Most people, for very good reason, place themselves at the center of their universe. I’m not saying they place themselves at the center of the universe, which would be a greedy and ignorant thing to do. They place themselves at the center of their own universe, which means that they place at the center of their field of attention their own lives – their own circumstances, their own ambitions, what they need to do today, their friends, what they care about, and so on. And it makes very good sense to do this – it would be kind of stupid not to.
Thus, an intellectual is sort of stupid. For an intellectual places at the center of their universe – at least, for big chunks of time – abstract questions, problems, ideas, and tensions. During those times, the personal circumstances and the individuality of the intellectual recede far into the background, or to the peripheries of one’s field of attention. If you balk at this claim, and you feel like objecting that we can never do this, that our worries and passions and desires are always the center of our universe, no matter how much we pretend to ignore them – if you say this, then you probably are an intellectual. You’ve arrived at this perfectly general conclusion not by focusing on your own life, but by thinking this through on behalf of human beings generally. If you then go on to test whether it is true in your own life, through some intensively introspective psychoanalysis, then you are not only an intellectual, but a self-aware intellectual, which is a rare bird indeed.
Intellectuals suspect that our own lives are just not that interesting, and they are right. Biographies written about a great many of us would either be absolutely unremarkable wastes of effort, or they would be hailed as ironic attempts to mock the genre of biography by providing overly trivial instances of the type. Most humans beings just aren’t all that interesting, even if they happen to be you. Intellectuals recognize this early on, and so they move their field of attention over to more interesting things. They soon begin to resent having to swivel their heads back onto their own lives and deal with day-to-day boring crap, and they try to focus on the not-me as much as they can. This leads often to comical results.
They also find it irritating to run into “intellectuals” who spend so much time trying to advance their own careers as “intellectuals.” These people are not intellectuals, not really. They have simply taken up pseudo-intellectualism as their day job, and they have placed themselves at the center of their universe – just like normal, smart people. Real intellectuals find these pseudo-intellectuals exasperating, partly because they are fakers (after all, who likes fakers?), but also because the fakers end up getting all the creaturely comforts that real intellectuals wish they had, at least when they take a moment to swivel their heads back onto their own lives. The fakers get to be at ritzy universities, and get paid lecturing gigs, and interviews in magazines, and so on. Getting these things requires smart ends-means strategizing, and real intellectuals don’t take the time to do this. So they very often end up as seemingly other-worldly people at low-paying jobs without much prestige. “If yer so smart, why aintcha rich?” is not a question they have a very good answer to. They can only say “Because I don’t think much about what I’m doing with my life.”