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English Eggheads

John-Paul McCarthy

Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, by Stefan Collini, Oxford University Press, 544 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0199216659

Culture is always something that was
Something pedants can measure,

Skull of bard, thigh of chief, depth of dried up river,
Shall we be thus forever?
Shall we be thus forever?
Patrick Kavanagh, “In Memory of Brother Michael”


Of all the known permutations of the shaggy dog story that have commended themselves at dinner parties through the ages, one alone seems to get funnier each time it’s told. The scene is a filthy building site in east London guarded by an old-school gaffer. A tattered figure approaches decked out in wellies and flat cap. In between sharp drags on the ubiquitous Rothman, this drifter asks for work, the more casual the better. The gaffer grimaces and says no, and for good measure tells the supplicant he looks “like a man who couldn’t tell the difference between a girder and a joist”. “I can too,” comes the wounded retort, “the first of them wrote Faust and the second wrote Ulysses.”

Stefan Collini would have enjoyed this joke as it captures many of the problems which are discussed in Absent Minds. Intellectuals in Britain, his gorgeous, vulnerable tour de force, just published in paperback to general acclaim. Collini shows that intellectual life is as much a matter of fantasy, deception and desire as it is about simply doing one’s homework or keeping up one’s end in an argument. An intellectual may assuredly be something more complex than a chap with a briefcase, but Collini’s book shows that, at least as debated in twentieth century Britain, the species remains always and everywhere just out of reach. His book explores the “culture of denial” that has suffused arguments in modern Britain about the nature of intellectual endeavour and its importance or otherwise in our sad lives as we actually live them.

This unusual book has essentially two parts, the first being a complex, reticular argument about why so many different groups in modern Britain have insisted ad nauseam that their country lacked “real” intellectuals, as opposed to say the dynamic breeds that only seem to flourish in those famous cafés across the channel in France. Collini then gives concrete examples of this tendency by exploring how several important thinkers in modern Britain have understood their roles vis a vis society at large. All of his chosen characters, from TS Eliot to Orwell and RG Collingwood have to a greater or lesser degree collaborated with the absence thesis. Not surprisingly, Collini assures us that intellectuals have always existed in England, and will continue to exist so long as “needs and anxieties are expressed about the relation between the daily round and the ends of life”. He wants to know why this was denied for so long and who stood to gain from the fiction.

This book, which has matured in Collini’s cask for many years, demands the widest possible audience and should appeal to intellectual historians (obviously), connoisseurs of the Anglo-French relationship and those who are interested in the not altogether smooth working relationship between historians and cultural critics. Having taken readers through an urbane analysis of modern British intellectual life with all its attendant absurdities and attractions between Hobhouse and Laski, Collini gathers his courage in his hands in the final chapters and argues that there is no reason to suppose that British society is especially vicious or vacuous when considered over the historical longue durée, and that in some cases to age is actually to improve. This unusual book offers more than elegant prose, nicely timed one-liners and a rare comparative perspective. We get that most precious of things at a time when there is much money to be made by assuring readers that the barbarians are at our gates fiddling with the dodgy locks: Absent Minds is sustained by the kind of tough-minded optimism one might expect from a scholar whose early work did so much to enrich the debate about the Victorian liberal tradition that gave the world Mill, Acton, Hobhouse and Green. Though the times may indeed be tired, Collini assures us that we are not quite fit for the knacker’s yard, at least not just yet. While severe on occasion, but never cynical, Collini has written something finer than a mere pathology of ignominy, and one gets the impression by the end that he couldn’t play Cassandra even if he wanted to.

While the structure of this book can disorientate at first blush – Collini speaks to us here as comparative cultural critic, Francophile intellectual historian, semantic exegete, LRB-trained polemicist and portrait artist san pareil – the unusual structure, or what he himself called its “deliberative unevenness”, serves ultimately to enrich rather than retard the endeavour. He divides his book into five sections, beginning with a history of the term intellectual, which seems to have entered the British lexicon during the convulsions that followed the Dreyfus case in fin de siècle France. He explores how different kinds of cultural commentators in Britain have talked about intellectual life, and then shows the extraordinary similarities between the debate in Britain, France, Spain, Germany and America.

