Having now finished Intellectuals, I'm ready for a more general assessment. Its main theme: the rise of the public intellectual is, in a way, the rise of the ideologue who would distort and even crush anything - facts and friends alike - in the service of an a priori, realitätsfremd millennial vision. His primary targets: Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Hemingway, Brecht, Russell and Sartre.
He might as well have included Richard Wagner, who fits the pattern perfectly: the disingenuous, self-aggrandizing autobiography, the trail of unpaid debts and cast off lovers, the friendship-dashing quarrels with those who had once helped him, the deferential wife, the insistence on total control of every aspect of his Gesamtkunstwerk, the performance of which was to bring about a grand catharsis and, in a world riven by commodified goods, once again fuse society as it was in the times of the Greek tragedy.
Another possible omission is Sigmund Freud, whose innovations, along with those of Marx and (by way of popular misunderstanding) Einstein, begin Johnson's Modern Age (yes I’ve jumped straight into that one). Freud, too, browbeat facts into submission, as when he compelled patients confess their romantic feelings towards their mother or father. Rows and breakups with dissenting colleagues, most notably Jung. When met with resistance among his followers, he infamously suggested that they, too, might need therapy.
And then there is the content of Freud's theories, which were even to affect the way we understand civilization.
Freud was a gnostic. He believed in the existence of a hidden structure of knowledge which, by using the techniques he was devising, could be discerned beneath the surface of things. The dream was his starting-point. It was not, he wrote, ‘differently constructed from the neurotic symptom. Like the latter, it may seem strange and senseless, but when it is examined by means of a technique which differs slightly from the free association method used in psychoanalysis, one gets from its manifest content to its hidden meaning, or to its latent thoughts. Modern Times, p.7
As Johnson narrates, the reception of Freud was at least equally as rapturous.
‘That is what I have always thought!’ noted an admiring André Gide in his diary. In the early 1920s, many intellectuals discovered that they had been Freudians for years without knowing it. The appeal was especially strong among novelists, ranging from the young Aldous Huxley, whose dazzling Crome Yellow was written in 1921, to the sombrely conservative Thomas Mann, to whom Freud was ‘an oracle’. Modern Times, p.8.
After eighty years’ experience, his methods of therapy have proved, on the whole, costly failures, more suited to cosset the unhappy than cure the sick. 13 We now know that many of the central ideas of psychoanalysis have no basis in biology. They were, indeed, formulated by Freud before the discovery of Mendel’s Laws, the chromosomal theory of inheritance, the recognition of inborn metabolic errors, the existence of hormones and the mechanism of the nervous impulse, which collectively invalidate them. As Sir Peter Medawar has put it, psychoanalysis is akin to Mesmerism and phrenology: it contains isolated nuggets of truth, but the general theory is false. Modern Times, p.6
So aside from Wagner and Freud, whom else has Johnson omitted? What about Hume and Kant, each massive in influence but reportedly affable and well-balanced on a personal level? What about Mill and his stoical self-mastery in awaiting marriage? And there are certainly other major intellectuals who don't match Johnson's pattern. Clearly innovation and titanic ego don't always go hand in hand. We might ask: is Johnson himself not guilty of the very sort of ideologically driven cherry-picking he decries in the “intellectuals”?
Perhaps it is more useful to see Johnson as identifying a type that the modern turn allowed to flourish. Supreme egotists there have always been, but in a culture deprived of a commonly recognized authority to which each thinker, regardless how prodigious, must bend, regardless how grudgingly, there was nothing remaining to tether down the worst impulses of thought and behavior. Johnson writes:
With the decline of clerical power in the eighteenth century, a new kind of mentor emerged to fill the vacuum and capture the ear of society….He felt himself bound by no corpus of revealed religion. The collective wisdom of the past, the legacy of tradition, the prescriptive codes of ancestral experience existed to be selectively followed or wholly rejected entirely as his own good sense might decide. For the first time in human history, and with growing confidence and audacity, men arose to assert that they could diagnose the ills of society and cure them with their own unaided intellects: more, that they could devise formulae whereby not merely the structure of society but the fundamental habits of human beings could be transformed for the better. Unlike their sacerdotal predecessors, they were not servants and interpreters of the gods but substitutes. Intellectuals, ch.1