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To Kill an Intellectual 5.

Serial in Five Parts.



The Self-defense Plea.

I left Adamic where he was, dead, without a sense of closure or insight into the wave of intellectual killings that was spreading through the world. In a world history filled with murdered intellectuals, I found myself especially shaken by his assassination. Not because it was worse than any other. It was just that the actions that led to his death were driven by little more than the needs of his spirit. He wasn’t after social control or cultural glory. He was just someone looking for meaning in his life as a social creature who cared about his surroundings.

It was Frank Tannenbaum, reviewing The Eagle and the Roots after it was posthumously published, who saw the gap between Adamic’s spiritual yearning and what reality had dished up. “For Adamic,” he wrote, “America was the land of opportunity, but never of fulfillment. Something was lacking in American life, and he went back to Europe to find it.” But Adamic never moved back to Yugoslavia. He remained what the FBI had tried, repeatedly, to say he wasn’t: a loyal American. And this was his undoing.

Something about the Adamic case got under my skin: the tragic confluence between intelligence as mental ability and intelligence as espionage.

There was something else about the Adamic case that got under my skin: the tragic confluence between intelligence as mental ability and intelligence as espionage. Intelligence, in both senses, was often exploited to spoil intellectualism. The ability to turn information into a weapon was not, in itself, central to intellectual life. Yet intelligencers, as spies have been called since at least the sixteenth century, depended on intellectuals for cover. Both FBI agents and Soviet spies were ultimately in the information business—and they turned whatever information came to them into policies meant to harm, or at least outmaneuver, their enemies. But that didn’t mean that intellectualism should be targeted in a concerted effort merely because certain people in certain circles made it their business to turn ideas into instruments of power and death—especially since these spies’ unoriginal minds could probably never have come up with these ideas themselves.

I was angry. Not just because the list of intellectual victims grew by the year, the month, the week, the minute. But also because, despite being the victims of predatory—albeit intelligent—powers, intellectuals were ultimately blamed for their own deaths. And the people hunting them were, like Mond from Brave New World, failed intellectuals using the little bit of intelligence they still had against those who dared to think independently. Not to act. Just to think. And to broadcast their thinking.

I had to admit that my investigation hadn’t painted a very pretty picture of intellectualism. It seemed like just being an intellectual was enough to get you killed. No matter who you were, no matter what you did, you were a target. On some level, becoming an intellectual could be seen as a form of suicide, or at least an openly expressed death wish. Considering everything I’d discovered in my investigation, I had to wonder why anyone would ever want to be an intellectual in the first place.

This investigation was no longer a pursuit of justice. It was, itself, a moral question. Was it my place to intervene in the historical dynamic that intellectuals had experienced for generations? In his long speech, Mond referred to French philosopher Maine de Biran, an adherent of the intellectualist school of philosophy, which itself had its roots in Socrates. Hadn’t Socrates been the first recorded victim of anti-intellectualism? Hadn’t Plato’s depiction of the so-called Apologia functioned as a paradigm of what it meant to kill an intellectual? And so, if someone as wise and prominent as Socrates had been unable to stop the wave of anti-intellectualism that had spread through Athens at the time, who was I to think that I could do any better today—when anti-intellectualism had ever-better tools and methods to annihilate every form of independent thinking? Who was I to try to stop the wave of intellectual killings when the evil had grown beyond human proportions and no one like Socrates was left to stand as a martyr of the mind?

I hadn’t just reached a dead end. I was a dead end. My inquiry had led to me to see that inquiry, itself, was death. If you were lucky enough not to be killed in a literal sense, it wasn’t long before you were killed symbolically—your ideas dragged through the mud of anti-intellectualism.

I reached a level of despair that I could have never have imagined when setting out on this investigation. From the symbolic anti-intellectualism of the mind to the mutual anti-intellectualism of intellectuals, from the real-life anti-intellectualism of state-backed death squads to the science-fictional anti-intellectualism of all-powerful mega-states—from the overt anti-intellectualism of fear-mongering politicians to the covert anti-intellectualism of two-faced spies—I saw that intellectuals had always been, and would probably always be, an endangered species. The sheer level of danger posed to this class of humans made me shiver.

