The Lagos Mayfair intellectuals

The next thing I knew, the discussion was onto the subject of fascism in America. Everybody was talking about police repression and the anxiety and paranoia as good folks waited for the knock on the door and the descent of the knout on the nape of the neck. I couldn’t make any sense out of it. I had just made a tour of the country to write a series called “The New Life Out There” for New York magazine. This was the mid-1960’s. The post-World War II boom had by now pumped money into every level of the population on a scale unparalleled in any nation in history. Not only that, the folks were running wilder and freer than any people in history. For that matter, Krassner himself, in one of the strokes of exuberance for which he was well known, was soon to publish a slight hoax: an account of how Lyndon Johnson was so overjoyed about becoming President that he had buggered a wound in the neck of John F. Kennedy on Air Force One as Kennedy’s body was being flown back from Dallas. Krassner presented this as a suppressed chapter from William Manchester’s book Death of a President. Johnson, of course, was still President when it came out. Yet the merciless gestapo dragnet missed Krassner, who cleverly hid out onstage at Princeton on Saturday nights.

Suddenly I heard myself blurting out over my microphone: “My God, what are you talking about? We’re in the middle of a… Happiness Explosion!”

That merely sounded idiotic. The kid up in the balcony did the crying baby. The kid down below did the raccoon… Krakatoa, East of Java… I disappeared in a tidal wave of rude sounds… Back to the goon squads, search-and-seize and roust-a-daddy…

Support came from a quarter I hadn’t counted on. It was Grass, speaking in English.

“For the past hour I have had my eyes fixed on the doors here,” he said. “You talk about fascism and police repression. In Germany when I was a student, they come through those doors long ago. Here they must be very slow.”

Grass was enjoying himself for the first time all evening. He was not simply saying, “You really don’t have so much to worry about.” He was indulging his sense of the absurd. He was saying: “You American intellectuals—you want so desperately to feel besieged and persecuted!”

He sounded like Jean-François Revel, a French socialist writer who talks about one of the great unexplained phenomena of modern astronomy: namely, that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.

Not very nice, Günter! Not very nice, Jean-François! A bit supercilious, wouldn’t you say!

In fact, during the 1960’s American intellectuals seldom seemed to realize just how patronizing their European brethren were being. To the Europeans, American intellectuals were struggling so hard (yet once again) to be correct in ideology and in attitude… and they were being correct… impeccable, even—which was precisely what prompted the sniggers and the knowing looks. European intellectuals looked upon American intellectuals much the way English colonial officials used to look upon the swarthy locals who came forward with their Calcutta Toff Oxford accents or their Lagos Mayfair tailored clothes. It was so touching (then why are you laughing?) to see the natives try to do it right.

I happened to have been in a room in Washington in 1961 when a member of Nigeria’s first Cabinet (after independence) went into a long lament about the insidious and seductive techniques the British had used over the years to domesticate his people.

“Just look at me!” he said, looking down at his own torso and flipping his hands toward his chest. “Look at this suit! A worsted suit on an African—and a double-breasted waistcoat!”

He said “double-breasted waistcoat” with the most shriveling self-contempt you can imagine.

“This is what they’ve done to me,” he said softly. “I can’t even do the High Life any more.”

The High Life was a Low Rent Nigerian dance. He continued to stare down at the offending waistcoat, wondering where he’d left his soul, or his Soul, in any event.

Perhaps someday, if Mr. Bob Silvers’s Confessions are published, we will read something similar. Silvers is co-editor of The New York Review of Books. His accent arrived mysteriously one day in a box from London. Intrigued, he slapped it into his mouth like a set of teeth. It seemed… right. He began signing up so many English dons to write for The New York Review of Books that wags began calling it The London Review of Bores and Don & Grub Street. He seemed to take this good-naturedly. But perhaps someday we will learn that Mr. Bob Silvers, too, suffered blue moods of the soul and stood in front of a mirror wiggling his knees, trying to jiggle his roots, wondering if his feet could ever renegotiate the Lindy or the Fish or the Hokey-Pokey.

