A while back, someone wrote a comment on one of my posts in which he suggested that I should read John Carey’s book The Intellectuals and the Masses. And indeed it has proved to be a rewarding experience.
John Carey, by the way, was Merton Professor of English at Oxford until he retired in 2001, and he is still an emeritus Professor. The sub-title of his book is Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939.
The book comes in two parts. The first part contains various ‘themes’ and the second offers case studies of several writers.
You don’t have to read very far in this book before you get a surprise. And the surprise is that an Oxford Professor really doesn’t have much time for the literary intelligentsia. Or at any rate, not the kind of people he writes about in this book. In fact I don’t think I’m reading too much into it when I say that he despises large numbers of them.
The general thesis of the book is that the (largely self-anointed) intellectual classes were deeply shaken by nineteenth-century social developments. I’m not sure that Carey mentions the French Revolution of 1789 (it isn’t in the short index), but I think we could argue that that event was deeply disturbing to all those in Europe who held positions of influence, power, and wealth.
What the French Revolution demonstrated was that you weren’t necessarily safe even if you were a King. You could still end up in prison, or worse, with your head chopped off.
As the nineteenth century moved on, the ruling classes (from whom intellectuals were exclusively drawn in those days) began to be aware that the masses (for want of a better term) were rapidly growing in power and influence. What was more, they were being taught to read! And this was deeply alarming. Who could say what ideas they might pick up? A revolution in France was bad enough – but what if it spread? A widespread and deep-seated fear of the masses began to percolate through the intelligentsia.
As far as literature is concerned, Carey argues that, in the face of this much enlarged reading public, the response of the intellectuals was to create new forms of work which were deliberately exclusive. The whole point (conscious or unconscious) of modernist literature was to exclude the ordinary people. It was to create a class of writers and readers who could feel comfortably superior to the masses, because only they – the new intelligentsia – were clever enough to understand the new literature. And how reassuring it was, how comforting, to be aware that there were still people like themselves – people who were so infinitely superior, in every way, to the great unwashed masses who revelled in sordid crime stories and slushy romances.
Ortega y Gasset, for example, in The Dehumanization of Art, argued that it was the essential function of modern art to divide the public into two classes – those who can understand it and those who cannot. The intellectuals could not prevent the masses from learning to read. But they could prevent them reading certain types of literature by making it too difficult; and this they did.
Without even trying very hard, Carey reveals to us that intellectuals such as Nietzsche and Ortega y Gasset were quite exceptionally nasty people. ‘I believe,’ said Nietzsche, ‘that the mob, the mass, the herd, will always be despicable.’ Which is plain enough. The immense popularity of Nietzsche’s ideas, Carey tells us, is indicative of the sheer panic that the threat of the masses induced.
It isn't long, of course, before that raving old madman F.R. Leavis appears on the scene. The mass media, he declared, arouse ‘the cheapest emotional responses. Films, newspapers, publicity in all forms, commercially-catered fiction – all offer satisfaction at the lowest level.’
You see how the thinking goes? I am not one of the masses. I am someone special. I am an intellectual – one of the elite. Therefore my emotional responses, obviously, are far more sensitive and subtle than those of my cleaning lady.
And where, I ask (though Carey doesn’t, explicitly), is the scientific evidence for such a belief? Who has done the research which demonstrates that a third-rate man like Leavis (or even a first-rate man) has more sensitive emotions than someone with an IQ of 75? Who has proved that the grief felt by a bereaved mother is more intense if she is Lady Hermione from the Manor than if she is Mrs Jones from no. 3 Railway Cuttings? Where is the machine which measures the intensity and 'quality' of emotions, as a sphygmomanometer measures blood pressure? There isn't one.
The fear of the masses also acted as the cover for an equally nasty attitude among the intelligentsia, and that was the fear of women. Popular newspapers were hated and despised because (no doubt in the interests of circulation, a sordid motive if ever there was one), they encouraged women to better themselves. Good God! Women will be demanding the vote next!
A whole array of intellectuals are revealed by Carey not merely to be snobs and fuzzy thinkers, but possessed of singularly unattractive opinions based on nothing more than prejudice, stupidity and fear for their cosseted life style. D.H. Lawrence, for example, wrote to Lady Cynthia Asquith from Ceylon , assuring her that the natives were ‘in the living sense lower than we are.’
That remark reminds me of a canard that I used to hear when I was a boy: black boxers, it was said, win more world championships than white boxers because ‘they don’t feel pain like we do.’ Neither this assertion nor Lawrence’s was based on anything that might even loosely be called reliable data. Idle gossip is more like it.
Incidentally, although I am no admirer of D.H. Lawrence, Carey succeeds in shocking me when he relates that some of the intelligentsia in the early twentieth century anticipated Hitler in favouring the extermination of the old, the sick, and the suffering. Lawrence was among them. ‘If I had my way,’ he said in a letter of 1908, ‘I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace.’
The literary intelligentsia, as noted above, created a class of literature which was impossible for the average reader to understand. But I doubt, personally, whether it ever provided much pleasure for the elite, except in so far as it allowed them to demonstrate, to their own satisfaction at least, that they were infinitely superior in every way to those ghastly oiks who favoured penny dreadfuls; or, later, Ian Fleming; or Dean Koontz; or anyone else who sells big but is despised by the literati. That, I suppose, is the price you have to pay for being allowed to feel superior; you don’t actually enjoy anything very much.
All these attitudes were reflected in what books got reviewed and in how they were reviewed (and they still are). Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat was roundly denounced for its vulgarity, and for being written in ‘colloquial clerk’s English.’
The principal aim of all this, says Carey, was ‘to acquire the control over the mass that language gives.’ After all, if the masses exercised power, they would probably start spreading out wealth more equally, and then where would we be? Democratic government, thought Thomas Hardy, would lead to ‘the utter ruin of art and literature.’
