Beyond the Text: Hagiography and Attack on Authors

INTELLECTUALS by Paul Johnson, New York: Harper & Row, 385 pp. $22.50


by Michael Foot, New York: Harper & Row, 424 pp. $24.95

JUST when you thought no reputable literary critic would claim that a book was ``bad'' because its author was immoral; just when you thought no respectable biographer would offer up a whitewash omitting or dismissing serious flaws of a great man's character, along come two lively, well-written, but shallow books. They are the works of a pair of eminent Englishmen, who seem determined to take us back to the days when biography was hagiography and literary criticism the art of ad hominem attacks on authors.

In one corner, we have Michael Foot: journalist, author, member of Parliament, and former leader of the British Labour Party, still a socialist. In the other, journalist and author Paul Johnson, one-time Labourite turned Tory. Holding antithetical viewpoints, these men share common ground: the belief that the value of a given work is directly related to the character of the man or woman who produced it. Doubtless, there is much that can be learned about an author by studying his works and vice versa. But the ways in which Foot and Johnson go about making these connections are enough to make one an instant convert to the strictest standards of New Criticism, where the text is all in all.

Foot gives us a heroic Lord Byron, who, like his poetic alter ego Childe Harold, bends ``to no earthly or heavenly force; ... acknowledges no master but the very power of thought ... within him.'' Johnson proceeds to indict more than a dozen people (Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Brecht, Bertrand Russell, Sarte, Edmund Wilson, Victor Gollancz, Lillian Hellman, Cyril Connolly, Kenneth Tynan, Norman Mailer, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, James Baldwin, and Noam Chomsky). He lumps them together under the questionable heading ``secular intellectuals,'' for doing precisely what Foot admires so much in Byron: thinking for themselves, without the guidelines of revealed religion or established tradition.

Foot and Johnson approach their respective tasks from opposite directions: In order to ``prove'' that the ideas of these ``secular intellectuals'' are pernicious, Johnson paints a rogues' gallery of philanderers, schemers, malcontents, and hypocrites. To ``prove'' that Byron was a great and good human being, Foot points to the noble sentiments expressed in his works and to the vast influence he had over 19th-century Europe.

Not surprisingly, The Politics of Paradise resembles a modern campaign biography. The techniques are all here: suppressing, glossing over, or grandly dismissing any incidents and imputations that might embarrass the candidate/hero; relating only those anecdotes that show his finest and most lovable qualities; quoting from his best writings and speeches. There's even an ingenious but contrived attempt to prove that another prestigious figure who had qualms about the hero (in Byron's case, his fellow liberal William Hazlitt) might well have admired him more if only he'd had the benefit of reading the biographer's case for rapprochement.

Foot writes eloquently, and displays Byron's wit, courage, and charm to full advantage. But the one-sidedness is a little hard to take, especially since we are fortunate enough to live at a time when the best biographers present their subjects ``warts and all.''

Polemics is what we've also come to expect from Paul Johnson, whose brilliant ``Modern Times'' and provocative ``History of the Jews'' provided food for thought that many of us are still chewing. But in this latest book - a collection of character portraits that siphon off evidence for the prosecution from the works of scholars who've already set forth this material in more fair-minded fashion - Johnson seems content to catalog the misdeeds of ``intellectuals'' rather than tackle the deeper questions implicit in his undertaking.

Johnson touches only lightly on such issues as the effect of Utopian ideals on real-life behavior (a problem that has afflicted some religious believers as well as secular ideologues); the tendency of abstract thinkers to falsify actual experience (which afflicts technocrats as well as theorizers); and hypocrisy (found among nonintellectuals as well as intellectuals). He also loads the dice - or frames his question sloppily - by excluding right-wing intellectuals on the dubious grounds that they don't set themselves up as social prophets while including not-very-intellectual figures like Hemingway.

Johnson's most telling charge is that intellectuals are malcontents, childish egos unable to adjust. But if so, mightn't it be this very inability that sensitizes them to what is wrong with society and spurs them to think up ways of changing it? To Johnson's Tory mind-set, however, the notion of progressive meliorism is a mistake.

Thus, even if he did not know that Rousseau was dishonest, boorish, and unstable, Johnson would be as appalled by the ``statism'' proposed in Rousseau's writings. Indeed, he doesn't seem to realize his case might be stronger if he could show that even men of spotless character can be seduced by the temptations of theorizing into devising dystopian Utopias. In demonstrating that the people whose ideas he dislikes were ``bad'' in the first place, Johnson constructs a circular argument resting only on itself.

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