Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain

By Stefan Collini | Go to book overview

Epilogue. No Elsewhere

'After we have got all the facts of our special study, justness of perception to
deal with the facts is still required, and is, even, the principal thing of all.'


I

A book which has so determinedly taken issue with one cherished belief about 'British exceptionalism', and which has attempted to expose some of the forms of parochialism that have helped sustain that belief, may perhaps be allowed to let the tone of its conclusion be set by an emphatically English voice, brooding on its own ambivalent sense of belonging. In his poem 'The Importance of Elsewhere', Philip Larkin, writing in 1955 and drawing upon the years he had recently spent working in Belfast, reflected on the way in which recognition of the foreignness of his surroundings there had made possible a kind of acceptance or coexistence. He may have been lonely, but 'since it was not home | Strangeness made sense'. He then went on:

Living in England has no such excuse:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be much more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.1

The poem points, in that characteristically Larkinesque tone of unillusioned realism, towards what is involved in facing up to the here and now, repudiating various forms of pretence and escapism. Part of what it means for somewhere to be 'home' is that one cannot maintain the kind of quizzical detachment from its 'customs and establishments' that comes from locating one's defining identity 'elsewhere'.

In this book I have tried to show how debate in twentieth-century Britain has constantly fallen back on a series of 'elsewheres' to underwrite its denial of the existence or authenticity or importance of intellectuals. Sometimes the elsewheres have been literal and geographical; sometimes they have been chronological (the past is another elsewhere); sometimes they have been idealized or projected or otherwise fantasmatic. Of course, one danger inherent in the approach adopted in this book is that of replacing claims about the distinctive absence of intellectuals with claims about the distinctiveness of the claims about the absence of intellectuals. However, I have also tried to show that these strategies of denial, far from being confined to British discussions, can be identified, albeit

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