Photo: CARLOS OSORIO / TORONTO STAR
Ain’t every writer an intellectual? Duh!
By: George Elliot Clarke
In my experience, most new writers don’t think of themselves as intellectuals. They know that they are artists and artisans, or perhaps even students of the humanities (not just of literature, languages, or creative writing, but also theology, poli sci, law, sociology, history, psychology, philosophy, etc.). But few take the obvious next step of recognizing themselves as automatic, and even organic, intellectuals.
Why is this no-brainer concept such a mindfuck for otherwise enlightened and creative thinkers? I think it has a lot to do with the anti-intellectualism endemic to populist-oriented democracies, where it’s considered chic to wear denim and lumberjack jackets, but elitist to sport spectacles and spout a Latinate vocabulary. To be considered nerdy, especially as a youth or young adult, is to be considered a Darwinian failure in the reproduction sweepstakes. Who wants to have a child with a “brain” when it’s genitalia that’s gotta carry the day? Eh?
Be that as it may, I insist that every writer is an intellectual and should embrace that fact, rather than pretend that a facility with words—the atomic structure of consciousness—is an “aw, shucks” attribute, easily set aside in favour of the nearest Big Mouth swinging a Big Stick to drub stuff-and-nonsense into plebes and club down all annoying dissonance/dissent.
Instead of taking that stance of demobilization, I concur with Eddy Said (see his Representations of the Intellectual) that the intellectual is “a being set apart” whose raison d'être is to speak truth to power when less-well-endowed-with-vocabulary types find themselves tear-gassed, tortured, tasered, and/or detained from their contentions with authority.
Said argues, and I agree, that regardless of ones stance towards the state (or the monarch), the intellectual must never be the puppet of propaganda, or the shill shrill for political interest. To be “a being apart” is also to be a citizen who deliberately poises on the margins and sidelines, the voice of unfettered conscience and the symbol of incorruptible morality. Better to be a bullhorn than be bullied, eh?
For me, the exemplary writers, scholars, and critics of regimes—whether dictatorships, monarchies, “republics”, or those propped up by cash-bought ballot boxes, like the USA—are scribes and tribunes. People like Emile Zola, who called out the anti-Semitism of late 19th-century France, Julien Benda, who rebuked the anti-Semitism of 1920s Europe, Malcolm X, who excoriated both the police and the lynch-mob racism of 1950s and 60s America, and Violette Leduc, who wrote “with her ovaries,” thus inventing écriture feminine. People like Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who dared to confront nationalism with multiculturalism, George Grant, whose opposition to the Vietnam War spurred on Anglo-Canadian nationalism and helped to create an Anglo-Can music industry, Margaret Atwood, for her nationalist, feminist, antiwar, and pro-environmentalist campaigns, and M. NourbeSe Philip, whose anti-racism, anti-misogyny, and anti-imperialism necessitated the most searing rhetoric.
The foregoing list may be expanded exponentially by adding Indigenous names, like Glenn Coulthard, as well as by adding authors who we may not think of immediately as intellectuals. I will add the fabulous Italian-Canadian poet Giovanna Riccio, author of the philosophical discourse on plastic, Plato, and body-image concerns related to plastic surgery and body-sculpting, Plastic’s Republic: Featuring the Barbie Suite. Yes, Riccio is a Guernica author. Of course! Note the publisher’s logo: that combo of Picasso and Van Gogh. The idea? The Guernica author wields pen and ink as arms against a Sargasso of blood and the argot of tears.
Writer! Dread Malcom X’s critique! “You haven’t done the right thing!” Dread Stevie Wonder’s critique! “You haven’t done nothin!” Nope! Ya gotta do the right thing! Write on! Right on!
George Elliott Clarke is the author of Canticles I (MMXVI) & Canticles I (MMXVII) & Canticles II (MMXIX) & Canticles II (MMXX) & Canticles III (MMXXII), all constitutive parts of an epic poem published by Guernica Editions. Clarke’s work is the subject of Africadian Atlantic: Essays on George Elliott Clarke, edited by Joseph Pivato, and published by Guernica Editions.