Saturday, April 08, 2006

Treasonable clerks

This post was prompted by a coincidence*. Peter Stothard blogs about the TLS's double review in 1928 of Julian Benda's La Trehison des Clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals). A book in which
he famously argued that his intellectual contemporaries had let down their fellow men by rejecting the pure philosophical idealism of their predecessors and allying themselves with practical political movements in support of nationalism or class.
Along the way Stothard mentions the influence of Dreyfus Affair on Benda's case and its current relevance to the Iraq Invasion. He provides a link to a bracing essay that makes the connection explicit (something that would be nice to see in Sir Peter's publication rather than the witless contributions of Edward Luttwak).

The fissure over the first case within intellectual salons in France inspired the dynamic in Proust's novel. His character Marcel is a convinced Dreyfusard surrounded by dimwitted or venal anti-Dreyfusards or closet Dreyfusards masquerading as anti- for social advancement. It furthered his apprenticeship to worldly signs, as Deleuze put it. Today the distinction is between those who see the invasion for what it is - what reason and commonsense sets out plainly (i.e. nothing to do with opinion) - and those who don't, for whatever unreason. The fissure is telling.

Stothard tries to make Benda's stricture apply to opponents of the war: they too can be condemned as treasonable for
their failure to recognise the lofty philosophical motives [i.e. to 'spread reason and justice'], in the best Benda tradition, which spurred many of the war's most prominent supporters.
But reason and justice had to be dispensed with in order to support the invasion. One had to keep faith with the myth of good intentions despite the trail of false promises, lies and dodgy dossiers; the patriotic forgeries as latter-day Charles Maurrases would no doubt have it. In this way the stylish prose of the pro-invasion commentators shares the same discomfort with rationality of the mealy-mouthed phrasings of BBC hacks and the racist propaganda of the tabloid press. It's not for nothing that Chomsky refers to a secular priesthood.

*Here's where I come to the coincidence. I've just received in the post Jean Paulhan's The Flowers of Tarbes, or, Terror in Literature from the University of Illinois Press. This has been described by Allan Stoekl as a response to what was lacking in Benda's agenda: religious impulses, what Stoekl calls "moral enthusiasm". Paulhan's was
a late attempt at reconciling abstract reason and sacred violence, language and that which exceeds it, in a new version of the intellectual, the Rhetorician.
This essay isn't online but a fine alternative is Michael Syrotinski's introduction to The Flowers of Tarbes at Ready Steady Book. In the same place, see also Chris Knight's remarkable essay on Chomsky in which he highlights the blindspot in Chomsky's own supreme rationality.

My interest in Paulhan's book was driven by Blanchot's famous essay review, which I've mentioned before. I intend to write on it, although it seems I need a private income to gain the necessary time. Heretics don't usually get on the priesthood's payroll after all. What started out as a wish to complicate the simplistic opposition of literary and genre fiction seems now to have widened into a metaphysics. But really, literature has always been that.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.