Review: Intellectuals by Paul Johnson



An unplanned visit to a bookstore almost a year ago made me come across a book with a plain cover. It wasn’t very attractive and hadn’t head of the author either but the title ‘Intellectuals’ was interesting and I read the back cover note to find out what it is about. Paul Johnson, in his own words, examines “whether intellectuals are morally fit to give advice to humanity?” He puts many under the spotlight and examines their personal and public lives (This itself is debatable whether what one preaches is worth following in one’s own life, for what may be good for the larger mass may not be good for an individual. I am keeping that thought aside for time being). Those covered are Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Bertrand
Russell and Sartre and many more. All of the points about various intellectuals I write here are from the book but I have not necessarily double-quoted them for ease of reading and hence the same applies to any facts or interpretations. All credits to the author. The following intellectuals are covered majorly in the thirteen chapters. 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau. By many contemporaries Rousseau is held responsible for the French Revolution of 1789. The author clubs his influence in five main headings: ideas on education especially from Đ€mile; “distrust of the progressive, gradual improvements brought about by the slow march of materialist culture” and rejection of Enlightenment; the “evolution of society from primitive state of nature to urban sophistication”; and “elements of critique of capitalism”. He was born in Geneva in 1712 and his mother died shortly after his birth. He ran away a couple of times during his formative years and tried at least thirteen jobs as “engraver, lackey, musician, farmer, private secretary” among others. He had abundant skill as a writer and the turning point came when he took part in an essay competition at the age of thirty nine. He always had a problem with his penis called hypospadias and always wanted and tried to get the attention of the ladies of society and not chambermaids or shop girls. He exalted his brute mannerisms and boorishness as signs of being true to nature. He considered himself so truthful and virtuous that if anyone did a favour to him then it wasn’t a favour to him but to their own selves that they got a chance to help him! He had five children from a permanent mistress, Therese Levasseur, and abandoned all of them. He was with her only for his sensual needs as he himself stated and some of his friends were shocked to see his contemptuous treatment of her. Self-pity he engaged in often though he was better off after inheritance of money after his father’s death. He did little for his foster-mother, Madame de Warens, who probably died from malnutrition. Rousseau’s definition of state was not merely authoritarian but also totalitarian with the state controlling every aspect of their economic and social life. Finally he concludes that Rousseau was “a writer of genius but fatally unbalanced both in his life and in his views”. 

Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was born in 1792 and was the elder brother to his four sisters, showed passion towards nature and experimentation and was a rapid reader and a prodigy in school. He was one of the most politicized writers and died at a very young age of twenty nine. His A Defence of Poetry became very influential for the purpose of literature. He is described as man who was fragile, slender and un-selfish by most. He got thrown out of Oxford for atheist views and when nineteen he married his sister Elizabeth’s school fellow aged sixteen. His letters to his family members were initially mild but turned vile when they did not agree with his views. He did have affairs with multiple women – one of them even committed suicide - and never really cared for most of them. His animosity with people increased when they were opposed to his ideas, though he always wanted good for humanity. He was a serial defaulter in terms of debt – he borrowed money from countless familiar faces and never repaid them back. The author says though Shelley’s political poetry was and is highly regarded by many including himself, but he was raw in his understanding of political realities and had stepped onto Irish land only after his An Address to the Irish People was published. He died in a boating accident for he loved the thrill of speed. Concluding on Shelley the author says though he was very read, second only to Coleridge, he “never tried to inform himself or to do justice to well-meaning and sensitive men like Castlereagh and Sir Robert Peel by precisely that kind of imaginative penetration he said was so essential.” 

Karl Marx. Marx is criticized passionately by Johnson in all forms of his: poetic, journalistic and moralistic. He outlines his early life and settling down in London during the last thirty four years of his life. Marx is criticized for his ‘scientific’ philosophy, which wasn’t scientific by any means but was only being proclaimed of being one. He shows Marx as an “eschatological writer” who always predicted a Doomsday because of capitalism and construed events as proof. The violent streak in the whole of his family is brought out and the personal habits of Marx himself like not bathing for days, being lazy and doing nothing for days together, following odd patterns in daily life and then being workaholic at stretch for days are used to degrade him as evidence of his incapability. A lot of his writings are rubbished as jargon; sample this: “A sphere which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all the other spheres, which is in short a total loss of humanity capable of redeeming itself only by a total redemption of humanity. This dissolution of society, as a particular class, is the proletariat”. The venomous temper of him clearly shows when he assaults Lassalle with a verbal volley of choicest racial insults. Friedrich Engels is more or less shown as a helping hand to him. Marx’s ability to mouth jokes is treated as the only characteristic keeping his wife and daughters attached with him! His affair with a maid exposes him as just a weak willed man. The most glaring aspect is of Marx distorting and lying in his works, selectively quoting and suppressing points detrimental to his theory. Reading Marx’s criticism was very difficult!

Paul then goes on to rip apart, maraud, plunder, burn, axe and shred the aura of Henrik Ibsen, Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, Bertolt Brecht, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Edmund Wilson, Victor Gollancz, Lillian Hellman and others including Noam Chomsky. The pattern is more or less set – he starts with what were the major influential ideas of a particular person followed by personal upbringing during childhood and a brief family background; then the rise of that individual and other influences; and lastly the personal aberrations and how these were in contrast with the propagated beliefs.

This book has been one of the interesting ones I have read. Not only because of the sordid personal details but also because it outlines the works and thoughts which made these people famous. This is one of those books which when you pick up are hard to keep down. The prose of the author is a myriad of captivating and well woven criticisms with a refreshingly old British style of writing. Disappointingly almost all of the ones covered are men. My personal take on the unsympathetic condemnation by the author is that though these individuals themselves may have been vainglorious, humbug, disingenuous or even imprudent in their personal lives, the ideas which they propounded have had great impact on generations across the world and despite the apparent contradictions they are intellectuals only because of their viewpoints. And of course, creating a new idea in philosophy and politics is praiseworthy, but it is not necessary for you to follow it (for your own selfish wants which may contradict your own idea – this is where the fight between one’s mind and one’s life begins); but if you practice what you preach then you become great (like Gandhi), if you don’t you probably become just an intellectual (like Rousseau). This starts off the debate which I in the beginning put aside. Paul Johnson rues about the “human propensity to reject evidence it does not wish to admit” and that “intellectuals are as unreasonable, illogical and superstitious as anyone else”. There are always those issues which can only be judged in grey rather than in black and white and the ones discussed lie in that category. Ideas may be great and may never see the light of the day due to thoughtless action by men, but they still are ideas and are worthy of every bead of sweat.

After all, Paul Johnson has brought out the limitations of intellectuals, but was he, for once, an able man above all these shortcomings of others? His wit as a writer cannot be questioned as I enjoyed his prose style immensely, but when I looked beyond his English his fallacies were here, there and everywhere. 

Idea and Action don’t make good bedfellows – or do they? 


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