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.

16 responses to this post.

  1. Agreed. I’m one of the masses too and I resent the assumption that modernism (or anything else) is beyond me. I may not approach it in a traditional ‘academic’ way, but UI damn well enjoy it! 😀


    • I’m afraid lot of things are beyond me (I know my limitations! 🙂 ) but the idea that certain works were deliberately made difficult when they needn’t have been merely to exclude the “masses” seems insane to me!


  2. Posted by Mudpuddle on January 14, 2019 at 6:49 pm

    when i was working in the oil field, i met a derrickman who had a dr.s in sociology and a driller who graduated from the Colorado school of mines… it’s been my experience through my working life that erudition has no class boundaries… in fact, persons in academia can be just as clueless as anyone else. hence i think the premise presented by Carey et alia is pretty silly… probably a “publish or perish” effort…


    • I really do not know why someone so eminent and distinguished as John Carey should lend himself to this. But it’s best to play the ball rather than the man. I continue to respect Prof Carey, but I did find the arguments he put forward in that television programme quite untenable. As you say, social class is hardly an indicator of one’s ability to understand difficult things.


  3. I hope you don’t mind if I translate argument this to music (as I usually do)?

    I am sure that the likes of Boulez and Stockhausen didn’t compose with the intention of baffling plebs like me who, ever so impertinently, have come to appreciate not only Mozart and Beethoven but Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich and even Berg. Almost certainly they wrote their music with the utmost sincerity. The problem is that all but a small minority of serious music lovers find works like Stimmung and Le Marteau sans Maître totally incomprehensible. They avoid them and when that’s not possible, they sit politely but grudgingly through the “modern” piece while waiting for Mahler 9 or The Rite of Spring in the second half.

    The supporters of Stockhausen etc. are unrelenting in their scorn for those who don’t see the light. They make sneering references to “white-haired old ladies who want wall-to-wall Rachmaninov” and, having dismissed as stupid by “those in the know”, it is no wonder that people start to make claims of elitism even though that wasn’t the composers’ original intention. In fact I believe that later in life, Boulez said that “somewhere along the way we forgot the audience” though I can’t find substantiation for this.

    I am sure that it’s the same in the literary world. People who admit to being bemused by Ulysses are put down with comments like “perhaps you should stick to Twilight” or similar. The point being that although the artists themselves don’t seek to exclude anybody, their aficionados often do so by their behaviour.

    The people who most damage a cause are usually its most zealous supporters, rather than its opponents.


    • Hello Neil,

      Yes, it is a sad fact that there is still so much snobbery around. Comments like “white-haired old ladies who want wall-to-wall Rachmaninov” really are pretty offensive. There are good reasons why the likes of Rachmaninov 2nd piano concerto or Dvořák’s New World Symphony are popular. The modernist composers themselves did not look down on popular works: Schoenberg made arrangements of Strauss waltzes, and Tchaikovsky loved such popular composers as Verdi and Tchaikovsky (Oedipus Rex is clearly a homage to Verdi, as “The Fairy’s Kiss” is to Tchaikovsky).

      There is another side to this unpleasant coin, of course. Having spent several years on various book boards (including a now defunct board that used to be on the BBC website), I found inverse snobbery also pretty rife. Any time Ulysses was mentioned, say, there would inevitably be people popping up to say that it was all a big con trick, that Joyce was just “showing off”, that it is “pretentious”, that people who claim to love it are only trying to impress, and so on, and so forth. And they either did not seem to realise, or, more likely, did not care, that what they were saying was personally insulting: they were effectively saying that I, as a reader, am lying about enjoying Ulysses because I am only trying to impress; or that I am too thick to see through a “con trick” that they can see through so easily; and so on. I am sorry to say this kind of aggressive inverted snobbery was rife. And no, none of us who loved Joyce ever made “stick to Twilight” kind of comments.

      (I don’t know if you have the time or the inclination to look at the below-the-line comments on my own post in Ulysses on this blog, but there too I was accused of claiming to like this book only to impress: I had, needless (I hope) to say, made no disparaging comments about anyone else’s reading tastes.)

      I remember a few years ago attending an LSO concert conducted by Péter Eötvös where they played The Rite of Spring in the first half (fantastic performance, by the way), and Pierre Boulez’ Rituel – In Memorian Bruno Maderna in the second. I was not familiar at all with Boulez’ piece, but listened to it as attentively as I could, and found myself enjoying what little of it I managed to take in. Sure, it is difficult, but, as in literature, difficulty is not a modern invention: is it more difficult than Bach’s Art of Fugue? Or Beethoven’s late string quartets? And how much did I take in of those pieces at first hearing?

