The Intellectual Follies

by Lionel Abel
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1316

As an intellectual, Abel is primarily concerned with the world of ideas. In The Intellectual Follies, he celebrates that world as he found it in New York and Paris in the 1930’s and 1950’s. Although the book appears to be a collection of essays unified only by chronology, it contains a kind of thematic unity evolving out of Abel’s perspective as an intellectual. That is, Abel has witnessed the demise of the world of ideas as he knew it (he calls the New York City of the early 1980’s intellectually bankrupt as a result of academization), and he is encouraging the revitalization of that world through his book. In the book’s final sentence, using language identical to that found in chapter 1, Abel instructs Michael to return to New York City from California to prove that he is “worthy to replace some one or other of the interesting and illustrious persons who made this city what it was at its best, and, such is my hope, may again be.” The book serves as a kind of manifesto to guide those interested in and capable of restoring an atmosphere in which the free exchange of ideas can flourish.

With its optimistic concluding sentence, Abel’s memoir differs from the many scholarly studies on the world of the New York intellectuals. Most conclude that that world can never be revived because of the academization Abel laments. Abel’s optimism stems, perhaps, from the idealism naturally attendant upon an intellectual but probably more from an idea he addresses frequently in the second half of the book, the idea of the life and death of a culture. He first addresses this subject in chapter 8 in a smaller section related to the passing on of cultural supremacy from Europe to the United States after World War II. Abel’s conclusion, based on concepts of Antoine-Augustin Cournot (a nineteenth century French mathematician and economist), is that “forms . . . or ideas do not die.” Only the organic dies. The world of ideas, then, the intellectual world which has become bankrupt, is perfectly capable of being revived, according to Abel. Again, his memoir serves as a step in that direction.

While the book’s title identifies it as the memoir of a “literary venture,” the restoration of the intellectual world that Abel has in mind has social and political implications. A major argument developed among the New York intellectuals in the late 1930’s and through the 1940’s over the issue of the proper role of intellectuals in society. That is, is the intellectual more valuable as a detached (even alienated), disinterested commentator on society, or does the intellectual have a responsibility to make an effort toward assimilation? In the early 1940’s, Abel adopted the position that intellectuals are socially responsible. As a result, politics is never very far from the center of his account of the literary venture. In fact, the word “follies” in the title contains implications not only of inappropriate action but also of mistaken social and political beliefs. The memoir offers Abel’s reassessment from a neoconservative stance.

Abel’s prescription for social action is easy to locate, as it is repeated in different forms throughout the book. The most concise statements are found in chapter 7, “As Paris Was (1948-1951).” Discussing one aspect about life in Paris which he found attractive, Abel writes, “One lived in a kind of moral mirror in which one saw one’s own actions and also the manner in which others responded to those actions.” Abel found such a life “strenuous” and “bracing.” He clearly admires a society of social responsibility, wherein one is tested and must prove oneself constantly. Conversely, he finds “somewhat stultifying” the “moral disregard” people of the 1980’s have for one another: “One has a feeling that no one is looked at by anyone else,” at least not morally. For Abel, the result of social responsibility would be a society of Goethes not Beethovens—a society of gentlemen of good manners and taste rather than hubris, disrespect, and alienation. He thus rejects the old definition of the intellectual as alienated radical with his own ethical agenda for society; in its place, Abel asserts the intellectual as a member of mainstream American society.

From this belief in the assimilation of the intellectual, Abel’s position on many issues is formulated. For example, he spends much time discussing two problems which have continually faced intellectuals and society in general: “the use of force so as to prevent or to forestall the use of force against us by others” and “the need . . . to support powers or policies” previously opposed “so as to act more effectively against other powers and other policies” even more objectionable. His conclusion is one based on social responsibility and a lesser-of-two-evils theory. For example, he condemns Trotskyists for not respecting natural rights and social laws which serve social responsibility. He justifies the United States’ entry into World War II, challenges Jean-Paul Sartre’s views on anti-Semitism and Hannah Arendt’s theory of “the banality of evil,” and questions the implications of the moral ambiguity of the Surrealists. He maintains the need for intellectuals such as Hamlet as opposed to intellectuals such as Don Quixote (Abel criticizes the Don Quixote model for being “limited and parochial”). He also defends the development of atomic weaponry as a force of stabilization and derides the 1960’s as the source of the “moralistic hypocrisies” which began in the United States.

One reason for Abel’s emphasis on the position of social responsibility might be found in chapter 11 (“Jews Without ‘the Jews’”), where he discusses his Jewishness. According to Abel, in the 1930’s the New York intellectuals were taking up “any doctrine that might relieve them of their Jewishness, which was felt then as a burden.” Jewishness, says Abel, “was given a negative meaning” by parties on both the Left and the Right. The Holocaust changed that for Abel. The Holocaust and responses to it in subsequent years led Abel to believe not only that it is impossible to deny his heritage but also that only the United States allows Jews to retain and “even accentuate” their “Jewish traits and yet remain American.” With the Holocaust in mind, Abel finds compelling reasons to encourage social responsibility in a socially responsible society.

Other New York intellectuals have examined the “follies” of previous generations, and some have taken the opportunity to engage in personal and emotional attacks against old antagonists. Such is not the case for Lionel Abel. Characteristic of the New York intellectuals, Abel is a superb polemicist, disagreeing with positions firmly and with great conviction. Yet he never resorts to ad hominem attacks, and there is never a sense that he is trying to get even or have the final word. His arguing is a part of an ongoing intellectual dialogue.

In fact, as much as possible, Abel uses dialogue; he records conversations he had with various prominent intellectuals (it is a tribute to his writing skill that the question of how he remembers those conversations never arises). This dialogue serves to enhance a sense of his evenhandedness while lending drama to his account. The book is not a lecture but a re-creation of a world of ideas in an effort to convey the excitement inherent in such a world.

Abel adroitly skips from topic to topic. His writing is fast-paced. He drops names, titles, and theories, assuming a certain cultural literacy on the part of his readers. Yet he also stops frequently to emphasize a point and to tell his readers where they have been and where they are going. Thus, one remains engaged at all times, a necessity if the book is to re-create excitement and stimulate action. Abel recognizes that people, not ideas in the abstract, characterize an era: “The life of a city is determined by the lives of those who inhabit it.”

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