What It Takes to Be a Public Intellectual

What It Takes to Be a Public Intellectual

What It Takes to Be a Public Intellectual

A conversation with Adam Shatz about solidarity, the art of the essay, and his recent collection Writers and Missionaries.


In 2014, Adam Shatz’s “Writers or Missionaries” appeared in The Nation, a piece about his relationship, as a Jewish American journalist, to the political conflicts in the Arab-speaking world. The article features, among other anecdotes, a bracing summary of Shatz’s discussion with V.S. Naipaul following 9/11, in which the late novelist divided reporters and journalists into two camps. “Writers”—those who describe the world as it is—are, in this formulation, diametrically opposed to “missionaries,” or those who render a picture of the world as they want to see it, their work serving as advocacy for a specific cause. While discussing his experience covering Algeria in 2002, Shatz turns this paradigm on its head. The issue is not whether it’s a mistake for a reporter to identify with a particular cause or camp. Rather, the essay gains its energy from Shatz’s constant reevaluation—a vacillation between surety and the unknown. (“This was not a matter of finding the story,” Shatz writes, “but of allowing the story to find me.”)

In Shatz’s debut collection, Writers and Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination, this dichotomy is put to work. Examining novelists like Kamel Daoud, Michel Houellebecq, and Richard Wright, and scholars and pundits like Fouad Ajami, Edward Said, and Roland Barthes, the book serves as a series of case studies on how a writer’s relationship to politics shades both their decision-making and their work. A writer might gain notoriety or financial stability from a particular institution, but will it hinder what one is allowed to write? Does patriotism preclude saying certain things in public so as not to discredit political goals? What are the ethics of the personal becoming political (that is to say, outward), when a writer is putting forth bigotry and violence?

Shatz’s book is filled with such questions, but rather than act out a binary, he instead lays out the conflicted lives of his subjects, showing their often contradictory turns toward, and away from, the comforts of intellectual alignment. Eclectic, insightful, and consistently surprising, Writers and Missionaries arrives as a searching and forthright book about writing’s relationship to politics. The Nation spoke with Shatz about his thought process and the various organizations that hold sway over a writer’s life. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—J. Howard Rosier

J. Howard Rosier: I wanted to talk to you about a point you raise in the book’s introduction, where you talk about this tension between political loneliness and alignment.

Adam Shatz: We have writers who, at times, are drawn to groups of other writers or political movements, and then, at other times, they pull away and seek to retreat because they need to recover… I wouldn’t say the purity of their voice, but the integrity of voice, and integrity of vision. Richard Wright is a perfect example. He owed his formation as a writer to the Communist Party. Even though he went on to reject the party and to publish a scathing and brilliant attack on it in The Atlantic, which became part of [Black Boy], Wright owed his formation as a writer to being part of a party that promoted working-class struggle and interracial unity and so on. And as Stalinist as the party was, it provided one of the only forums in American life where Black and white people were on a plane of equality.

Ralph Ellison is another writer who was deeply involved in Communist politics. I mean, he tried to run from it and deny it and suggest that his connection to the party was shallow and fleeting, but the archives say otherwise. And you’ll remember the quote from the piece on Wright [“Richard Wright’s Double Vision”] of Ellison’s reaction to Native Son, a book he later denounced—but he was thrilled, not just by Native Son, but by Bigger Thomas’s violence.

Chester Himes traveled through the Communist Party; Alain Robbe-Grillet was part of the Éditions de Minuit circle. These are all writers who were seeking some kind of connection, whether it be a political connection, or an institutional connection, or a connection to other writers that gives an enlarged meaning to their work, that connects them to certain audiences—and that makes them feel they’re part of a wider community. It’s a natural impulse—I think every writer feels that on some level.

Obviously, there are people who feel very comfortable in the position of expressing the outlook of a particular group, riding party platforms, obeying ideological dictates. And I’m not even judging that—there’s a place for people who do that kind of work. But the writers that I’m interested in here are people who were constitutionally incapable of doing that at the end of the day. They are wedded to a certain personal vision, so they’re weaving in and out or toggling between.

It’s true for all of us, isn’t it? We seek companionship; we seek people who share our vision, who make us feel less alone in the world. But then, at times, we really need to double down on our own voice, find some sanctuary for our thoughts. In that regard, writers are just a particularly intense example of what is a universal human experience.

JHR: I noticed that—or at least in the sense that there’s this very strong theme of individuality throughout. It seems like there’s this underlying theme that, in order for a writer to be really free politically, you kind of have to deviate from group orthodoxy.

AS: Anyone who chooses to make a living as a writer is probably, by definition, a little abnormal—I mean, who really wants to do this kind of work? To be a writer means that you have to tolerate long periods of self-enforced solitude. You’re doing your work—you spend a lot of time reading, thinking, without any assurance that anyone is going to really care all that much about what you have to say. There’s also the fact that writing’s ability to really transform the world is inherently limited. Now and then there’s a book that causes an explosion, but those books are few and far between.

Now, perhaps some people choose to compensate for that sense of isolation and solitude by writing in a fashion that preaches to a certain choir, or that assures them a place at a table of the powerful. I mean, there are many writers who do that. That’s a choice—I’m not even saying this in a judgmental fashion. But I think that really original intellectual work does require a perverse independence.

