Did you know that Rousseau enjoyed being spanked? Or that the poet Shelley was a “lifelong absconder and cheat”? That Karl Marx ate highly spiced food, rarely bathed and fathered an illegitimate child? The elderly Ibsen was a flirt, and feared heights and dogs? Brecht a womanizer, with dirty teeth, neck and ears? Or Sartre indulged in whiskey, jazz, girls and cabaret while his mother laundered his clothes? If you find this valuable, you’re in luck: Paul Johnson has compiled this information in “Intellectuals,” an almanac of titillating facts and hearsay about writers and thinkers.
Johnson is an English journalist and historian of decidedly conservative bent; his histories have been vast, popular and often instructive studies peppered with scathing attacks on liberalism and leftism. Unfortunately, “Intellectuals” lacks the scope and crispness of his earlier volumes. It pivots on a simple proposition: Inasmuch as intellectuals offer advice to the world, we are entitled to inspect their personal credentials and record. “How did they run their own lives? . . . Were they just in their sexual and financial dealings?”
With no further ado, Johnson convenes court. He examines the accused in 13 chapters; 12 are devoted to figures like Rousseau, Hemingway, Sartre, Brecht, Bertrand Russell; the last chapter takes up Norman Mailer, Kenneth Tynan, James Baldwin and others.
The verdict? Guilty, First Degree. From Rousseau to Lillian Hellman, intellectuals are sexual perverts, egotists, panhandlers; they are vulgar, dirty, grasping, financially incompetent or dishonest--and insulting to their mothers.
The sentence? Perpetual isolation. We should ignore intellectuals. “A dozen people picked at random on the street” offer more valuable views than a bunch of intellectuals.
To state that this book has problems is like reporting the Titanic had a mishap. Johnson’s argument is flawed, at best, scurrilous, at worst. Why collect the misdeeds of a Hemingway or an Ibsen or a Brecht? Johnson does not seek to illuminate the work but only discredit the author and writings. Will the world be improved without Ibsen’s plays or Brecht’s poems? And does Johnson fantasize that his random people-from-the-street both live more virtuously and write more elegantly than sinning intellectuals?
The belief that a straight line connects cultural contribution and personal life verges on the fanaticism that incinerates culture in the name of moral purity. Why stop with the “intellectuals” Johnson selects? What about Kierkegaard? Nietzsche? Kafka? Certainly they lacked the human skills Johnson deems essential. What about Plato? Baudelaire? Proust? Joyce? Faulkner? Out with them all!
To be sure, aside from calling them modern secular priests who “tell mankind how to conduct itself,” Johnson keeps it secret how he identifies intellectuals. His list does not immediately enlighten. Many of those he denounces are poets, playwrights and novelists--Hemingway, Shelley, Ibsen, Tolstoy--who hardly instruct mankind on political issues.
Whom he skips, however, reveals the agenda. He neatly omits any mention of conservative intellectuals. Burke, Hamilton, Kissinger, Buckley, Podhoretz are all missing. Why? Aren’t they intellectuals who advise mankind? Do we assume their personal lives, sexual practices and financial dealings are proper? And if their behavior is less than correct, are their ideas discredited?
Johnson scorns Sartre’s conduct, but what about anti-Semitic intellectuals like Celine or Pound? Are their lives prim and proper? And because this is hardly the case, are their writings worthless? Conversely, what happens if some intellectuals, Freud for instance, whom Johnson dismissed in his volume “Modern Times,” pass the Behavior Test? Does that render their ideas valid?
To Johnson, intellectuals evidence little appreciation for tolerance and facts. Compared to Johnson, however, the Grand Inquisitor runs a mediation and fact-checking service. Johnson knows the Truth; everyone else is a liar. He upbraids James Baldwin for lying about his childhood. Johnson comprehends the recesses of Baldwin’s past better than the black writer. Johnson knows that Baldwin’s father dealt kindly with his son. Johnson, not Baldwin, knows what Baldwin’s mother said to him at the father’s death. If necessary, Johnson uses the gossip mode, the unattributed source; for instance, he trumpets Hellman’s sex life. “It was said, for instance, that she attended all-male poker parties . . . the winner taking Hellman into a bedroom.”
On occasion, mainly with Marx, Johnson first exposes Marx’s contribution as fraudulent before itemizing the personal deceits. Yet Johnson’s language and scholarship bespeak jeering matches, not critical analysis. Calling Marx (and Engels) “collaborators in deception,” he lists Marx’s four “crimes against truth.” They begin with Marx’s use of “out-of-date material” and selection of “certain industries, where conditions are particularly bad, as typical of capitalism.” Even if accurate, these denote a weak argument, not “crimes against truth.” Marx compounds his “crime” by “ignoring the truth which stared him in the face: the more capital the less suffering.”
Johnson knows, or should know, that many of Marx’s contemporaries ignored this “truth”; and that the human impact of the early Industrial Revolution remains an open question among historians. As usual, Johnson has simplified matters: There is Johnson’s truth and the liars. End debate.
To clinch his case, Johnson states that “the audacious forger” Marx once “outreached himself” by “deliberately” falsifying a sentence from Gladstone’s Budget Speech. This is a tiresome old issue; Marx claimed he cited the sentence from the daily press; the official transcript printed it differently. The argument dragged on for decades; Engels even wrote a booklet about the flap. Johnson revives the charges and, as usual, calls a spade a hoe.
If some intellectuals offer a thousand sins for Johnson to relish, for others he desperately scratches about. His effort to discredit Ibsen is pathetic. The young Ibsen was frequently depressed, broke, harassed by creditors and drunk, and when famous, he remained forbidding and “disgruntled,” sitting by himself in a cafe. Johnson is perplexed. Why didn’t Ibsen smile and laugh? Why wasn’t he a regular guy?
Johnson discovers that Ibsen was, well, weird. He had a “passion” for medals, which he sometimes wore. He was a vain and fussy dresser and, while not exactly a drunk, he gave some drunken speeches. He fought with other writers; he was unhappily married and liked young women--and even kissed one young lady. Moreover, he failed the Mother Test. “Quite unfairly, he held his father and mother responsible for his unhappy youth.” Ibsen, Johnson decides, felt rage and fear, not healthy love. Conclusion to this portrait? None.
Intellectuals who despise intellectuals are hardly new; at the turn of the century, a minor author, Max Nordau, wrote a celebrated book, “Degeneration,” arguing that artists and writers were biological “degenerates.” Johnson updates Nordau with this sensationalist account of intellectuals. “Read all about it! Hemingway lies to his mother! Lillian Hellman sleeps around!”
His small-minded effort to judge intellectuals by bedroom and bank account gives a bad name to Philistinism. Johnson prides himself on his logical consistency, basic humanism and truthfulness; he puzzles again and again how intellectuals could be so contradictory, spiteful and mendacious. He avoids, however, a striking case that sustains his argument: Paul Johnson.