The “Gentile Intellectual” Again
To the Editor:
The letters published in the September Commentary about Chandler Brossard’s article, “Plaint of a Gentile Intellectual,” seem to have entirely missed the point. Of course Reason is universal and Science and Art are international, knowing no barriers of race, color, or creed. Mr. Brossard certainly knows this as well as his self-righteous critics; his point was that those who traffic in Reason, Science, and Art—intellectuals—have not necessarily universalized themselves and escaped from their limited and particular social backgrounds. . . .
It depresses me that Mr. Brossard’s honest attempt to record his experience should be met with such piously insulting comments: he is “provincial,” he has been taken in by a bunch of “eccentric poseurs,” he is not a “true” intellectual, he is “neurotic” and “immature.” Everything he says must be discounted because he hasn’t met the right people, the “genuine” intellectuals, who of course must exist somewhere, for all conventional liberal notions of what ought to be must have a real existence somewhere. No Utopians they! Although it may offend the hygienic “liberalism” of your correspondents, it is clear that tradition and position in society do create differences between Jews and Gentiles. It is, however, the difference in the process of becoming and being an intellectual which is relevant here. Mr. Brossard’s description of the plight of the Gentile intellectual isolated amid his Jewish confreres struck a responsive chord in this divided breast. . . .
To be an intellectual is to be in some way a rebel against bourgeois norms. Intellectuals may in this sense be a “community of the alienated,” reflecting in their common life experiences the abstract uniformity of Reason, but the process of development is not identical for Jews, Gentiles, middle-class burghers, and decayed aristocrats. As Mr. Brossard points out, the Gentile tends to “play it straight” while the Jew constructs various images of himself, tries on for size several contrasting roles, and skitters from one to the other with remarkable versatility. He often appears to be continually showing off before his parents. The Gentile intellectual, on the other hand, is usually grimmer, narrower, less articulate, and more humorless and intense. If the Jewish intellectual is showing off to his parents, the Gentile intellectual is fighting his. The Jewish intellectual does not have to worry about backsliding: he can’t go home again when home is Europe, Yiddish, the religious community, and the ghetto. He can even toy with the idea of really going home and become interested in neo-Judaist orthodoxy. But the Gentile intellectual cannot afford to compromise, for his very identity lies in continuing to struggle with his parents. He can’t allow himself a closer tie with them, nor can he freely sentimentalize about his childhood in the manner of some of the “From the American Scene” pieces in COMMENTARY.
These differences may be viewed as painful and unpleasant truths or as guarantees of the richness and diversity of American culture, but they cannot be exorcised by pious liberal platitudes.
Dennis H. Wrong
Newark, New Jersey