For various reasons, few of the major commentators in these countries were convinced that they had produced a genuine intellectual class. Some sought intellectuals who would speak truth unto power; some wanted access to the levers of power, while others just wanted to be recognised in their own time. Though divided by mountains and large oceans, all ached as one for a “real” life of the mind that remained dimly understood and poorly articulated. Disappointment knew no borders, it seems, then or now. The effect of this comparative analysis is nothing short of astonishing as strikingly similar motifs are trotted out in various vernaculars. Collini then shifts gear and shows how the recurring themes of denial, absence and envy have suffused the works of Eliot, Orwell, Collingwood, the philosopher AJ Ayer and the historian AJP Taylor. The final section is the most personal and here Collini discusses the role of universities in modern cultural life after Mrs Thatcher’s long reign of terror and assesses the problem of academic specialisation and the cult of the dissenting celebrity. Edward Said’s Reith lectures for the BBC in 1994 are given the full LRB treatment here and there isn’t much left of them by the time he has finished. Then again, Said was asking for it, as we shall see.

Collini’s real subject is the nature of modern English nationalism and the sense of exceptionalism, political, social and moral, which it inspired. While many of the commentators assessed here agreed on little else, most followed Burke and de Tocqueville’s argument that England was theoretically impoverished and thus uniquely barren ground for “real” intellectuals. The implied contrast was nearly always with France since Wellington and Waterloo. Collini has written with cool detachment about the English national self-image in a previous collection of essays, English Pasts: Essays in History and Culture, which is well worth revisiting. We know this story as the so-called Whig version of English history, which has come down to generations of schoolchildren in the professionally snide prose of Lord Macaulay or in the softer homiletics of Henry Hallam.

Speaking broadly, these historians told a stirring tale in which the English story was presented as the gradual, sensible extension of freedoms, first laid down by King John at Runnymede or inherited from Teuton forebears, freedoms which were vindicated by the king who defied the Roman tyrant in the sixteenth century and later by an increasingly powerful House of Commons which sat in the middle of a balanced constitution that evolved but never quite changed all that much. Constitutional liberty, variously defined of course, was as English as milky tea and Cornish pasties. Macaulay in particular traced all good things back to England’s uniquely conservative revolution in 1688, when William of Orange clipped the wings of an aggressively Catholic sovereign and brought an end to forty years of indiscriminate constitutional mayhem. Whatever else about these Whig historians, they liked to keep things nice and tidy. Barricade-storming was a matter for the French and abstract declarations about the inviolable rights of man were a madness best left to the Americans. Collini has had his fun with these pieties before, and in an essay on that echtMacaulayite flunky GM Trevelyan, suggested that “one wouldn’t have to be terribly knowledgeable about the murky constitutional goings-on [during 1688] to present a rather different picture of the sequence of events whereby a hereditary monarch claiming divine endorsement is kicked off his throne by a temporary alliance of party godfathers who then draw up the terms of the contract for bringing in a complete outsider who had made quite a name for himself by the aggressive style in which he had run a foreign outfit”. Collini has a range of styles at his disposal. Happily, pious is not one of them.

Though the Whig version of English history has been an enormously powerful force in that country’s intellectual development, it has not had the field completely to itself, even during Macaulay’s heyday in the nineteenth century. John Lingard’s Catholic histories of England focused on the absurdities of the Anglican Church and dwelt at lurid length on the hysteria and cruelty that animated Archbishop Cranmer’s reformed brand of Protestantism and the crazy fantasies that underpinned Cromwell’s Commonwealth. James Anthony Froude’s histories conjured up an image of a sixteenth century utopia; being largely contemptuous of Whig constitutional pieties, his books could easily be filed under “all downhill since the Tudors”. David Hume dismissed the idea of a set of inherited ancient liberties as sheer fantasy.

