Opinion / 31 May 2019

The Disadvantages of Being an Intellectual

Thinking is a lonely business

I'll admit it, I'm nothing but a part-time rationalist. To me, reason is like an attractive woman who tells me, "Just follow me, I'll show you the way!" And she does show me, and she does take me far. But just when I think we've arrived where she wants me to go, I realize we aren't there yet, not by a long shot, and maybe we'll never get there. 

Thinking is a lonely business. Of course, there's also thinking as dialogue, thinking in assertions and counter-assertions, as Socrates showed us. But you're always alone with the results of your thinking: now you have a choice. You must decide. And you must stand by your decision.

What, then, is an intellectual? For me, it's someone who believes he can come to grips with the questions life poses by thinking. Every human being thinks. What distinguishes the intellectual from the average person is the intellectual's assumption that he can use his thinking to solve, in an exemplary way, certain problems that affect each and every one of us. He is, so to speak, a representative of other people, with regard to certain thoughts. He is a specialist. He thinks for others. 

The loneliness that this entails? Let's just watch how he deals with that! His occasional arrogance is the arrogance of the specialist. But if it has never occurred, and never will occur, to a person that everything he thinks is just a grandiose error, nonsense, even hogwash—that person cannot be an intellectual. 

There are opinions that are, as Beate Klarsfeld once put it, not opinions, but crimes. If such opinions—which unfortunately are always being entertained by somebody somewhere—are stirred up to the surface and thus introduced to a wider public, it's an easy thing for an intellectual to take a stand: the situation is clear. 

At this point, you must raise your voice—after all, this is precisely your thing! Don't lose heart, my friend! — But is this true? When darkness falls, you have to produce some light if you want to see anything. Everyone's familiar with this situation. But not everyone reaches for the switch. 

Reason and rationality have led human beings to commit terrible crimes, especially in the last century. And so we cannot rely on reason alone. We must also listen—and I admit this is a bit vague—to our hearts. And the heart is irrational. In such cases, reason acts only as a servant of the heart. Overstating it, one could say: reason acts as a servant to a certain sort of unreason. 

The intellectual is usually educated, so it's no wonder he has a high opinion of literacy and learning. But there are many things of value that cannot be learned. At least not in any school or university, unless it is, to use a trite phrase, the school of life. 

I'm certainly not polemicizing here against learning. In fact, I consider learning indispensable for every occupation and at every level. But often one learns more, for instance, by walking down the streets of a city with open eyes than by studying fat books. 

If thinking has brought you to a point where you don't know what to do next—and it doesn't take long to arrive at this point—then you start to believe. It's always important to get a fix on this moment, to cleanly distinguish thinking from believing. But is it always intellectuals who apply the neatness and hygiene required here? 

After all, this is how belief works: having arrived at our wits' end, we somehow cross to the other side, and from that standpoint we use that other language to summon the answer we seek. The other side? The other language? That's the fogbound land of hunches and inklings, the language of dreams and fairy tales. It's just as much our own as the land where the sun of reason shines, as much our own as the language of logic. 

I'd like to go so far as to say: many a thing which, after tireless consideration and reflection,  triumphantly shines as a polished and burnished insight, originates still soft and shapeless in the land of dreams and intuitions. It's like crystals in a still-unsaturated solution—or in the case of our humanity in general, it's where the homunculus arises out of dampness and slime.  

So-called stupidity is a bit tricky as well: the intellectual always rails against it, because he knows that what is wrong in the world is attributable much less to evil and maliciousness than to stupidity. Of course, there's something quixotic about this struggle: stupidity is abundant and multifarious. Once you've eradicated it from the path ahead of you, it springs up again behind your back like the most lavish of weeds. 

And that's not all: in the madhouse of life it often comes down to being crazier than the so-called rational people, for instance the guards, that is, the people who have power. Now, you intellectual, muster all your courage: come right out with what you want to say! 

Of course, when he takes sides, the intellectual has to count on being accused of soiling his own nest, of being a scoundrel or a traitor. That's all there is to it. Such things happen. Of course, if you stand up to power, no matter which one, if you surmount the fear that reason whispers in your ear—then the world immediately opens up. It expands, grows bigger and brighter, and, liberated for just this once, you can enter it unburdened, even happy. 

