The Magazine

Brains Distrust

A man of the left who is really, really mad.

May 21, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 34 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Absent Minds

Intellectuals in Britain

by Stefan Collini

Oxford, 536 pp., $45

Readers familiar with The London Review of Books will be familiar with its frequent contributor Stefan Collini. Prolix, venomous, and impeccably left-liberal, he is also professor of intellectual history and English literature at Cambridge.

His new book is not for everyone. Those who have never envied the French their intellectuals will find much about it that is baffling. Collini refers to what he calls "Dreyfus envy" to describe what left-liberal British intellectuals feel for their much more highly regarded French counterparts--though he ignores the respective intellectual histories of the two countries that might explain such envy. Still, for all its shortsightedness, Absent Minds will usefully inform anyone curious about what makes the left-liberal tick. In his portraits of T.S. Eliot, A.J.P. Taylor, A.J. Ayer, and George Orwell, Collini shows how they either abdicated what he believes ought to have been their proper roles as intellectuals or exercised their intellectual authority in ways he disapproves.

The least original of the essays is on Eliot who, over the years, has come in for a good deal of wigging. The Pope of Russell Square is now guilty of nearly every enormity: He was an anti-Semite, a misogynist, an elitist, a fascist. He was culpable of fostering what William Empson called "malign neo-Christianity." He had a good word for the royalist Charles Maurras. He drove his first wife mad and then had her put away. For the doctrinaire professoriate that has turned our English departments into factories of dreary left-liberal cliché, he has become the prize whipping boy. Rather than question any of this, Collini merely eggs on the flagellants.

What damns Eliot most in Collini's eyes is that he advocated an intelligentsia that would be made up not of socialists but of conservatives. For Collini, this makes Eliot one of the many deviant intellectuals who may have started out on the proper path of antiestablishment dissent but who, eventually, retreated into a kind of fascist conservatism. (Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, and Paul Johnson were also guilty of this unforgivable tergiversation.) What Collini does not realize is that the author of "The Waste Land" (1922) and The Sacred Wood (1920) was every bit as conservative as the writer of Four Quartets (1944) and The Idea of a Christian Society (1939).

Frank Kermode makes the same mistake with respect to Evelyn Waugh, arguing that the novelist of Decline and Fall (1928) and Vile Bodies (1930) had little in common with the conservative Roman Catholic who wrote the Sword of Honour (1961) trilogy. Douglas Lane Patey convincingly argues otherwise in his brilliant critical life of Waugh.

If T.S. Eliot's career proved anything, it was that a poet and critic could have a profound influence on the intellectual life of his times simply by being a good poet and critic--despite meddling in politics. What was it Yeats said?

He has had enough of meddling who can please

A young girl in the indolence of her youth,

Or an old man upon a winter's night.

You need only think of the number of first-rate poets who finally found their voices after tiring of imitating Eliot's. W.H. Auden and Hart Crane come most readily to mind, but there were others. Or of the immense creative influence of his essays, which affirmed that literary criticism is, indeed, "a distinctive activity of the civilized mind." It is odd that Collini should want to deny that influence. So many of the critics of whom he approves--I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, Empson, Kermode--came into their own by learning from Eliot.

In his essays on the historian Taylor and the philosopher Ayer, Collini describes the careers of two men who had all the necessary attributes of the left-liberal intellectual--Atheism, contempt for capitalism, membership in the Labour party, press savvy, readiness to reach a large, miscellaneous, popular audience--but who had nothing to say. Taylor refused to concede that history had any political lessons to offer, and Ayer refused to concede that anyone could know anything about anything.

Taylor was a much better historian than Collini allows. It is true that he often advanced madcap theses, but even in his errors there were elements of truth. In this regard, he is reminiscent of Edward Gibbon, whom we read despite his conclusions. And in any case, bad ideas do not mar Taylor's best works, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe (1954) and English History 1914-1945 (1965). What Collini dislikes about Taylor is that he was not prepared to be consistently left-liberal. He had good things to say about Churchill and bad things to say about the Soviets. He was too contrarian. Collini wants his left-liberals marching in lockstep, which is why he has taken to upbraiding Christopher Hitchens, another lively contrarian.

Collini's reading of Freddie Ayer shows his humorlessness. The fun-loving, frivolous Ayer clearly offends the puritan in Collini. Throughout his discussion of Ayer there is a kind of censorious disapproval: How could a man who might have been such an effective publicist for positivist atheism have condescended to appear on silly television programs like The Brains Trust? Worse, how could he have admitted that he had nothing of any substance to say to his fellow citizens? For Collini, these are exasperating shortcomings.

