Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Lay Intellectuals

"An intellectual is a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows."

Dwight D. Eisenhower

To be called an "intellectual" is a compliment or an epithet depending on the company you keep.  It's just loaded with positive or negative connotations.  To call oneself an intellectual can be seen as the height of pretension (or lead one's listeners and readers to suspect an inability to hold a job in the "real" world).

On my last trip to the American Library in Paris I picked up William Pfaff's book, The Irony of Manifest Destiny : the Tragedy of American Foreign Policy which is now overdue and racking up fines in my absence.  It's a good book - Pfaff is always interesting - if a bit depressing.  As I closed the book I fervently hoped he was was wrong but I nonetheless had a sinking feeling that he might be on to something.

It was either when I was reading the book or just after when I was "googling" (a horrible word now polluting the English language) something else when I came across an article Pfaff wrote back in 1986 called The Lay Intellectual (Apologia Pro Vita Sua) .  (The Latin means "A defense of one's life".)

In this essay Pfaff grieves for the "private scholar" - a man or woman who pursues ideas for their own sake outside of the universities and other institutions of learning.  The species, he said, still existed  in Europe but had almost completely disappeared from the United States.  The American "think tanks" that were springing up at the time were not, in his view, a place of genuine intellectual activity since they were mostly concerned with "bureaucratic analysis" and not in thinking just for thinking's sake.

Some of what Pfaff wrote back in this 1986 article is still true today.  Has it ever been easy for a private person with a day job to devote time to the life of the mind?  There are only so many hours in the day and unless one is independently wealthy, there is rent to pay and children to feed.  It is probably still easier in a country like France to reconcile the two because there is a certain level of job protection - not to mention encouragement and honor for those who work and yet still find the time to write a great novel or poetry or to paint.

Furthermore, I like the term "lay intellectual" even though it implies that the academics are the clergy and the rest of us (the unordained lacking academic credentials) are a lesser breed (the oratores versus the laboratores).

But in many ways Pfaff's essay is terribly outdated.  It was written before websites, social media and email became ubiquitous.  As newspapers have declined, blogs and on-line publications have thrived.  Self-publication can mean fewer of the compromises Pfaff talks about - though, in a world where the currency is attention, the writer or renegade journalist most often writes with an eye toward amusing or intriguing readers. It is a mortal sin on the Web to be boring.

In an Internet world it is both easier and harder to write and spread one's ideas.  Easier because a lot of research is at one's fingertips through any search engine.  Harder because there is so much information that must be parsed and judged before it can be added to a blog post or an on-line article or essay.  Frankly, some days it's easier to read a book than it is to scroll through hundreds of websites.  Since I am very fond of books this is no hardship, and I always try to read at least one book on every subject that I research for this blog.  For me it's not either/or - it's and/and.

Like Pfaff I left university in 1989 not thinking of myself as an intellectual.  I grew up among people who were brilliant, witty and well-travelled.  Compared to them I was not exactly the brightest crayon in the box.  But I aspired to be because it was what was valued - to read and to be able to hold a conversation or write about ideas was one (and perhaps the most important) definition of "success" that I learned as a child.  For years I tried too hard, thinking that if I read the "right" books and had the "right" ideas, I would be welcome in such company.  

30 years later I think of it very differently.  Reading, writing, and thinking just for the hell of it is like music:  1% talent and 99% effort.  To want to be good at either of those things isn't a sign of intelligence or  academic destiny (Get thee to a university, Madame) it's the mark of a curious mind that finds pleasure in stirring the grey matter in interesting ways. To be able to communicate those ideas effectively, however, takes time and practice, practice, practice.

If you've ever read the Diary of Samuel Pepys (and you really should because it is very entertaining - the man was a serious skirt-chaser as well as a keen observer)  you know that in addition to being a brilliant civil servant, Pepys was a musician and could play several instruments.  Music was an important part of his life and he was a competent instrumentalist but not a professional.  This seems to have been true of his friends as well and he and his wife spent many an evening with friends talking, playing music, and singing.  
"Thence we went to the Green Dragon, on Lambeth Hill, both the Mr. Pinkney’s, Smith, Harrison, Morrice, that sang the bass, Sheply and I, and there we sang of all sorts of things, and I ventured with good success upon things at first sight, and after that I played on my flageolet, and staid there till nine o’clock, very merry and drawn on with one song after another till it came to be so late."

If the life of the mind (as Pfaff asserts) was indeed being channeled into the ivory tower of the university, then I'd say that something very similar happened to music.  What was once a skill practiced by many is now something done seriously only by professional (or those who aspire to be) musicians.  Yes, there are still skilled amateurs around but I know of very few people in the U.S. or France who meet for dinner and then have the ability to spontaneously haul out the instruments and play together.  In Pepys' time the making of music was something everyone could participate in, while today it seems to be a skill one passively observes and admires from afar.

