Archive for January 14th, 2019

Putting the plebs back in their place

Imagine that you have a profound artistic vision. And imagine also that you have the ability to communicate this vision. Imagine you have an extraordinary mastery of language, and that there is nothing – no nuance, no shade of thought or feeling – that you cannot communicate with words.

Now, if you are so gifted, what would you do with these gifts? What would you devote your life to? What would you work on assiduously through all hours of day and night?

Keeping the working classes at bay, obviously. I mean, it stands to reason, doesn’t it?

I am afraid this is precisely the contention that is made by many. It’s not new, of course, but I had rather hoped that this kind of nonsense would have run its course by now. So it’s sad to see that it is still very much alive and kicking.

I am not sure when these ideas started, but I first heard them articulated by John Carey, no less. I must confess that I haven’t read the book he wrote on this matter – The Intellectuals and the Masses; but I did see a television documentary he fronted at around the time this book was published, in which he expressed his view that modernists had deliberately made their work difficult to keep the “masses” out. I must admit that what I heard on that programme did surprise me considerably. But I am reluctant to attack Carey, as he is someone whom I admire greatly: had it not been for his brilliant edition of Milton, with its superbly detailed and erudite notes and annotations, I am not sure I could have negotiated my way around these immensely difficult poems.

There are, sadly, a great many other very difficult works of literature that I haven’t, as yet, been able to get my head around – not even with all the critical commentaries available. Yes, I made a few inroads into Milton (thanks to John Carey and a number of other Milton scholars); but the works of Spenser, say, or of the much-loved Donne, refuse resolutely to penetrate through my thick skull. There are other difficult works where, I can see quite clearly for myself without having to be told, my understanding is at best partial: the late novels of Henry James, say (The Golden Bowl especially). Even my beloved Shakespeare loses me with The Phoenix and the Turtle. All these works, it may be noted, are pre-modernist. In short, difficulty is hardly a modernist invention. So it genuinely puzzles me to read something like this:

If more and more working people were reading the classics, if they were closing the cultural gap between themselves and the middle classes, how could intellectuals preserve their elite status as arbiters of taste and custodians of rare knowledge? They had to create a new body of modernist literature which was deliberately made so difficult and obscure that the average reader did not understand it.

This is written by scholar Jonathan Rose, and is approvingly quoted by Matthew Wills in the article I linked to above.

The contention that certain writers, of a certain era, had deliberately introduced difficulty (a quality that, presumably, had not existed earlier) specifically in order to exclude the “working people” seems, in view of the extreme difficulty I encounter in so many pre-modernist works, frankly absurd. It gives me a mental picture of the likes of Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, etc. all getting together & rubbing their hands with glee – “These plebs are getting a bit above themselves, aren’t they? Right, no more easy stuff like Spenser or Milton or Henry James from now on … we’ll soon put the bastards back in their place!”

And so they put all their time and effort putting us bastards back in our place. Because, obviously, it’s such a worthy cause for gifted people to dedicate their lives to.

In my experience, virtually every contention relating to cultural matters that claims to be egalitarian has at its root a barely disguised contempt for the very people it pretends to champion. Behind the contention that the difficulty of modernism is intended to ward off the “working people” is the insulting belief that the “working people”, the “masses”, are less capable than others of negotiating difficulty. The very title The Intellectuals and the Masses assumes that the two are distinct groups – that the “masses” are incapable of being intellectuals; or that, those who do become intellectuals are, by definition, no longer authentically one of the “masses”. In which case the distinction between the two seems to me to become rather inconsequential: what point would such a distinction serve?

Yet, it seems, this continues to do the rounds. The net result is further denigration and belittlement of anything that smacks of the intellectual. Which, I can’t help thinking, has been the aim all along. But since it is impertinent to speculate on what anyone’s unstated motives may be, let us not go there. Let me just restrict myself to saying that I, who am most definitely among the “masses” (since I am still waiting for my invitation to join this shady elite of intellectuals), continue to find the whole thing frankly bizarre.