You were marginal in terms of the main culture, but you felt a tougher intellectual life. The talk! The talk was exciting.”
Were I the candle-lighting kind, I would light a candle for William Phillips (d. September 13, 2002), founder and editor of Partisan Review, the “definitive ‘little magazine’“, and the “launch pad for the careers of . . . the New York Intellectuals“.
The epigraph above is Phillips’ reminiscing about the early days of Partisan Review during the Great Depression and the Second World War. Although it had to make do with very little money, the journal provided a crucible of intellectual debate over art and politics which nurtured some of America’s most influential thinkers and writers during the twentieth century. It gave crucial early support to the artistic and political movements that decisively shaped American history (and, consequently, to a significant degree, world history) during the Cold War years.
William Phillips, Partisan Review, and the New York Intellectuals are emblematic of the vital importance of the life of the mind for any society. As the old clichÃ© has it, ideas have consequences. And the ideas that have consequences gain currency because of the little magazines and small circles of writers and thinkers that carry them into the bloodstream of the general cultural life of a society until they are old clichÃ©s. Which can be a good or a bad thing.
John Maynard Keynes wrote:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.
The little magazine—the journal of opinion with a relatively low subscription—serves as a bridge between the world of the academic and the world of the practical man. Sometimes this goes badly, and some madman carries out the frenzied schemes hashed out by a scribbler of a previous generation. Sometimes it goes well, and prudent leaders shape their sphere of influence in healthy ways, drawing on the wisdom of careful scholars. In either case, public intellectual journalism—the line of work Comment pursues—makes a significant historical difference, for ill or for good.