05.27.2014

When Intellectuals Go to War

  • Corey Robin

When it comes to the narcissism of war, no one has quite the self-deluding capacity of the intellectual.

March 28, 2011: Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff speaks during a news conference in Toronto.

On the recommendation of my colleague Shang Ha, I’ve been reading Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. There I came across this letter from Arnold Schoenberg to Alma Mahler, dated August 28, 1914. Ross only quotes a snippet, but here’s a lengthier excerpt:

Meanwhile, you have certainly already heard of the glorious victory of the Germans against France, England, and Belgium. It is among the most wonderful things that have happened. But it does not surprise me: it is not any different from the war of the Greeks against the Persians . . . My friends know it, I have often said to them, I never had any use for all foreign music. It always seemed to me stale, empty, disgusting, cloying, false, and awkward. Without exception. Now I know who the French, English, Russians, Belgians, Americans, and Serbians are: barbarians! The music said that to me long ago . . . But now comes the reckoning. Now we shall send these mediocre purveyors of kitsch back into slavery.

Schoenberg was hardly the only artist to support his team during the First World War. But what strikes me in his stance here is something you often see when intellectuals go to war: their tendency to interpret the war in the most parochial terms imaginable, that is, as an expression of their own causes and concerns, no matter how alien those might be from the state waging the war.

Not only did Schoenberg see German war aims as the defense of German/Viennese culture (again, he was not alone in this), but he saw it more specifically, and improbably, as an extension of his own battle against retrograde tendencies in modern music. As if the Kaiser had read Harmonielehre and decided to march into Belgium on behalf of atonality.

Schoenberg’s letter reminds me of a wonderful moment in the run-up to the Iraq War. Charlie Rose had Michael Ignatieff and Jonathan Schell on to debate the war. (I can’t find the video but apparently you can buy it on Amazon.) Ignatieff was being especially nasty, mocking Schell for saying something like “the peoples of the earth” had said no to the war. Which, given the international character of the protests of 15 February 2003 wasn’t wide of the mark.

But then Schell gave it right back to Ignatieff. After Ignatieff did his thing of describing the war as the second coming of Isaiah Berlin, Schell gently reminded him that, however much he might wish it were otherwise, he wasn’t in fact the commander-in-chief of the country that would be fighting the war. Whatever aims the United States would ultimately pursue in waging war on Iraq, they would have little to do with the concerns of Michael Ignatieff.

A state goes to war for its reasons. It takes an especially potent form of imaginative power to assume that the academic question that happens to be on your mind at the moment is somehow shared by the men and women who are leading that state.

Ordinary citizens, of course, are hardly immune to seeing themselves in that war and its exploits. But when it comes to the narcissism of war, as the example of Christopher Hitchens reminds us, no one has quite the self-deluding capacity of the intellectual.