The Intellectual Follies

by Lionel Abel
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 694

In November of 1929, one month after the stock market crash which signaled the beginning of the Great Depression in the United States, eighteen-year-old Lionel Abel entered the world of Greenwich Village, a cultural mecca which attracted a wide assortment of interesting characters. During the years which followed Abel’s entrance into this world, groups of young radicals (adherents to Marxism in its many varieties) gathered in the various Village meeting places to discuss the implications of what they saw as an impending social revolution. Though they did not consider themselves a coherent group at the time, these young radicals have come to be known collectively as “the New York intellectuals.”

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Lionel Abel became a member of the first generation of this group. He actively participated in the Greenwich Village intellectual life as a prolific critic, translator, and editor in the heyday of the New York intellectuals (the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s). Thereafter, he became a prize-winning playwright (his play Absalom won two awards as the best off-Broadway play of 1956) and essayist (he won a Longview Award for “Not Everyone Is in the Fix,” an essay on playwright Jack Gelber), as well as an influential commentator on modern theater with his book Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form (1963). The Intellectual Follies contains Abel’s reflections on intellectual life as he experienced it from the 1930’s to the early 1980’s.

By definition, a memoir provides the reflections of its author on significant events and on the personalities and actions of other persons. The Intellectual Follies, then, takes shape not primarily as a narrative account of Abel’s life but as a collection of essays on various topics (portions of some essays were published prior to 1984 in such periodicals as Dissent, Commentary, This World, Salmagundi, and The American Scholar). There are twelve chapters in all, each chapter addressing a single general topic but containing several smaller essays of varying lengths. The arrangement of chapters is chronological, the sequence of topics corresponding roughly to the order of Abel’s experiences. Chapter 1 begins with his initiation into the world of the New York intellectuals, and chapter 12 ends with an undated letter to a friend, Michael, probably written in the early 1980’s. Within this time frame, the major portion of the book (ten of the twelve chapters, or 257 of the 289 pages) covers the three decades from the formation of the New York intellectuals in the 1930’s to their breakup as a group in the late 1950’s.

To say that chronology accounts entirely for the book’s structure, however, is somewhat misleading. Abel frequently cuts across time periods in his smaller essays, rarely maintaining a straight line of thought. He sometimes jumps backward but mostly moves forward in time as he traces relationships between ideas of different generations. Thus, there are references in the first ten chapters to the 1960’s and 1970’s, even though that portion of the work is essentially set in earlier decades. Chapters 11 and 12 take the reader up to the point of the writing of the book (from the 1960’s into the early 1980’s), but Abel refers to earlier decades in those chapters too.

Abel writes on a variety of topics and in a variety of forms. Chapter topics include life in Greenwich Village in the 1930’s, the 1930’s as a decade of radicalism, intellectual decisions at the beginning of World War II, the Surrealist painters, Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, the atom bomb, Paris in the late 1940’s, New York in the early 1950’s, off-Broadway theater, Abel’s Jewish heritage, and life in New York in the early 1980’s. Within the chapters, Abel varies his approach, using combinations of description, narration, and exposition. At times he is casual (writing as if engaged in conversation), and at other times he is formal. He never writes entirely without humor but usually adopts a serious tone. Rarely does a narrative or descriptive essay exist without being used to illustrate a point. Abel continually applies anecdotes, incidents, and character sketches to whatever thesis he is advancing at the moment so as to give not only a flavor of the times but also a commentary, in retrospect, on the major ideas discussed.