I needed to retreat and get some advice from someone I knew well. Someone with whom I’d spent a lot of time and with whom I didn’t need to beat around the bush. I needed someone who knew firsthand the martyrdom of intellectualism. So I went to the one person I had always admired for his integrity, someone who, through one of his fictional narrators, had said: “I don’t believe there is a single person I loved that I didn’t eventually betray.” Unlike most figures I’d encountered on my investigation, who lied through their teeth out of hate or anger, he, at least, spoke of the capacity for love. With my coat drawn up to my ears, and a cigarette dangling from my lip, I paid a visit to Albert Camus.

Camus had been dead for over sixty years. But he hadn’t said his last word. In 2017, Gallimard had published a definitive collection of his lectures and speeches, appearing three years later in English as Speaking Out. In it, Camus’s voice appears as it was presented to real people in real places, not as a disembodied intellectual, but as a living person standing before a living audience. As soon as I opened the book, I saw words that assured me I had come to the right person. In mid-March 1945, barely two months after the liberation of Auschwitz and just a few weeks before the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald, Camus presented a lecture titled “Defense of Intelligence” in which he set out some of the issues that would pursue him for the rest of his life.

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I’d known Camus fairly well before reading his lectures and speeches. But I ‘d never heard the personal trauma in his voice as I did now. Reading his lecture, I saw that the war had created for him a moral dilemma that was not merely in his head. It was a double bind that constricted his very heart: “perhaps Hitlerism’s last and most durable victory has been those shameful scars left in the hearts even of those who fought it with all their strength.” These words nearly move me to tears. I understood, then, that they represented the betrayal he’d written about ten years later. As he added: “The hatred of the executioners is matched by the hatred of the victims.” Camus had always been dedicated to the life of the spirit, yet he’d spent the war fighting evil in human form. Directly or indirectly, he had been responsible for the deaths of his enemies. He’d seen firsthand that being an intellectual never exonerated you of the need to kill—that defending the life of the spirit sometimes meant killing those who would eradicate it instead.

“We must heal those poisoned hearts.,” he said “And tomorrow, the hardest victory we have to achieve over the enemy must be won within ourselves.” The pathway he suggested started, in his words, with the need to “preserve intelligence.” He also understood that this posed a challenge, since, ever since the rise of the Nazis, “throughout civilized Europe, the excesses of intellect and the sins of the intellectual were being denounced.” He was quick to add: “Intellectuals themselves . . . were not slow to join the assault.” He saw, well enough before the war and too well after it, that intellectualism was under constant attack, from within and without, in an attempt to wipe out any semblance of human spirit. He also noted: “I well know the excesses of intellect . . . I know that intellectuals are dangerous creatures who easily betray.” Yet he added: “But that is the wrong kind of intelligence.” Again I noted the strange confluence between intelligence and intellectualism. Ultimately, the intellectualism valued by Camus was the one he believed engendered what he called freedom.

Reading Camus, I saw that the dynamic described by Hofstadter, which had been based on centuries of anti-intellectualism in America, had followed a pattern that repeated itself, over and over, throughout all historical eras—including ours. The question was: What to do?

It took Camus a year, but by spring 1946, he had not only diagnosed what he called the “The Crisis of Humanity,” but also put forth some potential ways the crisis might be mitigated.

First, as he explained, the crisis itself had to be identified, and, from his experience, it was in reality a crisis in humanity’s relation to death—and life—in the postwar era. Again, he mentioned those people “whose intelligence and hearts were formed during the terrible years” of the war, listing five symptoms he believed were characteristic of this period: a rise in terror, the impossibility of persuasion, a rise in bureaucracy, the replacement of real humans by political actors, and the ascendancy of efficiency and abstraction. He also distilled his earlier dichotomy of murderer and murderee into a slogan: “it was no longer possible,” he said, “to be anything but victim or executioner.” For Camus, after World War II, there was no human relation outside of conflict and power struggles. There was, it seemed, also no option for exile. There was only death: either the one you forced upon someone else or the one that was forced upon you.

Camus’s working plan for alleviating this acute state of affairs was to enact a set of actions and attitudes that would lower the pressure of existence—and possibly also shift our relation to death and, necessarily, to life as well. They were:

  1. – To call things by their name and to reject every form of fatalist thought.
  2. – To clear the world of the terror.
  3. – To put politics back in its proper place.
  4. – To reconcile negative thought with positive action.
  5. – To create a universalism in which people of good will come together.

