Zones of Disengagement

Zones of Disengagement

In Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, Stefan Collini encapsulates the paradoxes that dominate discussion of the English cultural landscape.


Stanley Baldwin once said that “the difference between a man of intellect and an intellectual, was the same as the difference between a gentleman and a gent.” His remarks were quoted approvingly by Margaret Thatcher soon after she became leader of the Conservative Party. Baldwin and Thatcher’s words seem to sum up an important aspect of British history. Intellectuals are vulgar, fake, left-wing and, most important, un-English.

Those convinced that there are no English intellectuals point to philosophy. All French people study this discipline at school, and some of France’s most prominent thinkers (including those, such as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who later attain fame for their work in other areas) study it up to the postgraduate level. Philosophy in France is taken to mean a concern with the big questions and with the ways in which previous writers have addressed them. Academic philosophers in England, by contrast, spend much of their time explaining the large number of broad questions to which philosophy cannot furnish answers. They are often concerned with narrow questions of language–it has been said that the whole of existentialism rested on a failure to define the verb “to be.” French 18-year-olds write essays that are full of words such as “immanence”; English philosophy dons write books with titles such as How to Do Things With Words.

At second glance, things are, as ever, more complicated. The fact that many English people dislike the word “intellectual” does not mean that they dislike the thing–Margaret Thatcher did not like the words “bourgeois” or “privatization” either. Besides, there have obviously been English intellectuals, and some of them are drawn from the very circles–Conservative and upper-class–that are normally assumed to be most immune to the sins of “intellectualism.” The Third Marquis of Salisbury (who was prime minister for thirteen years) was an intellectual by any definition: He wrote articles for the Quarterly Review, and the leading journal of the British intellectual right during the 1980s was named the Salisbury Review in his honor. Salisbury’s nephew Balfour wrote “A Defence of Philosophic Doubt” in his spare time while being a Conservative minister. Baldwin himself played the bluff English squire but spent much of his time in Aix-les-Bains; he claimed to be uninterested in general ideas but published his essays in a book with the sweeping title of On England and Other Addresses. He was much influenced by his cousin Rudyard Kipling, who was described by Julien Benda as the archetypal English nationalist clerc. The novels of Anthony Powell and the cartoons of Osbert Lancaster often revolve around the curiously blurred frontiers between Belgravia and Bohemia–a frontier inhabited by men with clipped accents and regimental ties who turn out to be interested in the novels of Virginia Woolf or the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard.

Stefan Collini encapsulates some of the paradoxes that dominate discussion of English intellectuals. In spite of his exotic name (it is interesting to speculate on how his work would be received if he were called “Steve Collins”), Collini is an English professor of English literature at an English university. He is also well versed in Continental academic life, particularly that of France. By his own definition (of which more below), he is an intellectual, but he also has a skepticism and a distrust of grand theory that some might see as quintessentially English. Perhaps for this reason, he has mainly communicated his ideas, so far, in essays and extended book reviews. This book seeks to bring his arguments together.

Collini begins with definition. He is not concerned with intellectuals in the “sociological sense” (meaning those who follow particular professions) nor with intellectuals in the “subjective sense” (meaning people who think). Rather–sailing between the Snowvian Scylla of statistical analysis and the Leaviste Charybdis of value judgments about the intrinsic quality of people’s writing–Collini wants to look at intellectuals in the “cultural sense.” By this, he means that an intellectual is characterized by an authority that has been established through “creative, analytical or scholarly” work, by access to means of communication that take intellectuals’ views to a wider public than that reached by his or her initial work, and by the fact that his or her views intersect with matters of wider general interest. To sum it up crudely, intellectuals for Collini always have some public dimension. The phrase “public intellectual” originated in the United States, but the real innovation of American life is the “private intellectual”–that is, one who addresses general issues but does so in such obscure publications, and in such opaque language, that he or she can only reach his or her own colleagues on the faculty at Duke or Yale.