Collini lingers over the most aggressively disaffected modern critique of Whig history, as penned by the Marxist enragés orbiting the New Left Review in the late 1950s, who battered vainly against England’s increasingly desiccated “national” story after the war. His subtle reading of the famous debate between EP Thompson, Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn suggests that while the new leftists defined themselves in bitter opposition to the complacent empiricism and political constitutionalism of the English national story, their analysis was deeply infected by some of its most conspicuous inanities. All assumed that England was somehow delinquent relative to some hazy European norm, and therefore culpably unique in having failed to develop a mass socialist party, a failure traced in part to the tranquilising effect of the porous Victorian political settlement. Many were prone to hilariously amateurish generalisations about the nature of England’s historical development since the seventeenth century (especially the role of religion), and all seemed to imply that the only genuine intellectual was the one who broke some furniture. Collini is by no means sneering here, but he cuts deeply when he says of Anderson especially that “he wrote as a theorist who overestimates the historical role of theories” and that the marxisant deployment of an ugly vulgate of “theory” and “crisis” was itself “profoundly inattentive to the actual details of British intellectual life”, and was “content to trade in characterisations that are so broad-brush as to be almost indistinguishable from cliché”.

He is justly dismissive of Terry Eagleton’s suggestion that Yeats was lucky to have lived in an era of fervent nationalism, an idea premised on the charming assumption that good poetry can only be wrought out of bad blood. Shaking a sad head before the popular leftist tendency to cast fluttering eyes at nineteenth century Irish society, (a post-famine society!), Collini notes that “[li]ving in the era of Irish nationalism will not strike everyone as a persuasive example of good fortune”. And here it’s hard to suppress a little cheer. He concludes with the observation that “the yearning for simplicity in matters where simplicity is not naturally at home is always a pathology of the intellectual life, a weariness or desire to lay down the burden of potentially endless analysis and criticism, and to be rid of the unglamorous obligation to try to be realistic in identifying the lesser evil”. At times Collini sounds very much like his friend Tom Dunne in his moving memoir Rebellions: Memory, Myth and 1798. Like Collini, Dunne reminds Eagleton et al that liberal humanists will not sit quietly while they are lectured by theorists who have exchanged fundamentalist Irish Catholicism for an equally austere Marxist identity. Though hardly as exciting as shouting at the moon, muddling through can sometimes be the hardest challenge of all.

As he relates the denial fantasy to that enduring self-image of John Bull the plain-speaking common man Collini shows that he is at ease with the complexities of the historical experience. When we turn to his profiles of actual intellectuals in denial, we see that he can move as easily from the polemical to the personal and that he has lost nothing of the humane intuition that made his study of Matthew Arnold so compelling nearly twenty years ago. (It is as well to warn would-be readers here that they simply must resist the urge to make a mad dash for this part of the book. These are not DNB-style cradle-to-grave profiles of the great and good, rather a series of angled evocations of his basic theme as played out in real time. Anybody who reads them cold will be sorely disappointed, since they acquire their lustre only when seen as part of his larger argument.)

Each profile contains a sequin of its own, and some reach genuine moments of dignity. We watch (since that’s all we can do) as TS Eliot tries frantically to fashion an authentic intellectual and cultural life in London, only to find that the beautiful Arch of St Louis, Missouri is forever on the horizon no matter how fast he runs. Perhaps the single most affecting image of the entire book comes here as Collini charts Eliot’s yearning for a more austere religious dynamic in modern society.

In the years during which most of his social criticism was written (roughly 1933-48), the regular rhythms of his life were built around acts of religious and social ritual – morning services at St Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, where he was a churchwarden, lunch at familiar clubs, tea in his office with an aspiring writer or contributor to The Criterion, and eventually the retreat into the closely guarded privacy of the bare rented rooms in which he lived and where he could be alone with his bare rented soul.

Ezra Pound argued that Eliot’s success was a product of his ability to disguise himself as a corpse, and Collini refashions this aperçu into another moving image, suggesting again that “[d]isguise, of course is what intrigues us, with its promise of a person behind the persona, and literary critics tend to scan the later writings for those moments when the mask slips, when we are allowed, almost despite itself, a glimpse of the most powerful literary intelligence in English Modernism, before the prose once again smoothes its hair and tightens its tie”.

