Letters and Betters

Is writing a utilitarian art form? Academics, like civil servants, are often expected to produce policy papers, while the history of the phenomenon of “public intellectuals” is a curious thing, for “public intellectuals” often include fiction writers despite the fact that the latter deal entirely with imaginary worlds. If the essential difference between the imagination and the historical imagination is that the latter is to be derived from the interpretation of evidence, I think that is the primary reason why fiction is something that appealed to me primarily during the over-impressionable years of being a young adult and, later, I came to view interesting writing and (the more fascinating) historical studies as being virtually synonymous. But that’s just me. There are writers who seem to occupy different worlds at once and, although there have always been polymaths, it can seem that this is a quite modern (as in century old) phenomenon. I may be wrong, but my impression is that I cannot imagine nearly any nineteenth-century novelist, or short story writer, being asked, in their day, to be “the sage of their age”, but by the 1920s Aldous Huxley type figures were not unusual, soon to be followed by the likes of Albert Camus or Jean Paul Sartre, who famously pontificated about things that they knew “jack shit” about yet “the world” was evidently encouraged to hang on every word they said. That might seem like an overly cynical view, but it suits, at least, my current passing thought; namely, what exactly are “public intellectuals” and who needs them anyway? Are people afraid to hold an opinion if they cannot find an echo chamber of “somebody important” who holds the same view? Or do “we” (people) instinctively feel a need to frame our thought with reference to others’ thought lest we end up existing only as a voice in a wilderness? “Let us see, said the blind man through the whole in the wall”.

Or let us examine the newspapers and TV. Someone who reads opinion columns and literary supplement magazines far more so than me may know if there have been histories written, speculative or otherwise, of the phenomenon of public intellectuals, but I am inclined to consider it a phenomenon to observe only out of the corner of the eye, or the corner of the mind’s eye, as the case may be. Lately, on turning my own attention to writings on international relations, I was surprised to see listed among the most influential figures in shaping people’s thought writers like Anthony Giddens, a master of sociological platitudes whose work has been translated into almost thirty languages, and queer literary theorist Camille Paglia, who writes about fictional characters in novels as if they were real or can tell us more about life than anybody that actually lived. Unlike the likes of past figures like Huxley, Camus and Sartre, these are academics, but academics whose public profile evidently surpasses the meagre public profile of academics who write occasional social media blogs. Does this constitute a good merger of the worlds of the ivory tower and the popular magazine? Perhaps it does, but, notwithstanding my own limited experience of academia, it seems to me that there is, or was, a reason for many of the old sayings regarding the value of absent-minded professors, who have buried their heads in books. The prurient anti-intellectualism of Woody Allen, if often tiresome, could produce some classic one-liners, and two of his best satires of academia were his jokes of a literary professor believing he could literally have an affair with Emma Bovary, or a pompous philosophy professor who proudly states, as evidence of his (self-professed) status as a “genius”, that many fictional characters in great works of literature “are more real to me than many people I know”. Ahem.

If twentieth-century and, evidently, twenty-first century media has been inclined to celebrate the “public intellectual”, this was not necessarily the case in the nineteenth century. One of the most bizarre public figures of the 1880s was Leo Taxil, a man whose spirit lives on in fictional novels such as Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery (others may think of Dan Brown). In Taxil’s world, huge conspiratorial networks exist across the European continent of competing freemasons and (invariably Roman Catholic) Christians who would think nothing of placing a dagger in each other’s back for the sake of some great power game. The origins of this vision are perhaps even more obscure that the origins of freemasonry itself (in England), but it caught people’s imaginations like wildfire and burns through the pages of some influential twentieth-century novels as well, such as Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, which was first published by the YMCA (which evidently thought it was a renunciation of atheism) but it was actually a semi-Masonic work that portrayed the life of Christ as a fiction that was not a part of history at all.

In general, the nineteenth century was an age with a great love of antiquarianism, which is probably half the reason why, along with the development of journalism, that it was the age when the modern world’s sense of history, as well as civilisation, essentially came into being. Civilisation is a civic concept, not a religious one, but history writing developed in the nineteenth century to conflate the two, as questions were raised regarding the origins of the Christian church at the same time as people speculated on its relationship with classical civilisation. Heterodox attitudes were common, such as: if Christ’s Resurrection was the Second Coming and his teachings while on earth was the Day of Judgment, then was the notion championed by Paul that the Messiah’s Second Coming and Day of Judgment is something only still to come, and that will involve putting every dominion and throne on earth under the Messiah’s command, not even a misinterpretation of Christianity, but even the work of a religious agent provocateur (i.e. Paul only pretended to have a ‘Damascus moment’) that was designed to subsume Christianity back into Judaism or else subordinate both it and Judaism to Greco-Roman philosophy and the Roman Empire before Christianity could ever truly begin (hence the shortness of the New Testament, amongst other things). I don’t know, but maybe some classical scholars are still having fun with that one. Suffice to say, it was this type of reasoning that helped to sustain the idea that Taxil exploited: that secret brotherhoods could be the custodians of wisdom, like the earliest Christians or religious orders, and secret battles between them could shift the balance between good and evil one way or another. To a significant extent, this was a bit like the nineteenth century’s edition of twentieth century’s “the reds under the bed” or “spy vs. spy” phenomenon: i.e. something nobody “really” believed, yet could potentially affect “everyone’s” imagination, to a greater or lesser extent. If you would like to see a relatively contemporary edition of this (potentially benign) madness, check out Andre Gregory’s “far out” (and purposively theatrical) monologue in the “underground” (mar dhea) American drama My Dinner With Andre (1981), which is a bit like listening to Ronnie Corbett giving a history lecture.

What has all this to do with the phenomenon of public intellectuals? Does susceptibility to the idea that an individual, or individuals, can be “a sage of the age” depend simply on the bank accounts of celebrities (and the outreach of various medias) or does it reflect a belief that the idea of a collective consciousness is something that is inherently “real”, whether it is manipulated, manipulative or none of the above? It would seem that the latter idea, or sensibility, is actually quite deep rooted in human nature. The existence of history books may, in itself, reflect this, even if someone I knew, who loved reading history books better than anyone else I knew, was also particularly fond of the saying, attributed to Abraham Lincoln, that “all history is bunkum”. A better expression of the same idea would be that “all historical narratives are deeply fallible” but are worth having just the same.

One interesting and influential idea, frequently ascribed to James Joyce, is the idea that what is the most personal is ultimately the most universal, which is essentially an artistic idea, long predating Joyce, that is often echoed, perhaps particularly by those musicians who consider an ability to put a personal stamp upon the performance, or interpretation, of a piece of music as the highest of achievements (folkies are often even more adamant about that one than classical performers). How far are interpretations of history an idiosyncratic matter of putting a “personal stamp” on a broader debate? It is hard to say, but no matter how much one historian may learn from another they can still only rely on their own judgment. The “personal-universal” paradigm presents another issue which has crossed my mind since “moving on” from having written a historical biography to making a start on a general history work, for if the former exercise had a personality-based dimension, the latter is essentially a purely conceptual exercise with as broad a focus as can be. This is something that, like many historians, I have always been inclined to avoid, for conceptual studies are almost always akin to theoretical studies. Therein lies the danger: when theory comes first and evidence second, (great) historical fictions can be born. Attempting to face the challenge of this exercise may be a reward in itself, however, for it could be that striking the right balance between evidence and theory is the closest that history writing can come to truly embracing the universal, that is without succumbing to the public intellectual’s code of attempting to be monarch, or president (as the case may be), of all that they see. Every writer must operate on a kind of blind faith. It would be a gross vanity, however, to expect all readers to do the same.