The intellectual rabble-rouser

Where do we still see the public intellectual perform? Social media is inadequate to enjoy them. Long live the lit fest

Susan Sontag. Photo: AFP
Susan Sontag. Photo: AFP

I like literature festivals only because I get to watch intellectual battles. As performance, on a podium. The networking, the jamborees and the parties are tiring—at least for editors of the reclusive kind, like myself.

Tomorrow, I will go watch Tina Brown and Suhel Seth debate why “Media Makes and Breaks the World” at the Times LitFest at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studio. The unwieldy, bad questions that come from the audience towards the end are part of the fun.

The public intellectual is almost a thing of the past. In the age of hyper-manufactured, short-lived opinion, they are hardly seen, except through their words in the occasional, long think pieces.

Literature festivals still seem like their most effective instrument for provoking people, countering homogenized views and impelling new ones. I once saw the New York liberal intellectual Vivian Gornick take on author Christopher Hitchens soon after 9/11. It was a thrilling spectacle because of the intellectual rigour that sparked on stage. The battles between Hitchens and author Susan Sontag are famous—both master-articulators and acutely aware of each other’s strengths and blind spots. The subject of our cover story this week, Martin Amis, is not on Twitter. But at 67, he is as provocative and politically incorrect as ever. I don’t agree with most of his views, but as a public intellectual, he is exciting. The Guardian attempted a fairly convincing answer to the question—“Why we love to hate Martin Amis”—a couple of years ago. “He is the object of envy, contempt, anger, disapproval, theatrical expressions of weariness—but also of fascination. Has there in living memory been a writer whom we (by which I mean the papers, mostly) so assiduously seek out for comment—we task him to review tennis, terrorism, pornography, the state of the nation—and whom we are then so keen to denounce as worthless?” wrote Sam Leith in that Guardian piece.

The public intellectual is as old as human civilization—as old as Confucius, John Locke, Goethe and Rabindranath Tagore. According to the late exiled Palestinian author Edward Said, a public intellectual himself and the father of Orientalism, the role of his kind is to advance human freedom and knowledge. That often means standing outside of society and its institutions and actively disturbing the status quo. At the same time, he or she is a part of society and should address his concerns to as wide a public as possible. So he or she is constantly balancing the private and the public. Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer, Christopher Hitchens, Amartya Sen, Susan Sontag, Václav Havel, Shirin Ebadi, Eric Hobsbawm, Camille Paglia, Thomas Friedman, Arundhati Roy—writers and thinkers of our age who thrive for the life of their own minds. Any kind of censorship is their natural enemy—another reason we need them to be louder than ever before.

Where do we still see the public intellectual perform? Social media is inadequate to enjoy them. Long live the lit fest.

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