RADIO / Something to think about

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The Independent Culture
ONCE UPON a time there was a strange creature called the anti-hero. Now he is dead - killed off by the cult of the supermodel and its attendant body-fascism. The people we admire instead have white rooms where they practise a spiritualised narcissism: yoga, tai chi, breathing deeply in front of floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

The anti-hero was ugly and didn't care, so he died. On Wednesday, Professor Edward Said, in the first of his Reith Lectures (R4), disinterred him, gave him a booster injection of grey matter, and relabelled him 'the modern intellectual'. The aims of this new model, according to Said, must be political - though specifically non-aligned, and concerned only with advancing the twin causes of freedom and justice. He must have the courage to take on parties or institutions, irrespective of size and power, and take them on in public. He must be a sort of knight of the underdog, 'whose raison d'etre is to represent all those people and issues routinely forgotten or swept under the rug'. There is no such thing as the intellectual who keeps himself to himself. The lecture is, after all, called Representations of the Intellectual. His need to be heard, to stand up and be counted, must be almost vocational. He must risk bad press, ostracism, death at the stake.

So far, so good. The intellectual is brave, articulate and moral; he cares. We subscribe. But there is another side. The greatest enemy of Said's intellectual is complacency. In order to retain the integrity of his viewpoint he must exercise a superhuman vigilance. The dangers of alignment, co-option and dogma threaten him at every turn, and steering between them is a lonely business.

As mentors and examples we are offered Socrates, Jesus and Sartre. Easy. For literary models Said chooses Turgenev's anarchic Bazarov, Flaubert, and Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's wimpish and freaky 'artist'. All eschew the treadmill in deference to their own egotistic, mercurial and aggressive whim. Dedalus is sneaking and recalcitrant. Bazarov is dangerous and deeply confrontational. Together they embody the last criterion for the modern intellectual - to demythologise, take on authority, smash received ideas. To be 'embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant'.

What do we, in the white rooms of our minds, make of all this? For Said, who spat and snapped his way through his argument in true Bazarovian fashion, this is an emergency. Society needs the intellectual guerrilla. For the rest of us, Said's vision is nostalgic. It embodies a fierce and destructive innocence alien to our own preoccupations. His lecture was pure pyrotechnics, a comet blazing its lonely and difficult trail, and we watched and admired from our spiritual gutter. But we are loath to leave the mud in which we are lounging - especially as we have just learnt that if we stay in it long enough, it'll reduce our cellulite.

All credit to the BBC for flying in the face of the sound-bite with a broadcast as taxing as this. Lectures deserve a wider audience than a few bored students, but listeners do need to be fit. This one made a tape, and only grasped the finer points second time round. If Radio 4 gave us a lecture a week, instead of six a year, tapes would not be needed.

Marghanita Laski, profiled in an entertaining Radio Lives (R4), was fighting fit. She revered Kipling, contributed to the OED and was against censorship of television. 'To shock the public,' she observed, 'is often very necessary.' She was more shocked by the lack of new and progressive ideas put forward by the BBC than by a four-letter word that Kenneth Tynan produced on the air - 'a word that all of you know and had in your minds when he said it'. She was a snapper after Said's own heart.

The real hero of the week was Christina Dodwell, whose encounters criss-crossing the Kamchatka peninsula were recorded in Adventures at the Edge of the World (R4). Her descriptions are breezy, natural, and refreshingly free from preciousness or patronisation. Radio makes difficult armchair travel, but Dodwell gave us skates for castors and had us whirling across the snow to meet the locals. These are a people so isolated that their primary reaction to Communism was terror at the sight of horses and the conviction that a pig was simply a reindeer without its coat on. They are hunters who live off the reindeer, selling its meat and keeping the antlers for their own consumption. A delicacy, in season, are the maggots, squeezed out of the skin and eaten live like sweets. Even the intrepid Dodwell grew faint-hearted: 'Luckily for me, they're not ripe yet.'

She perked up again though when there was an accident with one of the sleds in which she was dragged through the snow by a team of dogs. Safe home, Lenin, the dogs' owner, filled her with a 'special brew' of tea, presumably to ward off hypothermia. It did more than that. She had intended to drive the same dogs a hundred miles to the nearest town on the following day, but her hangover got the better of her.

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