stefan collini absent minds

sunday telegraph, 14 may 2006

I never thought of myself as a Grumpy Old Man. Until I read Stefan Collini's new book, that is. Now I realise that not only have I become a cultural Victor Meldrew, but that I am in denial about it.

Absent Minds is a broadside against what Collini calls the 'declinist thesis', the belief that contemporary intellectual life is getting increasingly dumbed down and stagnant. Declinists, Collini suggests, are in denial of reality and ignorant of history. 'It is typical of the alarmist and even apocalyptic character of such diagnoses', Collini writes, 'to operate with only the skimpiest or more foreshortened sense of historical transition in which an undifferentiated "yesterday" of lush abundance suddenly gives way to a homogenous "today" of arctic scarcity'.

Absent Minds provides the historical long view as an antidote to such pessimistic hysteria. It charts in fascinating detail the history of the debate in twentieth century Britain about the role of intellectuals in society. Eschewing what he calls 'chronicles of interesting vignettes', Collini has instead produced dogged and doughty book, formidable in its learning and research, but leavened by a healthy dose of waspish wit.

There are, Collini suggests, two themes ever-present in British thinking about intellectuals. First, the belief that Britain is different from other countries (in particular France) in possessing a peculiarly anti-intellectual culture. And second the claim that contemporary culture is degraded compared to the past. These themes, Collini argues, both emerge out of two very different philosophies. Whig historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth century contrasted British political stability with the tendency of France to oscillate between revolution and despotism. The roots of the difference, they suggested, lay in different intellectual cultures. In this view British anti-intellectualism is a Good Thing. 'The national self-congratulation manifested in Burke's celebration of the lack in Britain of those "political men of letters" who allegedly help foment the French Revolution', Collini writes, 'prefigures a good deal of twentieth century writing on the subject'.

Others, however, bemoan the lack of a true British intellectual tradition. In this view, which for Collini is rooted primarily in Marxism, the intellectual is seen as an outsider devoted to searching for truth, challenging the establishment and defending the underdog. 'There is no denying the satisfying thrill, the subtly self-flattering frisson of excitement', Collini acidly observes, 'in thinking of oneself as an "outsider"'. Collini skewers such romanticism in an entertaining but brutal assault on Edward Said's 1993 Reith Lectures on Representations of the Intellectual. Said, Collini observes, 'represents himself as resisting the glamour and seductiveness of official patronage, but he succumbs to a more insidious kind of glamour, that of being champion of the wretched of the earth'.

As a history of thinking about intellectuals, Absent Minds is a valuable study. The problems arise when Collini starts thinking about the present. Current criticisms of the state of intellectual life are, he suggests, simply the latest episode in a long history of whingeing. But here the long view can obscure as much as it can illuminate. The fact that themes of decline are historically long-standing does not mean that today's criticisms are false. Collini's attempts to dismiss the impact of celebrity culture, or to suggest that the perceived narrowness of contemporary intellectual debate is an illusion, are less than convincing.

Collini rejects as a hopeless romantic anyone who believes that intellectuals have an important social role, or that their purpose is, in Andrew Marr's words, 'to hold up evidence and truth to those in power, to provide the inconvenient analysis to those who want the swift and meretricious solution'. He suggests, instead, that we should look at intellectuals as 'ordinary'. Ordinary in the sense that one's friends, colleagues, and 'even oneself', can be thought of as intellectuals. Ordinary, too, in that 'carrying on the activities characteristic of intellectuals should not be seen as exceptionally heroic, or exceptionally difficult or exceptionally glamorous or even exceptionally important'. It's not being 'alarmist' or 'apocalyptic', or even particularly grumpy, to suggest that if there is nothing special or important about intellectuals, then there is nothing special or important about intellectual life or ideas - and that can only be to the detriment of our culture.