Tuesday, 1 November 2005

Noam Chomsky—the greatest intellectual?

To answer that question sensibly, it seems to me, you would need to ask another intellectual of similar calibre, and intellectuals being what they are his answer would probably be No, I am. Emma Brockes is a bright young journalist and did not attempt to answer it after she had interviewed Chomsky for The Guardian; it was a very silly question anyway, posed by Prospect magazine and answered with appropriate idiocy (yes to Noam, which is fair enough, but Christopher Hitchens at no 5, for God's sake?).

Brockes made the point that "Chomsky's opinion can be as flaky as the next person's, he just states it more forcefully". Certainly, a mighty intellect hardly manifested itself in the interview, but then how could it have done? The most perceptive and persistent of interviewers cannot be expected to evoke with a few questions anything as intangible as intellectual brilliance. People with first class minds often come across as being clever, and stupid with it.

This is not a discussion to which I can make any useful contribution, but two things strike me about Chomsky: the first is that it is difficult not to feel some affection for a man who believes that practically every US president since the second world war has been guilty of war crimes and who voices the increasingly widespread disgust with the Bush administration; the second is that while a public figure with a great brain may well be without vanity as far as his appearance is concerned one is bound to wonder why Chomsky, generally well-shaven, has allowed—or possibly even encouraged—some spectacular white hairs (just visible in this photograph) to sprout, not from his nostrils as is normal with old men, but from the ridge of the lower part of his nose. This is reckless self-indulgence.

My idea of a cerebral giant who looks as he should is the great John Kenneth Galbraith. I published a photo of him on his 96th birthday last October and it is pleasant to hear a year later that he is still fizzing mentally, though sadly not in the best of health.

1 comment:

Ruth said...

So good to see the old saw: 'tall people don't live long lives' disproved.