Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for the ‘Intellectuals’ Category

Champagne Socialist

In Intellectuals on April 30, 2014 at 10:29 AM

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone in the world were absolutely equal,” late novelist Mary McCarthy said to me in her last years, with as close to a dreamy look as that literary lady ever displayed. “What do you mean ‘equal,’ I said, always picky. “I mean equal,” she replied with some impatience. “Everyone living in exactly the same material circumstances.”

A Vassar graduate from a very social family, Mary McCarthy had been living in Paris for years in very genteel circumstances indeed. Quails’ eggs and that sort of thing. “Well, you’d have to give up a lot, Mary,” I said, thinking of the descent from quails’ eggs served on silver platters to the life of a Chinese peasant. “But it would be worth it for the intellectual excitement!” Miss McCarthy exclaimed enthusiastically.

How long would that intellectual excitement last? Two days? Two minutes? Perhaps until she used the giant communal ladies’s room in Tiananmen Square, an interesting Socialist institution, whose odor, if you were downwind, could be discerned from half a mile. Also, naturally, no one would call Mary McCarthy on her wish. No one would ever say, “Okay, that’s it! No more quails’ eggs! Off to a peasant commune with you!” Miss McCarthy (Mrs. West), a dear person in many ways, could babble this nonsense of hers all day and all night without changing her life by an iota – while gaining in her own eyes, it was evident, a distinct moral superiority to those selfishly unwilling to live like Chinese peasants.



Richard Grenier, “Equality of Intelligence,” The Washington Times, May 29, 1995, p.A21.


Martin Amis and his use of the English language

In Intellectuals, Language on July 26, 2012 at 7:34 PM

I have finally begun reading Martin Amis’s own award winning memoirs, Experience, first published in 2000. He knows a lot about words. They are his specialisation and his career is dependent on how well he uses them. I wish to comment on one word that he has used: “prepotence.”

In 1973  Amis’s cousin Lucy Partington disappeared at the age of 21 without trace. The full horror of this trauma came to a fruition in 1994 when her decapitated and mutilated body was exhumed from the basement of a premises lived in by the serial killer, Frederick West. This horrific event is something with which Amis reflects on in Experience. After recounting how the event had affected him and other family members, he writes:

My family cannot understand the extraordinary collision that allowed him [Frederick West] to touch our lives, and I have no wish to prolong the contact. But he is here now, in my head; I want him exorcised. And Frederick West is uncontrollable: he is uncontrollable. For now he will get from me a one-sentence verdict and I will get from him a single detail. Here is the sentence.

The build up is dramatic. Those sentences are phenomenally well written leaving the reader keen to read the next sentence, one for which Amis must have put in a lot of thought. Frederick West, the brutal murderer of Amis’s cousin, summed up in a single sentence by Amis himself, a man who knows the power of language. Amis continues:

West was a sordid inadequate who was trained by his childhood to addict himself to the moment when impotence became prepotence.

I was completely and utterly deflated: I did not know the meaning of the word “prepotence.” This was the sentence that I was waiting for, the one for which there had been a build up and for me, it fell flat. I do not carry a dictionary and where I was there was no service on my mobile phone. It took me some time before I could visit the on line dictionary that I use as a standard: Dictionary.com. I was left with a wry smile when I realised that I had not misspelt the word: “prepotence” is so obscure that it is not in that particular dictionary. I did manage to locate to the word at thefreedictionary.com. It comes from the word prepotent which means “Greater in power, influence, or force than another or others; predominant.”

Given how annoyed I was about the use of the word, I asked four other people if, without using a dictionary, they knew its meaning. These people included a lawyer, an author of numerous bestselling books, someone who, like Martin Amis, had studied at Oxford University in the 1960s, and someone who is completing a doctorate at Oxford in contemporary history and who is also a published journalist and author. Of the four, in no particular order, two people had no idea of the meaning of the word and did not hazard a guess; one did not know but suggested as a guess that the word might have something to do with premature ejaculation; and the fourth suggested that they thought they knew the meaning and then accurately told me what it was. This fourth person has also read Amis’s Experience and could not say for certain if the reason he knew the word was because he had read it there. While emailing these friends with the question, I realised something else: I do not know what dictionary is built into my computer/web browser, but when I type the word “prepotence,” a squiggly red line appears beneath the word to inform me that the computer is unaware of the existence of a word with such a spelling.

I am going to extrapolate from this, including from my biased and tiny non-statistically significant sample, to suggest that most people do not know the meaning of “prepotence.” If anyone wishes to dispute me, I would be willing to place a bet on the point.

I am not against Amis using obscure words: he knows them and is able to use them with panache. I also do not mind looking up those words of which I am unfamiliar with the meaning. Indeed, earlier in Experience, Amis had used the word “consanguineous” that I did not know but it was hardly a chore to look it up and, in any event, the word was not used in such a crucial sentence. Amis is obviously a brilliant man; I suspect he is so brilliant that he might not have realised that mere mortals would not necessarily be familiar with “prepotence.” I think he should have done.


In From the Vaults, Intellectuals on May 2, 2012 at 8:00 AM

In the middle of November 1997 a slanging match between John le Carré and Salman Rushdie raged across the letters pages of the Guardian. This row followed an article printed in the newspaper where le Carré complained that he had been accused of anti-Semitism. Rushdie was not amused. He reminded readers that le Carré had failed to support him when he was sentenced to death by the Iranians and hence would not receive his sympathy. The argument that ensued became increasingly vituperative and it set the literary world abuzz. Below I copy an extract from Rushdie’s magnificent final volley.

If he wants to win an argument, John le Carré could begin by learning to read…. It’s true I did call him a pompous ass, which I thought pretty mild in the circumstances. “Ignorant” and “semi-literate” are dunces’ caps he has skillfully fitted on his own head. I wouldn’t dream of removing them.

Le Carré’s habit of giving himself good reviews (“my thoughtful and well-received speech”) was no doubt developed because, well, somebody has to write them. He accuses me of not having done the same for myself. “Rushdie,”  says the dunce, “does not deny he insulted a’ great world religion.” I have no intention of repeating yet again my many explications of The Satanic Verses, a novel of which I remain extremely proud. A novel, Mr. le Carré, not a gibe.You know what a novel is, don’t you, John?

Salman Rushdie


“Letters to the editor,” Guardian, November 22, 1997, p22.