But surely, the one admirable thing about Ayer was his honesty. More than any of his converts--Paul Johnson once referred to "the new welfare state intellectuals . . . with their long-playing records and their ponytailed wives, their bottles of Spanish wine and volumes of A.J. Ayer"--he freely acknowledged the philosophical blind alley of logical positivism. Asked in the 1970s what he thought the defects were of Language, Truth and Logic (1936), his famous attack on metaphysics, he replied: "Well, I suppose the most important defect was that nearly all of it was false." The truest thing about Ayer was his hedonism. His second, American, wife once said of his indefatigable philandering: "Some men played golf; Freddy played women." It is also worth remarking that he was no duffer on the dance floor, by all accounts particularly good at the samba.

What responsible public role Ayer might have played is not clear. He was convinced that moral judgments were mere feelings, indicative not of principles but emotions. Consequently, there was no such thing as objective good or evil but only one's feelings about what was morally good or evil, which could claim no verifiable truth. It is strange imagining him trying to interest his dance partners in such notions.

The worst essay in the book is on George Orwell. For Collini, Orwell was the most reprehensible of traitorous clerks because he was "guilty of that most unlovely and least defensible of all inner contradictions, the anti-intellectualism of the intellectual." What this boils down to is that Orwell, unlike, say, Eric Hobsbawm, refused to connive at Stalin's genocidal crimes. Anti-intellectualism in Collini's lexicon means anti-left intellectualism.

Some of the comments Orwell made about English left intellectuals during WWII have an unsettling application to our own left intellectuals: "The quickest way of ending a war," he observed, "is to lose it, and if one finds the prospect of a long war intolerable, it is natural to disbelieve in the possibility of victory." In one of his London Letters for Partisan Review, he wrote: "The chief activity among left-wing writers is a rather pettifogging criticism which turns into a kind of dismay when England wins a victory, because this always falsifies their predictions." There is no need to belabor parallels.

Collini's essay can be read as a riposte to Hitchens's recent paean to Orwell. You can detect the abomination of dissent that characterizes so much of the left-liberal camp, and on this subject, Paul Johnson is astute: "Taken as a group, [left-liberal intellectuals] are often ultra-conformist within the circles formed by those whose approval they seek and value." Yet left-liberals were not always like this. Take William Hazlitt. Speaking of Edmund Burke in 1826, he assured his readers, "I had reason for my prejudice in favour of this author. To understand an adversary is some praise. . . . I conceived that [Burke] might be wrong in his main argument, and yet deliver fifty truths in arriving at a false conclusion." Collini would be no more capable of that kind of intellectual magnanimity than he would be of putting in a good word for global capital. In the 500-odd pages of Absent Minds, there are two passing references to Burke.

Although Orwell played a public role as an intellectual, he seems to have been happiest in the role of private writer interested in public affairs, but only insofar as this could help him to become a better writer. A reader of The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) can see that what preoccupied Orwell was not the plight of England's unemployed but the making of a good book. Victor Gollancz, the publisher who commissioned what he hoped would be a conventional piece of left-liberal sociology, was appalled to see Orwell using the poor for comic effect. But Orwell had no interest in writing an advertisement for Gollancz's Left Book Club: The point of Wigan is its honest portrayal of class. For Orwell, the English were beastly to the poor because they didn't like the way they smelled, they didn't like their table manners.

I have known numbers of bourgeois Socialists. I have listened by the hour to their tirades against their own class, and yet never, not even once, have I met one who had picked up proletarian table-manners. Yet after all why not? Why should a man who thinks all virtue resides in the proletariat still take such pains to drink his soup silently? It can only be because in his heart he feels that proletarian manners are disgusting.

For Stefan Collini and his friends, such an admission would be inconceivable. And after reading about the intellectuals who fail to meet with his approval, it is amusing to learn that the person who comes closest to his ideal is . . . Edward Said, the Columbia English professor who made such a lucrative career out of misrepresenting his Palestinian connections and charging more distinguished colleagues with bigotry and imposture. Mendacious, fraudulent, bumptious, Said is a strange figure to embrace to argue the utility of intellectuals. But then Collini's ideal intellectual would not be held to any rigorous standard. He would have to be prepared to "speak truth to power" (Collini actually employs this phrase) and bemoan "global capitalism's relentless search for profits" and publicize "the need to articulate and help make effective some alternative vocabulary of evaluation to that spawned by the 'bottom-line rationalism' of international corporations." And when not unburdening himself of these animadversions, he would be signing petitions and attending conferences--a kind of English Jean-Paul Sartre.

No wonder the English continue to look askance at the very notion of an intellectual.

Edward Short's forthcoming book on John Henry Newman and his contemporaries will be published by Continuum.