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To Kill an Intellectual 3.

A Serial in Five Parts.



The order of things.

THE DESTINATION WAS CLEAR from the outset—the triple-punch of Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Fahrenheit 451—but their stories were not, in themselves, the focus of my inquiry. It was common knowledge that, in its own way, each of these books had made readers confront a future that was already all-too-present. It was also widely known that the worlds in which their characters lived were all based on existing social structures—Henry Ford’s “assembly line” in the case of Brave New World, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the House Un-American Activities Committee in the case of Fahrenheit 451. My concern, I realized, had less to do with the worlds created by these books, and more with how intellectuals fared in each of worlds, which were ultimately not made up at all.

So I could better understand how the anti-intellectualism changed over time, I worked in chronological order.

So that I could better understand how the anti-intellectualism changed over time, I worked in chronological order. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, written in 1931 but conceived as early as 1921—long before the specter of a Second World War was on the horizon—was more concerned with how intelligence would be engineered and conditioned rather than repressed and dismantled. In its first pages, it included ideas like the fact that “generalities are intellectually necessary evils.” And the creed stated by the World State was: “Not philosophers but fret-sawyers and stamp collectors compose the backbone of society.” Intellectuality was stamped out—quite literally—before it could even grow.

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In Brave New World, it seemed, the central anti-intellectual tactic was preemptive action. Yet the book also identified problem with this situation, which resulted in the “delayed development” of “human intelligence”—not the intellectual kind, but the kind that was needed to complete tasks. The same distinction between intellect and intelligence, made in other contexts, appeared here. Intelligence was necessary for work, but intellectuality was dangerous because it led to questioning the systems governing social life—which, in Brave New World, aimed to preserve the World State’s core principles: “Community, Identity, Stability.” Still, in a strange twist, the most intellectually savvy person in the novel was also one of its authorities—Mustapha Mond, Resident World Controller of Western Europe, one of ten individuals who controlled the World State.

In the book, Mond is familiar with everything that is forbidden in the World State—everything he has himself outlawed—especially art and creativity. He even admits to the value of art. It is society, not art, that worries him. As he explains, “You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art.” Art and happiness, apparently, are mutually exclusive. The same is true of independent thinking. Admitting that he himself had been an unorthodox thinker, for which he was almost exiled, he adds that the islands, where exiles are sent, hold “the most interesting set of men and women to be found anywhere in the world.” And while he doesn’t come out and say it, Mond’s soliloquy suggests that he had exchanged his own individuality for control over others.

What led him to this choice? Disappointment in humanity and its drive for war and destruction. “What’s the point of truth or beauty or knowledge,” he says, “when the anthrax bombs are popping all around you?” Resentment at the tragedy of human nature have driven him into the hands of autocratic power. But he can’t altogether relinquish his intellectual curiosity, so, exhibiting the kind of radical hypocrisy afforded to those who make the rules, he keeps a hidden library of great literary works behind an official bookshelf. The library, which he can share with no one because of the world he has himself enabled, is also the symbol of his solitude.

Brave New World was a book about intellectuals who had gone over to the dark side.

Brave New World, I saw, wasn’t just a book about anti-intellectualism. It was also a book about intellectuals who had gone over to the dark side. It was a testament to the fact that intellectuality could never be a value of its own. It could be both a cause and a cure. It could be an end—and it could also be a means. Anyone in possession of intellectual power had to be careful of how it was being used. And anyone coming into contact with an intellectual had to be careful of how such people were using their power.

I saw now that while Brave New World put forth an anti-intellectual world, that world was itself controlled by intellectuals gone wrong, so that the danger was, again, present on all sides. It became clearer that some of the greatest anti-intellectuals were themselves former intellectuals.

IN A SENSE, Brave New World was naive in its conception of the future because it was written with the belief that the Great War had been, as implied by its name, the greatest war—not only that had ever taken place, but that would yet be unleashed. Mond’s disappointment at human destruction was itself the reflection of a faith he’d once had in human creativity. The world of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, on the other hand, was far beyond hope. It was the world of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the Gulag. In that world, hope had never been an option in the first place. Still, I had no choice but to enter that world, too, and see how intellectuals fared there. I found that, unlike in Brave New World, where thinking was preemptively phased out of consciousness, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the social system focused on a constant repression of intellectuality’s core mechanisms: thought and language. All of the novel’s conceptual inventions—from Newspeak to Doublethink to Thoughtcrime—had to do with intellectual freedom and faculty.

