Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 415

Most people associate the 1930’s with the Great Depression, with great suffering and privation. Yet during the 1930’s, the United States experienced a social and cultural phenomenon the likes of which (despite Abel’s hopes to the contrary) may never be seen again. The rise of the New York intellectuals helped make New York City an internationally renowned cultural center. As one critic noted, “It would be hard to find a more authentic specimen of the New York literary-political-Jewish intellectual than Lionel Abel.” Abel’s memoir, then, is important as a record of cultural history, a record of who was who in the internationalization of American art and politics, a record of the exciting world of ideas and ideologists in the early twentieth century.

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In a sense, Abel’s approach to life in The Intellectual Follies is defined in his renowned book Metatheatre. There, Abel notes that what he calls the “metaplay” is defined by two ideas: “the world is a stage” and “life is a dream.” From these ideas, he concludes that “the world is a projection of human consciousness” and that “there is no world except that created by human striving, human imagination.” Seen in this context, the word “follies” in The Intellectual Follies connotes a kind of theatrical production in which the author and the characters self-consciously create their own roles. That is Abel’s subject, a world of ideas in which people can make a difference through active involvement. “Metatheatre,” according to Abel, implies that “fate can be overcome” and that the world is not to be regarded as “ultimate.”

The ideas from Metatheatre parallel Abel’s thoughts on social responsibility. In the final chapter of The Intellectual Follies, Abel urges Michael to create a role for himself, and throughout the book Abel criticizes those who do not actively take a stand—create a role. For example, in chapter 9 (“Off-Broadway”), he criticizes the “absence of any dominant trend” in the theater of the 1980’s and puts the blame partially on audiences who “don’t want anything in particular from playwrights.” Similarly, he is worried that people in the 1980’s no longer self-consciously create a moral role.

Nevertheless, what is rational cannot die. Thus, as long as there are people, there is hope for a revival of the life of the mind. Abel is ultimately optimistic, despite his occasional bemoaning of society’s intellectual bankruptcy. This optimism shapes not only the content of the book but its style and tone as well.

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