What is an intellectual?  Where did this term come from?  In Birth of a National Icon: The Literary Avant-Garde of the Intellectuals in France, Venita Datta answers these questions.  Datta states that intellectuals are “not defined by who they are, but what they do”.(9)  An intellectual pronounces on matters of national and international interests.  They replaced the priest as a source of moral authority due to the corruption of the church during the Ancien regime. Many historians believe that this term was born after Zola’s J’Accuse during the Dreyfus Affair.  However, Datta disagrees.  She states that the principal goals of her book are to: separate the origins of the intellectual in France from the strict confines of the Dreyfus Affair, and to examine the key role played by the literary avant-garde in the nineteenth century. Datta believes that the origin of the intellectual must be studied in a “broader cultural, political and social context” (2).

        In the late nineteenth century, France underwent profound social transformation as power became represented by intellect and learning rather than birth.  Intellectuals became suspicious of traditional elites and lower-middle class and they feared commercialization of culture.  They felt that they were being displaced in modern society which was dominated by the marketplace.

Honore de Balzac, Musee Rodin
Balzac, Musee Rodin, Jan 2016

      Datta explains that intellectuals were very involved politically and were a product of both the left and the right. In her book, she has compiled a list of these men that she considers as intellectuals dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries such as Malherbe, Voltaire, Montesquieu and the philosophes such as Charles Maurras and Hugues Rebell.  Her nineteenth century list combines poets, prophets and scientists as well. Datta bridges the role of the intellectual with the literary nature of French culture including the great writers Descartes, Pascal, Voltaire, Balzac and Hugo.  The literary journal represented an important place of sociability of the intellectual and was “linked to the social aspects of French life such as: the café, the university and the political party”(2).

Voltaire statue Musee du Louvre
Voltaire statue
Musee du Louvre

       In addition, Datta approaches the literary avant-garde as the “first official ‘intellectual’ generation” (40).  She explains that during the Dreyfus Affair, the members of this generation of the 1890 literary avant-garde, the enquêtes, were self conscious of their identity and separated themselves from their elders.   For the first time, the intellectuals viewed themselves as a group with a role to play in society.  They wanted to link French society with the world of politics.  Datta states that as German intellektuell  Goethe, Wagner, Nietzsche and Kant were superior in philosophy and the sciences, the French intellectuals were superior in the arts and culture.

     However, while Bernard Lazare called for a bonding together of intellectuals with a triple alliance of England, France and Germany, some of the French intellectuals looked to England and Germany with apprehension as they were seen as a threat to French interests. After the defeat of the Franco-Prussian War and the great decline of the national birthrate, Germany was seen as a rising power.  Datta explains that from 1872-1911, Germany increased 58% while France only increased by 10%.   France also fell behind Germany’s industrial advances even after Haussmann’s modernization of Paris which brought doubled industrial plants in the city.  Datta concludes that the French intellectuals had a moral crisis due to these feelings of failures and shortcomings. Consequently, they wrote about these feelings of despair in little magazines during the late nineteenth century.

Scenes de La Vie Province Honore de Balzac
Scenes de La Vie Province
Honore de Balzac

     Datta also speaks to the ideological differences between the intellectuals during the Dreyfus Affair.  She quotes Debray saying that the Dreyfus Affair debate “pitted the new republican university against the world of letters…and the Left Bank against the Right Bank (80).Even though members of the right and the left were both very much engaged in the debate, they observed the right of their opponents to speak their opinions and to be respectful and show “honor”.  The intellectuals sought positive solutions to the entry of Jews into public life and they were only combating democracy in order to improve it.

   Although Bernard-Henri Lévy claims that the intellectuals are a dying species, Datta states that they have “left their legacy both to France and the rest of the world (209).


Work Cited

Datta, Venita.  Birth of a National Icon:  The Literary Avant-Garde and the Origins of the Intellectual in France.  State of University of New York Press. 1999

Copyright 2017 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (