The Intellectual: Will He Wither Away?

by Merle Kling

originally appeared in The New Republic, April 8, 1957 (as cited in C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures)

transcribed (without permission) by Arnold Kling, April 28, 2003

In accepting the Republican nomination to campaign for the Presidency a second time, Mr. Eisenhower, at the risk of blurring his stereotyped public image of conventionality, indulged in a rare literary reference and quoted Henrik Ibsen's letter of January 3, 1882, to George Brandes: "I hold that that man is in the right who is most closely in league with the future." With this phrase Mr. Eisenhower, deliberately or accidentally, assumed the historically-sanctioned ethical posture of intellectuals. For intellectuals traditionally have rationalized and justified their vagaries precisely on the grounds that they were "in league with the future." Vilified for their beliefs or ridiculed for their literary and artistic innovations, intellectuals, like the devoutly religious who are confident of their rewards in the Kingdom of Heaven, have maintained faith in the "proof" of history.

Now the irony of this is that while Mr. Eisenhower associates himself with those "in league with the future," the contemporary intellectual has lost his claim on the future. It is my thesis (and one contrary to that which has been advanced in these pages recently) that the intellectual is isolated from the main currents of social change, and that he is incapable of comprehending or interpreting present directions of change. His predictions in the past were not always right, but they were plausible. Today, thanks to the wholly unprecedented transformations wrought by science and technology, he lacks the most elementary and indispensable prerequisites for making "league with the future."

When I conclude that the hook of intellectuals into the future has slipped, I of course employ the term "intellectuals" in a limited sense. I do not include the heterogeneous group of trained personnel, such as engineers, military officers, physicists and chemists, who are lumped together under the rubric intelligentsia by Soviet Communists. I am trying to identify primarily the conventional men of words who set themselves up as poets, philosophers, historians, teachers of literature--writers of what H. L. Mencken used to call beautiful letters, novelists, verbal interpreters of the social scene.

Let us take warfare and armed forces, for example. Need one be a literary scholar of medieval combat or a student of Tolstoy in order to appreciate the sources of inspiration which intellectuals have discovered in the battlefield? As late as World War I, perceptive intellectuals did not find the techniques of battle beyond their capacities for analysis and interpretation, as Hemingway, Barbusse, Remarque, Dos Passos and E. E. Cummings--to name only a few--convincingly demonstrated.

However, World War II already placed significant arenas of military combat beyond the range of the intellectual. The plain truth is that one of the best books about the American army published since World War II is about the peacetime, pre-Pearl Harbor army! I mean James Jones' From Here to Eternity. Such books as The Naked and the Dead and The Young Lions captured nothing of the technological novelty of World War II and might have been written in a World War I setting.

The gulf between contemporary warfare and the intellectual, I suggest, is unbridgeable. The intellectual cannot master the technical knowledge required to understand the conduct of warfare by means of atomic bombs, thermonuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. In fact, his familiar moral and psychological categories--courage and cowardice, bravery and fear--have been extinguished by the nature of modern warfare. How does one conform to, or deviate from, a literary image of model military behavior when he kills his enemy by pouring the contents of one test tube into another test tube at a distance of more than 3,000 miles? Would William James advocate a moral equivalent for the atomic reactor today?

Or take industry and technology. The factory system and large-scale industry which superseded feudalism produced no insurmountable technical obstacles to imaginative, descriptive and analytical works by intellectuals. The 19th Century was densely populated with novelists, essayists, utopians, social philosophers, assorted reformers, self-proclaimed scientists of society, visionaries who observed the new industrial society, confidently generalized its consequences and identified themselves with projects and doctrines they believed would supplant it.

During the first four decades of the 20th Century, the technology which spawned businessman and worker and research scientist was not out of reach for the tenacious intellectual. Dreiser may have been as syntactically deficient as the literary critics insist, but he could perceive the American businessman beyond the boundaries of an executive suite. And as unsubtle as he may have been, Sinclair Lewis did not find it necessary to ignore the technical, professional, specialized problems of Doctor Arrowsmith.