Collini’s definition of an intellectual can be illustrated with a brief look at the two leading English literary periodicals. The Times Literary Supplement is not an intellectual publication (though intellectuals sometimes write for it). Its reviews are brief, rarely more than 2,000 words. Reviewers are expected to keep their egos in check (until quite recently reviews were published anonymously). The London Review of Books is an intellectual publication. The names of reviewers are important (more so than authors of the books under review). Reviews are long (never fewer than 2,500 words) and writers are encouraged to expand on their own views. A quintessential LRB piece was by David Runciman. Ostensibly reviewing a book on game theory, Runciman embarked on a rather confusing point about jelly beans before getting on to his favorite hobbyhorse (denouncing Tony Blair), which he then rode for the rest of the piece. The quintessential TLS review of recent years, by contrast, was about punctuation in successive editions of Jane Austen’s novels.

Collini proceeds to take on some commonly held assumptions. First, he tries to show that there are, and always have been, intellectuals in Britain. He argues that the much-vaunted peculiarities of England often revolve around a misleading comparison with France: England seems more normal if it is compared with, say, Denmark or Belgium or the United States, where intellectuals in the early twentieth century were sometimes seen to be imitating British models. He also argues that the “other” with reference to which intellectuals are often discussed is sometimes chronological rather than geographical. This means that people often talk as though there was once a golden age of the intellectual, which has been destroyed by the impossibility of tackling broad themes in an age of extreme specialization. The idea that there was a golden age of generalists who could range over the whole cultural field is unlikely to win over anyone whose professional duties have ever required sitting next to elderly classics dons at dinner. Furthermore, it might be argued that relatively recent academic disciplines–sociology, cultural studies and queer theory–have actually encouraged their practitioners to operate across a very wide range. In any case, definitions of what an intellectual might be expected to know have changed. When Aldous Huxley was at school, in the early twentieth century, education meant primarily the ability to put chunks of Milton into Latin and Greek. Around the time of World War I, classics declined–Huxley was one of the first important Englishmen to study English literature at university. By the late 1920s (according to Evelyn Waugh), the books of Huxley himself were expected to feature on the bookshelves of any intellectual Oxford undergraduate. Now no one at a fashionable London party would be expected to have read Eyeless in Gaza, but everyone would be expected to know that Jim Morrison named his band after Huxley’s The Doors of Perception.

The latter part of Collini’s book is mainly made up of a series of case studies focusing on particular individuals–T.S. Eliot, R.G. Collingwood, A.J.P. Taylor, George Orwell and A.J. Ayer. These studies do not quite live up to the promise held out in the early part of the book. For all of Collini’s insistence that he wishes to produce a sustained argument rather than a collection of essays, these chapters often have the feel of extended book reviews. There is a sniffy tone in some of them. Cambridge historians talk of the old-fashioned “great books” school of intellectual history. Sometimes one feels that Collini is a master of the “mediocre books” school and that his subjects have been chosen so that he can draw attention to the naïveté or contradictions inherent in their approach–though I assume that his concluding sentence on Orwell, which recognizes that some fault or other “was, of course, partially offset by other, less culpable strains,” contains an element of self-mockery.

Some obvious themes are given little attention. Several times Collini draws attention to the fact that writers under discussion assume that the intellectual is a “he,” but Collini himself looks mainly at men and says little about differences between the sexes. He mentions Virginia Woolf several times but says nothing about how she was excluded from the institutions that educated her husband and brother (a matter she certainly regarded as important). Were there more female intellectuals at the end of the twentieth century than at its beginning and, if so, is this important? Would it be fair to say feminism provides one of the key links between specialized academic work and discussions of “general” matters? Is it significant that feminist intellectuals are still so often discussed in terms of their relations with men and, if so, is it significant that France’s most famous feminist (Simone de Beauvoir) is known for her relations with Sartre, Claude Lanzmann and Nelson Algren while England’s most famous feminist (Germaine Greer) is known mainly for her alleged relations with various members of the Manchester United soccer team?

