Hilton Kramer’s death deprives the intellectual world of one of its brightest lights and his friends of a raconteur as spellbinding and pithy as Doctor Johnson. He was one of the last of the New York Intellectuals, who did so much to shape the twentieth-century American mind, and whose stature seems all the larger in our era, when “public intellectual” often means no more than political pundit. As the art critic of The New York Times, he wrote long, beautifully crafted articles, more thought-provoking than usual in a daily newspaper, even then. When he founded The New Criterion, that magazine more than lived up to its name as a standard of excellence in cultural criticism.
Hilton’s splendid 1999 collection of essays, The Twilight of the Intellectuals, aimed to dispel the illusion that intellectuals dwell in a light-drenched realm of reason, disinterestedly searching for truth. Among the well-known Cold War–era figures Hilton discussed, the life of the mind often was not so much a matter of reasoned discourse as of attitude, fantasy, wishful thinking, quasi-religious faith, and dogma. They spun “myths” and “mystiques,” “progressive sentimentalities,” and “literary and cultural pieties,” Hilton wrote, that made their way not by their own cogency but by “fashion” and “social snobbery—by political correctness, we would now say.
These leftist writers faced an insurmountable problem with truth-telling: The only place their ideals had ever been made reality was in the Soviet Union’s bloody and oppressive tyranny. As a consequence, Hilton wrote, “The verifiable facts of history had long ago ceased to be relevant to the progressives’ act of faith.” Indeed, “Their loyalty is to something other than the truth.”
As a judgment on the regnant intellectual orthodoxy of the postwar era and a depiction of how the intellectual world really worked, The Twilight of the Intellectuals remains bracingly plainspoken and utterly convincing. It is an incomparable model of what the intellectual life ought to be, especially in these days, when the intellectual life still teems with orthodoxies and shibboleths rather than thought, and even the very ideas of reason and truth have come under attack.
All this from an art critic. I often wondered why that was the career he first chose—and why a man so temperamentally conservative, with such reverence for the high achievements of the past, should have become the champion of the abstract expressionist painters. Was it, I once asked him, because he was looking for a realm of purity, beauty, and truth above the politicized squalor of everyday intellectual life—a realm that to reach such purity had to rise above language and even the representation of concrete sublunary things? He looked startled at the question, and nodded a rueful assent.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 9, on page 27
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