Heroes and their warts

Six years ago, I found myself in a Korean yoga ashram deep in some Korean hills. The guru there, a Korean lady, is my wife’s friend. We spent three full days there doing nothing much, not even yoga. Even though it was early April it was still very cold. So I spent virtually all my time in the library which, apart from being well-heated, was also surprisingly well stocked in books in English. 

One of those books was the controversial Intellectuals by Paul Johnson, a former editor of the New Statesman. It was first published in 1988. 

I was hooked by the time I had reached the end of the first sentence, which reads as follows:

“This book is an examination of the moral and judgemental credentials of certain leading intellectuals to give advice to humanity on how to conduct its affairs.” With that in mind, Mr Johnson lays bare the private lives and characters of guys like Rosseau, Shelley, Marx, Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell, Sartre etc. 

What were they really like, he asks. Nasty or kind? Were they the grasping types, rattling their tin cups all the time? How did they treat their wives and children, born within and without wedlock? How did they treat people and friends? And their hygiene? Sexual preferences? Would any port do in a storm? 

Mr Johnson says he has only set down established facts. What has resulted is, if I may coin phrase with an all too modest cough, “don’t judge an intellectual by his thoughts alone”. 

 Rosseau, Marx and Sartre

The biggest daddies of them all were Rosseau and Marx. Both devised blueprints for society that made kindness the basis of human and social relations. Both were implemented, which is what makes them great. But in private life these guys were weirdos. 

Rosseau, says Mr Johnson, “led a life of failure, and of dependence, especially on women” but also on a series of patrons. He seems to have had, according to one of his employers, “a vile disposition” and “unspeakable insolence” apart from a “high opinion’’ of himself. He also wrote a book that was semi-porn which the Archbishop of Paris denounced for “insinuating the poison of lust”. His love life was devoted to it. In short, horrible.

Marx, meanwhile, was “self-obsessed” and autocratic. Friedrich Engels, says Mr Johnson, observed that when Marx ran the periodical which he edited he did it like a dictator. 

Above all, Marx had no time for democracy or elections. He “dismissed British general elections as mere drunken orgies.” He thought the masses could not be trusted. He was always irritable, often angry, and hugely intolerant. Given to drinking a lot and eating spicy foods, he developed boils which “varied in numbers, size, and intensity… and appeared on all parts of his body including his bottom… and penis.” 

1873 he suffered a nervous collapse as a result. He had married a beautiful girl of Scottish descent called Jenny but could not look after her and the four or five children they had. He was always in debt, kept his family in hideous conditions and tended to oppress his daughters. 
Fed up, his wife is believed to have said that she wished he would “accumulate capital instead of writing about it.”

Another creep.

 Russell and Tolstoy

This was the only chapter that made me wish I hadn’t read the book. It is never nice to find that your god was a randy goat. This great mathematician, philosopher, pacifist and activist was a serial bedder-of-women. He just went on and on – and on from one woman to another. Their social status did not matter. I wonder, though, what it says about the women who went along. He seems to have been irresistible.

Then there was Tolstoy, a gambler and also a womaniser par excellence. Unlike Russell, however, he was willing to admit not just that but also to being a frequent victim of venereal diseases from the “customary sources”. He told his biographer that he was going at it even at the ripe old age of 81, which was a whisker more than Russell. 

I strongly suggest you read this book. It covers Hemingway, Ibsen, Brecht and even Victor Gollancz. And some others. A friend brought me copy from the US recently so that I could finish reading it. You can order it on Amazon, USA. Delivery is expensive but the book itself is now available for under five dollars. 

Believe me, every rupee spent on it is well worth it.

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