The meaning of all these words was explained after the story was overin an “Appendix” titled “The Principles of Newspeak.” It noted that the “purpose of Newspeak was . . . to make all other modes of thought impossible” until “a heretical thought. . . should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.” It would do this, the principles explain, “by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings.” It continues:

To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as “This dog is free from lice” or “This field is free from weeds.” It could not be used in its old sense of “politically free” or “intellectually free” since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless.

The ideology of Newspeak was no less or more than to cut off all avenues of thought itself.

The conditioning of Nineteen Eighty-Four was not instant. Nor was it focused on controlling emotions. It was linguistic and, by extension, intellectual—an intellectually anti-intellectual form of conditioning. It required thinking and planning using one specific method: repression of the mind. As its principles stated, “Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.” The continued: “the special function of certain Newspeak words . . . was not so much to express meanings as to destroy them.” The ideology that motivated the anti-language of Newspeak was no less or more than to cut off all avenues of thought itself.

It was fitting, then, that the character at the center of the novel’s story was a writer: someone in charge of rewriting history to fit the demands of the state. Brave New World had a writer, too, a minor character who churned out state-sanctioned emotional drivel to distract readers from their reality. The writer in Nineteen Eighty-Four, however, was the main character, whose official capacity as a rewriter of history also gave him the perspective necessary for independent and critical thought. As the person who rewrote history, he knew also the real one, which gave him a view into reality that was unknown to almost everyone else. And while in Brave New World the writer escapes the state though exile to a distant island, in Nineteen Eighty-Four escape is impossible. Anyone who dares to think independently and is already lost. As he scribbles in his diary: “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime is death.”

In Brave New World, the writer finds a loophole. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the writer is the loophole—becoming his own noose.

IN THE MINDS of Huxley and Orwell, intellectuals didn’t have much of a fighting chance. Perhaps it was because they were both English, experiencing not only the perils of assembly-line pragmatism and ideological totalitarianism, but also their own homegrown brand of evil: the British Empire. And, ultimately, they were both rather realistic when it came to the chances of intellectuals not only to survive but also to have value in society. Ray Bradbury, the youngest of the bunch, took a completely different tack. He offered a vision of the world that was just as hostile to intellectuals as theirs—but in which lovers of the mind could still have some hope.

The contexts were different. Bradbury appears less concerned with Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Gulag, or even the Great War. His main concern is McCarthyism, the same anti-intellectual movement that led Hofstadter to write his book. It was this spiritual form of anti-intellectualism, not the emotional or ideological one, that worried him most. The life of the mind was the life of the spirit—and so, in Fahrenheit 451, this is the spirit that needs to be preserved.

The novel’s anti-intellectual atmosphere is set early by the main character’s boss—the Captain in charge of the firemen whose mission it is to burn outlawed books. He offers a justification for his attitude by referring to a feeling of being judged by people he had perceived as smarter than himself:

…the word “intellectual,” of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally “bright”. . . And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won’t stomach them for a minute.

It was a slightly different scenario than those found in the other two novels, but it repeated the same basic idea that it was necessary to preempt, repress, or, in this cse, burn all means that developed one’s intellectual capacity. In this case, the motivation was not so much to avoid critical or independent thinking, but rather to avoid the sense that someone might be better than someone else. Hofstadter had said that anti-intellectualism was “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it”—and this idea was borne out in Bradbury’s tale of pyromanic paranoia. It wasn’t intellectuals who considered themselves to be superior. It was people comparing themselves to others. And these resentful few turned intellectuals into targets of their personal shame.

The different forms of anti-intellectualism that I had encountered until now had elicited in me a variety of reactions—from contempt and sadness to downright terror. But this form made me angry. It crystalized something that had been quietly insinuating itself throughout my investigation: that anti-intellectualism was less about intellectualism than about the anti. The haters were both the source of the problem and the ones trying to solve it by eliminating a threat they had invented. Anti-intellectuals had created aggressive projections of their fears and thrown them onto people whose only crime was to believe in the importance of mind and the spirit.

Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four had portrayed the effects of intellectual deterioration. Fahrenheit 451 was an example of rising into intellectualism.

