Sunday, April 3, 2011

Intellectuals, Certain Ones Only

Not until I had finished Intellectuals by historian Paul Johnson (right, in the photo) did I learn that he is Catholic. This does not surprise me; rather, it gratifies me. I admire Johnson even more now that I know. My friend M., who recently began attending our School of Community, alerted me to Intellectuals. As a token of friendship, I picked up the book and started reading. Intellectuals has shifted my world-view more than any single book since My Life with the Saints by Fr. James Martin, which triggered my decision to turn Catholic three and a half years ago. I wonder if the Jesuit Father Jim would not be appalled by my interest in brother Paul.

For Johnson is not only Roman Catholic, he is flagrantly conservative, and he comes not to praise intellectuals, but to bury them. His choice is extraordinarily selective. No John Henry Newmans here. Not even any Albert Camus—although Camus’s rival Jean-Paul Sartre gets star treatment in Intellectuals. The table of contents of Intellectuals draws a straight line from Jean-Jacques Rousseau through Karl Marx to latter-day supporters of Stalin and worldwide communism, including Victor Gollancz and Lillian Hellman. Hellman is the only female in Johnson’s dirty dozen; a final catch-all summary, “The Flight of Reason,” brings the total to twenty by picking up shorter accounts of George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Norman Mailer, Kenneth Tynan, James Baldwin (the only African American in the bunch), Noam Chomsky, and the German film director Reiner Werner Fassbinder.

The presence of the Catholic Waugh in this group may surprise, but Orwell, Waugh, and Connolly are grouped as “the Old Intellectual, the Anti-Intellectual, and the New Intellectual,” in a 20th century that has seen left-leaning intellectuals turn their attention from utopianism (Rousseau, Marx, Bertolt Brecht) to hedonism (Fassbinder, most impressively). So Waugh is judged “not guilty” by reason of anti-intellectualism.

What is an intellectual, by Johnson’s criteria? He or she is quite simply a thinker who cares more about ideas than about people. In the main strain of thinkers considered in this book, from Rousseau to the outbreak of world Communism in the 1930s, “intellectuals” are utopians, millennarians, who profess to believe that we have only to generate the right thoughts (especially Marxist thoughts) for the world to become perfect. This preference for utopian ideology shows itself outrageously in several, like Marx and Gollancz (founder of the Left Book Club), who proclaim their loyalty to the working man without ever having met one.

I must plead guilty to the charge that every single intellectual on the list but three was someone I studied or thought I should study, between my adolescent years and my 40s. (The three exceptions I had never heard of: Gollancz, Connolly, and Edmund Wilson.) In several cases (Bertolt Brecht, Ernest Hemingway, and Hellman), we are talking about intellectuals I revered (the word is not too strong). Hellman is the strangest case of all.

In 1977, a movie was made from Hellman’s autobiographical work Pentimento. My right-leaning readers might well wonder what was the attraction for me; the stars were noted lefties Jane Fonda as Hellman and Vanessa Redgrave as her anti-Nazi agent friend “Julia”. The film made both women heroes while highlighting Hellman’s longtime relationship with writer Dashiell Hammett as a literary love match. As part owner of a newly opened cinema, I adored this movie (that word again). Partly I adored it because it was financially successful for us; partly because the women were beautiful, strong, and smart; partly because it was made by Fred Zinnemann, who made my favorite film of all time, “A Man for All Seasons.”

Problem was, the film was a pile of lies, as was much of Hellman’s life and career. The lies Johnson proves at great length. In fact, he didn’t have to work that hard on his research since in 1984, Commentary published a lengthy article by Samuel McCracken entitled “Julia and Other Fictions by Lillian Hellman.” You can look it up, or you can read Johnson’s book.

Intellectuals does one thing particularly well. It holds our “great men” and one “great woman” up to the standards of ordinary Christian virtue. From Rousseau to Fassbinder, these ideologues consistently lied, womanized, and abused their families, friends, and enemies alike. Johnson expresses admiration for the works of several (Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry, for example), but in each case, the truth of the writing was undermined by the lies of the life.

That I have finished Intellectuals now probably spares readers of this blog from further flights of fancy like this one, or this one, or this one—in which I compared characters from Johnson’s book with saints from Fr. James Martin’s book. So you may not have to read such posts as “Henrik Ibsen, Say Hello to Ignatius of Loyola,” or “Bernadette of Soubirous Goes Deep-Sea Fishing with Ernest Hemingway.” 

But you never know what will happen if I don’t have something to write about for an hour or two. Stay tuned.

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