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5 Famous Intellectual Feuds in History

A battle of the brightest minds.

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  • Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

It’s only natural for forward-thinking minds to disagree. But what happens when personal feuds have an impact on a larger scale? When great philosophers clash, tensions rise among their supporters and matters can get political. When great writers clash, critical works of literature get sabotaged, or their publication gets delayed. When great artists clash, parties—usually already in precarious situations—are driven to hopelessness and despair. Here are five instances in history where acclaimed creatives and intellectuals went head-to-head, sometimes with catastrophic consequences for all involved.

Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz vs. the Mexican clergy

Hailed as the “Tenth Muse” in the Baroque Spanish Empire, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz’s widespread reputation as an outstanding scholar had earned her the stark disapproval of the Catholic Church. A sister of The Order of Saint Jerome or Hieronymites of Mexico since 1669, she was more inclined towards creative writing projects than religious devotion, a discouraged lifestyle for Spanish Catholic nuns. Nevertheless, Sor Juana’s daring feminist poetry, theatre plays, and treatises on philosophy attracted spellbound visitors and allies from across the colonized Americas. 

But Sor Juana was tactful enough not to directly attract conflict with the Church. When her negative commentary on Father Pedro António Vieira’s well-known and popular sermon was published in 1690, it was done without her permission. The publisher, the bishop of Puebla, drew Sor Juana unwillingly into the battle of her life. When he demanded in a letter accompanying the publication that, as a nun, she should redirect her energy and intellect to servicing the church, Juana couldn’t resist arguing back that exercising her mental powers was her God-given right, even though she was a woman. She’d been successfully baited into debate. 

The public dispute that ensued between bishop and nun was so intense that the Archbishop of Mexico, Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas y Ullo, soon got involved. The ultra-conservative church leader seized the opportunity to suppress Sor Juana’s career as an author which, in his eyes, was posing a serious threat to the established patriarchal hierarchy of Mexico’s Church and society. Under pressure by the looming danger of the Spanish Inquisition, whose influence extended to the colonies, Sor Juana surrendered. She gave up writing entirely and sold her enormous library of books to raise money for her convent’s charitable causes. This seemed to pacify the archbishop, and she was never persecuted further. However, history can mourn the unjust oppression of Sor Juana’s brilliance on her behalf.

Charlotte Brontë vs. Emily Brontë

intellectual feuds
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  • From left to right: Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The year was 1845 and a series of failed job and business ventures had rendered the Brontë sisters (and their brother Branwell) unemployed and skint. The ambitious Charlotte had a new money-making scheme in mind: publishing the family’s poetry. As Emily Brontë wouldn’t willingly surrender her poems for consideration, Charlotte had to sneak into her sister’s bedroom while Emily was out of the house. But although Charlotte was ambitious, she wasn’t slick. Emily soon discovered her writing desk had been ransacked. An explosive row subsequently erupted in Haworth Parsonage, the Brontë household. 

What Charlotte and Emily couldn’t agree on was this: should poetry be written for its own sake, or should it be written for profit? Emily was firmly attached to the former and was fiercely protective of her right to privacy. Meanwhile, Charlotte was hungry for fame, and was convinced Emily’s contribution to a collaborative volume of poetry would launch them onto the literary scene. Eventually it was Anne Brontë, the youngest sibling, who had to intervene to negotiate a peace treaty between her quarrelling older sisters. When Anne offered her own poems to the project, Emily finally relented and agreed to participate. 

Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Action Bell—these were the Brontë sisters’ pen names—was published in 1846 by Aylott and Jones in London. It was a colossal commercial failure, selling only two copies. But by this time the three Brontë sisters were confident and reunited enough to embark on writing what would become their famous novels.

Vincent van Gogh vs. Paul Gaugin

An artist’s commune where likeminded, creative people can coexist in an environment that fosters productivity and harmony is a concept that sounds ideal on paper but is nevertheless challenging in execution. As proven by the failed experiment that was Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin’s historic cohabitation, geniuses living together can be outright disastrous. The Post-Impressionist masters were matched up by Van Gogh’s brother, Theo van Gogh, who’d hoped that the steadier Gaugin would act as the neurotic Vincent’s minder. Gaugin was offered 150 francs a month to perform this role, and he and Van Gogh set up home together in a picturesque yellow house in peaceful Arles, France in the October of 1888. It was the perfect setting to become an artist’s utopia. Instead, it would become a nightmare. 

The two roommates couldn’t agree on anything. Their personalities and work styles were completely incompatible. Gaugin would often admonish Van Gogh for rushing through his painting, unsuccessfully trying to install in him a habit for patience and meticulous technique that Van Gogh simply didn’t have. Van Gogh, in turn, sharply criticized Gaugin’s preoccupation with painting for profit, believing that the process of creation itself was the objective, not the  monetary outcome. 

The practical, domestic concerns were also harrowing; neither man was a keen housekeeper, and the yellow house was ill-managed and hosted many vehement arguments. After just 63 days, Gaugin had enough, and said his goodbyes to his tempestuous and intolerable companion. Gaugin bailing out on their commune, and their friendship, led the heartbroken Vincent van Gogh to commit his famous act of self-mutilation: cutting off his own ear. Van Gogh evidently preferred the arguments to the unbearable pain of living and being alone. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald vs. Zelda Fitzgerald

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In 1932, husband and wife were at loggerheads. Which one had the right to fictionalize their tumultuous marriage? F. Scott Fitzgerald naturally claimed that the material was rightfully his. He was the published author, after all, and the family breadwinner. But Zelda Fitzgerald was tired of existing in her famous spouse’s shadow and was ready to emerge as a creative writer in her own right. She wanted to produce her own autobiographical novel to rival Scott’s This Side of Paradise (1920) and his then-unacclaimed masterpiece The Great Gatsby (1925). 

At the time she was writing, Zelda was undergoing mental health treatment at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Writing the novel was something of a therapeutic exercise, undertaken with the encouragement of the sympathetic clinic staff. But the furious Scott obsessively micromanaged his wife’s pet project, forcing her to revise the manuscript and omit passages containing scenes that he considered his own property (never mind that it’s now common knowledge that Scott borrowed entire entries from Zelda’s journal to use in This Side of Paradise). 

The fruit of Zelda’s labour, titled Save Me the Waltz, was eventually published against Scott’s approval, by Scott’s own publisher Maxwell Perkins in 1932. In the midst of the Great Depression, when people’s anxious minds were not primarily focused on literature, Zelda’s achievement passed without much recognition from critics or the public. But she had at least won a victory over her controlling and insecure husband by proving herself an equally capable writer. Their marriage, tragically, would not recover from this literary brawl. They hadn't seen each other in two years by the time of her husband's death.

Jean-Paul Sartre vs. Albert Camus 

The age of the existentialist philosopher was a time for deliberation. It was also a time for what were presumably solid friendships to crash and burn. Politics would be the spectacular breaking point for the already strained alliance between literary giants Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, one of the most closely followed public conflicts of the post-war 20th century that reads like a hybrid of a podium debate and a gossip column. The strife started off personal, with Albert Camus’s refusal to go to bed with writer Simone de Beauvoir—she was in a polyamorous relationship with Sartre—and progressed to adverse standpoints on communism. 

Though both men veered to the left throughout their careers, their views on politics and society would ultimately clash. Sartre, through his pro-communist writings, would document his attitude in favour of state imprisonment and human sacrifice for the sake of the collective good. This for him meant that capital punishment and revolutionary violence were, depending on the situation, justifiable. He supported Stalin, and Camus didn’t. From Camus’s perspective, no violence was justifiable, and the Soviet Union to him was an abominable totalitarian regime in which its government harbored delusions of control and order. The Paris cafés, and the literary journals circulating at the time, were the battlegrounds for Sartre and Camus’s dispute. 

In September 1952 the magazine Les Temps modernes, run by Sartre and Beauvoir, published an issue with 70 pages that essentially served as a contract officially severing all ties with Camus. This was an outright war, philosophy-style, and the sides were clearly drawn. After this event, Sartre and Camus would remain intellectual enemies for the rest of their lives. Yet following Camus’s untimely death in a car accident in 1960, Sartre would express regret that their feud had spiralled into such extreme animosity. “He was probably the last good friend I had,” would be his recorded confession.