Whole areas are left out. Surely economics is the single discipline that does most to address issues of general concern to the public–certainly economists are the academic specialists who are most likely to write in newspapers. Peter Jay was once widely regarded as “the cleverest man in England”; Ayer fussed over what the undergraduate Jay might have thought of his lectures. Wynne Godley was an influential figure in both the Treasury and at Cambridge University, as well as being a contributor on matters such as psychoanalysis to The London Review of Books. Both men were closely linked to other parts of the cultural or political establishment–Godley’s father-in-law was the sculptor Jacob Epstein; Jay’s father-in-law was, for a time, prime minister. Neither man is mentioned by Collini. There is no sense of why English economists have been better at reaching the general public than their French colleagues–a group of students at the École Normale Supérieure recently complained of their discipline’s “autism”–or worse than their American colleagues, who produce all those snappy articles about “Why drug dealers live with their mothers.”

In some ways, Collini’s greatest strength–his grasp of debates in France–illustrates his weaknesses. He is steeped in the work on the history of French intellectuals done by Jean-François Sirinelli, Pascal Ory and Christophe Charle. However, for all the talk of France as a land of abstraction and grand theory, the French approach to the history of intellectuals is marked by detailed empirical work and number-crunching. This produces a great deal of useful information. It is, for example, important to know that a third of all students preparing for entrance to the École Normale in the interwar period were the sons of teachers–not least because it shows that Sartre and Raymond Aron, two of four men in their year who did not need scholarships, were richer than most of their classmates.

Collini does not try to match this statistical base, and the tantalizingly rare numbers he does drop into his argument–that, for example, there were 200 university teachers of philosophy in Britain during the 1950s, and that fifty of them taught at Oxford–make one feel that it would be helpful if he could. Sometimes Collini uses numbers in a misleading way. He talks of university expansion and how this changes the public to which intellectuals address themselves. But he says little about national differences here. The expansion of Continental universities (though not the grandest of French grandes écoles) was most spectacular during the 1960s; British universities expanded most sharply in the very different ideological climate of the 1980s and ’90s.

A second peculiarity that is exposed by Collini’s reference to French writers is the relative attention accorded to educational institutions. In France the École Normale Supérieure is very specifically associated with notions of the intelligentsia–the Dreyfusard campaign more or less started in the library of the ENS, and one of France’s most prominent intellectuals, the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, actually lived in the school for almost all his adult life. Even more important than the ENS itself are the khâgneux (particularly at the elite Paris lycées), which prepare students for entry to the ENS. Even people who did not go to the ENS (Pierre Nora, Philippe Ariès, Roland Barthes) were heavily marked by the years they spent preparing for its entrance examination. Jacques Derrida began his obituary of Bourdieu by recalling how the two men met in hypokhâgne at Louis-le-Grand. Régis Debray’s recent writings on the death of the intellectual contain touching recollections of his own time at Jeanson-de-Sailly. French work on intellectuals has a very strong institutional focus–Sirinelli’s thèse d’état was about normaliens and khâgneux between the wars.

The English education system is less centralized and less explicitly elitist than the French one. Nonetheless, some institutions clearly play a larger role than others. When Collini refers to “Cambridge,” he usually means just two of the university’s thirty-one colleges (Trinity and King’s). Trinity was the college of Lytton Strachey, Trevelyan, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Piero Sraffa. Its fellowship (about the size of the faculty at a very small liberal arts college) have won nearly as many Nobel Prizes as France.

