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Absent Minds: intellectuals in Britain, by Stefan Collini

Eggheads in unbroken lines

When the still-lamented Paul Jennings wrote his famous account of the imaginary philosophy of "Resistentialism", or the terrible intransigence of Things, he naturally placed its origins in the "épiceries and horlogeries" of the Left Bank. There, its mighty progenitors, Paul-Mari Ventre and Qwertyuiop, compressed the doctrine into aphorisms "hard and tight as diamonds": "Les choses sont contre nous."

The image may be said to dominate Stefan Collini's doughty and determined book, even when - above all when - it exasperates him. For his is largely a British and also comparative account, with one eye on Wittgenstein, of the many uses of the word "intellectual". It is not one of those chronicles of intellectual figures, "full", as he says a bit too dismissively, "of entertaining vignettes".

In point of fact, the book is not short of such brief lives, and indeed culminates in five essays well worthy of an honourable placing in that fiercest of English intellectual journals, Scrutiny, weighing up the careers and judging the manners of T S Eliot, R G Collingwood, George Orwell, A J P Taylor and A J Ayer. But its main lesson - for this is, to its credit, a teacherly book - is to refuse cultural gloom, and to speak with a winning cheerfulness of the continued presence and indestructibility of a species widely believed either to be extinct in Britain or never to have evolved there, whether from the "man of letters" or the French clerc.

Of course, the thing everybody knows about les clercs is that they were always betraying their true calling. Collini, in a very funny chapter, lays the ghost of Jean-Paul Sartre, so unfailingly summoned up to terrify any of his absurdly empirical English competitors who don't sign protests, go on marches, write prefaces for Frantz Fanon, have love affairs with Simone de Beauvoir, or lean over the Pont Neuf.

Collini's extended case is that Britain is indeed not to be cursed for a philistine lack of intellectuals. Instead, it is all too punctual in singing a threnody over the disappearance of a social role which has remained well occupied ever since Samuel Taylor Coleridge set himself up as recruiting sergeant for the clerisy.

Meanwhile, Collini checks over the many contradictory ways in which the concept of "intellectual" is constituted - as a moral character on the political stage, a role in the social structure, a professional in Max Weber's modernised state, or just a grand name for an earnest scholar.

This is a book long in the making, slightly bulbous as to form, and one would not really wish it longer. Collini has been at pains to avoid a straightforward narrative, although he pursues an essential movement through the 20th century. Rather, he allows himself a terrific talkativeness.

While there are times when he becomes a bit too chatty, his good manners concede all possible permission to skipping a little when one gets fed up - even though the insouciant skipper might then miss some little jewel such as the potted history of Who's Who, the splendid short biography of the Third Programme, or the generous rescue of A R Orage and his Edwardian journal, the New Age.

Perhaps the main disappointment is the gingerliness with which Collini treats the very recent past, although saying so might elicit something stinging from the author about how the flavours of Hello! taint the mature vintage of the journal of opinion. All the same, Collini deals out startlingly rough but convincing justice to Edward Said's 1993 Reith Lectures, Representations of the Intellectual. It would have been good, for example , to have added to this - and by way of codifying what intellectuals really mustn't do - the tale of the professor of modern history at Bristol driven into hiding by the contempt of his students for his columns in The Sun, as penned in the heyday of Mrs Thatcher.

It would have been even better to have included as one of his excellent short histories the contribution of Institutes of Advanced Study, based on their mighty original at Princeton University, to intellectual life and the good society worldwide.

Anyone intent upon the health of intelligence in modern culture is sure to be seized by longings that this or that topic be treated in such a book. It's a measure of what Collini has done so fully and admirably that I plead for recognition, in his comparative chapter on American intellectuals, of the exhilarating career of Robert Silvers and the New York Review of Books, never more so than in its present and clinching damnation of the Bush administration. Collini praises, as well he may, New York's London sibling, but he might also have remarked the London Review of Books' sometimes repellent self-satisfaction, the certainty of its reflex derision for the government, its ignorance of any geography outside the golden triangle.

To make these suggestions is to engage with a fully engaging (in both senses) book. Maybe Collini should have cut back some of his plummier diction and heavier jocosities; he might have reduced his dependence on the adverb; but he has conscientiously done what intellectuals are asked to do.

At the height of the Vietnam war, Noam Chomsky, its fiercest and most telling opponent in the academy, wrote tersely that "It is the responsibility of the intellectual to speak the truth and expose lies". Collini's book returns an echo to this stirring declaration, but it is his concern to soften, modify and inflect its righteousness into a historical fullness which takes in T S Eliot's evasive gravity; F R Leavis's embattled refusal of "the ready-made, the illusory and the spectral"; A J P Taylor's sheer waste of his talents; and Henry James's wonderfully prophetic foreseeing of the coming of the monster: celebrity.

Collini is a professor of English of pan-European and tri-lingual formation. Finally, his subject is the condition of England: few Scots, Welsh or Irish appear. He finds that, insofar as the vocation of the intellectual and its innumerable embodiments in life and language are gauges of cultural health, the English body politic has kept itself in good fettle, and that the line is level from the Westminster Review to Night Waves.

Fred Inglis is writing the biography of R G Collingwood

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