Are the clerks on the barricades this time?

One day Tolstoy, who was at that time an officer in the army, confronted a fellow officer who he had seen whipping a peasant and asked him: Have you never read the New Testament? The officer replied with a question of his own: ‘have you never read the army’s rules and regulations? Julien Benda put this story as an emblem at the beginning of La Trahison des Clercs, a pamphlet that became famous in the late twenties, because to Benda, Tolstoy’s question was central to what it used to mean to be a clerk – that is, an educated person who defends humanistic values. And the nameless officer’s reply, Benda thought, was what it meant to be a clerk, as the intellectuals abandoned the side of the eternal for the side of pure doxa. The clerk now serves a political passion, and speaks for the interests of a temporal and limited group, whether economic, national, or party. The clerk now sides with the army’s rules and regulations.

I, too, am interested in the clerk as a figure, although I betray humanity, in Benda’s eyes, by thinking of the clerk as, primordially, in the Great Transformation to an industrial and market economy, an agent of circulation. On the other hand, the clerk is dialectically riven – both the promoter of those routines that, in the countryside, the factory, and the store, generated a capitalist mentality, and the first responders to the elevation of the level of alienation this entailed. The clerks are the poets of the routinized world.

It is in this sense that Benda’s fight for eternal and against the engaged ‘intellectual’ is not, as it would seem to be at first glance, simply a reactionary gesture, a Christian nostalgia.

Benda started writing for the dreyfusard part of the press – he was published in Peguy’s Cahiers – and his career lasted well into the era of the existentialists, against which he took aim with furious quotations in his long second preface to The Betrayal of the Clerks, when it was reissued after WWII.

So: I want to look at Benda, Thomas Mann’s Reflections of an Non-political Man, and Russell Jacoby’s book on the last intellectuals – all in the light of the Occupy Wall Street movement – in some upcoming posts.