Monday, February 1, 2010

Intellectual Deterioration?

Today got off to a really bad start. Since the San Francisco Chronicle has become so flimsy, I find that I now have time during breakfast to catch up on my New York Review reading; so this morning was spent over Anne Applebaum's review of Michael Scammell's new biography of Arthur Koestler. It included a colorful account of Koestler and his "then girlfriend (and later wife)" Mamaine Paget going off on a roaring drunk with Albert Camus and his wife, as well as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, culminating with no end of tears (and a few thoughts of suicide) over the Seine. I had no trouble at all appreciating what Applebaum called the "entertainment value" of this anecdote; but I was really put off by her own thoughts about the tale. Those thoughts were summarized in a single sentence:

It is simply not possible to imagine any three prominent contemporary American intellectuals—say, Malcolm Gladwell, Niall Ferguson, and David Brooks—indulging in a night on the town such as that one, let alone weeping over the human condition and threatening to throw themselves into the Seine at the end of it.

Say what? Has Applebaum been so addled by her work at The Washington Post that she can no longer tell the difference between a mere scribbler and an intellectual whose words demand reflection rather than casual reading? Among that "Unholy Trinity" she chose to offer as an example, Ferguson comes closes to the latter category, but only if we focus on those texts that were not written in conjunction with his new role as "television don." The fact that he is a don at all also raises the point that, while he may have a position at Harvard, I doubt that he would relish being called an American intellectual!

This is no longer a case of whether not anti-intellectualism is as much a part of the fabric of American life as it was when Richard Hofstadter wrote about it in the early sixties. We have so lost touch with the nature of intellectualism than we are now at the mercy of writers who do not know an intellectual when they see one. As far as I can tell, the only criterion that Applebaum may have invoked involves the height of the pulpit from which one preaches, regardless of where that pulpit happens to be situated or what the content of the sermon may be. It is time to revisit a passage I wrote last March in which I invoked Vladimir Nabokov as an expert on appreciating texts worth reading:

[David] Simon has never been shy about why the general public never followed most of the critics in getting hooked on The Wire:

The average Emmy voter has the attention span of a gnat.

Vladimir Nabokov had chosen somewhat more elegant language when he lectured about reading Dostoevsky as "a mischievous but very healthy pleasure, as you stamp and groan through a second-rate book which has been awarded a prize" (a pleasure which I had experienced at its greatest when I had to write a review of Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach) ….

In this situation I particularly relish the irony that Douglas is Richard Hofstadter's son. Unfortunately, that relish cannot dislodge the depression I feel over the possibility that The New York Review may now be taking on writers with that same "attention span of a gnat!"

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