Moriarty’s Musings: New York’s Public Intellectuals

May 14, 2012 6:17 pm

Professor Louis Menand of New York University, in The New Yorker, has written an extensive opinion on American higher education. As many know, the American public education system is in crisis. Whereas its higher halls of learning, both private and public, seem to be reaching some kind of balance between the elite schools of the Liberal Arts and the vocational training at publicly funded universities.

I first encountered Prof. Menand, the bearded gentleman in the photo below (right), as somewhat of an authority on the American literary and social critic Edmund Wilson, the rather intense-looking face to the left.

Louis Menand’s preface for Wilson’s To the Finland Station had the refreshing wisdom to include a very Russian warning about Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: Vladimir Nabokov’s remark that Lenin was “a glass of the milk of human kindness at the bottom of which was a dead rat.”

One assumes, however, that the publisher of To the Finland Station must have considered Menand a Wilson authority or at least an admirer of some sort.

In typically mystifying fashion, Menand says about his college dissertation on Edmund Wilson.

“I didn’t write about Wilson because he was an important figure for me, but because he was part of that phenomenon.”

He means the “Modernist” phenomenon… or is it the “Post-Modernist” phenomenon?

As a further glimpse into his dissertation, he says,

Prof. Louis Menand

“The writers who influenced me the most were Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm, Norman Mailer, and Pauline Kael. It wasn’t Edmund Wilson and it wasn’t Lionel Trilling, even though I certainly read them. When I was a graduate student, I thought about them as possible models, but when I look at what I have done since, they have not been particularly influential. The reason I like the writers I named is because they seem very sophisticated in seeing through issues about culture and ideas that actually is very like contemporary academic thinking. The thing about Wilson—that in the end is frustrating about him—is that he had no ability to think theoretically. In the few cases where he does, it is his least satisfactory work.”

“The reason I like the writers I named is because they seem very sophisticated…“ 

“Sophisticated” is the seminal code word, I believe. All five of the writers achieved success, literary American triumph actually, without being necessarily branded as Communist.

These quotes are all from an interview with Louis Menand, by a former student of his, entitled New York Intellectual. In it, the professor states,

“I don’t think of myself as someone who has a scholarly motive and a political motive.”

Here things grow even more intriguing:

“When people talk about public intellectuals, they seem to be talking about people who have an academic career that’s based on work in a professional discipline or with a small group of peers, who then step outside of that discipline to address a larger audience on issues of public interest that they feel strongly about. I certainly don’t identify myself with that model. So I don’t think of myself as a public intellectual; I just think of myself as a writer.”

I suspect this interview was done via e-mail. The subject’s language hardly sounds impromptu.

This is the first I have heard of the category of “public intellectual.” I suspect that Prof. Menand has possibly coined the label, along with that of “citizen-scholar.” There is in “citizen-scholar,” no doubt, some mystical evocation of the French Revolution’s fraternity of “Citizen this” and “Citizen that.”

The professor’s further thoughts about “public intellectuals” or “citizen-scholars” are:

“Another thing about public intellectuals that’s confusing is that there are two models, and they’re quite different. One model is the New York intellectuals of the 50s—Trilling, Howe, Kazin. They played the role of purveying intellectual culture to a wider audience, and spoke to people outside their own fields.”

“New York intellectual” is a category in which I assume Prof. Menand would prefer to include himself.

However, he adds,

“People who get called public intellectuals today are different.”

Possibly those “people” he refers to are a well-known club among the few who commonly use the phrase “public intellectual.”

The Professor goes on,

“Now it’s thought of as citizen-scholars, people who want to engage with issues about globalization or affirmative action or U.S. policy or whatever it might be, which drives them to find some kind of public space to let their views be known. They’re engaged, which I think is great, but I wouldn’t put myself in that category.”

Why not in that category?

Communist intellectuals… or, if you prefer, intellectual Communists… among which I consider Edmund Wilson an outstanding American role-model… are an odd and eternally threatened colony, depending upon which Communist tyrant the intellectual chooses to live under.

I doubt if intellectuals with any integrity living under Stalin, Mao or particularly beneath the flaming paranoia of the anti-intellectual Pol Pot of Cambodia… well… you see their plights, don’t you?

The record of anti-intellectualism in all nations, Communist or otherwise is here.

The sine qua non for an honest intellectual, I presume, is intellectual freedom.

Why then these distinctions between a public as versus a private or a non-public or shy or even possibly frightened or intimidated intellectual in America?

What is it that makes the professor reluctant to be included among those, such as Edmund Wilson, who could undeniably be considered both “public intellectuals” and “citizen-scholars?”

Edmund Wilson

Prof. Menand appears to be, from what little I know of his writing, a kind of self-styled offering to the general American public as a mediator between, say, the Harvard, highly Marxist “pragmatism” of President Barack Obama and the earthy idealism of the Tea Party and Sarah Palin – yes, an intellectual offering to a college-going America that is clearly divided between the Liberal-Arts-Privileged and the vocationally schooled, now-not-so Silent Majority.