Fahrenheit 451 book made this palpable. But it didn’t provide any clear way of addressing the issue. First, the main character, who turns against his society, himself admits that he had “been an idiot all the way,” meaning that he did not start out as an intellectual, as were all the other wanderers in the encampment he finds at the end of the book. Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four had portrayed the effects of intellectual deterioration. Fahrenheit 451 was an example of rising into intellectualism. And while this initially seems to offer a brighter view of humanity, the end of the book betrays this ostensible optimism as little more than coating for deep cynicism about the path of true enlightenment. At the end, just as this newly-minted intellectual gets away from the state and joins other exiles, the city where they’d lived is destroyed in an atomic war that intellectuals survive thanks to having been banished. They then return to rebuild a new society in their image.

The ending was cynical because, in Bradbury’s world, the victory of the intellect depended on the self-destruction of the anti-intellectuals. But reality never worked that way—certainly not where it concerned the life of the mind. To be fair, Bradbury had admitted that he peddled in fantasy, which he defined as “a depiction of the unreal.” But if the only hope that intellectuals could hold out for a society in which they had any sort of value was an apocalyptic postwar bombed-out world in which no one else was left to lead, then there wasn’t much hope for them at all.

In the end, the three best known books about the extreme dangers of anti-intellectualism didn’t seem to have much to offer intellectuals. They had a pretty clear vision of a world in which intellectualism is targeted for destruction or neutralization. But their solutions within that world said very little about how anyone wanting to pursue a life of the mind could survive, let along thrive, in the real world.

IT TURNED OUT that even science fiction couldn’t really give me the breakthrough I needed in the case. But it did help me take a step forward. These books made it clear that, even in the world of fantasy, anti-intellectualism could come either from intellectuals or anti-intellectuals. And, sometimes, it seemed like the best way to survive an anti-intellectual onslaught was to go into exile. There were certainly plenty of real-life precedents, from Cicero to Rushdie, and this led me to wonder: Was exile a viable option for intellectuals today?

To broaden my perspective on what intellectual exile meant, I looked at one of the oldest known poets to have suffered this fate: Ovid. Jan Morris, in a review of Peter Green’s translation of Ovid’s later poems “Tristia” and “The Black Sea Letters,” called them “a sort of clinical presentation of the exilic condition, demonstrating its debilitating effect upon a man’s morale, his talents and perhaps his psychology.” She notes later that this effect was largely paranoiac, with Ovid projecting his own mood onto both the town of Tomis, known better today as Constanța in Romania, and its local inhabitants. The result, she writes, is “petulance, grievance and psychosomatic ill-health”—an emotional death sentence that took about ten years to actually kill him.

So much for survival through exile. Though, to be fair, not all writers or intellectuals who were exiled suffered such destitute fates. Dante, for one, fared better both financially and emotionally than he had at home in Florence. It was his involvement in politics, rather than poetry, that got him both banished from Florence and later killed in Ravenna—in the first case, because of a death sentence based on his governmental role, and, in the second, because of a trip he undertook on behalf of an Italian lord in an attempt to negotiate a peace agreement, during which he was bitten by a mosquito carrying malaria.

For both Ovid and Dante, exile resulted from overly close association with ruling authorities, though it also seemed that intellectuals were often unable to totally divorce themselves from such power structures.

For both Ovid and Dante, exile resulted from overly close association with ruling authorities, though it also seemed that intellectuals were often unable to totally divorce themselves from such power structures. In some cases they were themselves members of the power structures, and in others the power structures singled them out as threats. Either way, the love-hate relationship between politics and poetics was almost always a deathly dance. And it was one that accompanied intellectuals long into their afterlives. The proof? It took 702 years for the city of Florence to “rehabilitate” Dante, which it did only in 2008, and not without a round of political fighting that left the poet’s last living heir refusing to take part in the official ceremony. As for Ovid, over 2,000 years passed before Rome’s city council, possibly taking inspiration from Florence, decided to pardon him in 2017. The lesson was stark. Intellectuals could find themselves exiled in a matter of days or weeks. And, long after they had died, their spiritual exile could continue for hundreds or thousands of years. No matter how you looked it at, exile seemed like a bad business.

As for the modern era, the Soviet and Nazi regimes had done their part to produce an army of exiles, each in its own time and its own way. The White Russians, who had fled Bolshevik Revolution, included Yul Brynner, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Vladimir Nabokov, Vaslav Nijinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, and Marina Tsvetaeva, among many, many others. As for German nationals feeling the Nazis, you had Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Joseph Roth, Nelly Sachs, Anna Seghers, Stefan Zweig, and countless more—many of them Jewish, though not all.

