Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Primo Levi's Definition of the Intellectual

I read Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved for a class this week and came across this definition of the intellectual which I'd like to submit for discussion:
I would propose to extend the term to the person educated beyond his daily trade, whose culture is alive inasmuch as it makes an attempt to renew itself, increase itself, and keep up to date, and who does not react with indifference or irritation when confronted by any branch of knowledge, even though, obviously, he cannot cultivate all of them. (p. 132 in the Vintage edition)
Clearly, "intellectual" is one of those terms which beg for self-valorizing gerrymandering, but Levi's rather minimal definition seems to me very reasonable, creating a norm or standard that is worth following regardless of what you're called while hewing to it.

The emphasis on "keep[ing] up to date" might generate some disagreement (although I personally do not disagree, I've been re-evaluating this question recently on the question of recent fiction), and the word "trade" now may seem (unfortunately) archaic, but the last part about not reacting with indifference or irritation seems to me to be both necessary and rare.


Mugizi said...

Yes, I like this definition.

I find it interesting that many academics in particular would not satisfy this definition of intellectual.

mel u said...

I like the definition also. I think we could all find many examples of people who clearly are intellectuals who have no interest in keeping up-people who are totally into a part of the past or a writer from long ago-people outside of academia who do not have a job interest in keeping up to date-as Mugizi very well said many academics are just people who in the past found a niche for themselves in life through reading difficult books, many do not have a real passion for learning or the reading life.

Andrew Seal said...

Hmmm. I certainly didn't intend for this definition to put academics in the crosshairs.

First off, I don't read Italian, but if whatever word "trade" has been translated from has a similar meaning to the English, I think it's pretty evident that Levi is at the very least not restricting the field of his definition to the professions--lawyers, doctors, bankers, academics, etc. In fact, he seems to be talking more directly about people like him--a chemist, and an employee of a large corporation, not of a university. So I think turning this definition to the question of how well it encompasses academics is missing the point a bit. The definition is meant to be inclusive, not evaluative--it's about how to restructure our concept of "intellectual" to encompass more and different people, not how to kick people out of the club.

Secondly, I don't think, for what it's worth, that professors should be singled out in this way--I don't see how the comments either of you made aren't just as relevant to lawyers or bankers or politicians or political consultants or (G-d forbid!) novelists or poets, critics or reviewers. Why are academics (and let's be specific--I'm guessing you two mean academics in the humanities) supposed to be the hypocritical ones when they specialize?

The type of person that Levi describes is just rare, period.

mel u said...

good points Andrew-did not mean to single out academics (in humanties area) just commenting on Mugizi's observation-by this definition of intellectual one working for a large corporation engaged in complicated transactions governed by ever changing internal and external rules could be considered an intellectual if onof e was dedicated to keeping up with these rules even if one never thought about a non work related matter or never read a book since they got out of school-I am not saying this falsifies the definition it just show how inclusive it is.

LML said...

I think it's a good definition, too.

As for "keeping up to date," I do think that anyone who takes fiction seriously should try to understand the forms' ongoing evolution and at a minimum be familiar with any writers who might be capable of meaningful innovation or expansion of the territory of fiction. Which does not of course mean reading everything that gets good reviews or hype or whatever. The Joyce scholar should care whether the novel continues to evolve. The writer of Chekhovian short stories should care what happened to fiction in the 20th century. Etc. Otherwise I can't take the effort at scholarship or story-writing seriously. Begins to look like a mere career.

Andrew Seal said...

Yeah, it's more the question of whether I need to "keep up" with the NYT 10 Best Books of the Year every year, or whether I need to read the current year's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that I was talking about.

Or like, as I mentioned, the new Lorrie Moore. I don't really feel bad about dropping it because I don't think it really tells me something new about the present or the future of American fiction. Those kind of books are the ones I'm reconsidering whether it's worth the energy to keep up with.

mel u said...

"The Joyce scholar should care whether the novel continues to evolve. The writer of Chekhovian short stories should care what happened to fiction in the 20th century. Etc. Otherwise I can't take the effort at scholarship or story-writing seriously. Begins to look like a mere career."

If you look at the work of Joyce scholars, about 99 percent write only for other Joyce scholars-same for all academics (mean humanties academics as Andrew Noted)

When we say people ought to do something then we are making a value judgment which requires a leap of faith from fact to imperative-The Joyce scholar (with a few exceptions) cares only for the opinion of his fellow scholars and in many (most?) cases writes only in pursuit of tenure.

As to whether or not one "needs to keep up with the NY Times bestsellers" etc-the answer is, of course not, only if you want to or your profession requires it-and of course it would be mostly Americans who would be fixed on the future of American fiction-read for yourself not others

anyway good thoughts everyone