Of course, it might be argued that the real feature of elite education in England was its anti-intellectualism. Public schools (by which the English mean expensive private schools) are often seen to be characterized by their disdain. Cyril Connolly wrote bitterly that Eton had taught him to hide his cleverness “as a good tailor hides a hump.” Later Connolly was said to have been hurt when he overheard his fellow Etonian Alfred Ayer quoting Virginia Woolf: “I do not like that smarty boots Connolly.” Of course, both of these remarks should be taken with a pinch of salt. If Eton aimed to teach either Ayer or Connolly to hide his cleverness, then it was singularly unsuccessful. In fact, Eton’s role in the formation of the British intelligentsia is at least as important as that of Henri IV or Louis-le-Grand in forming the French intelligentsia. Aldous Huxley was a pupil and then a teacher at Eton; Keynes was an Etonian and, even in the middle of World War II, found time to act as a fellow of the school. Orwell was a contemporary of Connolly; the historian and New Left Review editor Perry Anderson must have been pretty much a contemporary of the sociologist Gary Runciman there–though Anderson, a great one for drawing attention to the normalien mafia in French intellectual life, did not mention this when he reviewed Runciman’s book on forms of privilege and power.

Eton’s role has become more important during the twentieth century. It has eclipsed both Harrow, which once enjoyed an almost equal degree of social prestige, and Winchester, which is more academically rigorous. This is linked partly to the school’s peculiar nature. Most of its pupils are very rich. However, the school also has a number of scholarship boys concentrated in “College.” Scholarship boys are rarely very poor–most seem to be drawn from what Orwell, referring to himself, described as the “lower upper middle class.” However, the mingling of what Péguy referred to as héritiers and boursiers allows both to trade on a complicated mixture of social and cultural capital. Eton offers its pupils three particular advantages. First, the school imbues its students with the confidence to believe they can engage with big ideas–no one would suggest that Alec Douglas Home, who was a contemporary of Orwell and Connolly at Eton, was an intellectual, but it is illustrative of Etonian intellectual confidence that he is the only British prime minister ever to have read Das Kapital. Second, Etonians are imbued with the confidence that other people will be interested in their opinions. Third, Etonians have a network of contacts and advantages that smoothes entry into the New Left Review as easily as it smoothes entry into N.M. Rothschild.

Being an intellectual, Collini concludes by tying his academic expertise to some broad general statements. He urges his readers (composed in large part, one assumes, of British intellectuals) to accept that intellectuals have always been part of British national life. He is relatively optimistic about the current state of British intellectual life–pointing out that the LRB today reaches more readers than the Tribune and Horizon put together did when Orwell wrote for them. He advances some slightly worthy views on the virtues of long radio talks and articles in literary periodicals, along with stern warnings about the enemies of promise that lurk behind each invitation to write an 800-word book review. However, he is sometimes so keen to show that Britain is not unique in lacking an intelligentsia that he understates the ways in which the intelligentsia it does have differs from that of other countries. He is particularly prone to understate its more disagreeable features. There is a coziness and complacency about the British intellectual world. This is partly a matter of social background. The leading intellectuals are drawn together by common education and by mutual acquaintance. Apart from those (often the most left-wing) who have been tempted to well-endowed chairs in the United States, the majority of British intellectuals live and work within walking distance of King’s Parade or Russell Square.

There is, however, more to it than that. In purely social terms, the French intelligentsia is more close-knit than the British one–the intellectual history of France is really the history of two Paris arrondissements. What makes France different from Britain is politics. The sharp political divisions of twentieth-century France meant that even old camarades de classe such as Sartre and Aron ended up criticizing each other. More important, French intellectuals take themselves seriously enough to regard their own mistakes as being significant. Ex-Communists such as Edgar Morin, ex-Maoists such as Olivier Rolin and ex-Maurrassians such as Raoul Girardet have written with great insight about their own youthful errors. You find little of this in England. British intellectuals have often changed their mind. Many of them changed their views on Soviet Communism after 1956. Many of them moved from Marxism to support for the attempt to launch a Social Democratic Party during the early 1980s. Many of them supported Tony Blair in 1997 and condemned him after 2003. All of these about-turns have been accompanied by much pontification on the faults of British politicians and sometimes by barely disguised disdain for the population that elected those politicians. Yet almost none of these about-turns have been accompanied by much sense that the intelligentsia itself might be at fault. One is reminded of the joke that they used to tell in the French Communist Party in the 1950s: “X has written his self-critique.” “Oh, good. Against whom?”

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