NON FICTION: The History of a Club with No Members ; Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain by Stefan Collini OXFORD Pounds 25 Pounds 25 P&PFREE) 08700 798 897
Bostridge, Mark, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
This is a book about a question, or rather a series of interrelated questions concerning the position occupied by intellectuals in Britain during the 20th century. Have such figures ever truly existed in this country and - if one accepts that they have - why have they so long been considered as absent, or their influence as marginal? Are intellectuals, in fact, an exotic species whose natural habitat is always elsewhere, most stereotypically in Parisian cafes on the Left Bank, of the kind once populated by Jean- Paul Sartre and his disciples? And, do intellectuals have a future in the 21st century, or are they on the verge of becoming extinct?
It's a brave man who bases a study around consideration of a negative or, in this case, an absence. Absent Minds is a complex, sophisticated exploration of the traditional Anglo-Saxon distrust of ideas and the people who originate them. Stefan Collini, currently Professor of Intellectual History at Cambridge, is unrelenting in the way he works away at exposing "time-worn clichs", replacing them with "something a little knobblier and harder to stack". So much so, that one sometimes feels that there is a leaner book contained within this one, screaming to get out. Nevertheless, calling upon an enterprising mix of cultural history, biography, sociology, etymology, and polemic, Collini has produced a frequently brilliant survey demonstrating the extent to which discussion of the role of intellectuals has been present in national debate over the past 100 years.
For the existence of a bona fide intelligentsia, commentators have tended to look towards 19th-century Russia, where intellectuals might be said to have formed a social class and actively to have deployed their standing in public life, and, more generally, to France, where intellectuals collectively have long been regarded as the supreme oracles on public affairs. As Collini shows, the modern use of the term "intellectual" is of French derivation, imported into Britain in the early 1900s, not long after Zola had famously asserted the role of French intellectuals and their intervention in the political field with his open letter, "J'Accuse" at the height of the Dreyfus Affair. This effectively broadened definition of the concept of an intellectual from someone interested in ideas to a shaper of opinion with influence who was prepared to make his or her voice heard in relation to the problems of the general community.
In Britain, however, the term was frequently employed in a derisive or ironic sense. Resistance or indifference to ideas, a reluctance to engage in theoretical speculation, had long been recognised as part of the national identity, though the reasons for this can only be guessed at. Isaiah Berlin once suggested that a genuine intelligentsia could only be created by "truly oppressive regimes", while the Whig interpretation of history celebrated the lack in Britain of "political men of letters" who had helped to foment Revolution in France. …