Overrated: Intellect

"An intellectual is someone who looks at a pink party balloon and thinks of Jeff Koons"

Stephen Bayley

An intellectual is someone who looks at a pink party balloon and thinks of Jeff Koons. Intellectuals believe in the power of mind over doesn’t matter. They take pleasure from the delicious thrill of thinking for the sake of thinking. Someone, as Camus said, whose mind watches itself.It would be a mistake, however, to construe this as a useful activity. Einstein believed that intellectuals merely solve problems while geniuses were able to avoid them in the first place.

It’s useful to attempt a definition. To call someone intellectual is not to say they are intelligent. Nor even academic. An intelligent person follows patterns of thought and behaviour that are adaptively variable to changing circumstances. As Mrs Thatcher, no intellectual, said: you can prove you have a mind by changing it.

Instead, intellectuals tend towards conformity. Nowhere was this more gruesomely obvious than in the wince-makingly self-aware collective of the Fifties that called itself the New York Intellectuals. With none of the fine demotic style of the New York Yankees, this preening group included Dwight Macdonald (editor of Partisan Review), Norman Podhoretz, Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow and Clement Greenberg.

Their enthusiasm for Meursault-Marxism led to a dreadful rigidity in thought.  So much so that Trotsky said of Macdonald: “Every man has a right to be stupid, but comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.”

The intellectual is what used to be called a Man of Letters, a term dating from the time when literacy was not common thus to possess it a mark of true distinction. To confirm any suspicion that intellectuals are often dead white men, I have two favourite exemplars from the 20th century: George Steiner and Bruce Chatwin.

Both were public intellectuals which means they were authors of popular non-fiction books who were not sportsmen, cooks or comedians. Or, at least, not comedians of the television sort. Hilariously, the polymath, polyglot Steiner reached his teens without realising that not everyone grew up being trilingual. I suppose you could call him an intellectual snob.

Chatwin was a travel writer of marked intellectual disposition. Here’s a revealing anecdote. Travelling in Australia with a companion, he once stooped to pick up a dark brown crystalline object evidently formed by the human hand. He held it up to the light in sacred contemplation and extemporised with wonder: “This is surely a rare tool used in the ritual circumcision ceremonies of the indigenous Doolbong people of the Northern Territories.” His jaw-dropped, wide-eyed companion replied: “Nah, mate, it’s a sandblasted shard of a Castlemaine XXXX bottle.”

Australia, a civilisation with little enthusiasm for the bogus, provides an interesting test for the presence of the intellectual mentality. Listen to the 1961 hit recording of novelty song “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back” by the Cockney comedian Charlie Drake.

An intellectual would reference the lyrics’ debt to the Myth of the Perpetual Return, a recurrent motif in anthropology. They might also wish to discuss the role of gyroscopic procession in the aerodynamics of a rotating wing. By contrast, a mere academic would note that the record was issued by Parlophone, made at Abbey Road Studios and lasted in its original form 3’22”. And, incidentally, produced by George Martin in his pre-Beatles moment. Meanwhile the instinctive intelligence would simply declare it to be cheerful kitsch.

There’s another characteristic shared by intellectuals and this is the tendency towards lofty quotation. Most often cited are the unreadable Hegel, the unreadable Kant, the unreadable Nietzsche. Nicely, Henry Miller, author of the epically obscene Tropic of Cancer, described Hegel as “the acknowledged cornerstone of the whole nutcracker suite of intellectual hocus-pocus”.

The French have a greater tendency towards intellectualism than the empirical British. There’s the old joke about the Sorbonne intello saying: “It’s all very well if it works in practice, but does it work in theory?”

This was all brilliantly skewered in Alan Sokal’s Impostures Intellectuelles of 1997, an academic hoax about the ”transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity” and in Pierre Bayard’s 2007 Comment Parler des Livres qu’on n’a pas lus whose title invites you never to read it (while remaining a temptation boldly to cite it in an intellectual fashion).

But maybe we underestimate the British contribution to World Intellect. We have had Shaw, Wells, Keynes and Russell. Today, we have A.C. Grayling and Will Self, although some may wish to debate their precise global status vis-à-vis Noam Chomsky and Umberto Eco. On the other hand, there is the gardener Alan Titchmarsh who left school at 15 and is, for my money, a finer source of wisdom and insight than anybody in the preceding paragraphs. Humour too.

Wasn’t it Voltaire who said what we really must do is “cultivate our own garden”?

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