It was a good plan. The cause was noble. The ideas were admirable. It was even, one could argue, correct in its understanding of what had to be done. But in hindsight, it read so naively. Sure, it made you feel good to see that someone could articulate the conditions needed for a better world—not from an ideological perspective, but from a human perspective, one that kept its sights squarely on the experience of everyday life—a perspective that was, in his words, “willing to affirm people in their flesh.” But it was also a perspective you couldn’t put into action, a framework that merely showed us everything we knew should but likely wouldn’t become reality.

Not that Camus didn’t take this problem into account. In his followup lecture, “Are We Pessimists?” (1946; in Speaking Out), he noted, “We have not to overcome our condition, but to know it better.” He also admonished the notion that all our actions had to be effective. He said that realists, those who focused on actionability, “are willing to undertake only tasks that succeed. And this is why they undertake none that is really important or really human”—they undertake only those tasks that they expect will have a practical impact. Nothing is done simply because it is beautiful or right. There are no pure intentions. Only goals. Which is to say: only power.

Ultimately, Camus suggests, the pursuit of power undermines any endeavor meant to uplift rather than to control humanity. He adds, too, that “there is a crisis because there is terror.” At that moment, I understood something that had escaped me throughout my investigation. I had been so focused on distinctions—between good and bad intellectualism, between overt and covert intelligence, between the many different forms of anti-intellectualism—that I hadn’t seen clearly enough the degree to which fear paralyzed them all. Terror froze distinctions. It transcended every qualitative category. It silenced every form of action. It was the total ruler of all things human. The Reign of Terror, the Red Terror, the Great Terror, the long list of White Terrors, and the ascendency of terrorism in the 21st century as a method of undermining global openness and freedom. Yes, there was always hypocrisy and exploitation that came with open societies, but they came together, alongside openness, meaning that there was a life to be lived outside of the social, political, and governmental constructs that buttressed communal living. The point wasn’t to have a perfect society or government. It was to have a society that, despite its shortcomings, still made room for human life.

With this new understanding, I went back to Camus’s earlier lecture, and different passages began to stand out. One, in particular, seemed to present not the lofty ideas of an intellectual, but the sincere words of a thinking person seeking contact with others:

[W]e all have to create . . . communities of reflection that will initiate dialogue between nations and affirm through their lives and their conversations that this world must stop being one of policemen, soldiers, and money to become one of men and women, fruitful work, and thoughtful leisure.

The way for intellectualism to contend with anti-intellectualism wasn’t to beat it at its own game. It was to become bigger than the forces trying to take it down.

The way for intellectualism to contend with anti-intellectualism wasn’t to beat it at its own game. It was to become bigger than the forces trying to take it down. And bigger didn’t necessarily mean stronger. It could be wider, deeper, broader, like the way we say that someone has a big heart, or that they are being the bigger person. By being bigger, intellectualism had a chance not to destroy anti-intellectualism, but to overwhelm it with a bear hug. Only by embracing anti-intellectualism could intellectuality—the life of the mind and the spirit—find its way out of its continual battle for survival. Or, put another way, only by stopping to put survival at the top of its priorities could intellectualism live a life that might be worth living.

Camus’s solution was to accept intellectualism’s inherent death wish. Once this became clear, it gave deeper context to his contention that “our death belongs only to ourselves. Which is my definition of freedom.” The embrace of death as a choice rather than an inevitability was the only way to establish a reign of freedom. A society that could be called free was one in which our death was our own.

Camus then returned, perhaps inevitably, to Socrates, declaring that, “the Socratic spirit of leniency towards others and strictness towards oneself is dangerous for civilizations of murder.” Societies of terror could never control those who were generous to their oppressors. It was a classic “turn the other cheek” argument. Except it was rooted in Socrates and not in Jesus. Perhaps Jesus had been inspired by the Socratic spirit. After all, there were some, like John Dominic Crossan, who argued that Jesus was less an apocalyptic prophet than a Cynic philosopher—Cynicism, in the classical sense, having been first articulated by Socrates’s pupil Antisthenes. For Camus, this Socratic spirit was no joke, since, in his words, “this spirit alone can regenerate the world.” You had to be ready to die for what you believed in order to free yourself from the grip of terror.

And I wondered: Was I?

