Tuesday, February 16, 1999


by Paul Johnson

The purpose of this book is to question the moral right of intellectuals over the ages to counsel people on how to behave; to this end Johnson examines several so-called “intellectuals” from Rousseau to Normal Mailer: their private lives, their regard for truth, and their skill in public affairs.  It is a fascinating and at times irritating book, made all the more amazing by the fact (never mentioned here) that Johnson, although a profoundly conservative thinker, was a socialist for a part of his life.  Thus his attacks on intellectuals’ credulity in dealing with the Communist Party is somewhat ironic.  Leaving that aside, when he exposes the blatant hypocrisy and even cruelty of some supposed champions of the people and self-proclaimed moral paragons (Marx and Rousseau, especially), he is admirable.  It is also perfectly legitimate to expose the lying of a Hemingway or a Lillian Hellman.

But I have several objections to the book as well.  First, there is no separate intro or conclusion, no preparatory definition-setting.  So what is an intellectual, exactly?  It seems to be a thinker who believes that intellect alone can change the world, rather than time-honored traditions.  Well, maybe, but then it seems Edmund Wilson is a “man of letters,” then an intellectual, then a man of letters again.  An intellectual actually seems to be a bright left-winger.  Second, who ever said Hemingway or Shelley or Sartre, for example, were paragons of virtue?  They might well be exposed as awful people, but their excoriation does not make as much sense as Marx’s.  Johnson seems to simply hate creativity, bitterly resenting the fact that 50,000 mostly young people attended Sartre’s funeral (and dwelling rather unnecessarily on his ugliness).  Third, his attacks are inconsistent: he berates most of his victims for their adulterous affairs, but also attacks Ibsen for his platonic relations with girls, accusing him of using people as archetypes rather than individuals.  Would he rather Ibsen slept with them?  Or he will imply that an intellectual’s change of allegiance is a flaw, but also deplores Brecht for remaining loyal to the CP.  In any case, this is obviously an utterly absorbing series of essays, thought-provoking and lucid. 

three stars

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