Some, like Arendt, had been part of my investigation all along. Others were new to the lineup. Regardless, there was something almost interchangeable about them. In a different ways, each played out similar dynamics of flight and survival. Some, like Seghers or Tsvetaeva, ended up going back, though each to a different fate—Seghers being celebrated and winning the Stalin Prize, and Tsvetaeva, after her husband was arrested and executed, being exiled by the Stalinist regime to Tatarstan, where she hanged herself. Others, like Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, had moved to the United States, though, once there, were caught in a the same reactive net that caught so many: the House Un-American Activities Committee. Brecht chose to go back to Germany while Mann went into permanent exile in Switzerland. As an intellectual, you never knew which exile would be your last. These repeated literary exiles even led to the coining of a special term: Exilliteratur.

Ahmed Naji: “For the artist to protect himself, he has the three options that James Joyce prescribed for the writer: lying, exile, silence.”

The situation was even more complicated in contemporary times especially as the internet made political and social dissociation more difficult. After Ovid sent letters to Rome, he sat and waited for replies—a process that took weeks. Today, an email arrives in an instant, and social media feeds are constantly being updated. Ahmed Naji, an Egyptian writer jailed for writing a book with graphic depictions of sex and drugs, gave an interview just as he arrived in the United States in which he said, “As exiles, we don’t have the luxury of holding on to a lot of memories.” He talked about “the few real benefits of exile, like . . . the freedom to remake one’s self and one’s image.” As a fresh exile, he was still under the influence of past examples, noting that,”For the artist to protect himself, he has the three options that James Joyce prescribed for the writer: lying, exile, silence.” But a few years later, after experiencing exile firsthand, his perspective was less theoretical, more pragmatic. “Being an exiled writer is not as it used to be,” he said. “You are not an exile, because you are still able to know what is happening in your motherland through the internet and the source of news.” He added: “The world’s become so connected. Everything affects everything.” In today’s world, it seemed, exiled intellectuals were stripped of everything—even the experience of exile.

Naji was one exile—the first person to have been jailed for a book in modern Egypt—but in Turkey, just across the Mediterranean Sea, there had been a massive roundup of intellectuals after the failed coup of 2016. Elif Shafak, a Turkish novelist, noted the illogical response that followed: “it is one of the endless ironies of Turkey,” she wrote in The New Yorker, “that the liberals and democrats who were among the first to oppose the putschists’ sinister attempts . . . would also become the first to be punished and silenced by that very same government.” Turkish authorities pursued a purge that led to over 100,000 people, many of them intellectuals, losing their job. Over 300,000 books supposedly connected to the mastermind of the coup were literally destroyed. “More than a hundred and forty journalists are in prison in Turkey today,” Shafak wrote six months after the failed coup, “making the country the world’s leading jailer of journalists—surpassing even China.” She called Turkey an “illiberal democracy,” adding, “Friends and colleagues have been exiled, blacklisted, arrested, imprisoned.” Among them was Asli Erdogan, unrelated to the Turkish president, who in 2016 spent four months in jail while the government claimed to be probing her possible links to Kurdish militants. After her release in 2017, she went to Germany, and stayed there even after she was cleared in absentia of any wrongdoing. Returning, she explained, meant silence: the death of her livelihood.

Shafak had meditated on the perils of silence when the purge had first taken place. “Silence is a strange thing,” she wrote, “a gooey, sticky substance that sours the longer you keep it inside your mouth. . . . And it carries a contagion: strangely, silence loves company. It is easier to remain silent when others, too, do the same. Silence hates individuality. Silence hates solitude.” It made sense that intellectuals would be targeted in groups. For silence to hold across society, it had to spread like a virus.

I couldn’t help but notice, too, that silence had been one of the choices Joyce had set out for writers threatened by the structures of power.

I couldn’t help but notice, too, that silence had been one of the choices Joyce had set out for writers threatened by the structures of power. I was curious about where and when he had actually made that remark so I went to the source. The phrase, appearing in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was more nuanced. “I will try,” says the narrator, “to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.” Naji, it seems, had paraphrased Joyce, turning his “cunning” to outward “lying,” and also changed the order, placing silence as the final option. But this paraphrase had also shifted the meaning of the word “silence.” When Joyce said “silence,” he meant it literally, in terms of remaining silent in the face of injustice or oppression. When Naji spoke of silence, he implied it could also just as well mean death.

