educated class — it is fair to call it the liberal sensibility — not only functions to obscure concrete actuality but works as a potent force for uniformity, eroding the sources of variety in order, as Minogue puts it, “to provide every man, woman, child, and dog with the conditions of a good life” as conceived by liberalism. Thus liberalism constantly endeavors to minimize or abolish conflict. Have men fought over differences in religious doctrine? How foolish: such differences are unimportant. But men have fought over honor. That too is irrational. Nations themselves seem to be an important cause of conflict. Let us then abolish them, and move toward an international world state. Racial conflict is virtually universal. Irrational again: there is no difference among races, though they differ in appearance. Conflict arises out of inequalities in wealth or nurture or education. We must extirpate differences here by abolishing aristocratic schools and so forth, and by progressive taxation.

In its philosophical aspect, too, liberalism has had a narrowing and leveling effect, for despite the presence of preachers and clerics among liberals, the entire drift of liberalism since the eighteenth century has been to define man in exclusively this-worldly terms. “Modern society,” writes the sociologist Peter Berger, “has not only sealed up the old metaphysical questions in practice, but (especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries) has generated philosophical positions that deny the meaningfulness of those questions. . . . To repeat a simile used before, the reality of a middle-aged businessman drowsily digesting his lunch is elevated to the status of final philosophical authority. All questions that do not correspond to this reality are ruled to be inadmissible. The denial of metaphysics may here be identified with the triumph of triviality.”

The dominance of this kind of sensibility in the educated classes of our society is surely cause for alarm, since it cannot but follow that those who lose their grip on the reality of the world will shortly lose the world itself: the world cannot be governed by sentimental illusions. Poor fools, one cannot but sigh, poor fools, the barbarians will make short work of you.

The antidote, surely, lies in the various modes of recovering a sense of the reality of the world. The foundation, perhaps, should be the recovery of a sense of history. Without the materials of historical comparison, observes Daniel Boorstin, “we are left with nothing but abstractions, nothing but baseless utopias to compare ourselves with. No wonder, then, that so many of our distraught citizens libel us as the worst nation in the world, or the bane of human history (as some of our noisiest young people and a few disoriented Negroes tell us). For we have wandered out of history. And all in the name of virtue and social conscience. We have lost interest in the real examples from the human past which alone can help us shape standards of the humanly possible.” And besides the historical sense, both imaginative literature and rational analysis can be restorative. It is through the imagination, after all, that we form our “images” of the world, and when the imagination operates powerfully those images correspond in an intimate way with the reality. And it also seems to me vital to reassert the claims of rational analysis, that spirit of skepticism which clears away the illusions that veil the reality and corrupt the judgment.


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