Not Even Joseph Epstein Speaks Freely about the Conservative Movement
The chief problem facing John Podhoretz in his editorship of the current-day Commentary, I would say, is not the distraction of the Internet or the isolation of neoconservatism, but how to run an intellectual magazine without genuine intellectuals. For it is far from clear that we even have intellectuals any longer—at least not in the old sense of men and women living on and for ideas, imbued with high culture, willing to sacrifice financially to live the undeterred life of the mind. Intellectuals of the kind that T.S. Eliot sought as contributors to the Criterion— Ortega y Gasset, Paul Valéry, E.R. Curtius, Arthur Eddington—no longer exist. Nor do the intellectuals, of lesser fame and distinction, who helped fill Elliot Cohen’s pages.
Instead, we have so-called public intellectuals, a very different, much less impressive, type, whom I have always thought should be called Publicity Intellectuals. Public intellectual is another term for talking head—men and women who have newspaper columns or blogs or appear regularly on television and radio talk shows and comment chiefly on politicians and political programs; they tend to be articulate without any sign of being cultured, already lined and locked up politically, and devoted to many things, but the disinterested pursuit of the truth not among them. Frank Rich is a public intellectual, so too are Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza.
No “genuine intellectuals” at Commentary today? Epstein, a contributor to the magazine for almost 50 years, plainly sees a falling off.
On the surface at least, he blames a broad cultural shift, of which the Commentary is but a passive victim. At the same time, his indicia of intellectual decline are hard to take seriously.
First, he laments that intellectuals today don’t live in the impecunious manner befitting the philosopher. They make money! They win popular acclaim! It hardly bears noting that just because a writer fails to conform to some stereotype of a man of letters does mean that he is not worth reading. Epstein ingenuously avers that mid-2oth century intellectuals were devoted to the “disinterested pursuit of truth.” That’s rather a rich way to describe so notoriously spiteful and ambitious a clan. Podhoretz, Hook, Trilling, et al. craved status no less than intellectuals today. Only the means to get it have changed.
Next, Epstein assumes that genuine intellectuals eschew a mass audience. Gone, certainly, are the days when writers aspired to contribute only to small-circulation magazines like Partisan Review. But the neat division of media into high, middle and lowbrow organs was a product of its time. If you grow up in a tradition — Marxism — that teaches the inevitability of revolution, then you will tend only to care what your co-revolutionists think. You might even notice the affinities between T.S. Eliot’s defense of aristocracy and your own allegiance to an avant guard. Highbrow culture in America depended on revolutionary conviction. After the latter collapsed, so did the former. By the 1960s, even Dwight MacDonald was writing for The New Yorker.
Nor is it even clear that criticism should be venerated. Sorry to say, but the mid-20th century intellectuals are overrated. Their pre-occupations — Marx and Freud — now seem embarrassing, even faddish. They succumbed to rather elementary confusions, such as that “highbrow” is synonymous with “better.” It’s not even true that it requires some demanding training — what Epstein calls “being cultured”– to understand them. They excelled in the diverting essay rather than the groundbreaking paper or book. The very word “intellectual” denotes a trafficker rather than producer of ideas.
To say that the New York intellectuals were merely intellectuals is not to demean them. It is to say that it’s hard to understand, in hindsight, how they managed to cow their contemporaries so effectively. They produced entertainment no less than the “masscult” figures they derided — and no less than the “public intellectuals” that Epstein scorns today.
So much for Epstein’s surface account of Commentary’s decline. I suspect that, for all his genuine admiration for Commentary in his heyday, Epstein does not seriously believe that one cannot find “genuine intellectuals” today. What he really means, though he stops short of saying it, is that one cannot find “genuine intellectuals” today at Commentary. Commentary and its affiliates would rightly take umbrage at that assessment. Shrewdly, Epstein preserves plausible deniability by (somewhat feebly) blaming society for Commentary’s deficiencies. He insinuates rather than indicts. Why jeopardize one’s regular writing outlets, not to mention the many favorable reviews for one’s next book from the sequacious conservative press?