Pinter and intellectuals of Europe

published Oct 30, 2005 12:18   by admin ( last modified Oct 30, 2005 12:18 )
(version 1.02, changes will come)

In 1949, the exiled German writer Klaus Mann, one of my favourite authors, wrote a piece on the state of the intellectuals in Europe after the second world war (I do not endorse the other contents of that site). In it, he describes how he criss-crosses Europe and meets intellectuals in varying states of despair, clinging ideologically  to communism, or fundamentalist catholicism, or some other extreme view. This is now more than fifty years ago, but the pattern remains.

That set me thinking, or rather it lent another piece to the puzzle I've had in my head for quite some time: Why do so many European intellectuals scorn liberalism, market economy, freedom of the individual? Why do they kiss up to any dictator in the world? I believe now I have an answer to that question. In order to discern a good intellectual from the apparently bad ones I am going to describe, I will describe the latter ones as being pre-liberal intellectuals. Since i am only going to write about them, you can safely assume that is what I mean even if I write just intellectual. For any US readers, let me point out that liberal in this context does not necessarily align with the usage of the word "liberal" in the US. Liberal here means open, tolerant, believing in rational reasoning and personal freedom for all.

The stage, and the stage machinery

In the bad old days, when the church ruled our minds, there was a discrepancy between the stage, and the stage machinery. The stage contained heaven and the saints and the angels and the clergy, and the stage machinery, the people and customs that actually produced something, on the other side. So stage here refers to the context that intellectuals had to work in, whether that be art, literature or something else. People accepted there were two worlds, and they were wholly separate. Any culture produced, in church or out of it, was controlled by the church and also by powerful rulers. So, what culture of any calibre people could consume was controlled. Some people felt very much at home on the stage. It gave attention to these pre-liberal intellectuals, and the elaborate stories about the human condition that were performed on the stage over hundreds of years, provided an ever richer foundation for new variations on it. You could not criticize that much the powers that be, so the culture became emotional and inward looking, dealing with psychological phenomena, although they probably weren't aware of this. They pondered the eternal questions of man, instead of taking care of the non-eternal ones and be done with it. Eternal questions are essentially harmless. Bondage was woven into the fabric of intellectual expression.

This presents a huge problem for any budding intellectual today. For just like a programmer, an intellectual is building on the work of others, and when the existing "class libraries" (to lend a term from computing) look the way they do, what is an intellectual to do? Start over?

When communism came, it took over the stage-stage machinery dichotomy. Pre-liberal intellectuals could easily be lured into this new world, because communism is totalitarian which means it has much greater power than ever the church, so the stage can be exquisitly tailored to the intellectuals wettest dreams, and the stage machinery so powerful that any connection with reality can be suppressed emphatically. Communism kept building on the old "class libraries".

With communism, a strong intellectual tradition started losing all connections with reality, but it remained powerful in the way it could emotionally reach out and touch people. It had a firm grasp on the psychology of the inner world, but none on reality, the outer world. Indeed it was designed with this result in mind. Also intellectuals in more democratic (or should I say liberal) countries in Europe fell under the sway of the stage - stage machinery construct, and communism. It gave them something they were yearning for - being elite (or 1337 in hacker's parlance). The people who rule media in Sweden today, largely reads as a who's who in revolutionary communism in the 60s and 70s (though age is now starting to take it's toll on them).

In his book Immortality, Milan Kundera writes about Homo Sentimentalis, European man, whose feelings are larger than life. The first example being Don Quixote, who professes his love for Dulcinea by doing somersaults in front of a bemused Sancho Panza. The manifestation of emotion is more important than the emotion itself, or it's motive. Europeans are people with emotions larger than life.

Fear of knowledge
Since the stage tradition deals with a world essentially separated from the real one, it seemed convenient to ditch empirical observation and logic. These methods of reaching the truth were seen as competitors to the intellectual's emotive imagery, recurring patterns and psychological drama. And they could be dangerous to the powers that be. By ditching them the pre-liberal intellectual has ever since needed to go deeper and deeper into a stranger and stranger world of subjective phenomena. He can't turn back, because embracing some of the liberal constructs demand significant cognitive work especially if you are going to play catch-up after your formative years. And how could you stay elite then? Nah, beter diss it from the beginning. Two concepts that seem especially difficult are the concept of the market, and the concept of personally held universal moral values. Both these concepts are underpinnings for a very dynamic and pluralistic world, a world that confuses the pre-liberal intellectual. Some years ago in Sweden a debate raged over a perceived divide between humanists (communists and socialists largely) and technocrats (anyone with a degree in anything empirical or logical). Interestingly enough, being humanist was defined as not being "tainted" by that other cold world.

To sum it up

The Swedish Academy, that awards the Nobel Prize in literature, is an elite if there ever was one.
An elite that has real influence over - nothing. They can only stay elite, they think, if they occasionally  take as a contradictory position as possible to liberal democracy. The Swedish Academy has no training in logic or empirical knowledge.  For then they can venture as far out into mysticism, as they whish.