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Unpacking intellectual baggage

Beyond question Tom Wolfe is the most brilliant, intelligent, witty
writer of his generation. He has learning beyond the expectations of
most readers of today’s novels, but his bright style banishes all
thought of schoolbooks. He is cool perhaps in his assessment of
contemporary letters, a coolness he explains in his new essay, “In the
Land of the Rococo Marxists,” which has been chosen to lead the 150th
anniversary issue of Harper’s Magazine, a choice which might well
disconcert many of the writers and even some of readers of that
distinguished magazine. Wolfe is a rare exception.

Two quotations, both from German, loom over this essay. Friedrich
Nietzsche, in “The Will to Power,” predicted that a decline in religious
faith would lead to a dramatic rise of “the millenarian urge in temporal
form.” My second German thinker is one of the founders of modern
sociology, Max Weber, who wrote that artists and intellectuals have
great difficulty giving their allegiance to states or political systems
“from which absolute and divine values have been withdrawn.”

The author of the “Song of Roland,” an early version of which was
chanted to English troops before the Battle of Hastings, did not see
himself as marginal, adversarial, or alienated in any way from his lord
and sovereign, William the Conqueror. The author of the Niebelungenlied
did not secretly think Siegfried was a putz. Homer did not think
Achilles was a putz. Dante, whose “Divine Comedy” pictures a changeless
universe ordered by God, was a nobleman and an officer of the Florentine
cavalry that routed the Ghibellines at Campaldino. Cervantes, for all
his mockery of the medieval European romance in “Don Quixote,” fought
the infidel Turk as an officer of Spain in the Battle of Lepanto, one of
the grandest and most consequential sea battles of history (without
which we might all be speaking Turkish). Spain’s greatest playwright,
Lope de Vega, sailed to conquer England in the Spanish Armada.

In the middle of the 1980s I was assigned by the New York Times to
cast my eye on the spiritual state of the arts in America. The Times is
in the heart of the city’s theatre district, and still leads its “Arts
and Leisure” section with theatre. So fresh back from years abroad —
including (then Soviet) Russia, Poland, Hungary, both Germanys, all the
way to People’s China — I leapt headlong into the American theatre. A
bit to my surprise I found it filled with despair — for our society,
the world, life, the free enterprise system, the American hero, the
American dream. In “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which that year won the
Pulitzer Prize for drama, we see Chicago real estate salesmen scheme,
cheat, rob, and swindle from one end of the play to the other. In short,
capitalism in microcosm. The year before “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the
Pulitzer had gone to “‘Night Mother,” in the closing scene of which an
overweight woman with no friends or interests calmly, serenely, blows
her brains out.

It takes no remarkable feat of perception to realize that what we are
dealing with here, in the upper, serious reaches of the American
theatre, is the culture of alienation. Nor are any solutions offered.
And literature, which prides itself on ideas, is even easier to
interpret than the theatre. Robert Coover, a judge for the PEN/Faulkner
Awards, declared in the New York Times Book Review that awards should go
to “the rebel, the iconoclast.” Robert Stone (“Dog Soldiers”) expressed
his vast admiration for Karl Marx as a man of great “common sense.” And
on it went. The late Mary McCarthy once saluted Leon Trotsky as “the
most romantic man in history.” Joan Didion found her Vietnam in

As is typified by Byron, initial hatred of bourgeois society was
completely aristocratic, “from above,” and throughout most of the 19th
century the right was the favorite refuge of the alienated artist and
intellectual. As late as the 1890s, at the time of the Dreyfus case,
Paris was the capital of the intellectual right. Despite Emile Zola,
most of France’s fashionable writers and artists, including Edgar Degas,
Alphonse Daudet, Edmond de Goncourt, were — like Paris’s entire beau
— ardently royalist, anti-republican, anti-Dreyfus and, yes,
anti-Semitic. “Down with the republic of thieves!” the crowds cried
disdainfully, while the mob shouted, “Death to the Jews!” Those who feel
that intellectuals and artists are more astute than ordinary people at
appraising political options should reflect that the great German
universities — those centers of humanist idealism — were swept by the
Nazis some years before the rest of Germany. In 1882 Nietzsche had
declared that “God is dead,” and predicted “wars such as never have been
waged on earth.” Unfortunately he was quite right.

The French, particularly Zola and Clemenceau, then gave to the
educated world the word “intellectual.” Until then “intellectual” had
been an adjective. But under French influence it began to be used as a
grand and glorious noun unifying writers, poets, playwrights, professors
of literature and history. … Scribblers of the world unite! You
have a world to gain!
And, lo, it came to pass. After World War I,
for the first time American writers and scholars had the means to swarm
all over Europe. Unfortunately they drank too deep of what European
“intellectuals” told them.

It has taken decades for Americans to shake off what appears to have
been the European cultural hegemony. But not neglecting Vietnam, there
was something strange about many American intellectuals’ conviction that
America was hated throughout the world. If the Lord would only give
sight to the blind, Americans would see the absolutely immense esteem
that their country enjoys. People of course are not simple. They are
capable of mouthing curses out of one side of their mouth (a prime
mover: envy), while from the other side comes the most obsequious

The most extreme example is People’s China — China itself being a
country with a long and highly distinguished intellectual history.
During the “Cultural Revolution,” America was, for China, Satan’s
kingdom. But have you been to Beijing lately?

Wolfe asks in his closing paragraphs, what exactly do our
“intellectuals” want? Change? Of course not. At bottom, it’s a simple
business. In his heart of hearts, “all the intellectual wants is to hold
on to what was magically given to him one shining moment a century ago.”
He asks for nothing more than a pretext to remain aloof from the mob,
the philistines. Wolfe says Nietzsche himself would have grown weary of
our intellectual class’s dogged skepticism, cynicism, irony, and
contempt, and rightly said, “if you must rate nations, at this moment in
history, your ‘accursed’ America is the very micrometer by which all
others are measured.” Face it.