By contrast, RG Collingwood, author of the classic The Idea of History, lacked any trace of hesitancy and was quite insistent about his right to make as much noise as possible outside the academy. Intellectuals existed to make the world a better place. Struggling against a precarious constitution, Collingwood worked furiously throughout the thirties to finish The New Leviathan, his political will and testament, which he completed just before the clock struck midnight all over Europe. The Oxford philosopher AJ Ayer, also profiled here, thought confidence of this kind was nonsense and that ultimately there was little or no relationship between intellectual endeavour and the ways of a wicked world. Collini reminds us however that beneath that brisk exterior there was some human warmth. Asked by a rather credulous reporter what he thought of Albert Camus, in best high table manner Ayer apparently paused for a moment, scratched his head and said: “I don’t know his work well, but he and I were friends; we were making love to twin sisters in Paris after the war.” AJP Taylor makes a typically brash cameo here and we get to marvel again at his astonishing career, distinguished as it was by a promptitude in self-promotion and ráiméising that can still make you whistle after all these years. (Some of us are still bitter after being seduced by the handsome packaging of his vacuous book British Prime Ministers, most of which would shame even the most brazen of undergraduates). There seems, however, to have been some idealism there at some point, and he wasn’t always the cranky old bastard who wrote the Sunday Express motoring columns for vast sums. He did cause havoc at a meeting of communist fellow travellers in Poland in 1948 when he told the stunned comrades that Moscow would never get his soul. “In my opinion,” he said here “it is our duty as intellectuals to preach tolerance, not to preach hate. If we intellectuals are to work together, it must be on the basis of … truth. We intellectuals belong to the country of Voltaire and Goethe, of Tolstoi and Shakespeare. Without intellectual freedom, without love, without tolerance, the intellectual cannot serve humanity.” It would appear that the buffoon who reduced the Great War to a skirmish about railway timetables wasn’t born that way.

Collini is at his unillusioned best when dealing with Orwell, whom he shows to have been guilty of “that most unlovely and least defensible of inner contradictions, the anti-intellectualism of the intellectual”. Here we see Orwell the professionally unpleasant hypocrite, the cultured and literate intellectual who slurped his tea from a saucer, refused to wear an overcoat even in gale force winds and kept a filthy goat in his back garden, all for effect. As parsed by Collini, Orwell’s prose, supposedly his trump card against a pitiless posterity, appears ugly, sullen and unremarkable. He was obsessed with body odours, furtive homosexuals and Gandhi’s untrustworthiness. A democratic socialist by loud profession, his internationalism was as invertebrate on occasion as his faith in his comrades. Orwell specialised after all in the in-house j’accuse, a colleague being just one more enemy who had yet to be unmasked. Collini suggests that Orwell’s attempts to define the responsibilities of the intellectual in a totalitarian age were all rather warped by a capacity for jealousy and orneriness that verged at times on the pathological. Collini’s analysis should be read alongside Louis Menand’s brilliant critique of Orwell’s credentials as political visionary in The New Yorker from 2003 (See his “Honest, decent, wrong. The invention of George Orwell” at http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/01/27/030127crat_atlarge). “If he [Orwell] is going to be welcomed into the pantheon of right-thinking liberals,” Menand wrote, “he should at least be allowed to bring along his goat.” Collini gives us the goat and more.

While rough enough here, the later treatment of Edward Said’s Reith lectures on BBC radio in 1993 suggests Collini was dealing with Orwell with one hand tied behind his back. His critique of Said’s vacuous meditation on the duties of the public intellectual is quietly devastating, and he gives short shrift to his contention that they exist primarily to stick up for the underdog, whoever they may be. Said’s lectures were published in book form as Representations of the Intellectual and contained sentiments like the following: “what strikes me as much more interesting is how to keep a space in the mind open for doubt and for the part of an alert, sceptical irony (preferably also self-irony)”, or “it is difficult to find a way to be consistent with your beliefs and at the same time remain free enough to grow, change your mind, discover new things, or rediscover what you have once put aside”. After much provocation like this, Collini pounces. “The prose here,” he writes, “slides perilously close to a cross between that of an agony aunt and that of a tabloid astrologer: you will face difficult decisions, but you will discover that you have inner strength; a good month to reassess your goals/relationships/travel plans.” Collini got some of his nastiest reviews on the back of this analysis, especially from Said’s fiercely loyal platoon in America. But if anything he could have been even more severe. As anyone familiar with the full range of his work must concede, for all his undoubted cleverness Said could be culpably slapdash in his historical generalisations. Some of his Irish forays, for example, had all the elegance of a handyman’s attempts to clamber in through the bathroom window, especially as he insisted on reducing the complex Anglo-Irish relationship to a bruising smash-and-grab. (RF Foster’s Paddy and Mr Punch and Stephen Howe’s Ireland and Empire held the line here against several attempts to apply Said’s orientalist ideas to modern Irish cultural history.)

