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Intellectuals

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Intellectuals

[Translation of Intelectuales by Salvador Pániker published in El Pais on 11-Apr-2006. (Salvador Paniker)].

I read that Joan Estelrich criticized Carles Riba in his diary saying that he was: always so petty, so incapable of giving praise, so incapable of gratitude, denying any merit in his teachers and his colleagues. In summary, Estelrich considers Riba, in spite of his intellectual qualities, to be mean and jealous. I suggest that you try to find out for yourselves. The demolition of legends is a very delicate business. For example, Paul Johnson wrote a book some time ago called Intellectuals in which he analysed the lives, the works and the lies of Rousseau, Ibsen, Marx, Tolstoy, Sartre, Bertrand Russell and others. It was an enjoyable book, well researched and written in a good style. The key idea, according to Johnson, was that all these important people, each with their own specific talents, were false personalities who were incredibly egocentric and with private lives that contradicted their public writing; people who loved their ideas, but not their neighbours.

I think it was a brilliant and perceptive book which was well supported by its references; on the whole a useful book. But in his effort to topple idols and in spite of the fact that his criticisms were justified, Johnson failed to answer one important question: how could such “false” personalities have written such magnificent literature? It is not sufficient to juxtapose brilliance and hypocrisy, as he did. You have to dig a bit deeper. You have to describe and integrate the different dimensions of a human personality and not simply juxtapose them. Furthermore, I don't think that any of the personalities in Johnson's book, in which there was only one woman, was a pretender. They may well have been guilty of some deceptions, but they were not fakes. That is the difference between the psychological and the ontological labels. If there were contradictions between their lives and their work, and who can claim to be innocent of this, those contradictions were a fundamental part of their creative personalities. All these writers, in spite of any shady dealings in their daily lives, really identified with what they were writing; there was no fundamental chasm between what they thought and what they wrote. And I am really convinced that the contradictions and the “falsehoods” in a life are part of the suffering and untidiness that attach to a creative work. The principle of order from noise or chaos.

Every human creation is the fruit of a certain historic and social context. Let us take the case of Baudelaire, an example of what someone called “an artist as a yob”, a species that is happily extinct. Baudelaire behaved in the style of romantic satanism: he painted his hair green, took drugs, got drunk, had a black lover, and scandalised the public with poems about lesbians. Baudelaire represented a person with a desire to flaunt his non conformism. More precisely, Baudelaire is the first consciously nihilist writer who, to escape from his own nothingness, took on a different persona, in his case a dandy. He was a lucid individual, ill with syphilis and with suicidal tendency in his medical history. He took opium, more to deaden pain than to reach paradise. His behaviour was not so much to scandalise his neighbours but rather to keep himself on his feet in same way or other. Lucidity can be destructive. The antidote is mysticism. Mysticism is also a form of lucidity. And the mysticism of Baudelaire is summarised in his famous manifesto: “Il faut vous enivrer sans treve. De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise. Mais enivrez-vous". (“You must drink without ever giving up: wine, poetry or virtue, whichever you prefer. But get drunk”). Baudelaire published Les fleurs du mal a couple of years before Darwin published The origin of the species, when a feeling that mankind had been orphaned was in the air. It is now recognized that it was Darwin who first killed God, and not Nietzsche. (Nietzsche only published the obituary, and it was Ferdinand de Saussure who delivered the fatal blow when he showed that meaning does not have its origin in any transcendental essence but in a mere closed system of signs). In any case, I think that disenchantment was in the air at that time and nourished this late romanticism.

Baudelaire also expressed the idea that mankind should strive to be forever noble. The most significant point is: forever, without interruption even at the end. I don't think that Mr Johnson has paid sufficient attention to this “appetite for the whole truth” that characterises some human beings, however false their lives may appear to be. Johnson does not inform us about this “whole truth”, a truth that can be literary, moral or of some other kind, and which condemns the people who have it to be very vulnerable, possibly explaining many of their misfortunes. Certainly, Johnson does admit that many writers have a partial love for the truth; so talking about Hemingway he notes that something that he never lacked was artistic integrity. However, it quite often happens that if one wants to have integrity in one thing, there is a tendency to want to have integrity in all things; but this is not always possible. The instinct for what we can call an indivisible totality is what characterises a real person, in spite of occasional failures.

With respect to the inevitable egocentricity of the “great man” or “great woman”, here again the link is clear. None of the great creators have had a low opinion of themselves. How could they sustain it? Of course this abundance of self-esteem asks for an abundance of sympathy and understanding towards ones neighbours in compensation. The so called egocentricity of the “great” starts from this point. Egocentricity in those who are not great or who believe (or make-believe) they are great is quite different, and there are many that fall into this group. Another thing to note also is how little one should trust those who are great creators when they begin to pontificate on public or political issues.

A real appetite, unconditional dedication to something, and not especially to his own work. This is the case of Tolstoy who only wrote during brief periods. Tolstoy wanted his bride to read his diaries immediately after his marriage. The woman was horrified and the marriage started badly. This is an example of how dangerous the previously mentioned “whole truth” may be. Johnson says that if Tolstoy had been a sensible man, he would have sold his large estate and concentrated on writing books. But Johnson is mistaken: if Tolstoy had been a sensible man he would not have written a single line. The contradictions between his private life and his writing are inseparable from his work. The life of a real human being is never reducible to a linear equation; on the contrary, it is chaotic, unpredictable and non-linear.

Johnson simplifies when he tries to find sordid explanations and egocentric behaviour in grand generous impulses. So according to him, had Tolstoy wanted to live honestly and renounce his possessions, then it would have been for his love of theatrical gestures. But this is only partial reductionism. Concerned with demystifying his heroes, Johnson doesn't tell us about the grandeur of their mistakes, obsessions and deviations. He points out the chasm between the daily life and the artistic life of a creator without showing that this chasm is something similar to cybernetics, a feedback loop, a generator of new complexity and so there is no chasm, only contradictions. Contradictions and a chasm are not the same thing.

Let us put an end to this essay by a short summary. It is hygienic and sensible to renounce those intellectuals who invent utopias and who are capable of sacrificing human beings in the name of ideas.

The atrocities committed in the 20th century have not immunized us against falling for this kind of folly. Here, however, we are only talking about preserving the authenticity of true creators. Let us return to the things that Baudelaire wished for. Obviously we cannot be forever noble, but what we can do is to have a permanent appetite for the whole truth, an appetite that underlies untruths and perversions. And this is the only thing that matters in the end.

[Salvador Pániker is a Spanish philosopher, engineer and writer.]



 

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