The masses were feared because it was thought that they would behave like crowds: i.e. they would be ‘extremely suggestible, impulsive, irrational, exaggeratedly emotional, inconstant, irritable and capable only of thinking in images – in short, just like women.’ The process of civilising women was, incidentally, considered by the intellectuals to be one of extreme difficulty.
Every development which favoured the middle or working classes in England was viewed with deep suspicion if not outright hostility. Suburban growth, with improved new housing, was decried for ruining the countryside. Cyril Connolly considered suburbs worse than slums.
Enough, I think to make the point. Carey succeeds, well beyond anything I had thought possible, in demonstrating that, in the period covered by his book, 1880-1939, English intellectuals (in particular) were an unpleasant, snobbish lot. Motivated by sheer funk – terrified that they might lose all their privileges, which in truth were seldom justified – they objected on the one hand to anything which might be called progress, while on the other hand they busily reinforced their own all too fallible self esteem through the creation of ‘superior art’ which the masses could not understand.
The trend continues to this day, as you have doubtless noticed.
After the general introduction of part one, part two of Carey’s book provides several case studies. He deals with George Gissing, H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and Wyndham Lewis, particularly the latter’s connection with Hitler.
Gissing, though now forgotten, ‘was the earliest English writer to formulate the intellectuals’ case against mass culture, and he formulated it so thoroughly that nothing essential has been added to it since.’ Gissing, incidentally, was a charming fellow whose sexual appetites required women who were his intellectual and social inferior, and he could only get it up by humiliating and punishing them. He claimed to have beaten both his wives with stair rods.
H.G. Wells is remembered rather better than Gissing. I heard a rumour recently that someone had made a film based on one of his books. But his views are unattractive from our perspective. What will we do with the black and the brown races, he wondered, since they are so obviously inferior to us in intelligence and initiative, and there are so many of them. He became obsessed with reducing the world’s population.
Arnold Bennett is included by Carey because the author views him as a hero. ‘His writings represent a systematic dismemberment of the intellectuals’ case against the masses.’ But Bennett was, of course, despised by the intelligentsia because the bounder made money from literature. Only an utter cad would do that. He also wrote a book called The Truth about an Author, which I really must read.
Intellectuals, Bennett believed, should write so as to appeal to a wider audience, and he did not see why a book which the masses liked should automatically be thought of as trash. Between the popular and the highbrow reader there was, he argued, no essential difference. Neither is there: in fiction both seek emotion; in non-fiction both seek information.
Wyndham Lewis, it turns out, wrote several books in the 1930s, all of which were enthusiastic about the German Fuhrer, the charismatic Adolf. Contempt for women was perhaps the key to Lewis’s character. ‘Stay to dinner,’ he asked a friend. ‘I’ve a wife downstairs. A simple woman, but a good cook.’
I don’t think anyone is likely to reprint Wyndham Lewis any time soon. Whiteness, he suggested, ‘is in a pigmentary sense aristocratic’, and is the proper colour for a gentleman. As for his description of what he calls ‘the average Nigger’, I really don’t think I dare quote it, lest someone should mistake it for my own opinion.
As far as Hitler himself is concerned, Carey tells us that ‘the tragedy of Mein Kampf is that it was not, in many respects, a deviant work but one firmly rooted in European intellectual orthodoxy.’
Carey ends his survey at 1939, but he reminds us that the old intellectual prejudices have not died out yet. The ever-expanding mass media have ‘driven the intellectuals to evolve an anti-popular cultural mode that can reprocess all existing culture and take it out of the reach of the majority.’ This mode is variously called ‘post-structuralism’, or ‘deconstruction’, or just plain ‘theory’, and it began in the 1960s with the work of Jacques Derrida. It has managed, says Carey, to evolve a language that is impenetrable to most native English-speakers. You can say that again. Much of it is gibberish. The whole wretched business was exposed by Alan Sokal.
Carey has, in my view, summed up all the modern apparatus of criticism and reviewing very neatly. Every department of Literature in every university and college in the world takes the line that there is a form of ‘serious literary fiction’ which is inherently superior to popular or commercial fiction. But where, I ask, not for the first time, are the sound arguments and research data which demonstrate this truth?
I have been reading novels for at least 55 years, reading about novels for at least 50 years, and writing them for 45 years. If there was any such evidence I think I would have noticed it by now.
In fact, as I have argued many times before on this blog, there is no evidence for seeing the world of fiction as a hierarchy. According to the intelligentsia, the world of fiction is, so to speak, a tower block with ‘serious literary novels’ firmly ensconced in the penthouse. In the basement, needless to say, is romantic fiction, which is read only by those brainless women.
This tower-block, or hierarchical, view of fiction is, in my view, a product of male intellectuals. The tower block is a male erection; and, like all male erections, it is fundamentally ridiculous.
The only sensible way to view the world of fiction is as a street with many bookshops. Each of these bookshops stocks a different kind of fiction, and the sensible reader will visit all of them at one time or another. On this street there are no prime sites; all premises are of equal value.
The kindest thing that can be said about the intellectuals’ view of the world of fiction is that it is the product of fuzzy thinking. Unfortunately, as Professor Carey has demonstrated, there is a much darker side to this mode of thinking which, particularly in the 1930s, led to some very unpleasant and unwelcome consequences.
Professor Carey’s book on intellectuals and the masses is, in and of itself, a good argument for the existence of universities. Only an academic would have the time (and indeed the duty) to undertake the necessary reading and to think through the implications of the results. I doubt whether many of Professor Carey’s colleagues ever thanked him for this book; but the rest of us ought to be deeply grateful.