Anyone who sets out to explore a negative, in this case the British inability to think straight or honestly about intellectuals, had better have their wits about them. The resulting book could easily descend into a tiresome jeremiad or a repetitive rant. The inquiry could well end up looking like Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals. A Study in Decline, where he attempted to take America’s intellectual pulse by counting the number of times big names are mentioned on network television. Collini is wary of this and for good reason. (Anybody unsure about this kind of quantitative approach to big moral puzzles should peruse some of Judge Posner's appellate opinions, as summarised in this elegant profile, http://www.igreens.org.uk/richard_posner.htm and thank their lucky stars that they don’t live under the jurisdiction of his US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.) Nobody should have to prove a negative. Not the least of Collini's achievements here is the way he has permanently enlarged this debate at a general and a specific level.

One aches slightly for an Irish version of this work, especially since it sends so many hares flying in different directions. Such is the evocative nature of his prose that it is impossible not to speculate how modern Ireland might shape up if probed by a Collini-type study. Perhaps we would find that the opposite fantasy was at work in Ireland for a very long time, one that insisted on the uniquely creative nature of Irish culture since the aisling poets of the Jacobite era, or the United Irishman before 1801 or since Speranza, Carleton and Mitchell turned the Famine into an occasion for seething literary revenge. Bord Fáilte and the vengeful millionaires in Irish-America certainly seem to think along these lines. And perhaps that society which nurtured Yeats, Joyce and Wilde seriatim should crow just a little, before recognising that we all need to grow up at some point. At the very least, Collini reminds us that intellectual history need not be just another ethno-political narrative, or “a history of hatred”, of which we have probably had enough already. He offers a more capacious definition of “politics” at the beginning of this book, arguing that

it needs to be recognised that politics is not coextensive with that immensely variegated network of opinion, comment, polemic and so on that we abbreviate as ‘public debate’. It is of course the case that in any complex society, much of its public discussion and reflection will have an explicit bearing on its collective arrangements and the distribution of wealth and power by which these are determined, and so to this extent much of it trenches upon the political, though here it is not ‘politics’ in the narrow, news-editor’s sense.

As we savour Collini’s gentle taunting of the political historians, with their pieties and presumptions, one recalls Patrick Kavanagh's own cultural cri de coeur, wrought out of him by a lifetime of isolation and condescension.

Culture is always something that was
Something pedants can measure,
Skull of bard, thigh of chief, depth of dried up river,
Shall we be thus forever?
Shall we be thus forever?

It would be refreshing also to see an Irish scholar write a history of Irish historiography that explored the ideas Collini assesses in his chapter on RG Collingwood (which derives from his more philosophical profile of Collingwood in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) As Collini had it, Collingwood drove himself on in the face of ill-health and professional indifference in the attempt to work out the full implications of “the great event in the history of the world” as JB Bury had called “the advent of history”. Collingwood suggests to us that it is possible to write a history of histories so to speak that is not merely an analysis of how politics can warp historical narratives or how history shapes identity. The historical mind, as John Burrow showed in his extraordinary recent book A History of Histories (Penguin, 2007), is based on a series of ethical assumptions about the nature of human knowledge and responsibility that go far beyond the realm of mere politics. Irish historiography looks curiously introverted in this light at times, largely perhaps because it has so weak a philosophical base. Nineteenth century Ireland had no JS Mill to map these ideas, and as such, twenty-first century Ireland has no John Burrow.

John-Paul McCarthy holds the Usher-Cunningham doctoral studentship in Irish history at Exeter College, Oxford, where he tutors in Irish history. He is currently finishing a biography of Maurice Moynihan, to be published by Cork University Press.