There is, however, nothing consistently simple about the writings of Louis Menand.

“Pragmatism” is the theoretical POV through which Prof. Menand wishes to see the world.

“Pragmatism is as much influenced by Darwin as it is by the reaction against the Civil War.”

Pragmatism seems to Prof. Menand to be an American inevitability.

The interviewer interjects “American imperatives”, to which Menand replies:

“The entire intellectual culture of the Cold War period was very anti-pragmatic. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached continually against relativism and pragmatism, and Reinhold Niebuhr was a big antagonist of Dewey. I even think that the first wave of theory in the 1970s and 80s was anti-pragmatic in the sense that it was kind of foundational. That’s what I felt at Princeton. I felt these people always have a place to stand, and I didn’t.”

Dr. King was not a “pragmatist” in the professor’s eyes, I’m relieved to hear.

Professor Menand, however, became a “pragmatist” if only to have a position he found comfortable defending.

“On the other hand, the greatness of pragmatism in its time, in the first generation, was that almost every large-scale 19th-century philosophy was determinist in one way or another, either as a kind of absolute idealism or providentialism or materialism. Pragmatism gave people credit for individuation. It said that people can make choices and those choices can have an effect on the world. That was very liberating. If it leaves out some of the determining influences on behavior and choice that we recognize, in its time it had the effect of allowing reformers and progressives and liberals some kind of philosophical breathing room in which they could feel they could make a difference in the world.”

He clearly hasn’t made up his mind where he belongs politically and he doesn’t seem particularly interested in committing himself, aside from a clear admiration for “society” as a kind of all-ruling guide… or God.

I could, of course, be wrong. Only falling sales records, as at The New York Times, might support such an assumption about The New Yorker’s efforts to broaden its appeal. I don’t know the economic plight of The New Yorker (or if there is any).

The increasingly Far Left, I must add, is not obliged to be interested in anything as crass as its own size of readership or its popularity. The Obama Nation promises a future filled with a “redistribution” of wealth, doesn’t it?

What I remember of sophistication as a child was my father poring over The New Yorker with a metaphorical microscope before planning his next visit to Manhattan.

My father was a would-be intellectual… as I was at one time. Monkey-see… monkey hear, “Like father, like son.”

I do appreciate well-written sentences in any language and that is the tip of the intellectual’s iceberg… would-be or not.

“I’m not a theorist,” says Louis Menand, “I don’t write theoretical essays, but I think that I’m as much a postmodernist as anybody.”

“Post-modern”, for me, is best translated as “post-Marx”.

It means to fellow Marxists, “I’m awake!”

“After that beginning, he goes on, “I think one of the things that gets attached to the reputation of being a writer for The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books (both I consider publications for the Left Elite, despite my Right-Wing father’s efforts at intellectualism) is the assumption that you have traditional, conventional ideas about the value of literature. I don’t have those views, but because of the way I write, it seems anti-theory or pre-theory. I wouldn’t set myself up as a deep theoretical thinker, but I don’t feel at all out of step with what’s going on.

“As far as New Historicism is concerned, I think, again, that that is my mode as a writer. I try to historicize everything I write about, and to see what’s going on in a deep cultural sense. I don’t feel as though I’m fighting a battle to rescue high culture.”

Wikipedia says of New Historicism: “New Historicism is claimed to be a more neutral approach to historical events, and to be sensitive towards different cultures.”

Now that is, without a doubt, the vision of a Progressive. He does not look back. He looks forward.

Dr. Thomas Sowell

Why am I trying to understand a man named Louis Menand when I have other, much more enjoyable things to meditate upon?

Not being a true intellectual, I have the lifelong desire to at least understand what it means to actually be an “intellectual” and, after this return to Louis Menand, I have concluded that to be an intellectual is to reach for an entirely different planet than the one most of us live on. Certainly to be an intellectual is to create another language of sorts.

I understand the impulse, having been a lifelong, shameless dreamer.

The Intellectual Fraternity, however, does have its intramural lexicon and a distinctive language of its own, one that, interestingly enough, protects them not only from boorish conservatives like myself but rather dangerous Left Radicals who now love posing with Jihadists for what is called “street cred.”

The Progressive future will demand to see how much docility Professor Menand will be willing to show before the likes of this new creation I call Red Islam or The Communist Jihads.

Any comment Professor Menand would like to make on any of these thoughts would be most edifying.

Until then, my non-intellectual intellect tells me that the sanest view of “intellectuals” is, without question, that of Dr. Thomas Sowell.

Please listen to all five segments of his appearance on Peter Robinson’s Uncommon Knowledge. Despite his years of research, Dr. Sowell’s most surefire refuge is his own, charmingly persuasive common sense.

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