Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Card-carrying member of the intelligentsia

I haven't thought a whole lot about the term "intelligentsia" in a while.  Stoppard puts the word in Turgenev's mouth in The Coast of Utopia, and I remembered back to when I was in college and self-identified with that class (though whether it is truly a coherent social class is up for debate).  Of course, those days now read like the last gasp of when public intellectuals really counted for anything in American culture.  You could still see Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer and others arguing things out on television, particularly the Dick Cavett show.  William Buckley, Jr. and William Safire could publish intelligent commentary as well as columns on language and style (true enough, typically those only appeared in New York media outlets). While I disagreed with most of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, he was generally correct about how anti-intellectualism had spread deeply in the U.S., and it has full triumphed today with huge cutbacks to public education at the university level in nearly all states. I think you see this in the UK as well, though oddly enough, most of the political leaders remain Oxbridge-educated, but popular culture in the UK is certainly yob-infested.  I guess this also has happened to a lesser extent in Canada, maybe slowed down simply because so many Canadians actually live in cities (over 80% of Canadians live in urban areas).

To some extent, to make a full-fledged defense of the Intelligentsia is to throw one's lot in with Adorno and Horkheimer and to be an unabashed elitist.  On my bad days, this is where I end up, totally fed up with the U.S. and its obsession with simpletons from various reality shows.  But of course, it really all comes down to taste, and it is not objectively better to prefer books and music that are vetted by the elite.  And when we look at the High/Low phenomenon in Pop Art where categories are blurred and "low" tastes are appropriated and transformed, then it becomes clear how arbitrary these categories are.

One of the crueler ironies of my life is that I don't hang out with other members of the intelligentsia and that my work world is dominated by engineering types who are at best are advocates for or apostles of digiteracy.  It might be better in Toronto, but only if I make an effort and reach out to people in these circles.  My connections with folks with liberal arts backgrounds/training have gotten very thin.  But I still remember the heady days when I was surrounded by others that thought that philosophical ideas mattered -- and might change the world.  Of course, I am far more cynical these days and am not sure I believe that as much as I did.

For all the arguing (and absurd sectarianism) of the intelligentsia, it is fair to say that in a few societies they made a profound difference, but most of the time they did not.  They did not set the world on fire.

Still, it is noble in a way how deep into self-improvement the true intelligentsia are, and how better to express this love of knowledge than by reading.  Here, New Yorkers really outdo themselves, particularly this subset I am discussing.  New York is probably the one place (in the U.S.) you can find several people at a party with an informed opinion about the books on the New York Times recommended list (not the best-seller list) and probably the off-Broadway plays as well.  You would find more of this in Europe, particularly Paris, but not so much in America. In L.A., you might go to parties where people were well-versed in cinema (and not simply their box office grosses), but probably not so much the esoteric books.

There is a very droll news story about how in the notes to the Broadway production of The Coast of Utopia, the dramaturge listed 7 books for further reading, including a pretty obscure book on Russian thinkers by Isaiah Berlin.  Just this note has led to a run on the book, and it has been reprinted by the publisher.*  There has been a considerable uptick in people reading Turgenev and Herzen (two real-life figures who figure prominently in The Coast of Utopia).  There is a real hunger to find out about this quite fascinating period in time, and to read what one's fellow New Yorkers are reading.

And indeed, I am no exception.  I can point to the fact that I read a fair bit of Turgenev and Dostoevsky in my youth, so I am not entirely a Johnny-come-Lately, but I went ahead and read Turgenev's A Month in the Country right after being inspired by Stoppard and then ordered a copy of Fathers and Sons with Berlin's lecture on Turgenev included as a bonus.  I'm not entirely sure which version of Herzen's memoirs to read, and I certainly won't tackle it soon, but I probably will get to it one of these days.  There is a one volume abridgement of Constance Garnett's translation, but that seems to leave out too much.  Interestingly, the entire thing is being reprinted in 6 volumes.  I might get that someday if it is in a cheap digital edition.  Otherwise, I am a bit more likely to go for the two volume edition published by Oxford (presumably a different translation).  I guess the only thing that makes this bandwagon effect slightly less ridiculous is that Stoppard was not spoon-feeding the audiences this time around, as sometimes happens in plays that are ostensibly about "ideas."  This trilogy is packed with real philosophical ideas being conveyed (as well as quite a bit of humor and asides into human nature).  I am glad I was able to see them, and I'll see about getting around to a proper review of them soon.

* There was a slight resurgence in interest in England after The Coast of Utopia played in London, but nowhere near as many theatre-goers rushing out to read up on what they had been exposed to.  This doesn't really surprise me, as I find New York contains the purest distillation of the literary wing of the intelligentsia.

With that said, you can find outposts of the intelligentsia in most major cities.  I was particularly amused by this class offered by the Newberry Library in Chicago where The Coast of Utopia is being taught in conjunction with the essays from Berlin's Russian Thinkers and presumably at least some original texts by Herzen, Turgenev and Bakunin.  While this class does look interesting (and apparently wraps up this Saturday), at this point in my life I do prefer self-study methods.  The same thing with art galleries where I essentially never opt for the guided tour.

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