O how faithfully our native intelligentsia has tried to… do it right! The model has not always been England. Not at all. Just as frequently it has been Germany or France or Italy or even (on the religious fringe) the Orient. In the old days—seventy-five-or-so years ago—the well-brought-up young intellectual was likely to be treated to a tour of Europe… we find Jane Addams recuperating from her malaise in London and Dresden… Lincoln Steffens going to college in Heidelburg and Munich… Mabel Dodge setting up house in Florence… Randolph Bourne discovering Germany’s “charming villages” and returning to Bloomfield, New Jersey—Bloomfield, New Jersey?—which now “seemed almost too grotesquely squalid and frowsy to be true.” The business of being an intellectual and the urge to set oneself apart from provincial life began to be indistinguishable. In July 1921 Harold Stearns completed his anthology called Civilization in the United States—a contradiction in terms, he hastened to note—and set sail for Europe. The “Lost Generation” adventure began. But what was the Lost Generation really? It was a post-Great War discount tour in which middle-class Americans, too, not just Bournes and Steffenses, could learn how to become European intellectuals; preferably French.

The European intellectual! What a marvelous figure! A brilliant cynic, dazzling, in fact, set like one of those Gustave Miklos sculptures of polished bronze and gold against the smoking rubble of Europe after the Great War. The American intellectual did the best he could. He could position himself against a backdrop of… well, not exactly rubble… but of the booboisie, the Herd State, the United States of Puritanism, Philistinism, Boosterism, Greed, and the great Hog Wallow. It was certainly a psychological wasteland. For the next fifty years, from that time to this, with ever-increasing skill, the American intellectual would perform this difficult feat, which might be described as the Adjectival Catch Up. The European intellectuals have a real wasteland? Well, we have a psychological wasteland. They have real fascism? Well, we have social fascism (a favorite phrase of the 1930’s, amended to “liberal fascism” in the 1960’s). They have real poverty? Well, we have relative poverty (Michael Harrington’s great Adjectival Catch Up of 1963″). They have real genocide? Well, we have cultural genocide (i.e., what universities were guilty of in the late 1960’s if they didn’t have open-admissions policies for minority groups).

Well—all right! They were difficult, these one-and-a-half gainers in logic. But they were worth it. What had become important above all was to be that polished figure amid the rubble, a vision of sweetness and light in the smoking tar pit of hell. The intellectual had become not so much an occupational type as a status type. He was like the medieval cleric, most of whose energies were devoted to separating himself from the mob—which in modern times, in Revel’s phrase, goes under the name of the middle class.

Did he want to analyze the world systematically? Did he want to add to the store of human knowledge? He not only didn’t want to, he belittled the notion, quoting Rosa Luxemburg’s statement that the “pot-bellied academics” and their interminable monographs and lectures, their intellectual nerve gas, were sophisticated extensions of police repression. Did he even want to change the world? Not particularly; it was much more elegant to back exotic, impossible causes such as the Black Panthers’. Moral indignation was the main thing; that, and a certain pattern of consumption. In fact, by the 1960’s it was no longer necessary to produce literature, scholarship, or art—or even to be involved in such matters, except as a consumer—in order to qualify as an intellectual. It was only necessary to live la vie intellectuelle. A little brown bread in the bread box, a lapsed pledge card to CORE, a stereo and a record rack full of Coltrane and all the Beatles albums from Revolver on, white walls, a huge Dracaena marginata plant, which is there because all the furniture is so clean-lined and spare that without this piece of frondose tropical Victoriana the room looks empty, a stack of unread New York Review of Books rising up in a surly mound of subscription guilt, the conviction that America is materialistic, repressive, bloated, and deadened by its Silent Majority, which resides in the heartland, three grocery boxes full of pop bottles wedged in behind the refrigerator and destined (one of these days) for the Recycling Center—that pretty well got the job done.

—Tom Wolfe, The Intelligent Co-Ed’s Guide to America

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One response to “The Lagos Mayfair intellectuals

  1. Pingback: The Lagos Mayfair intellectuals | Reaction Times

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