The Intellectual Follies

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1783

The second college edition of The American Heritage Dictionary (1982) defines follies as “an elaborate theatrical revue consisting of a series of musical or dance skits.” Lionel Abel, an intellectual and dramatist, writes with considerable humor and wit about his involvement in many of the prominent artistic and political movements of his time. His time, in the memoir, is primarily the late 1920’s through the 1950’s. The 1960’s and 1970’s appear almost as a kind of afterword near the back of his book. Abel does not essay a whole history of his intellectual development but rather explores the episodes that seem to tell the most about the character of his participation in politics, painting, the theater, philosophy, and city life in New York and Paris. He calls his life a “literary venture,” but it seems something more than that because of his keen interest in so many different areas of human expression, in music, on the one hand, in the way women now walk down the street in New York City, on the other. It is a pleasure to read fluent depictions of Jean-Paul Sartre as a personality, a physical presence, while one is attending closely to Abel’s dissection of the philosopher-artist’s ideas and individual works. Abel rarely speaks in strictly personal terms about himself, but it is clear from his remembrance of his Trotskyist days that he, too, was deeply engaged in the follies of his age, taking his place in the coterie of New York intellectuals, a more or less coherent group whose decidedly leftist sympathies dominated American thinking on politics and art until, in Abel’s view, the late 1950’s.

The beginning and end of Abel’s memoir make clear that he has always regarded New York as the focal point of American culture. More than any other American city, it has been the matrix for intellectuals of all sorts—many of them, like Abel, coming from a Jewish background and avid for an identity that was far more worldly than their ethnic origins. For Abel, at least, there is nothing problematic in choosing not to identify closely with the Jews. By the age of nineteen, he was in Greenwich Village launching himself into the fervent intellectual pursuits of a lifetime. Later in life, especially after the Holocaust, he closely reexamined his feelings about the Jews through his responses to the writings of Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt. Abel’s conclusion is that the United States, among other things, has offered Jews the right to be more or less Jewish as they like, and that no other country has offered a comparable opportunity. As Abel asserts, “an Italian Groucho Marx is just inconceivable.” This example is particularly apt, both because Marx’s humor was so urban and so eccentrically urbane and because his brother Chico affected an Italian identity, which in itself was a comically liberating manifestation of the fluidity of a society that, in Abel’s words, was not “completely formulated” or “fixed.” At the end of his memoir, the author writes to his son, imploring him to leave Santa Monica, California, and return to the vitality of New York City, which, however messed up, still contains a “handful of people who cannot be duplicated in any other of the nation’s cities.”

Is New York really so special? Abel makes it so in his evocation of it. When he describes the Cedar Bar, which many of the postwar abstract Expressionists frequented, the reader gets a solid sense of a rowdy, dynamic society of painters convinced that they were making history by breaking all the artistic rules, by refusing to behave in decorous fashion, by converting the world “into a ruin of lines and colors, beautifully painted, to be sure.” These artists, Abel contends, were a microcosm of early 1950’s America, of its energy and destructiveness. One of the finest contributions of his memoir is to align the personal feelings of these painters with the powerfully disturbing quality of their canvases, so that the reader has a context, a milieu, which makes these artists and their work so much more than museum pieces.

Certain aesthetic questions fascinate Abel. How long can one look at a painting, and how does one’s inclination to gaze at a canvas for five seconds or for fifteen minutes help one to see what is and is not possible to perform in other arts—such as drama, which must hold an audience for a specified period of time? As a successful playwright, Abel attacks such questions with examples from his work and that of others, affording his readers glimpses into the way works of art must be managed. As a result, the reader learns much about the life of art, about its timing, personalities, and production values, and not only about the intrinsic quality of the work itself. Art, one learns, is not only eternal, it is also contingent on the form, the setting, the era in which it appears. Thus a play by Eric Bentley is deemed timely for one kind of society and not for another; his play may hold the attention of one kind of audience but not another because the issue involved—homosexuals coming out of the closet—was passé by the time the play was produced in the United States.

Certain political questions bedevil Abel. As a Trotskyist on the eve of World War II, he opposed “capitalism, militarism, nationalism.” As a consequence, he found himself in a group which was as much against the British Empire as it was against Adolf Hitler. The Trotskyists would not take sides, but Abel was convinced that Hitler was a greater evil than the Allies, and he preferred fighting to liberate the countries under Hitler’s tyranny. Characteristically, Abel feels the need to consider not only the war aims but also an argument that justifies the use of force. One way to arrive at satisfactory opinions, he maintains, is to be tenacious. One must enforce them because—as Charles Saunders Pierce suggests—“no one is finally wrong until he is defeated, and from this it follows that it is often only in battle that there can be adjudication of the right and of the wrong.” With no fight against him, Adolf Hitler would have been allowed to persist, “to strengthen his case,” and without opposition he might have given “at the very least a kind of proof that he was right.” If it took siding with the United States and its Allies—an unthinkable option for Abel before the war—then he was ready to compromise his principles. Or as he puts it, “one had to learn to think all over again, and this some of our best intellectuals refused to do.”

