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.