Friday, February 28, 2014


I have some further reflections on the responsibilities of intellectuals, who, as a group, have been highly disappointing to me. That is because I hold them to a higher standard than artists and academics. This can be confusing, because all three labels may apply to the same person.

Let's start with Bob Dylan. Early in his career, he displayed the characteristics of an artist. He seems to have been someone who always wanted to be a rock star, but lacked the musical ability, voice and physical presence. He overcame these limitations with his natural ability as a lyricist, through which he inadvertently became famous during the antiwar and civil rights protests of early '60's. However, it later became clear that he wasn't much of an ideologue on political issues, and he certainly was not an academic or an intellectual. In hindsight, it appears that he unconsciously channeled his poetic gifts when he needed them but never cared much for politics and never was a thinker. I now see him as a narrowly talented person who is of limited interest once you look beyond some of his intriguing lyrics. It took me several years to figure this out and realize that my expectations should always have been low.

Another person who influenced me early was Ludwig Wittgenstein. Here, I think, was an intellectual and an artist who was not an academic, though he held a position at Cambridge. Oddly, much of his writing intrigues me in the same way as Bob Dylan's, because it contains complex and unfathomable ambiguities. Clearly he was uncomfortable as an academic, and he published almost nothing. What we have is mostly lecture notes, often recorded by others. He liked to make things, and was an aeronautical engineer and an architect before becoming a full-time philosopher. His interest in philosophy grew out of his interest in logic. I hold it against  him that he did not leave an intelligible body of work behind him. He taught philosophy in an academic context, and ought to have provided greater clarity.  Beyond that, he was not a public intellectual at all, and we don't know his positions outside philosophy. He had some artistic sensibilities, but was not a full-fledged artist.

George Eliot is the kind of intellectual that I admire. She was self-taught in multiple areas and relatively late in life decided to write fiction. Although she was not an academic, she had the breadth of knowledge and discipline of one. There is no dispute that she was an artist, producing stories, novels and poems, though some find her a little heavy-handed as a writer. She was also an editor and contributor to the Westminster Review, which puts her well into the intellectual camp. What I admire about her work is that, through her characters, she shows how people find meaning in life and deal with the issues of their day, all within the context of human progress. The latter detracts somewhat from her artistry, but more than makes up for it in seriousness. If you like seriousness, you probably won't find anyone better. Growing up, she was religious, and she later spent much of her life struggling with Darwinism. If you want to read writers who know important things, you can't do much better than George Eliot. Unfortunately, she's been dead since 1880.

When I think of contemporary intellectuals I think of the contributors to The New York Review of Books, and here I have problems with many. Although I haven't read his historical works, Tony Judt was another kind of intellectual that I admire. There was little artistry there, but he was a solid academic who became a highly effective public intellectual when he was drawn into public issues. His essay, "Bush's Useful Idiots," astounded me. He did not mince words about the Israel Lobby either. He made me think, "Isn't this what intellectuals ought to do when something is seriously wrong?" The fact is, with very few exceptions, they don't. On the contrary, they are more likely, like Christopher Hitchens, to publicly support the Iraq War.

Another NYRB contributor, Paul Krugman, was mentioned in an earlier post. I find him to be a pure academic, with no artistry, implausibly occupying the position of a public intellectual. He doesn't seem to be knowledgeable outside of economics, and his liberal leanings look like something he learned by age 12 and never thought about much. Beyond a narrow range of economic issues, I find him worthless. Moreover, he doesn't write well and has been ineffectual even as a liberal spokesperson.

Finally, there is the NYRB contributor Lorrie Moore, also mentioned earlier. Ostensibly she is an artist, in the sense that her primary vocation is the writing of fiction. Here, as I've said, she has become stale. I particularly liked this review of her most recent book, which appeared in The Globe and Mail: "...looking beyond the cosmetic glimmer of Lorrie Moore’s sentences at times reveals something essentially hollow. If television’s primary goal is to keep us watching television, something similar can be said of Bark: its stories tend to feel like easily consumed entertainments, with intimations at wisdom and meaning just compelling enough to keep us reading." She is also an academic insofar as she has taught in university English departments for 30 years. As an intellectual I consider her a complete failure. I think she is incapable of writing a Judt-like essay. If she speaks out at all, it is usually by awkwardly inserting political views into her stick-figure characters' mouths.

If I have any conclusion, it is that artists can do what they like and academics can do what they like, but if they choose to enter the arena of public intellectuals, they had better know what they're talking about and they had better say it well. In my opinion, they carry greater social responsibility than mere artists and academics.

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