PEN 2011: The Public Intellectual, Today



For me, PEN’s World Voices Festival of International Literature began two hours before the “official” opening night event (discussed here and here). I kicked off my favorite annual event at The Public Intellectual panel, held in the svelte Standard Hotel. By putting the hub of this year’s festival at this hotel, PEN has increased the cool and sexy factor by 1,000 points. A very savvy move.


Jane Ciabattari moderated this event, which featured Manuel de Lope, Peter Godwin, Linda Polman, and Hervé Le Tellier. You can hear the entire event here. What follows is my (quick & dirty!) rumination on some of the ideas that surfaced in the conversation.


The results of the panel were mixed. The discussion on the role of the public intellectual would have been better served if the panel had been halved, leaving Ciabattari to facilitate a profound discussion between de Lope, a Spanish writer and political thinker, and the French polymath Le Tellier. Both Godwin and Polman are journalists; they therefore brought their journalistic credo of (attempted/quasi) objectivity to a discussion that requires one to take a stance on any given position. As such, both Godwin and Polman (rightly) distanced themselves from the “intellectual” moniker, choosing to route their answers through journalistic—rather than editorial—avenues. Despite Ciabattari’s valiant attempts to add weight to their positions, crafts, and ideas, Godwin and Polman proved resistant.


What has become of the intellectual in modern times? What is the role, Ciabattari asked, of the public intellectual today?


The audience, too, added thoughtful provocations: What is the public intellectual’s responsibility to original witnesses? That is, if an intellectual is discussing an issue, how does s/he maintain authenticity once the immediacy (i.e., once the intellectual is no longer an original witness) of the event is over? What sustains the public intellectual if s/he receives zero feedback on their ideas? What effect does funding have on the status of the public intellectual?


Thoughtful and serious matters at hand for the thoughtful and serious on stage. You could practically hear de Lope’s mind clicking through various combinations looking for openings. I wouldn’t be surprised if both de Lope and Le Tellier publish some sort of statement or manifesto on their perceived roles of the public intellectual. (They should write it together.)


Ah… that tricky p-word… Public. For there is no intellectual who is not public. If the intellectual wasn’t public in the first place, how would we know of her ideas? Once the ideas escape the realm of the mind and find their way into newspapers, blogs, television, and other media, the intellectual becomes public. “Public intellectual,” then, may be a redundancy. If we maintain the qualifier, however, then we can surmise that the role—the obligation, the responsibility—of the non-public intellectual is to become public, to share her ideas with the world outside her mind.


Be careful what you wish for, though. As we were reminded: the philosopher Seneca was tutor to Nero, the infamous tyrant of ancient Rome. Today we might be wary of someone like Robert Mugabe, the ruthless dictator of Zimbabwe, who holds multiple (honorary degrees), or of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, who reads political, philosophical, and economic tomes until he falls asleep.


But let’s assume the intellectual has benevolent intentions. What then is his role today? In attempting an answer, both de Lope and Le Tellier begin on common ground inspired by eminent intellectuals Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edward Said. For Emerson, the public intellectual is the preserver of the past’s great ideas, while for Said the intellectual should advance human freedom through political engagement.


Why not have your cake and eat it too? An intellectual cannot, nay, does not, begin with a tabula rasa, Le Tellier says. de Lope echoes this sentiment, noting that an intellectual embraces the memories of the past in order to project into the future. An intellectual, de Lope says (I am paraphrasing), uses memory to create an ethical framework that allow us to live an honest, intellectual life, which in itself can be greatness (a direct reference to Michel de Montaigne).


Is it that simple?


No, it is not. Though he believes strongly in the power of love, Le Tellier is often pessimistic about the strength of this power in the face of violence. (I take violence to be negative [evil] in his argument, for we know that violence is not necessarily evil [e.g., think volcanic eruptions; the taking of life for sustenance.])


The question then moves from, what is the role of the intellectual to: how does the intellectual promote positive, ethical, honest, and loving frameworks over powerful, opposing forces? Thisis an essential question. Every ethicist and philosopher has struggled with this question in his or her time, under various duress, and through complex historical situations.


First and foremost, the intellectual must gain the mantle of authority. This authority is granted in many ways, but it starts with very intellectual—the person behind the ideas. It begins with confidence. As Le Tellier points out, however, only dictators and religious leaders have the sort of confidence an intellectual must harness. Dictators and evangelists have this confidence because they have no doubt. The trouble, if I may use that term loosely, with intellectuals is that they constantly doubt their own ideas, reasonings, and findings. Satisfaction is difficult to come by in the world of ideas.


Second? Well… Given the realities of 2011, with satellites and nuclear weapons and reality television and 24-hour cable news and fast food and depleting water supplies and Arab uprisings all the things that make up life today, how does the intellectual move forward?Now? Today?


This conversation must continue.



Hervé Le Tellier, Jane Ciabattari, Linda Polman, Manuel de Lope, PEN 2011, Peter Godwin, Philosophy