Offhand, I can’t think of anything I don’t like as much as I don’t like intellectuals. I suppose they have their uses, the same as adversity and the study of Latin verbs—but they are accordingly as unpleasant and as dull.
I am referring, of course, to that type of individual who actually thinks of himself as an intellectual, or, as they used to call it five to ten years ago, as a member of the “intelligentsia.” The country is riddled with them, and especially New York City, where they are thicker than fiddlers in the hereafter. Literary cocktail parties are their favorite habitat, but lacking these they gather in one another’s apartments, or at times whole coveys of them may be found huddled together in certain of the flossier bars. They can always be spotted by the noise they make with their mouths. The trouble with intellectuals is that they talk too much.
I cannot help but regard this as a form of infantilism, or, let us say, retarded adolescence. Almost all of us go through it at school, when we are skittering through various literature and “culture” courses—“The English novel from Beowulf through H. G. Wells”—and at that time all our essays and letters to friends are thickly studded with quotations and literary allusions. But most of us gradually outgrow this. The intellectual never does. He continually bolsters up his conversation with a “well, as Schopenhauer says.” His simplest act has to be colored and interpreted in the light of something he has read. Life, for the intellectual, is a reflection of Literature, and for every emergency there is an epigram. “It sure is hot for February, as Baudelaire says.”
The intellectual at play is a pitiful thing. He is absolutely incapable of just sitting back and enjoying himself. No, he has got to analyze everything. Watch one listening to swing music sometime. Or, rather, hear him. He will discuss it with all the solemnity and fanaticism of a convert to theosophy. Each bar, each chord, has to be dissected and explained in the correct technical jargon, with detailed references to history, chronology and psychology thrown in. Not that it isn’t all right to know the background of various phenomena. Knowledge is a fine thing. It is all right with me. But what I object to is the laborious preciosity they bring to it. They put on so much side about it.
A similar process goes on with everything the intellectual does. Skiing is another good example. No self-respecting intellectual will be content to say, “I like skiing because it’s fun,” or just, “I like skiing.” He is duty-bound to deliver a monologue on the aesthetics of the sport, in addition to the technicalities. He adopts what is almost a pseudo-religious attitude toward it. This, I think, is the basic note. An intellectual has got to make a cult out of the simplest thing he does or likes. I suppose the underlying idea in this is to build it up, to make it Important enough to merit his attention. Apparently he cannot bear to like anything in the way ordinary people like it. He must always swathe it round with a mystic aura. The common folk may like the same things, but of course—so the intellectual reasons—they don’t know why they do, and they are utterly incapable of appreciating them in the same superior way that an intellectual can.
What can you do about them? The more you pamper them the worse they become. There is nothing they love like attention. Ignore them and they wither away like a flower. But not far enough away.
Along this line, take note of his attitude toward such things as guessing games, bowling, croquet, Coney Island or hot dogs. When indulged in by other people, the intellectual regards them as dull or silly or vulgar, but when he himself takes them up, they immediately become something Special. Victorian clocks, Japanese lanterns, and mural paintings of Vesuvius are sneered at until an intellectual buys them for his own modern apartment and then they become terribly amusing and chic. Comic Valentines were always considered in bad taste, but if an intellectual sends them to his friends, it is dreadfully witty. And if people in a small mid-Western town think it’s fun to get drunk and sit around a piano singing old ballads like Casey Jones and A Bird in a Gilded Gage, it is because they are unsophisticated; but if a group of intellectuals think it’s fun to do the same thing in a New York apartment, it is because they are sophisticated. They, of course, know how quaint and amusing and “folk-lorish” they’re being—and that’s what makes the difference.
The sad thing about all this is that the intellectuals manage to ruin almost everything they take up. They did this with burlesque about ten years ago, and they did it with the comic strips. They did it with Harlem and with Laurel and Hardy. They stumble onto something which they enjoy, but they are not content to let it go at that. (Especially if it is something that a great many other people enjoy, too.) They simply have to explain why they enjoy it—and, with an irritating pretentiousness, they set about doing this via thousands on thousands of pompous words, both written and oral, until whatever it is becomes part of the chic literary pattern of the day and everyone gets self-conscious about it. It is a hell of a note, indeed, when a person can’t pick up the paper to read Moon Mullins and Krazy Kat without sitting down and dashing off a book to prove that they are really Great Art and that therefore it is all right for him to read them.
