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Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky Paperback – January 1, 1900
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Conservative historian Paul Johnson wears his ideology proudly on his sleeve in this often ruthless dissection of the thinkers and artists who (in his view) have shaped modern Western culture, having replaced some 200 years ago "the old clerisy as the guides and mentors of mankind." Taking on the likes of Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Lillian Hellman, and Noam Chomsky in turn, Johnson examines one idol after another and finds them all to have feet of clay. In his account, for instance, Ernest Hemingway emerges as an artistic hero who labored endlessly to forge a literary style unmistakably his own, but also as a deeply flawed man whose concern for the perfect phrase did not carry over to a concern for the women who loved him. Gossipy and sharply opinionated, Johnson's essay in cultural history spares no one.
Does it really matter that Henrik Ibsen was vain and arrogant, that Jean-Paul Sartre was incontinent? In Johnson's view, it does: these all-too-human foibles disqualify them, and other thinkers, from presuming to criticize the shortcomings of society. "Beware intellectuals," he concludes (though, given the subjects of his book, it seems he means intellectuals only of the left). "Not only should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice." Whether one agrees or not, Johnson's profiles are frequently amusing and illuminating, as when he suggests that the only proletarian Karl Marx ever knew in person was the poor maid who worked for him for decades and was never paid, except in room and board, for her labors. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Johnson here sets his sights on Marx, Sartre, Shelley, Tolstoy, Brecht, Ibsen and others. "Written from a conservative standpoint, these pummeling profiles of illustrious intellectuals are caustic, skewed, thought-provoking and thoroughly engaging," maintained PW.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
Being enjoyable and being interesting is not the same thing as being both right and historically accurate. Johnson plays fast and loose throughout this book with his highly selective retinue of "intellectuals." Also it does not mean that one should unduly discount Johnson because in some cirles he is the doyen of the new conservatives. Most of his opinions are not ideology driven, they stem from a deep attachment to the principle that people are more important than ideas (the very foundation of liberal democracy). Unfortunately he seems to forget this at times and he defends some rather odious individuals (his defence of Richard Nixon in "Modern Times" is one glaring case in point).
The salient themes raised in "Intellectuals" can be grouped as follows:
1) Biggest problem is the age old fallacy that fault of the man makes fault with idea. The two do not follow: just because someone is morally decrepid does not NECESSARILY make their ideas decrepid. If such a thing were so it would logically mean that people who were "nice" people also always had "nice" ideas. So while Johnson's speculations are great to read, you will never be able to pillory the ideas of Marx because he was personally fiscally irresponsible.
2) Intellectuals are now the high priests of thought and of moral prescriptions for behaviour (taking over since the Reformation for the other discredited religious preists). Unfortunately Johnson unleashes his argument before he even defines what makes an intellectual. This problem of operationalisation is the one major hiderance in most of Johnson's books: if we do not know what it is that makes up an intellectual, how can we really know the real thing?
3) Intellectuals pay more heed to the "big idea" and reason than they do to actual empirical results and as a result are more ready to sacrifice individuals to an idea. Marx & Rousseau are the archetypical examples, but even people like Lillian Hellman and Noam Chomsky are more willing to defend the the use of force by decrepid autocrats and dictators than to defend the use of force by western liberal democracies. On this point he is "bang-on" and should cause people to pause to consider. It also puts him squarely in the English Empiricist camp rejecting the jaded claptrap of post-modernism.
4) As a carrollary to the above, Johnson also sees that "intellectuals are more interested in the love of mankind as a whole than they are in the love of the individual in particular". As a result you get Rousseau sleeping around with everything that has legs and money and then dropping off his ... children at the local 18th Cent. orphange where the death rate was over 90% and; Marx loving the proletariat but not having two cents to rub together to feed his family (a sponger with clearly no sense of personal responsibility) and rejecting his own role in the birth of his son.
5) "Intellectuals engage in mendacity to a degree unknown to the common man." This is where Johnson's research becomes selective and shoddy. He is rendering some very harsh judgements about certain people --- and doing it catagorically. Except in a few cases where the historical detail is widely know, it is supremely disingenuous for Johnson to render harsh judgement in cases where the jury is still out; Rousseau & Marx are well known but Hemmingway, Edmund Wilson, and Hellman are cases where such catagorical opinionising not based upon firm historical fact detract from the scholarly qualities of Johnson's journalism.
His pantheon of Intellectuals is highly selective and seems to reinforce his own conceptions of the personal failings of intellectuals. One could easily find examples of intellectuals manifesting sterling moral qualities. Whatever happened to Einstein or Orwell (two glaring oversights by Johnson of intellectuals with outstanding moral probity).
His selective approach, at a certain level, betrays a certain ideological slide towards the currently fashionable, anti-rational "conservatism". In this sense Johnson's prose skirts dangerously close to advocating a "big idea." In so doing it also, arguably puts him squarely in the very camp of intellectuals he publically excoriates.
But let's face it the man can write good history... and maybe writing good history requires historical license to produce prose this good.
Let me use some quotations to review this book:
'Is the one of the themes of this book that the private lives and the public postures of leading intellectuals cannot be separated: one helps to explain the other. Private vices and weaknesses are almost invariably reflected in conduct on the world stage.' p. 274
'There was no danger of that in ......... case but she shared with ............ another habit - a failure to pay income tax. As the cases of ........ and .............. suggest, there is a common propensity among radical intellectuals to demand ambitious government programmes while feeling no responsibility to contribute to them'. p. 300
'And indeed, for a variety of reasons, social engineering has been the salient delusion and the greatest curse of the modern age. In the twentieth century it has killed scores of millions of innocent people in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, Communist China and elsewhere. But it is the last thing which Western democracies, with all their faults, have ever espoused'. p. 340
This book contains fascinating gallery of the most prominent world personas whose private lives had contradicted in a drastic manner with their "love of humanity". As reader will find these intellectuals, whatever they teached or proclaimed, they had a very little or none respect for "truth".