Shafak was a more specific in her language, laying out “four basic responses among Turkish writers to the loss of intellectual and artistic freedom.” These included “depoliticization” or “voluntary self-censorship,” “over-intellectualization—a change in style rather than in subject,” the possibility of being “catapulted into a new public role” in which they have “to fight against power, injustice, inequality, oppression,” or, finally, “satire, a sharp, black humor.” These were all ways to cope with powers that were dead set against you. But not everyone was ready to make such sacrifices. Ahmet Atlan, one of the writers Shafak mentioned being jailed, told Agence France-Presse two years after his release that “he would rather spend his last days in a Turkish prison ‘where I spoke my native language’ than be a free man in exile, where ‘you are nearly no one.'” I wondered whether he would have said the same thing about the possibility of being executed.

ORWELL HAD SPLIT his world into three megastates—Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia—basing them on the three global powers that came together for the 1943 Tehran Conference: the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As far as these powers were concerned, intellectual survival depended on what state you happened to inhabit. But it also depended on when you happened to inhabit those states. I had seen how those who found refuge in the United States during World War II because of their anti-German stance were, just a few years later, in danger of being jailed for their socialist sympathies. Once such person was Salka Viertel, an actress and writer who had left Germany in 1928 and decided to stay in the United States after Hitler’s rise to power, becoming a contracted screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and a major community organizer of Jewish refugees in Hollywood. Her home was a center of European émigré life in Los Angeles and many of her guests were known social activists. When the political winds changed, and one after another of her friends or acquaintances began to be targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee—and after she herself became part of the Hollywood blacklist—she again went into exile, this time to Switzerland in 1953, where some of her closest friends, including Thomas Mann and Charlie Chaplin, had already been living for about a year, having left the United States for the same reason.

This was why, I realized, Hofstadter had written Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in the first place: because threats to the life of the mind existed even in those places considered hallmarks of artistic and social freedom. I looked a little more closely at the Hollywood Ten, those who refused to testify before the HUAC and who were all jailed for contempt of Congress. They couldn’t work again for at least a decade or two. None of them went into exile. But several fell into obscurity. Some died in poverty. But then so did Raphael Lemkin, the man who’d created the word genocide.

It was important, I realized, to expose the threats that American power structures posed to intellectuals, not because it was a worse place than any other, but because it couldn’t continue to pretend to be one of the best.

I thought long and hard about the United States. I had spent so much time focused on Germany and Russia that it had never occurred to me that the wave of intellectual murders might have initiated in America—the place where, as Hofstadter had shown so well, spiritual anti-intellectualism had taken root centuries earlier. There were two high profile examples of cases in which intellectuals who were also political activists had been murdered just a few years apart—Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968—and while the possibility that the two were directly assassinated by the FBI remains fodder for conspiracy theorists, considerable evidence has been revealed in recent years to suggest that a coverup, or even a disinformation campaign, was deployed around their deaths. In the case of Malcom X, a retrial that took place in 2021, almost sixty years after the fact, showed that two of the men convicted of the killing had actually been innocent, and that authorities had withheld evidence that would have exonerated them at the time. It was important, I realized, to expose the threats that American power structures posed to intellectuals, not because it was a worse place than any other, but because it couldn’t continue to pretend to be one of the best.

I needed a case study and it couldn’t be one as conspicuous as Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, in which the FBI had been guarding its role with utmost secrecy. I needed to find a case that was out of the spotlight, one in which an intellectual who had died had also been the victim of the United States government, not necessarily as his killer, but in a way that might somehow have contributed to his death.

I went back into my files. I knew I had someone in there who’d been involved intellectually in all sorts of undertakings and endeavors, but who had been largely forgotten, lost in the cultural amnesia that followed the years of McCarthyism. I looked and looked. I opened file after file—looking through old investigations and inquiries—until, finally, in the back of the bottom drawer, under a worn manilla envelope, I found an index card with a name written out in block letters. LOUIS ADAMIC.

DAVID STROMBERG is a writer, translator, and essayist whose work has appeared in The American Scholar, The Smart SetPublic Seminar, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is editor of Old Truths and New Clichés (Princeton University Press), a collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s essays, and a reissue of the canonical story, Simple Gimpl: The Definitive Bilingual Edition (Restless Books). His recent work includes A Short Inquiry into the End of the World (The Massachusetts Review), the first speculative essay in his Mister Investigator series, and his follow-up, “The Eternal Hope of the Wandering Jew,” which appeared in The Hedgehog Review. This is the third in that series. His website? It’s here.

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