"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But in many ways Pfaff's essay is terribly outdated.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.