Oct 2004 Journal

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The Treason of Clerks (editorial)

This is the title of the post-WWI book in which Julien Benda accused intellectuals of shirking their duty to society through non-participation in its affairs. The author used the word 'clerk' as understood in the Middle Ages, when it connoted a member of the clergy, whose knowledge of reading and writing set them apart from the illiterate mass of the population.

In the late 1940s, at the height of the Cold War, Thomas Mann's son Klaus issued a more onerous challenge to the intellectual community. Morbidly depressed by the ever-worsening East-West crisis, he called for some of them to commit suicide to shock the general public out of their lethargy. He actually did so, but it passed unnoticed by the world at large.

Suicide as a 'wake-up call' was, indeed, a feature of world affairs in the mid-twentieth century. In May 1943 Samuel Zygelbojm, the Bund delegate to the Polish government-in-exile, took his own life to draw attention to the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, in 1968 Jan Palach committed suicide in a Prague square to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and Buddhist monks did the same in 1970s Saigon.

None of the aforementioned were intellectuals in the strict sense of the word. Altogether, one is drawn to the conclusion that Klaus Mann addressed his appeal to the wrong audience. At the time, the leading British intellectuals were George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell. Shaw, as evidenced by his play Caesar and Cleopatra, admired strong leaders like Stalin (a foible he shared with his Mussolini-worshipping compatriot W.B. Yeats). As for Russell, he oscillated vertiginously between advocating the nuking of the Soviet Union and - after the latter acquired the A-bomb - setting up CND.

France's postwar cultural heroes were no more inspiring. Such iconic figures as the novelist Colette and the playwright Paul Claudel had eulogised Pétain, while the up-and-coming Jean-Paul Sartre deliberately shut his eyes to the existence of Soviet concentration camps.

The German situation was quite dire. For one, the Nazis had left behind a cultural wasteland. For another, some returning émigrés - Brecht, Arnold Zweig - preferred the Sovietised DDR to the insufficiently de-Nazified democratic Bundesrepublik. When Thomas Mann visited the East German Goethestadt Weimar, his stock in West Germany, already low due to the perception that he had approved of Allied air raids on his hometown Lübeck, fell even lower. In consequence, Mann relocated from California to Switzerland. Back in Germany, the philosopher Heidegger remained unrepentant over condoning Nazi crimes, and the physicist Heisenberg obfuscated his part in Hitler's nuclear project.

With such types setting the tone among Western intellectuals, Klaus Mann's appeal would hardly have elicited a response. The only intellectual community with an almost built-in self-destructive reflex was the Jewish one. From 1935 onwards Kurt Tucholsky, Ernst Toller, Joseph Roth, Walter Hasenclever, Walter Benjamin and Stefan Zweig all died (virtually) by their own hand. Some of them - Hasenclever in a French internment camp, Benjamin at the Spanish border - chose suicide to avoid capture by the Gestapo, but Tucholsky in Stockholm, Toller in New York, Roth in Paris and Zweig in Brazil simply gave up. Tragically, Allied victory did not end the wave of Jewish suicides, as shown by the deaths of the Holocaust survivors Jean Amery, Paul Celan and Primo Levi.

Could the suicides from Tucholsky to Levi be constructed as a 'wake-up call' to others to beware of the Fascist scourge - or as a surrender to black despair? We shall never know.

What we do know, however, is that 80 years after the publication of Benda's book, the intellectuals (also known as the chattering classes) are no closer to discharging their duty to society. In Britain, according to a Prospect poll, Eric Hobsbawm, an unreconstructed lifelong Marxist-Leninist, is esteemed as one of the country's top intellects. In America, the chattering classes throng cinemas showing Fahrenheit 9/11. The title of Michael Moore's film derives from another movie, Fahrenheit 451 - the temperature at which paper turns to ash - which depicts Nazi-style book burning. (Meanwhile, Moore sells more non-fiction books then any other author in the USA.)

France's intellectual class is trapped in nostalgia. In the eighteenth century, though Britain became the global power, the eyes of the civilised world were still focused on Voltaire and Rousseau, rather than on Locke and Hume. Today, Left Bank intellectuals complain: 'Our possession of philosophers like Lacan and Derrida avails us nothing against Walt Disney and Big Mac!'

All in all, one is tempted to assert that contemporary intellectuals can be summed up in the quip 'PhDs are people who know more and more about less and less!'

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