Whether Abel is discussing the concepts of action painting, Existentialism, the Theater of the Absurd, or the atomic bomb, he renders the flavor and the temper of the positions put forward by his friends and adversaries. Thus one learns that Sartre could observe Abel’s reactions to a public lecture and afterward accurately identify each point with which Abel had disagreed. One gets a colorful account not only of a Stalinist audience’s reaction to Max Shachtman’s brilliant oral interpretation of Trotsky’s speech in defense of himself but also an ingenious interpretation from Abel of the “pleasure in rejecting what seems to you a true opinion.” Abel speculates that “this is the only pleasure many of the Stalinists in the audience could have gotten from the speech delivered by Shachtman.” The scene Abel vividly sets before the reader is surely part of what he means by “the intellectual follies.”

Abel covers such a range of subjects, expressing opinions on nearly every page, that sooner or later the reader is likely to disagree with him. If he is right, for example, that the universities in the United States have absorbed all of the intellectual life—much of which used to be situated on a broader scale in the great cities such as New York—surely a compensating factor has been the dissemination of ideas and art to the far-flung campuses of America. The gap, say, between New York (Abel, père) and Santa Monica (Abel, fils), may not be so great as the memoirist supposes when he writes to his son at the end of the book. Abel regrets the move of so many fine minds out of New York City and attributes that exodus to urban disintegration, yet one might argue instead that other parts of the country have attracted New Yorkers who have finally disabused themselves of the provincial notion that New York is the center of the world.

As Dennis Wrong observes in The New Republic, Abel is at his weakest when he describes conditions in the United States which he was not present to witness. Abel’s discussion of McCarthyism, Wrong notes, is faulty because he attributes a complacency to Americans in the early 1950’s that was more properly a part of the public mood before 1948. Thus McCarthy did not have, as Abel argues, the justification of arousing an apathetic citizenry. Wrong also suggests that Abel is on shaky ground in believing that the late 1950’s represented a breakup of the solidarity of New York intellectuals. “The New York intellectuals always quarreled among themselves,” Wrong replies.

As an astute and supple thinker, Abel must recognize the fact that his propositions are open to dispute. Indeed, his book is about the points in his life that have been controversial. By taking an episodic view of his career, however, he sometimes skips vital transitions. What has happened between father and son at the end of the book? Somehow, Abel’s letter is too abrupt. The letter itself is an effective device for conveying with immediacy the memoirist’s current feelings, but the current of his life—especially from the late 1950’s to the 1980’s—is not conveyed in the book; thus the last chapter seems hurried and truncated, and the memoir’s structure is somehow incomplete. With so much discussion of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet near the end of The Intellectual Follies, Abel seems to be setting himself up as the Ghost, speaking to his son, Michael, across the divide of time and place, calling him back to an identification with New York City and the vibrant values which it once represented. There is no indication in the letter, however, that Abel’s son is a Hamlet wondering about whether he should return to New York. Abel seems to want to goad him out of his complacent satisfaction with Santa Monica. Is Michael complacent, or is New York, for him, merely a dead issue, another time?


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 76

Book World. XV, January 13, 1985, p. 7.

Booklist. LXXXI, October 1, 1984, p. 183.

De Pietro, Thomas. Review in The Sewanee Review. XCIV (Summer, 1986), pp. lxii-lxiv.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, September 15, 1984, p. 883.

Library Journal. CIX, September 15, 1984, p. 1751.

Los Angeles Times. Review. November 27, 1984, sec. 5, p. 6.

The New Republic. Review. CXCII (February 11, 1985), pp. 28-31.

The New York Times Book Review. Review. LXXXIX (November 18, 1984), p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, September 14, 1984, p. 134.

Solomon, Barbara Probst. Review in Partisan Review. LII, no. 3 (1985), pp. 282-286.

Time. CXXIV, November 12, 1984, p. 98.

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