Friday, November 07, 2014

High priests of intellectualism

In two different books I've been reading recently, I've found the same unpleasant idea turning up. 

From Paul Johnson's Intellectuals, page 199

[Bertrand Russell] wrote: 'I like mathematics because it is not human.' In his essay, 'The Study of Mathematics', he rejoiced: 'Mathematics possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty - a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, sublimely pure and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.' 

Russell never believed that the populace could or should be encouraged to penetrate the frontiers of knowledge. His professional work in mathematics was carried out in a highly technical manner, making not the smallest concession to the non-specialist. Philosophical speculations, he argued, should be conducted in a special language and he fought not only to retain but to strengthen this hieratic code. He was a high priest of the intellect, forbidding outsiders to penetrate the arcana. He disagreed strongly with those of his philosophical colleagues, like G.E. Moore, who wanted to debate problems in ordinary, commonsense language, insisting: 'common sense embodies the metaphysics of savages.'

From the Introduction to The Critic's Part: Wystan Curnow Art Writings 1971-2013. The Introduction is by one of the editors, Robert Leonard:

In [his essay] ‘High Culture’, Curnow complained that New Zealand’s cultural middlemen (its critics and commentators) dragged art down by seeking to reduce the distance between art and the public, when they should be seeking to increase that distance by generating the ‘psychic insulation’ that would enable artists to be ambitious, free of the restraints placed on them by an uninformed, unappreciative society. 

Johnson's book, Intellectuals, looks at a number of highly-regarded intellectuals who frequently placed themselves above the 'people'. They supposedly loved the 'people' as long as they were en masse. People who actually came into face to face contact with these intellectuals were usually treated with disdain, bruised, battered and thrown on the heap when no longer cared about. While Curnow doesn't appear to go quite that far, his insistence on artists distancing themselves from the public in order to do their work, is yet another example of this idea that certain people are above the run of the general populace. 

Incidentally, Russell did write for the mass, often. He wrote about a wide range of topics, many of which he hadn't the least idea about. And he would write with passion about something one year and claim he'd never done so some time later. 

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