We now squirm or sneer at the lack of sophistication in the so-called "proletarian literature" of the nineteen thirties. But the intellectual polemics of that decade, which from our current perspective appear as obtuse and remote as some of the medieval quarrels, nevertheless reflected an intensity of concern for identification with the future for which there is no counterpart in today's intellectual life. In committing ourselves to the "cause" of the working class, the "proletarian writers" were certain that they were riding the wave of the future. The Trotskyites and the Socialists and the Communists and the Conservatives and the Fascists fought without quarter, because they assumed that there was a future which correctly-oriented intellectuals could inherit. If John Strachey, an ideological hero of the political Left, wrote a book called The Coming Struggle for Power, then Lawrence Dennis, the intellectual spokesman of the extreme Right, likewise couched his appeal in the language of the future: he called his book The Coming American Fascism.

But how can the intellectual cope with today's new industrial developments in their functional realities? He cannot even peer appreciatively over the shoulders of the growing army of scientists and engineers which the new technology has recruited and absorbed. His technical incompetence paralyzes his capacity for insight. As novelist, therefore, he ignores the dynamic economy which he cannot fathom and writes reminiscences of archaic politicians (The Last Hurrah), or toys with simplistic formulas of political behavior (The Ninth Wave), or reverts to the fringe world of vice and perversion (A Walk on the Wild Side), or ponders the ancient behavior of Chinese riverboat people (A Single Pebble).

Or glance at the state of academic life--if you can stand the site of carnage. Professors of literature and philosophy have abandoned the struggle to maintain a grip on the future. They can only gape in admiration and envy as the financial support rolls in for their colleagues in the natural sciences (who so conspicuously and unceremoniously shape the future). With their faith shaken in the durable significance of their subject matter, teachers of literature now grasp at the straw of administration to save them from thinking further into the sea of irrelevancy. The serve on committees; they occupy themselves with the sterile details of curriculum revision; they daydream of deanships. On the basis of firsthand experience, painfully acquired at the expense of a colossal waste of time, I can testify with assurance that professors of literature and philosophy are the most diligent committee workers on a university campus; and professors of physics are the least reliable committee members. A professor of Latin or English or French rarely misses a committee meeting; a professor of physics usually refuses membership on committees or, if drafted, fails to attend meetings.

Some of my colleagues expressed surprise at the appointment of Dr. Robert F. Goheen, an Assistant Professor of Classics, to the Presidency of Princeton University. To me, however, it seemed symbolically appropriate that an energetic and capable young classicist should turn to administration. For what outlet is there today for an ambitious classicist who wishes to escape premature retirement from the relevant world? Administrative busywork has been--if I may be forgiven the pun--the classic response of frustrated creativeity.

And what of social scientists? In a mood of hysteria and panic they cling to their semantic hold on science and thus hope to avoid the fate of colleagues in literature and philosophy. Confusing form for content, they assume that resort to the forms of the calculating machine, the questionnaire, the interview, and the quantified formula indeed will enable them to travel toward the future with the natural scientists and engineers rather than toward oblivion with their non-scientific colleagues. As a consequence, in intervals between plotting raids on philanthropic foundations, social scientists watch the IBM machines process their punch cards with the anxious fascination of superstitious customers awaiting the interpretation of a deck of playing cards by a wandering gypsy. Both social scientists and the gypsy's customers harbor the desperate hope against hope that the cards will spare them the fate of dreary irrelevance prescribed by the imperatives of their time.

Yet it should be acknowledged that economically, the intellectual is better fed, better housed and more elegantly pampered than ever before. Despite the post-World War II vogue for things Italian, no cult of exile (or exile's return), such as followed World War I, has developed. With his visions blocked by a massive wall of technology, science, mathematics and expertness which he is unable to penetrate, however, he stares blindly into the future and, with less complacency than Milton, cannot stand and wait. Under the circumstances, it is fair to speculate that the role of the intellectual will come to resemble more closely that of the archaeologist in our society. The archeologist is not persecuted. He is subsidized, permitted to release his aggressions by spading ancient dirt, accorded token honors and courtesies, and--disregarded. Perhaps what Engels said of the state may be said of the intellectual: he will not be abolished; he will wither away. The intellectual is no longer a man without a country. But he may be a man without a future. And if he is not in league with the future, can he be right?

[In The New Republic, Kling is listed as an associate professor of political science. He went on to a long career in administration at Washington University. In transcribing the essay, I changed what was originally "rubic" to "rubric," but otherwise made no intentional alterations.--AK]