JHR: I was also very struck by the restraint and grace with which you allowed your subjects to speak for themselves. You rarely interjected your own viewpoints unless you found it justified by what was in front of you. How did you go about developing that methodology, or organizing that for the book? And how did that enable you to write more honestly—about writers, and about writing really.

AS: I don’t think I really have a methodology. These essays were written over the last 20 years, and they’re encounters with—or re-encounters with—writers who meant a lot to me. So, in almost every case, I’m examining someone whose work shaped my own thinking in some fashion. In some cases, I may have had a deep admiration, or even an infatuation, with them. I’m sure, in college, I went through a Roland Barthes phase. But when I wrote each of these essays, it was a chance to think in a more fine-grained way about how their work came into being, how it related to their lives, their personal and political struggles. And I found that I was just much more interested in the contradictions and tensions and subtleties and nuances in the creation of their work than I was in presenting them as exemplars or guides or people whom we ought to emulate. And so I suppose I approach my subjects with a mixture of admiration, criticism, and humility. Certainly, there were writers who’ve done work in this vein who really had an impact on me. They’re too numerous to mention, but certainly figures like Sontag, but also intellectual historians like Christopher Lasch or Enzo Traverso.

There is a point of view about the work—I mean, they’re real people, but at the same time they are characters, portraits. I try to evoke what that person’s life was like, what they meant to other people, what their intimate lives were like, to the extent that I’m able to. I immersed myself in their imagination. I bathed in their writing.

Music is something that’s very frequently on my mind, too. Musicians, because they work with a form that is inherently abstract—sound—they’re trying to achieve some kind of transcendence. They’re trying to kind of transcend the suffering, and also the banality, of everyday existence and to tap into deeper places of meaning. A lot of the writers that I’m examining tried to do the same thing. So there is this contrast, and even this chasm, between the aspirations and intentions of these writers and their circumstances, which are a much more complicated affair, sometimes a compromised affair.

JHR: Where do you see the role of institutions in forming a writer’s politics? Because there’s also this theme of institutions giving one cover, juxtaposed with a sense of resentment—that one’s work is seen only as a consequence of them.

AS: Some of the people in this book had close relationships with institutions. Edward Said is one—Columbia University being the most obvious example, or the Palestine National Council. And there were people who were quite critical of Said and argued that he sacrificed his independence by being part of the PNC. I actually don’t make that argument in my piece. I think that Said got something from his relationship to the Palestine National Council, and when he ceased to get what he really needed from it, and when it stood in the way of his writing and his independence of judgment, he broke with it. So I just want to make it clear that I’m not putting forward a formula and saying that an intellectual cannot have a binding relationship of some sort with an institution; otherwise, that person isn’t really free. That would be going too far.

But for the most part, the people I’m writing about in this book are somewhat lonely outsiders who either have chosen to work outside of an institutional framework or who have agonized relationships with the institutions they serve. One example would be Jacques Derrida, who never really fit into the French university system and was never quite embraced by the French intellectual establishment. I mean, we of course have this idea of Derrida as the embodiment of deconstruction. And yet Derrida was far more popular in the United States and in American universities than he was in France. That tension really fit his work. He was also in a position of considerable tension with the many groups of schools that dominate French intellectual life—journals like Tel Quel, which he had written for but then became estranged from. A certain amount of friction is important: If intellectuals become too settled and too attached to institutions or, for that matter, to groups which they purportedly represent or speak for, then I do think it has a tendency to undermine their ability to think freely.

In the case particularly of writers of color—let’s say some of the Black American writers I write about, such as Richard Wright, William Gardner Smith, and Chester Himes, or Arab writers—there is a very lazy and often racist assumption that, by virtue of their belonging to a certain group, they somehow represent it without even consciously intending to do so. James Baldwin called this “the burden of representation” that falls on the shoulders of every Black writer. And as I show in the book, these are writers who, although they wrote eloquently and powerfully about the Black experience, were ferociously independent and were often engaged in extremely contentious debates with their fellow Black intellectuals. The same was true of the Arab intellectuals I write about in this book.

JHR: To what extent, if any, do you feel that imaginative writing contains an inherent politics? I thought that in the Houellebecq section, in particular, you were kind of wrestling with that.

AS: If I were writing about Houellebecq now, I would be even more critical. I was making an effort, in the Houellebecq piece, to see his novels as novels rather than as programmatic statements. And I don’t think they’re programmatic statements. But what’s become more troubling in the case of Houellebecq is that he has been much more explicit in his sympathies for “great replacement” ideology and right-wing Islamophobia. The line between Houellebecq’s fictional imaginings and his own activities as a public citizen has become much more porous. It would be much trickier to write about Houellebecq now. But I don’t retract what I’ve written in that piece.

A lot of people—although not many of us admit it—are sometimes intrigued by the reactionary imagination. It doesn’t mean that I share it, because I don’t, but you can learn from reading work by some of the more inventive and imaginative conservative writers. I’m talking about fiction writers—people like Céline, who became a Nazi collaborator, or Ernst Jünger, or Curzio Malaparte. Of course, we’d have to throw out a great deal of American literature if we were to exclude these books on ideological grounds.

But yes: I do think there is something inherently political about the literary imagination. I don’t mean to say that writing is inherently didactic—it’s not. But most writing does contain a politics, or at least a sensibility about the individual’s relationship to political life. I mean, in a way, it would be impossible for it not to.

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