Suppose we try a different, sideways description of the old public intellectual idea. “Public intellect” in the mid-20th century names an institutionally duplicitous culture. It drew up accounts of the sorts of philosophical, aesthetic, and even political ideas that were discussed in universities more than elsewhere. It delivered them to readerships and subscriberships largely of teachers and affiliates of universities—in quarterly journals funded by subscriptions, charitable foundations, and university subsidies. But the culture it made scrubbed away all marks of university affiliation or residence, in the brilliant shared conceit of a purely extra-academic space of difficulty and challenge. It conjectured a province that had supposedly been called into being by the desires, and demands, of “the real world.” And this conceit, or illusion, was needed and ultimately embraced on all sides—by the writers, by the readers, by the subsidizers—even, in fact, by parts of that “real world” itself, meaning bits of commerce, derivative media, politics, and even “official” institutions of government and civil society. The collective conceit called that space, in some way, into being.
But the additional philosophical element that made this complicated arrangement work, and the profound belief that sustained the fiction, on all sides, and made it “real” (for we are speaking of the realm of ideas, where shared belief often just is reality), was an aspirational estimation of “the public.” Aspiration in this sense isn’t altogether virtuous or noble. Nor is it grasping and commercial, as we use “aspirational” now, mostly about the branding of luxury goods. It’s something like a neutral idea or expectation that you could, or should, be better than you are—and that naturally you want to be better than you are, and will spend some effort to become capable of growing—and that every worthy person does. My sense of the true writing of the “public intellectuals” of the Partisan Review era is that it was always addressed just slightly over the head of an imagined public—at a height where they must reach up to grasp it. But the writing seemed, also, always just slightly above the Partisan Reviewwriters themselves. They, the intellectuals, had stretched themselves to attention, gone up on tiptoe, balancing, to become worthy of the more thoughtful, more electric tenor of intellect they wanted to join. They, too, were of “the public,” but a public that wanted to be better, and higher. They distinguished themselves from it momentarily, by pursuing difficulty, in a challenge to the public and themselves—thus becoming equals who could earn the right to address this public.
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