The Intellectual Follies Critical Essays

Lionel Abel


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1316 words.)