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What are Intellectuals Good For?
The helplessness of so-called
intellectuals when confronted by the simplest problems is perhaps evidence
that for the most part in today's society, they are of little use.
A few weeks ago William Phillips died at the age of 94, and the other day we attended a memorial for him. It was called “A celebration of the life of William Phillips, the soul of Partisan Review.”
A couple of hundred unsmiling individuals filed out of the warm, soggy November evening into the lobby of the Ethical Culture Society to sign the guest book and pick up a program for the event with a picture of Phillips on the cover and under that his dates, 1907 - 2002. The picture showed him at work—which, as we learned later, was his whole life —leaning forward, listening respectfully to someone else’s point of view. The picture alone spoke of his quiet intelligence, decency, and consideration, traits—quietness, decency, and respectfulness—rarely found in the world he loved and inhabited.
The Ethical Culture Society auditorium is a large, somber, morally over- stimulating room, devoid of all decoration save a few large wood-carvings on the wall depicting anonymous Old Testament figures looking piously down on the audience. It is a place designed to help us focus on our inner imperfections. Which we tried to do as we slipped off our damp outer garments and settled into our seats. We nodded in acknowledgement of sober greetings from a few people we knew in other rows, and noticed a number aging stars from the world of high culture. Momentarily we enjoyed the feeling of specialness that comes from close association with celebrity. This pleasurable sensation, however, was instantly suppressed lest we offend the circumspect Old Testament figures looking down.
Soon a string quartet tiptoed onto the empty stage and began to play Bach’s Air from Orchestral Suite #3 in an ultra stately tempo. We opened our programs and found on the second page a deepish poem on mortality by Marianne Moore which we found a little obscure. Perhaps because of the upsetting occasion, I told myself.
On the facing page was a list of illustrious speakers from the worlds of arts, letters, academia, and the political/ culture wars. Each in turn came quietly to the podium and read for five or ten minutes an appreciation of William Phillips with varying degrees of real or simulated affection mixed with varying degrees of narcissism and show-boating.
My epiphany came during the reading by the lady novelist. She was of rather short stature and so had to stand tip-toe to reach the microphone which was attached to the forward part of the podium by what appeared to be a flexible cable- like arrangement. She naturally reached up to bring it lower to make it more accessible for her as she started her recitation. It was clear that fame and admiration had done little to dispel her essential timidity. As she looked about she seemed to me to be listening for sounds of a twig snapping or a hesitant footfall which might cause her to dart off the stage.
It was at that moment that it happened—the microphone fell out of its stand and landed headfirst into the palm of her hand. She paled in alarm and stifled a gasp. Like a doe caught in the glare of headlights she became paralyzed and just stood staring at the audience in helpless surrender. A few members of the audience tittered in embarrassment at the novelist’s embarrassment. Seconds passed, endless seconds as she stood there turning left and right for help from somewhere. The front row, filled with high-ranking intellectuals, sat impassively, waiting for some deus ex machina to float down and rescue the situation. It was at that moment that I understood the place of intellectuals in the world. Here was a roomful—perhaps two hundred of the country’s premier intellectuals—totally paralyzed in the face of a crisis. What seemed like three or four painful minutes dragged by—actually it could only have been 30 or 40 seconds. At that point a husky man dressed in what looked like country clothes—a reincarnation of John Steinbeck, maybe, walked onto the stage and reattached the microphone to the stand and adjusted it to her height. Who the stranger was I do not know—maybe he was the building superintendent—he came out of nowhere, and seemed to disappear when he left the stage.
But for me the little moment of crisis, trivial in its own right, reinforced what I had long suspected—that intellectuals outside the very narrow world of verbal dispute were more or less good for nothing. I asked myself if this had happened at a meeting of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, would the men have sat passively waiting for someone else to rescue the situation? Would this have happened at an American Medical Association conclave? What would have happened on United Flight 93 if the passengers were this group of New York Intellectuals? Would they have asserted “Let’s roll!”? Or would they have approached their captors and offered “Let us reason together.”
No doubt intellectuals would look with scorn at this simple- minded analysis and ask, is not the pen mightier than the sword? Are not ideas powerful shapers of men’s minds? Doesn’t our influence filter down to all levels of society? And don’t our words, our ideas find their way to the nation’s leaders and define who our enemies are and how to fight them?
Maybe. Partisan Review, had it’s origins in the depression as the official organ of the John Reed Society, a club supported by the communist party. William Phillips, then a radical Marxist, organized the magazine with Philip Rahv. Both of them broke away from the Reed Society and its crude party- line exhortations after a couple of years and in 1937 established the independent Partisan Review. At that time one of its main foci was the “radical consciousness in social and political matters.” Soon they began attacking Stalin and Stalinism in the service of a purer Marxism. The magazine and its corps of contributors became increasingly anti- Stalinist throughout the thirties and forties. In the New York lefty intellectual world of that time such a position was morally courageous but not necessarily far-sighted.
In the half-century since then a patina has colored that brave and irreverent political point of view. Time has tended to view Partisan Review’s anti-Stalinism as though it were the beginning of the downfall of the Soviet Union. And that it was through its prescience and rhetorical power that the United States was guided in its foreign policy to finally win the cold war. This is intellectual daydreaming. It was not because of Harry Truman’s subscription to Partisan Review that he was suspicious of the Soviets and called their bluff in Korea. Nor did General Eisenhower need the contributors of the PR to guide the nation toward a policy of containment and the Berlin Airlift. Nor did LBJ, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan surround themselves with an array of New York intellectuals to help formulate cold war policy. The cold war was won by Churchill, Truman, and Eisenhower who were not disillusioned members of the John Reed Society, but who understood the horrors of Bolshevism from the start. It was won through the strong foreign policy leadership shown by Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan.
The age of the New York Intellectual is coming to an end, dying a natural death in the comfort and quiet of expensive Upper West Side Co-ops—far from its inflamed and impoverished youth in Brooklyn or the Bronx. It is one interesting chapter in a long tradition of revolutionary utopianism going back to the early nineteenth century which has caused more than a little mischief in the world.