What’s Wrong With Public Intellectuals? | The Chronicle Review

Mark Greif has written a long, lovely meditation on the heyday of public intellectuals and their audience in mid 20th century America. That period, in his view, was best epitomised by the Partisan Review.

My sense of the true writing of the “public intellectuals” of the Partisan Review era is that it was always addressed just slightly over the head of an imagined public—at a height where they must reach up to grasp it. But the writing seemed, also, always just slightly above the Partisan Review writers themselves. They, the intellectuals, had stretched themselves to attention, gone up on tiptoe, balancing, to become worthy of the more thoughtful, more electric tenor of intellect they wanted to join. They, too, were of “the public,” but a public that wanted to be better, and higher. They distinguished themselves from it momentarily, by pursuing difficulty, in a challenge to the public and themselves—thus becoming equals who could earn the right to address this public.

It was born of unique influences: a world emerging from unutterable darkness and eager for the light; a prodigious influx of the finest European intellects before and during the war; and, a widespread sense that bettering oneself was not only desirable, but possible. We can hardly wish for such a confluence to reoccur; no period of intellectual excellence could justify the cost. Nevertheless, Continue reading

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Entranced by Reality

In a beautiful review of a new book on Camus, Ian Marcus Corbin writes:

In one of his most lyrical essays, “Nuptuals at Tipasa,” Camus exults in the stark beauty of an Algerian mountain town on the verge of the Mediterranean Sea: “Deep among wild scents and concerts of somnolent insects, I open my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-soaked sky.” [ . . . ] One could very sensibly argue that the pleasure and vibrancy of his aesthetic experiences served as a vital counterbalance to one of the most common and dangerous pitfalls of professional thinkers: the temptation to float off into the cool, exhilarating ether of abstraction, leaving messy, mundane realities behind.

The next few sentences of “Nuptuals” aren’t quoted by Corbin but they seem particularly apposite: “It is not so easy to become what one is, to rediscover one’s deepest measure. But watching the solid backbone of the Chenoua, my heart would grow calm with a strange certainty. I was learning to breathe, I was fitting into things and fulfilling myself.”

Camus’ refusal, or perhaps inability, to lose sight of the real in the abstract accounts for much of his enduring attraction. It may not seem such a rare thing, but amongst serious thinkers I believe it is. And as Corbyn says, “it certainly was in Camus’s day. Camus’s peers, mid-century French intellectuals, were all too susceptible to the raptures of abstraction.”

His love of the sensual beauties of the world cohabited uneasily with an astringent sense of its otherness, its strangeness, its unknowability. Continue reading

Maitzen on Middlemarch and morality| Open Letters Monthly

So Mr. Casaubon is not simply as bad as Dorothea believes— he is worse. And when she subordinates herself to him, it’s his petty, vindictive nature that gets free rein, while Dorothea’s generous ardor is stifled by her “nightmare of a life in which every energy was arrested by dread.” The fundamental question of moral philosophy is “how ought I to live?”: how can this be the right answer?

The doctrine of sympathy that sends Dorothea down that broad corridor arm in arm with her husband turns out, then, to have frightening consequences. It’s not that the best lack all conviction, but that their convictions lead them inexorably to a moral victory that by any other standard looks like defeat.

How indeed? And yet, despite the apparently perverse nature of this altruistic conception of morality Maitzen stands with Eliot.

There’s no way around it, though: as the narrator in The Mill on the Floss remarks, “the responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision.” Precisely because the Mr. Casaubons of the world are trapped in their own egocentric perceptions, they can’t be expected to either see realistically or act sympathetically. The Dorotheas of the world, in contrast, because wider in their vision and thus stronger in their moral perception, will always be accountable to the demands of altruism.

Maitzen quotes Eliot herself on this issue.

The notion that duty looks stern, but all the while has her hand full of sugar-plums, with which she will reward us by and by, is the favourite cant of optimists, who try to make out that this tangled wilderness of life has a plan as easy to trace as that of a Dutch garden; but it really undermines all true moral development by perpetually substituting something extrinsic as a motive to action, instead of the immediate impulse of love or justice, which alone makes an action truly moral.

There’s much truth to this and it feels wonderfully pious but I can’t escape the sense that it’s also profoundly, perhaps fatally, mistaken. Continue reading

‘Becks in Paris’

Can’t remember who first pointed me to ‘Becks in Paris‘. Whoever it was, I’m grateful.

[The] blog imagines Beckham’s internal monologue as he collides with the Parisian intellectual tradition – the glittering surface of a footballing icon cracked open by existentialism. Golden boy deconstructed.

The man responsible is a lecturer in French philosophy at the University of Cambridge. The blog has, it seems, become a cult hit of sorts with Andy Martin now travelling about giving talks on ‘Becksistentialism’. All very British.

Here’s the second half of entry #8, ‘In the café’:

‘Sartre has this phrase,’ says Eric. Voué à l’échec. Doomed to failure. Nous sommes tous voués à l’échec.’

I stared into my coffee. It looked brown and sludgy like the Seine on a bad day. I had a suspicion Eric was never going to get a job working for the Samaritans. To be fair, he must have troubles of his own.

‘And yet,’ he said – I reckon he must have noticed I was looking a bit off-colour right then – ‘this failure, it is liberating, non? For the very idea of success – this is the illusion. Continue reading

Meditation on Death and Dying

I have seen the full stop of death, closing the final chapter of a life, making it possible to stand back, look at the whole, and say that it was good. [ . . . ] Maybe there were some decent chapters that still might have been written, but there could equally have been a cruel twist or two in the tale that would have led to a less happy ending. For the protagonist, better a good short novel than a tragic epic.

There is nothing automatically soothing about this, of course. The reaper can, and often does, choose to type ‘The End’ after pages of misery, without bothering to bring any resolution. The last full stop that allows the ‘life well lived’ to be appreciated can also expose the life gone badly for all the horror that it was. That is just one reason why secular humanists should not overstate the extent to which a good, happy, moral life is possible without God. Of course it is. But bad and unhappy lives are also possible, and all too common. Philosophy provides little consolation for these, other than the knowledge that the pain is over.

Would philosophy help when my father died? – Julian Baggini – Aeon.