Take a look at the professional intellectual in politics. He is historically unstable. Easily inspired, he is again trapped by his own necessity for self-dramatization and for preserving his superior individualism in spite of hell and high water. He has only contempt for the decisions of the majority; and he shudders at the thought of any work which is unspectacular. He is brilliantly militant when sitting around discussing matters in bars; but in the daytime he is always too busy recovering from hangovers to do anything about putting his theories into practice. However, he gets very mad if his own ideas are not immediately carried out to the letter, and he usually ends up by going over to the other side in a pet of temper.
As it is in politics and at play, so it is in the various other aspects of mundial-existence. Now take sex. I don’t know of anything that can ruin sex the way an intellectual can. Here, again, he simply cannot stand to have it thought that he would react in the way an average human would, or experience the same emotions. He feels—or says he does—that his intellectual integrity demands utter honesty, and having said that, he is off to the races again. You are in for hour after hour of painful mental probing as he analyzes his own emotions and yours, his actions and your reactions, and vice versa. Apparently, he had rather analyze his emotions than give vent to them. Anything can be spoiled by being too articulate about it, because this increases self-consciousness, and above all things this is true of a love affair. The man who will sit and talk all night, explaining how he feels about you and just what he thinks of Sex, is going to give a girl an awful inferiority complex. She is going to begin to feel, “I bet he wouldn’t be doing all this talking if I were Alice Faye!” That sort of thing is all right on the stage when it is written by Noel Coward and acted out by Lunt and Fontanne, but in private life it is not much fun.
Your intellectual is so afraid of being thought sentimental that he goes to the opposite extreme, and an uncomfortable time is had by all. I doubt if there is a woman who hadn’t rather be told she’s the most beautiful woman in the world—even though she knows it’s untrue—than to have all her physical defects pointed out to her, no matter how wittily. Just as I don’t think there’s a woman who hadn’t rather have a man try to kiss her (if she likes him at all) than to sit and talk all night about whether he will or not, and if he does, what, exactly, will it mean, and shall they have an affair or not—what are the reasons for it and against? Ho-hum.
I am perfectly sure that this inability to be natural or spontaneous is the reason why you find so many male intellectuals rushing off to psychoanalysts every payday and having nervous breakdowns because they are worried about their sex life. They talk themselves into it. After all, you never heard of a longshoreman having a nervous breakdown because of his sex life.
On second thought, maybe I am not so perfectly sure that it is due to the intellectual’s incapacity for naturalness. Maybe he goes to the psychoanalyst for the same reason that he insists on explaining his every move in advance to his girl—because he likes to talk about it. Maybe he likes being maladjusted. That, too, distinguishes him from the common herd. Does he respond to natural urges the same as the average man? Certainly not! He has complexes. He has neuroses. Just let him spend a few hours telling you about them. In fact, just let him spend the rest of his life telling you about them. “Now it all started when I was two years old and fell in love with my mother’s felt bedroom slipper. It seems I thought it was a rabbit. My psychiatrist tells me—”
Well, what can you do about them? The more you pamper them the worse they become. There is nothing they love like attention. Ignore them and they wither away like a flower. But not far enough away. There is a law against shooting them, but just the same I believe simple ordinary people should have some protection against them. I am inclined to be in favor of gathering them all up, planting them in one remote colony where there is no one for them to talk to but one another—and letting them all just bore themselves to death. Then perhaps the rest of us could have a little fun without being made to feel like carbon copies of the village idiot.
[Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in Town & Country in the early 1940’s. When I locate the exact date I will update accordingly. Also, the piece appeared under Helen’s maiden name, Helen Brown Norden, though she is better known under her married name, Helen Lawrenson.]