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Stefan Collini: An intellectuals place in society

From the George Orwell Memorial Lecture, given by the Cambridge Professor of Intellectual History

We want our intellectuals to engage with the world, not to live in monkish withdrawal, but we also want them not to be tarnished by the vulgarity of the world. I take these tensions and ambivalences to be indications that there is an object of desire at issue here, a barely-acknowledged longing that disciplined intellectual enquiry or aesthetic creativity might yield us some guidance about how to live. Perhaps it's no wonder we are so resistant to allowing that someone who is more or less our contemporary could ever be getting this right.

In the year of George Orwell's centenary, we may not need many reminders of the vanity, gullibility, and irresponsibility often displayed by actual intellectuals. Once we shed the unrealistic ambition that is nurtured by the illusion that previous generations of intellectuals reached and directed a public that was coextensive with society as a whole, then we are better placed to see how intellectuals can make use of existing media to reach those publics who want to see issues of common interest considered in ways that are better informed or better expressed.

On the one hand, I have no wish to encourage that picture of the intellectual as condemned to do nothing more than putting messages in bottles and throwing them overboard. But nor, on the other hand, do I think that much good can come from promoting that heavily romanticised conception of the intellectual as the acknowledged legislator of the world, marching at the head of mass movements.

Instead, I am suggesting that the sign under which the contemporary intellectual's rather more realistic dealings with the relevant media should be carried on may be that provided by Beckett's wry formula: try again, fail again, fail better.