If you’re even remotely familiar with literature, you will, of course, recognize this theme right away: Provincial lad, starstruck, muscles his way into the gilded literary heavens, learns that they are just as plain as the earth, and sobers into a real writer. The aforementioned Balzac captured it all nicely when he named his novel Lost Illusions. Pick a novel at random, and you’re just as likely as not to find one of those sad young literary men, be it Marcel gazing at the dimming glamor of the aristocracy or Nathan Zuckerman learning that his icon, E.I. Lonoff, is, in close quarters, not much of a literary lion at all.
But that’s not my story. My story is new, and much more terrifying. What I learned, in my years of orbiting the intelligentsia, wasn’t that the allegedly learned and refined weren’t really that refined or learned; it’s that they weren’t really intellectually, emotionally, or morally present at all.
If you want to know what I mean, just read a few of the select explanations provided this week by the writers who chose to sit out the PEN dinner. “A hideous crime was committed,” wrote the novelist Peter Carey, “but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” And this, from a letter signed by 26 of contemporary literature’s most vaunted, arguing that Charlie Hebdo “seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect. Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire.”
Can you imagine Balzac arguing that a novelist mustn’t scrutinize the poor and the rich alike, as the poor—poor souls—are too underprivileged to pass through literature’s relentless magnifying glass? Or the Bard abandoning Othello lest someone walk away convinced that all Moorish generals were murderous thugs? That would be—to borrow a phrase associated with Wallace Shawn, another of the letter’s signatories—inconceivable. Writers, real ones, grasp for as much of humanity as they can hold in their embrace. Their motto is the one forged by the Roman playwright Terrence millennia ago: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” I am a human being; nothing human is alien to me.
To the dolts who declined to partake in the PEN gala, Terrence’s words are as much a lifeless relic as the language in which he wrote. They, and the hordes of others in their circles, ask of a work of fiction not whether it is a thing of truth and beauty but where it might fall on a spectrum of insensitivities, real or imagined, and just how ill-at-ease it might make some readers feel. In Whitman they seek only affirmation of his homosexuality, in Woolf something to say about gender and power. They see no splendor in the leaves of grass, nor the beauty of the pale footfall of the light emanating from the Lighthouse. They seek nothing but confirmation of their preconceived notions, narrow and hard. The torch of their talent they affix to a wall where it lights, always and only, a thin sliver of the known world.
But then, as Danial Hannan wrote yesterday in the Washington Free Beacon, “If you start from the conviction that you’re standing up for the underdog, you will naturally assume that your political opponents are for the powerful. You will subliminally screen out evidence that challenges that view…They’re not playing to the gallery. They’re not sloganizing. They genuinely believe that we conservatives went into politics because we hate the poor.” Having such massive blinkers limiting your worldview to Thomas Nast cartoons (or worse, Herblock) is a surefire way to produce unreadable works.
This is yet another sea change that occurred in the 19th century, as the rules of “Progressivism” were being formulated and the Enlightenment was being smashed. In 1927, French author Julien Benda wrote in The Treason of the Intellectuals, “Our age is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds,” as Jonah Goldberg notes in the latest edition of National Review on Dead Tree (sadly behind the paywall, at least for the moment):
Benda’s diagnosis of the West’s intellectual betrayal — or rather his diagnosis of the intellectuals’ betrayal of the West — is an underappreciated marvel. From Socrates until the end of the 19th century, according to Benda, it was the job of the clercs to uphold universal ideals for all mankind. Humanity “did evil for two thousand years, but honored good. This contradiction was an honor to the human species, and formed the rift whereby civilization slipped into the world.”
In other words, our hypocrisy is what made our humanity recognizable. Barbarians are rarely hypocrites; animals never fall short of their ideals — for they have none.
But according to Benda, the intellectuals could not bear the burden of this contradiction. The rise of nationalism, socialism, and all the ethnocentrisms that disguised themselves in such cloaks amounted to a rejection of universal ideals in general and of the Enlightenment in particular. Intellectuals, for the first time, sided with the mob over Socrates. Indeed, the mob itself, with its particular appetites and desires, became the new beau idéal. “Those who for centuries had exhorted men, at least theoretically, to deaden the feeling of their differences . . . have now come to praise them, . . . be it ‘fidelity to the French soul,’ ‘the immutability of their German consciousness,’ [or] . . . the ‘fervor of their Italian hearts.’” The Christianity that proclaimed in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” gave way to the Aryans and socialists alike who proclaimed Jesus their blue-eyed savior or the “first socialist.”
“In Benda’s formula, this boils down to the conviction that ‘politics decides morality,'” my fellow PJM columnist Roger Kimball wrote in the New Criterion in 1992 (not behind a paywall; definitely read the whole thing):
To be sure, the cynicism that Callicles espoused is perennial: like the poor, it will be always with us. What Benda found novel was the accreditation of such cynicism by intellectuals. “It is true indeed that these new ‘clerks’ declare that they do not know what is meant by justice, truth, and other ‘metaphysical fogs,’ that for them the true is determined by the useful, the just by circumstances,” he noted. “All these things were taught by Callicles, but with this difference; he revolted all the important thinkers of his time.”
In other words, the real treason of the intellectuals was not that they countenanced Callicles but that they championed him. To appreciate the force of Benda’s thesis one need only think of that most influential modern Callicles, Friedrich Nietzsche. His doctrine of “the will to power,” his contempt for the “slave morality” of Christianity, his plea for an ethic “beyond good and evil,” his infatuation with violence—all epitomize the disastrous “pragmatism” that marks the intellectual’s “treason.” The real problem was not the unattainability but the disintegration of ideals, an event that Nietzsche hailed as the “transvaluation of all values.” “Formerly,” Benda observed, “leaders of States practiced realism, but did not honor it; … With them morality was violated but moral notions remained intact; and that is why, in spite of all their violence, they did not disturb civilization.”
Which brings us to Matt Welch at Reason, who notes that “145 Intellectuals Agree: Dead Cartoonists Aren’t Worthy of Free-Speech Award if Their Murderers Come From a Disadvantaged Minority: Charlie Hebdo’s posthumous critics pen an authoritarian anti-speech manifesto,” a particularly chilling thought given that today is May Day.