May 19, 2010

Paul Berman in the New York Times Book Review


This past Sunday’s edition of The New York Times Book Review carries a rave review of Paul Berman‘s The Flight of the Intellectuals by British lawyer and academic Anthony Julius. In the piece, Julius (whose own book was praised in a recent issue of the Book Review) places Berman’s Flight of the Intellectuals in “a distinct category of recent books” that decry “the repudiation by liberal intellectuals of their values and ideals.” Julius finds Berman’s book a fine example of the form and compares it to what he sees as the genre’s masterwork:

The masterwork, however, is still ­Julien Benda’s Treason of the Intellectuals. This book, written in 1927 by one of the leading French intellectuals of the early 20th century, may be regarded as the inaugural work of the line. Berman’s own books can usefully be read as restatements (in their own register, of course) of Benda’s polemic against his fellow intellectuals.

For Benda, the intellectual betrays his vocation when he compromises his commitment to universalist values. The temptation to make such compromises, he argues, lies principally in the appeal of national sentiment, to which intellectuals are quick to subordinate themselves. And the role they assume as nationalists is to conceptualize political hatreds. Benda, a supporter of Dreyfus, deplored the eagerness of some French writers to play this degraded, ignominious role.

Berman, Julius conculdes, “has a fair claim to being regarded as the Benda of our time… he continues his work of redeeming the good name of intellectuals by exposing the corrupt among them.” Berman’s book is avaliable now from Melville House; Brenda’s book is still in print from Transaction Publishers.

Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.