It wasn’t an easy question to answer. And it led me to more contradictions than resolutions. First and foremost was an obvious problem: those who used terror to achieve their ends could also be said to be ready to die for what they believed. Suicide bombers, religious warriors, and freedom fighters were both commendable and reprehensible, depending on what side of the conflict you happened to occupy. The war on terrorism was just as brutal and sometimes worse than the terrorism it was battling. But, as Camus saw during World War II, there are times when you have to fight no matter what you think about fighting. Sometimes you have to kill, no matter what you think about killing. And sometimes you have to die—no matter what you think about dying.

Camus also made me aware of another inherent contradiction. In his characteristically noble tone, he stated that “today there is a generation which thinks, basically, that the person who places hope in the human condition is a madman, but that the one who despairs of events is a coward.” The idea is that it’s better to be crazy than to be scared. One has to act, despite one’s doubts, for the sake of the human condition, because despair will eradicate the last measure of joy or hope in this world. But at another point, he confesses that “we are alive only because we did less than others.” We don’t know whether the “less” to which he refers is rooted in despair or cowardice, an inability to square one’s fate with death, or some other extenuating circumstance. It could even be a simple expression of humility and respect for those who died resisting terror. Either way, slowly, a different message begins to emerge from his postwar address. It is much less heroic. And it is also much more practicable.

The message that appeared between the lines said that trying to pin down the source of any given anti-intellectual wave was, itself, a moot effort. Not that there weren’t concrete threats throughout history targeting concrete individuals or communities. But, looking at the situation globally, any given intellectual’s efforts at any given moment were best used for creating conditions of dialogue rather than victory.

As Camus said, reflecting on his experience in the Resistance, “we were in a collective tragedy where what was at stake was common dignity, a shared communication.” Communication was the point—not social networks that served as poor moderators of individual broadcasts, but dialogue in which people approached each other with their individual hopes as well as their communal needs. What humanity needed was real interaction issuing in any way possible from whatever social, cultural, or political realities we happened to inhabit in our times. Greater human contact and deeper understanding between people was the only way to mitigate the powers of anti-intellectualist terror that fought against the life of the mind and the spirit all over the world. As Camus added in his address, “to maintain this communication, people had to be free”—because freedom made dialogue possible.

Adamic, I now saw, had fallen victim not only to the anti-intellectualism of his time, but also to his own sense of alienation. Obsessed with political anxieties both at home and abroad, he had lost all contact with those closest to him. Separation was anti-intellectualism’s strongest weapon. It was also exceedingly easy to disarm. All you had to do was to connect with others.

Camus had spoken from experience—and also from his vision for the world in a postwar reality. A little more than ten years later, after receiving the Nobel Prize, he again reflected on the situation in which artists and intellectuals then found themselves. “Every artist today,” he posited, “is a conscript on the galley of his period. . . . The artist must take his turn at the oars like the rest, without dying if possible.” It was the tragic truth of Camus’s life that he did die at the oars, the victim of a car accident that may have been no accident at all—assassinated by the KGB with an unfinished draft of his new novel in his bag. Like Adamic.

Danger, risk, death: they were not merely words when they came from Camus’s mouth. They were confessions.

Reading the words of Camus’s lecture—one of his last—I was haunted by the vision of a person who knew he would eventually be killed for those words he would dare to write and utter. “To create today,” he said, “is to create dangerously.” And elsewhere:  “On this ridge upon which the great artist progresses, each step is an adventure, an extreme risk.” And again, in another section, “The problem is more complex, more deadly too, as soon as you realize that the fight is being waged within the artist himself.” Danger, risk, death: they were not merely words when they came from Camus’s mouth. They were confessions. A person marked for death admitting that he will not turn back from his commitment to truth, beauty, and freedom.

For Camus, freedom wasn’t just an idea. It was an action. It was freedom in art, freedom in reality, and freedom in the great challenge of reconciling the two. “The free artist,” he said, “is the one who with great difficulty creates his own order.” But this order, he explains, is always in conflict with reality. On the one hand, as he says, “the reality of the world is our common country.” Yet, on the other, “The artist always finds himself in this ambiguity, unable to deny the real and yet forever fated to contest it.” Reality, he says, is conflicted, and the same goes for “art, which is nothing without reality, and without which reality is not worth much.” Creativity, as dangerous as it may be, is our only path toward a world in which we both acknowledge reality and protest against all its shortcomings.

