The Intellectual as Barbarian

The Intellectual as Barbarian

5 Mins
October 13, 2010

January 2002 -- The assault on civilization did not begin with the terrorist attacks of September 11. As Objectivists know, such an assault has been under way for a long time. Indeed, in Western history, one could go back 250 years, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, published in 1750. Father Copleston's monumental History of Philosophy describes the Discourse as "an attack on civilization," and it is. But it is also more than that.

By 1750, Western civilization (as distinct from Classical civilization) had been surging ahead for a thousand years. Rousseau's Discourse, which offers a brief for barbarian tribes and their primitivism, marked the first time that the avant-garde of the West turned against that which they themselves recognized to be their civilization's highest accomplishments. Since 1750, and the advent of the post-Enlightenment culture, such attacks have become increasingly common.

Here is one. A contemporary foot-soldier in the assault on civilization—drawing on Rousseau's primitivism—said the following about September 11. (The quotation is taken from The New Republic's "Idiocy Watch," a section where the editors print particularly stupid remarks about the terrorist attacks and the war.)

The WTC was not just an architectural monstrosity, but also terrible for people who didn't work there,

for it said to all those people: 'If you can't work up here, boy, you're out of it.' That's why I'm sure that

if those towers had been destroyed without loss of life, a lot of people would have cheered. Everything

wrong with America led to the point where the country built that tower of Babel, which consequently

had to be destroyed. [The speaker continued:] And then came the next shock. We had to realize that the

people that did this were brilliant. It showed that the ego we could hold up until September 10 was

inadequate. [And then there was this:] Americans can't admit that you need courage to do such a thing.

For that might be misunderstood. The key thing is that we in America are convinced that it was blind,

mad fanatics who didn't know what they were doing. But what if those perpetrators were right and we

were not? (The New Republic, November 26, 2001)

Notice three elements in this screed: (1) A view of the bourgeois world as an oppressive power structure: "If you can't work up here, boy, you're out of it." (2) A deduction from that assumption that "a lot of people" wished to see the architectural symbol of the oppressive bourgeois world destroyed. (3) A special emphasis on the superiority of the destroyers as persons who exhibited the traditionally manly virtue of courage.

Who was the author of this outrageous statement? A man who has, for the last fifty years, been considered one of America's leading novelists and commentators, Norman Mailer. Indeed, in recognition of Mailer's high cultural standing, TNR ran a "Special Norman Mailer Edition" of its "Idiocy Watch" to document and analyze the remarks above.

Of course, if Mailer's ramblings regarding September 11 demonstrated only that some previously sensible author had "lost it" in old age, they would hardly matter. But they do matter, because his remarks are consistent with the philosophy that has won Mailer accolades from America's intelligentsia for the last half century.

A bit of cultural history is in order. Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948) was acclaimed as one of the best novels to come out of World War II, but his next fictional work (Barbary Shore [1951]) was a critical disaster, and his third (The Deer Park [1955]) received mixed notices. Thus, the extravagant hopes that the New York culturati had invested in Mailer when he was 25 had substantially dissipated by the time he was 33. (For more on Mailer's career and ideas, see Roger Kimball, The Long March, pp. 61-80.)

In 1957, Mailer set himself back on the road to cultural acclaim by publishing an essay called "The White Negro" (Dissent, Summer 1957), which took the intelligentsia's anti-bourgeois animus to new heights through its praise of "the hipster" and his morality. (The essay's title involves an ugly bit of racial stereotyping on Mailer's part. The hipster is a white person who has chosen to adopt the anti-bourgeois ethos Mailer believed to be characteristic of black Americans.)

The metaphysical foundation of the hipster's morality is the concept of an inner, "authentic" self suffocating in an oppressive bourgeois world: "the prison air of other people's habits, other people's defeats, boredom, quiet desperation and muted icy self-destroying rage." In such a situation, "the only life-giving answer is . . . to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self." So the choice is simple: "One is Hip or one is Square . . . one is a rebel or one conforms."

Now, this metaphysical picture of an inner self to which a person must be true has taken two forms, historically. In pre-modern times, the inner self was a soul whose needs (salvation, say) were to be determined and pursued by learning and applying certain general ethical principles. But in the post-modern world of Rousseau and his followers, the demands of the inner, "authentic" self are found by examining one's personal emotions. Thus, Mailer wrote, "one must know one's desires, one's rages, one's anguish, one must be aware of the character of one's frustration and know what would satisfy it."

And what will satisfy it? What form do the rebellious imperatives of the self take for the hipster? "Hip, which would return us to ourselves, at no matter what price in individual violence, is the affirmation of the barbarian." Indeed, "it may be useful to consider the hipster a philosophical psychopath." With what implications? "The psychopath murders—if he has the courage—out of the necessity to purge his violence, for if he cannot empty his hatred then he cannot love, his being is frozen with implacable self-hatred for his cowardice." But why is urban murder courageous? It is not an Old West gunfight. "It can of course be suggested that it takes little courage for two strong eighteen-year-old hoodlums, let us say, to beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper. . . . Still, courage of a sort is necessary, for one murders not only a weak fifty-year-old man but an institution as well, one violates private property, one enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into one's life. The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown, and so no matter how brutal the act, it is not altogether cowardly." In short, murder is courageous because it attacks the bourgeois system. The criminal is a revolutionary.

Today, we can see that this essay established the three premises that Mailer used to suggest the terrorists of September 11 might be right: (1) The hipster's proper victim is that quintessential bourgeois, a shopkeeper; the terrorists' victims were the elite of the bourgeois world. In addition, though, by attacking the bourgeois, both the hipster and the terrorist necessarily take on the forces of law and order that protect capitalism, whether those forces are represented by the police or the Pentagon.

(2) Contrary to what one might expect, the desire to rebel against bourgeois society is not felt primarily by those enmeshed in its structure but by those outside it: the black and the young, domestically; the poor and non-Westerners, internationally. Thus, the hipster's rebellion is something "most adolescents can understand instinctively, for the hipster's intense view of existence matches their experience and their desire to rebel." So, too, did "a lot of people" want to see the WTC fall, specifically, those to whom the buildings said, 'If you can't work up here, boy, you're out of it.'

(3) The hipster-killer exhibits the traditional manly virtue of courage in attacking the bourgeois world; so, too, did the terrorists.

I am not suggesting that Mailer's remarks, either in 1957 or 2001, provide us with insight into the psychology of criminals or terrorists. But they do provide us with insight into the mentality of Norman Mailer and that element of the Left for which he has long been a spokesman. For fifty-plus years, Mailer has been spewing forth his hatred of America's bourgeois culture and his wish to see it violently attacked, without encountering significant moral denunciation or social ostracism—until now. Indeed, despite the ugly stereotyping of black Americans in "The White Negro," Mailer's essay was considered inspirational reading in the 1960s. According to David Horowitz's biography, Radical Son, it became "the seminal manifesto" of the campus Left, through its commitment to anti-Americanism, drugs, promiscuity, violence, and sexually libertine music (jazz for Mailer, rock for the 1960s). No wonder, then, that so many of our most highly educated citizens—children of the Sixties—have sided with terrorists. The wonder, the happy surprise, is that a significant portion of the intelligentsia retained enough decency through the years that September 11 shocked them (at least partially) out of their anti-civilizational stance, so that they now openly call Mailer "an idiot."

This article was originally published in the January 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.