If I had my way the intellectual, artistic and musical life would come rushing back to the private sphere.  The professionals (the rock musicians, Harvard professors, best-selling authors, even the functionnaire who holds a day job so he can write poetry at night) would still exist but in a context where the majority (the laity) had those skills as well and could exercise them for pleasure.  Not to compete with the professionals and the published but for the sheer delight of creation and the joy of doing it with others.

If this were so perhaps there would be more appreciation for those whose skill surpasses the norm and the words "intellectual" and "artist" could be redeemed.  A world where no one would ever ever have to write an Apologia like Pfaff's.


Anonymous said...

My preferred definition of an intellectual: Someone who can pronounce more than two consecutive sentences without talking about him/herself or someone s/he knows.


N. said...

Yes, how much more fun would evenings with friends be if everyone could pull out an instrument and all would play together! You have this in the community of folk musicians (in France for sure) where music is nothing academic, but rather a popular art and it is all about sharing the music and the dance ...

Ellen said...

renew online or send an email to renew the books!

Jay Gottlieb said...

Hi. Just to say that (1)I am an avid reader of your postings and really enjoy them...and learn from them, as well, and (2)as a concert pianist, I HEAR what you are saying when you invoke that crucial notion of practice and no substitute for it if you intend to go out there on stage before a paying audience expecting more than tiddlywinks. And that (3) one should be heartened to know that there are vast numbers, all around the world, of gifted amateurs/day jobbers "hauling out their instruments" afterwards and during weekends making music together: chamber music associations for this sort of thing, and even international amateur competitions. It most certainly did not die with Pepys. There is SO much out there that people simply have no idea of--if they did, there would be less pessimism and despair and a sense of void. It is essential to be keenly aware of the ongoing nature of creation (living composers, living writers, living painters...) and that greatness did not die before we were born. Cheers!

JuliaLikesFrogs said...

I love this: "Reading, writing, and thinking just for the hell of it is like music: 1% talent and 99% effort."

I play the fiddle as one of my many hobbies, and I am grateful that I can do so without feeling like I have to call myself a musician... but then I feel left out of the musical conversation, too! Lay musician? or Musical hobbyist?

Intellectual hobbyist?

Blaze said...

"Intellectuals solve problems. Geniuses prevent them." (Albert Einstein)

Considering how many problems the world has right now and how they aren't getting better, it seems we don't have very many of either.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@N Seattle has a lively folk music scene too. And you're so right about it being about sharing and having a good time.

@Ellen, Thanks for reminding me. I'll take care of it this morning.

@Jay, Hi there! Thank you so much for reading the Flophouse and for your lovely comment. It was an old friend of the family, a jazz musician, who first explained to me how much effort mattered. It was inspiration for me to keep playing the violin.

And it's so encouraging to hear that lay musicians are still around. I loved what you had to say about there being less pessimism and more joy in the world where the creative spirit reigns.

@Julia, I know what you mean. I never until very recently called myself a "writer" because I don't make my living at it and it felt like pressure to me. And then a friend pointed out that since writing was what I spent my time doing then as far as he was concerned I was one - end of story. :-) So I think you (and me when I finally haul out the French violin of mine) can safely call ourselves "lay musicians".

@Blaze Absolutely. Gore Vidal once wrote a wonderful book about the Founding Fathers. What an abundance of genius at just the right time.

@Arun. I love your definition and I know exactly what you mean.

Tim said...

My sense of a lot of lay European Intellectuals is they tend to be left wing, pro Obama, and pro FATCA which generally means I have little use for them.

One thing I have found more and more shocking is how few EU intellectuals have any working knowledge of the United States and how it works internally. If your Frenchlings stay in the France these summer visits to the US will be a great learning experience very few people in France appear to have.

Tim said...

I just came across an old but pretty good article that might give us the answers we are looking for:

European commentators have called tea partyers stupid, ignorant, gullible – and worse. Behind the vitriol may lie a worry about its influence on the Continent.

You thought a lot of American liberals don't quite cotton to the tea party? You should hear the Europeans. From Britain to Germany, newspaper editorialists – albeit for mostly liberal and leftist party publications – have in turn called those who sympathize with the small-government, antitax tea party movement that sprung up in early 2009 "ill-educated," "drooling imbeciles," "rednecks," and even a "traveling circus of fools."

"Rather than commend the Tea Party movement as a refreshing and enviable display of American political energy, European media elites have launched an all-out propaganda assault on the movement and its supporters," writes Soeren Kern, a senior analyst at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estrategicos on the Pajamas Media news site. "The main tactic has been to seek to discredit Tea Party sympathizers as ... the exact opposite of ideal European citizens and their elite masters."

Tim said...

Just so you don't think I dislike all French intellectuals I am HUGE HUGE fan of Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber and his seminal essay Le Defi Americain.

A more interesting part of Servan-Schreiber's life story is he got so fed up with the French University system and its lack of interest in Computer Science after published Le Defi Mondial he moved to Pittsburgh USA and all of his four children graduated from Carnegie Mellon University.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Tim is this the same Servan-Schreiber that wrote the excellent book about cancer? Or is that one of his family?

Tim said...

I think it might be. Or it might be his son. Will have to do more checking.