The freedom to be ambiguous, uncertain, unresolved—the freedom to question without seeking an answer or a solution—makes art a target for structures of power. As Camus says:

…art, because of that free essence I have tried to define, unites where tyranny divides. . . .Why, then, is it any surprise that it should be the enemy singled out by all oppressions? Why is it any surprise that artists and intellectuals should have been the first victims of modern tyrannies, whether of the right or the left?

And there it was: in black and white ink. The intellectual killings of our time were no different from that of any other. Terror, oppression, tyranny—they all sought out intellectualism precisely because the conditions of its proliferation depended on freedoms that undermined their control. Every form of anti-intellectualism, even the intellectual type, came from a power center’s insistence on social, political, and cultural control. I saw, too, that Camus hadn’t spared artists and intellectuals from his critical perspective. “Hatred of art . . . is so effective today,” he said, “only because it is fostered by artists themselves.” In parentheses, he added, “I have always thought there were two kinds of intelligence: intelligent intelligence and stupid intelligence.” Ultimately, he seemed to be struggling against intellectualism itself—at least the kind that would self-destruct and leave the world with a reality that was not worth very much.

Camus knew that his work put him in danger. He talked about it openly. And while he did not die in World War II, he didn’t survive the Cold War. He put his money where his mouth was and pointed repeatedly to what he believed was true about reality: that it was conflicted. In the late 1950s, as people around him talked about Hungary and Algeria, he gave a speech titled, “What I Owe Spain,” focused on the exiled Spaniards who were still seeking refuge from Franco. Camus knew that, though there were new conflicts that demanded attention, you couldn’t talk about them until you could talk, in a sensible way, about the conflicts of the recent past. Spain had served as a stage rehearsal for World War II. But it had also remained a dictatorship long after World War II had ended. And most people preferred not to talk about this because it proved what Camus had said in 1946: that Hitlerism, too, had had its victories, and that their legacies were all too palpable.

Ultimately, Camus’s message wasn’t one of resistance, but of dialogue. As he said, “Contrary to the common prejudice, if anyone does not have a right to solitude it is precisely the artist.” He meant that artists—who were for him a type of intellectual—had no choice but to relate what they did to others for the simple reason that reality contained other people. This made me think, again, of Socrates, whom many have considered a martyr of individualism. But Socrates is memorialized for another reason: his relationships. Phaedrus, Crito, Phaedo, Ion, Cratylus—they were not merely the titles of dialogues written by Plato. They were also the names of people with whom Socrates spent his days in dialogue. Glaucon. Alcibiades. Meno. Cebes. Philebus. Xenophon. Gorgias. Where would they all be without their relationship to Socrates establishing them as perennial partners in a conversation that was never really meant to end?

I saw that anti-intellectualism could never be beaten by anti-anti-intellectualism. Intellectualism alone would never overcome the destructive forces trying to undermine its influence on the world. You needed another function—another operation. As Camus said, “We have not to overcome our condition, but to know it better.” Being aware was itself a goal. And we could use the intellect to help us better know the world in which we lived. This wasn’t intellectualism for its own sake. It was intellectuality that worked to help us know our reality as intimately as possible. Not to effectively change it all the time, but to become aware of the changes it underwent.

Even those places that worked most diligently to wipe out intel-lec-tu-alism, like the Soviet Union, still produced intellectuals.

­Intellectualism was as organic a part of human life as hunting, gathering, or plowing a field. Even those places that worked most diligently to wipe out intellectualism, like the Soviet Union, still produced intellectuals. And even those places that had historical bias against intellectuals, like the United States, continued to create intellectuals that influenced culture. Not even intellectuals were able to annihilate their own kind. There was something in the type of person that made up an intellectual that simply wouldn’t disappear from human history.

Those who sought and found power were constantly changing the world. But the world had a way of changing even without their efforts. It was doing it all the time. Yet there was also room for witnesses in this world, those would articulate the changes, who placed awareness at the top of their actions. Knowing the world as it is, with its power-mongering and influence-seeking, without vying for that influence or power—was the closest thing we had to an antidote against the anti-intellectualism that humanity was constantly aiming at itself. It was the only way to stop those who would do anything and everything to kill an intellectual.

The Serial Here Concludes.

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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