What's the most painful part of being an intellectual?  I myself like to call it, with gentle mockery, the Cassandra Complex. Of course, this sort of pain is not a privilege of the intellectual, reserved just for him. Sooner or later, everybody encounters this situation: you see how something is going terribly wrong; you realize that something's wrong, and maybe you even realize why, or at least you think you do. You hesitate to define your insight, to name it once and for all. 

But ultimately you do decide: Yes! Precisely! Here lies the error! There's your trouble! And you point it out. You give it a name. And then, at that moment, the burden falls squarely upon you, because now you have to ask yourself: What's to be done? 

The process runs roughly like this: because, as Elias Canetti once said, things will take a turn for the worse all by themselves, it is advisable to work out strategies meant to counter this, to make things better. To be human is to foster hope—at least I suspect this, and maybe I'm even convinced of it. 

And so, facing a problem, you work to find a suitable solution, a forward-looking solution, a solution for the better. So, who gives you your assignments? Well, ultimately that's you yourself. But in the first place, it's so-called reality, that is, what you experience, go through, participate in—what happens and takes place. 

Thinking is a two-edged process: on the one hand, it provides you with certainties, so-called standpoints. On the other hand, with constantly renewed objections and contradictions, it undermines precisely those standpoints you worked so hard to achieve. Who or what, then, tells you at what point there's been enough thinking? At what point should you stop? 

Now you've developed or grasped a so-called opinion, a standpoint. It's still a long way to what is called a conviction. Let's simplify the process. Ultimately, and this is what counts the most, you turn your conviction against the world, against what's happening and taking place out there: that's where you see the difference. Where there's a crack or a gap. Where there's a squeak and a whimper. Where things simply don't fit! 

You go ahead and say what sorts of errors or problems you've discovered. If all goes well, you also make suggestions for coping with them or fixing them. This is when your distress really starts, because you have to realize how long the path is from insight to action. How resistant the existing conditions are. What sorts of chasms open up. How much stamina is needed. 

Playing Cassandra is a dismal thing. Being a Cassandra, willingly or not, is a thankless, paradoxical business: if it turns out you weren't right, you can easily get over it. You should be able to put up with a little ridicule and schadenfreude!  But if it turns out you were right, and things go just as badly as you predicted: what's left for you then? 

As much as intellectuals would like to detach themselves from those at whom they direct their thoughts—in fact, I suspect they'd like to be totally alone—they are just as glad when they see that one of their ideas has been accepted, when they see it—to use that marvelous expression— bearing fruit. Yes, our intellectuals are capable of joy! Of course, it never lasts. Before long, scepticism again becomes part of the mix. 

And what about the intellectual's proverbial bad conscience? A certain sort of love of truth and honesty—isn't that really a pose, vanity and self-deception? There are cases where no matter how impassioned and involved you get, you can't escape the bad optics, the dilemma that you yourself are part of the whole thing. 

Wherever power reaches, the tidiness and clarity that you covet come to an end, and thinking gets mixed up with the world's inevitable filth. Oho! But you dream of the neatness and purity of thought. In the last analysis, there's only one thing you have in mind: I'd like to get to a place, by thinking and always in thought alone, where no one else has ever been. 

In Marx we read that the intellectual stands between the classes. Granted, one can disagree about whether society is divided into classes; but that the intellectual, insofar as he is not appointed to an office, does in fact have an ambiguous position in society: this can hardly be denied. 

Just why is it that common sense stands in such low esteem in Austria and Germany? Isn't this a certain unfortunate echo of the memory of gesundes Volksempfinden, that erstwhile healthy sensibility of the homogeneous national group? Are we dealing here with some sort of historical allergy? 

One should not let thought get in the way of life. Thinking is a wonderful thing. But so is living. 

Translated by Geoffrey C. Howes

Originally published in Die Presse4 Aug 2018


Peter Rosei

Was born in 1946 in Vienna, studied law at the University of Vienna. A freelance writer since 1972, he has written numerous novels, short stories, plays, poetry, and essays. His breakthrough novel (1977) was “Wer war Edgar Allan” (Who was Edgar Allan?). The novel cycle “Wiener Dateien” (The Vienna Files) appeared from 2005 to 2014. Works in English translation include “From Here to There” (1978), “Try Your Luck” (1980), “Ruthless and Other Writings” (2003), and “Metropolis Vienna” (2005). His collected travel essays will be published in 2019 as “Die grosse Strasse” (The Great Road).