Paul Johnson is a prolific British writer who has produced histories of the Jews, Christianity, the modern world, and the English people. He is, I believe, a Catholic (if so, it commendably did not discourage him, in his substantial and very readable history of Christianity, from admitting that the religion, to all intents and purposes, was founded by Saint Paul). Between 1955 and 1970 he worked on the left-wing journal The New Statesman, and for six years was its editor, with more success than anyone has achieved since. He is now firmly entrenched on the right, and is a fierce critic of left intellectuals.
The background to his new book is the rise and influence of secular intellectuals as moral and political guides, a development which he interprets as an unsuccessful replacement for clerical authority. This general theme is only the background to the book—indeed, it might be called the excuse for it—and not its subject, since Johnson does not discuss the role of the intellectual in general terms, nor does he consider the difference between secular and religious intellectuals or ask whether they have a more significant part in some societies than in others. In fact, he does not pretend that the book is anything more than it is, a series of unflattering short biographies of people identified as secular intellectuals. They are an odd assortment, ranging from Rousseau and Shelley to Kenneth Tynan and Lillian Hellman, by way of Marx, Tolstoy, and Hemingway, among others. He describes them all so as to bring out their bad behavior. According to Johnson, they all—this seems to be their defining characteristic—“preferred ideas to people.” Ruthless or exploitative personal relations are particularly emphasized: the well-known histories of Rousseau’s treatment of his children, for instance, and Tolstoy’s relations to his wife are rehearsed.
The chosen intellectuals are also represented as characteristically, if not universally, very unscrupulous about the truth, though this charge takes different forms, not always very carefully distinguished. Sometimes, as in the case of Russell and Sartre, it means that they made reckless and irresponsible political statements. With others, particularly Marx, it means that they would not admit it when proved wrong. With many, it means that they lied to their wives or their creditors. In the case of the left-wing British publisher Victor Gollancz, who is particularly picked on for sins against veracity, it paradoxically means, in several instances, that he stated with extreme frankness to authors that he would not publish material with which he did not agree.
One or two intellectuals are rather heartlessly mocked for practical incompetence: the aged Sartre became confused at a meeting; Bertrand Russell was unable to bring a kettle to the boil or adjust his hearing aid. A long paragraph devoted to the accidents in which Ernest Hemingway was involved makes a blackly comical catalog, but hardly a surprising one, granted the feats he was always attempting and the fact, firmly emphasized by Johnson, that much of …
Amazement September 28, 1989