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It is rather common – depending, I suppose, on the sort of conversations you have – to hear of the demise of the public intellectual. Some of this comes from an understandable desire to lionize those who have gone before us; the same tendency occurs also in regard to poets, novelists, actors and the like (but, inter- estingly, not footballers). The past is a foreign country; they do things better there.
But some of it is also a symptom of our peculiar time. A couple of years ago, the then Justice Secretary, and campaigner for Brexit, Michael Gove, said that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. He was echoed by another politician only recently: Labour MP Richard Burgon, noting that “the age of the experts is over”. Both were presumably referring to failures by practitioners of the dismal science of economics to get things right, first in the wake of the banking crisis and then in regard to the quantifiable impact of Brexit. But they were also reflecting more broadly the turn in public discourse against authority and received wisdom.
Lionel Trilling, as Claude Rawson notes this week, was a recognizably public intellectual, in terms of how he was perceived by others as well as by himself. The phrase is suggestive of someone who is active both of mind, and in society: campaigning as well as thinking. Trilling was primarily a critic, “once an admired species”, as Rawson acidly notes. For the fall in status of the critic is even more vertiginous than that of the expert. Rawson observes that “until the 1950s, literary critics had a status in the culture which no longer exists”. Trilling’s seminal book The Liberal Imagination sold 170,000 copies, the sort of commercial success that today is the preserve of celebrity biographies or children’s fiction written by comedians.
“The public voice of the literary critic has become marginal”, Rawson says. To which we might reply huffishly, not in the TLS. But the point remains that our culture may well engage less with serious ideas now than it has ever done. This could be due to technological progress that allows us to prioritize swift compression over long-brewed thoughtfulness. We may blame some academics too, in their collective failure to resist jargon and impenetrable prose. Many books about beautiful English writing are scarcely recognizable as written in English themselves, filled instead with tortured terms that add little but obfuscation.
But we should not concede defeat yet. There is still much expertise in the TLS this week, and we still reserve the right to treat critics as an admired species too.
3 Claude Rawson
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 6
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIRS
7 Ruth Scurr
Zinovy Zinik Rod Mengham
10 Jonathan Dore
11 Bruce Fudge
15 J. K. Elliott
17 Graham Chainey
18 Adam Mars-Jones
Lara Feigel Colin Grant
21 Amanda Hopkinson
Hannah MacInnes Claire Lowdon
LITERARY CRITICISM 23 Lamorna Ash
24 Beverley Bie Brahic
POETRY IN BRIEF
25 Suzannah V. Evans
Carla-Rosa Manfredino Rory Waterman
MEMOIRS & HISTORY 26 Ritchie Robertson
28 Lucy Atkins
32 Imogen Russell Williams
Elizabeth Dearnley Patrick Pollard
FROM THE ARCHIVES 34
36 J. C.
Lionel Trilling Life in Culture – Selected letters; Edited by Adam Kirsch Michael Griffin and David O’Shaughnessy, editors The Letters of Oliver Goldsmith
Pretty simple?, ‘On steely wings’, Translating foreign, etc
John Dixon Hunt John Evelyn – A life of domesticity. Margaret Willes The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn Christopher Howse Soho in the Eighties Peter Main A Fervent Mind – The life of Ruthven Todd
José Manuel Moneta Four Antarctic Years in the South Orkney Islands; Translated by Kathleen Skilton and Kenn Back; Edited by Robert Headland Pike Ward The Icelandic Adventures of Pike Ward; Edited by K. J. Findlay
Shahab Ahmed Before Orthodoxy – The Satanic Verses in early Islam Philip Almond God – A new biography. Keith Ward The Christian Idea of God – A philosophical foundation for faith. Alexandre Kojève Atheism; Translated by Jeff Love Philip Jenkins Crucible of Faith – The ancient revolution that made our modern religious world
Graphic versions – Did non-biblical stories about Jesus and the saints originate more in art than text?
Brighton shock – A writer’s favourite haunts
Roma (Various cinemas, Netflix) Modern Couples – Art, intimacy and the avant-garde (Barbican) Natasha Gordon Nine Night (Trafalgar Studios)
Daša Drndić E.E.G.; Translated by Celia Hawkesworth. Doppelgänger Translated by S. D. Curtis and Celia Hawkesworth Gary Shteyngart Lake Success David Szalay Turbulence
Taking shape – How to honour innocence and experience
A. E. Stallings Like Terrance Hayes American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. To Float in the Space Between – A life and work in conversation with the life and work of Etheridge Knight
Leanne O’Sullivan A Quarter of an Hour. Sue Leigh Chosen Hill Moniza Alvi Blackbird, Bye Bye. Ruth Padel Emerald Sean O’Brien Europa
Ernst Jünger A German Officer in Occupied Paris – The war journals, 1941–1945; Translated by Thomas Hansen and Abby Hansen Bart van Es The Cut Out Girl – A story of war and family, lost and found Sarah Wobick-Segev Homes Away From Home – Jewish belonging in twentieth century Paris, Berlin, and St Petersburg
Jason M. Colby Orca – How we came to know and love the ocean’s greatest predator Stephen Nicol The Curious Life of Krill – A conservation story from the bottom of the world. Nick Pyenson Spying on Whales – The past, present and future of the world’s largest animals
Melvyn Bragg and Simon Tillotson In Our Time, etc
Alan Garner Where Shall We Run To? Benjamin Myers Under the Rock – The poetry of a place Didier Eribon Returning to Reims; Translated by Michael Lucey
A letter from Ruthven Todd (TLS August 29, 1968)
This week’s contributors, Crossword
Poetry wars, This week’s cover, Larkin at the match
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