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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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.