‘Intellectual’ is a word I hate, if only because it seems to have so many meanings as to mean nothing tangible, at least nothing good.
Most people popularly known as intellectuals are in fact bien pensant pseuds, trying to add an aura of sophistication to New Age fads that wouldn’t stand up to even a modicum of genuine intellectual inquiry.
People who use intellectual tools to search for truth are better described as thinkers, sages, philosophers or, if you will, theologians. Intellectuals, on the other hand, use their mediocre minds for the nefarious purpose of either obscuring truth or, more common, subverting it.
Britain has had her fair share of thinkers, sages, philosophers and theologians – which is why the British are rightly suspicious of intellectuals. The fallout from this may at times be excessive empiricism and suspicion of intellect, but this is the rough that comes with the smooth.
In any case, the metaphorical fees for joining the club of thinkers taken seriously are set at a higher level in Britain than on the continent, which enrages intellectuals who can’t come up with the requisite wherewithal.
Youthful James Marriott, the rancid flavour of the month at The Times, makes this very point, albeit unwittingly. He has a boundless respect for intellectuals and an obvious ambition to be seen as one.
“I reckon the French could teach us a thing or two here,” he writes with the national self-laceration that’s de rigueur for intellectuals.
“Slimani and Houellebecq are both provocateurs and intellectuals. They are serious thinkers who needle away at the moral values that underpin society with uncomfortable but important questions.”
Someone who regards Slimani and Houellebecq as serious thinkers simply has no concept of either seriousness or thinking. Nor do those writers provoke, although that’s their manifest aim.
I wrote about Houllebecq’s gynaecological prose the other day, citing such passages as “He laid his head on her thigh and began to stroke her clitoris. Her labia minora began to swell… He fingered her clitoris faster as his tongue lapped her labia eagerly.”
Slimani likes to tickle the same bits: “Adèle has been good, she wants to be devoured, sucked, swallowed whole.” Amazing what passes for goodness in some circles.
Anyway, Adèle also wanted other things, specifically to have her vagina smashed, leaving it “just a shard of broken glass now, a maze of ridges and fissures”. Well, de gustibus… and all that.
“The moral conundrums posed in the books of writers such as Slimani and Houellebecq demand serious engagement,” insists Marriott. “They are not as easily batted away as trolls and memes.” Mainly because one wouldn’t want to soil one’s bat, I’d suggest.
Only a pimply youngster can be provoked by such prose, but then, judging by his photograph, that’s what Marriott is. Grown-ups, especially those uncorrupted by intellectuals, will wince and dismiss such efforts as pornography – made even more pornographic by the accompanying pretentious passages of pseudo depth.
“In Britain,” laments Marriott, “we have exiled our intellectuals from public life.” A good job too, on cited evidence.
Marriott is palpably and, considering his apparent age, oddly nostalgic about the 1978 TV series Men of Ideas, “which consisted of 15 hour-long interviews with philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin, Noam Chomsky and AJ Ayer. We deplore the sexism of that show now (what about all the women of ideas?) but I miss its adventurous intellectual spirit.”
Using non-words to describe non-thoughts is of course the intellectuals’ stock in trade. Hence Marriott’s ruing “the sexism of that show”. The implication is that swarms of serious female thinkers were kept at arm’s length by male bias, now mercifully expunged.
But I can answer his parenthetical question. Alive and active at the time was the great philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who had in every page more profound thoughts than the three gentlemen mentioned had in their total output combined.
Anscombe, however, was kept out not because she was a woman but because her thought was informed by Aristotle, Aquinas and Wittgenstein – not by Hume, Marx and Freud. She wasn’t an intellectual, in other words, and hence couldn’t be redeemed even by her sex.
“We are blessed to have Rowan Williams in public life,” continues Marriott, wishing there would be more room for the likes of the former Archbishop of Canterbury.
If such room were provided, there would be more intellectuals capable of writing sentences like this:
“In a church that accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous biblical texts, or on a problematic and nonscriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures.”
That’s intellectualism par excellence, both in style and substance (if you can figure out what it is, that is), and it’s exemplified by the man who, though already the Archbishop of Canterbury, adopted the name of Aneuri when he became a druid. The moniker was chosen partly in honour of Aneurin Bevan, rank communist and Dr Williams’s idol.
The word ‘intellectual’ does have many meanings, but by now we ought to be able to identify the key characteristics that are essential to the definition, as understood by trendy pseuds.
Atheism for preference, although pagan mysticism is allowed. Nihilism. Hatred of Britain. Absence of taste. Inability to think properly and deeply. Contempt for tradition. Unfounded intellectual and cultural pretensions. Leftie politics. Earnest commitment to every fad, the more subversive the better. Deracinated anomie.
Also, by the sound of it, certainty that any French pornographer is a serious writer and Noam Chomsky is a philosopher. And, ideally, being perceived by our newspapers as someone qualified to write on such subjects.