Paul Johnson

Dirge for the decline and fall of the Western intelligentsia

Dirge for the decline and fall of the Western intelligentsia

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Whatever else the re-election of Bush signifies, it was a smack in the face for the intelligentsia. Like a crazed Kappelmeister sitting at a nightmare organ, they pulled out all the stops, from the bourdon in lead to the fiffaro, not excluding the trompeta magna, and what emerged, far from being a thanksgiving gloria in excelsis, was a lugubrious marche funèbre. In America they were all at it, from old Chomsky to that movie-maker who looks like a mushy jumbo cheeseburger. In Germany the Heidegger Left were goose-stepping in force. In France the followers of ‘Jumping Jack’ Derrida were at the barricades. Here in England all the usual suspects were on parade, from the Oxford stinks-don to the public-sector playwrights, with the Eumenides-novelists spitting fury. What a caterwauling and trilling! Why are intellectuals so impotent today? It was not always so. The term, of course, is French and dates back to the Dreyfus case, most likely to the year 1895. Certainly it is not to be found in the Littré dictionary of 1877. Maurice Paleologue, in his Journal de l’Affaire Dreyfus (1955), recalls an evening of frenzied argument on 15 January 1898, two days after Zola published his sensational letter, J’Accuse:

As for this petition which is being circulated among the Intellectuals! The mere fact that one has recently created this word Intellectuals to designate, as though they were an aristocracy, individuals who live in laboratories and libraries, proclaims one of the most ridiculous eccentricities of our time — I mean the pretension of raising writers, scientists, professors and philologists to the rank of supermen.

Shortly afterwards Albert Réville, in his pamphlet Les étapes d’un intellectuel (1898), fiercely proclaimed, ‘Let us use this word since it has received high consecrations’. Le Temps took it up the same winter, publishing an open letter from Jean Psichari, demanding ‘the right of intellectuals’ to intervene actively in politics. Le Temps used the term repeatedly, and by summer it was an explosive part of the language. And the intellectuals won their first big battle, which brought them together, helped by the fact that Dreyfus was innocent. Then again, they were men of talent, in some cases genius: Zola himself, Anatole France, Marcel Proust, Daniel Halevy, Clemenceau and so many others. I recall Fran