      In short, there really is too much snobbery all round – both the right-way-up snobbery, and also inverted snobbery. While comments about “white-haired old ladies who want wall-to-wall Rachmaninov” really are grotesquely offensive, and lead to a reaction against perceived elitism, it can work the other way round too: “You’re only claiming to love this book (or enjoy this piece of music) only to impress”, or “you’re being taken in by a con trick that I am too smart to fall for”, is also pretty offensive, and can also elicit an unwanted reaction.

      In this post, I was trying to argue against the contention (for it is no more than that) that modernists deliberately made their works difficult (works that didn’t presumably need to be difficult) in order to keep the “masses” at a distance. To be honest, I barely know where even to start to unpack that one!

      While broadsides against elitism, or of perceived elitism, can indeed, as you say, be provoked by snobbery, that is not, I think, always the case. Take a look at this, for instance: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/27/music-lessons-children-white-wealthy Here, a Guardian columnist seriously argues that we should not be teaching children how to read music in music classes, because that is – yes, you’ve guessed it – “white and elitist”. Now, our own boy has a fairly severe form of Asperger’s Syndrome. When he was 14, we were told by his teachers not even to think about further education for him, as he wouldn’t be up to it. We persisted against the advice given, and last year, he gained a B.Mus. degree from Trinity Laban Conservatoire, and is now at Aberdeen University studying for an M.Mus. degree. Learning music theory (including learning to read music) gave him a lifeline. And he is neither white, nor elitist (he was educated at a comprehensive school). But whom should I believe? – our own experiences, or some Guardian columnist who knows what’s best for us? The levels of inverted snobbery I find in this article – what I believe is termed ressentiment – seem to me simply extraordinary!

      Best wishes for now, Himadri


  4. Hello Himadri

    That’s an answer and a half – many thanks for your (as ever) well-considered and interesting insights.

    Yes, for me Rituel in Memoriam Maderna is far more difficult than the late Beethoven quartets, and Rituel is arguably the most approachable of PB’s works. The stress is on “for me”, of course. The Beethoven, most notably the Heilige Dankgesang in Quartet No 15, struck me as wonderful music from the first time I heard them. I possess Rituel on CD, conducted by the composer himself, and always when I give it the occasional airing my reaction is “well, that’s not too bad as it kind of sounds like music” but I’ve had enough by the end and am glad to get back to Mozart. It may click with me one day, but at my age I somehow doubt it – though nobody can say I haven’t tried.

    I assume you refer to your dialogue with Arnold in the Ulysses post. I can’t tell whether he was serious, or a troll, or just plain pissed. As it happens I limped to page 100 of Ulysses and gave up, but am happy to admit that it’s self-evidently a great work and I’m too lazy a reader to put the effort in. One does hear of people who leave a copy on their coffee table to impress a date (or is that only in romantic novels?), but anyone who can wax lyrical and show knowledge about any work of art deserves to be taken seriously. I don’t find the “you can’t really like this” attitude – which I used to get all the time regarding opera – offensive so much as ignorant, and I generally don’t prolong relations with people who display this attitude.

    The article you link to about music teaching is typical Guardian. ‘Nuff said.

    I guess there’s no chance of an edit button any time soon, is there? I do check for typos but always miss a few. I am of course aware that a lot of sites don’t have one in order to prevent people mischievously altering posts to render replies nonsensical.


    • Hello Neil, yes, I did go a bit over the top, didn’t I? 🙂

      I have asked WordPress about the edit button, but they tell me in usual corporatespeak (“Hi Himadri…”) that they have “no plans” for such. However, if you’d like something edited or removed. do please contact me, and I could do that from my end.

      Yes, I too find postwar modernism very difficult, and I too wonder whether I’ll ever “get it”. But I do have friends who are very accomplished musicians, and who think the world of various composers whose work I find so difficult; and naturally, I wouldn’t dream of impugning their integrity.

      I too have heard stories of leaving “Ulysses” on the coffee table to impress, but given that I have never met anyone – either online or off – who has actually done this; and given further that the people I know (again, both online and off) who claim to have read “Ulysses” speak sufficiently intelligently and enthusiastically about the book to leave no doubt that they love it; I do wonder to what extent people do claim to read difficult books in order merely to impress. We live in a world where erudition is not particularly valued, so it beats me why anyone should fake erudition. (No doubt some do, but it’s hardly a big issue.)

      And yes, I agree, people with this “you can’t really like this” attitude are more ignorant than anything else. But then again, I am myself very ignorant about all sorts of things, and I manage,I think,not to be gratuitously rude. I have a friend who loves reading abstruse and immensely difficult books on economics and political philosophy, but I certainly wouldn’t tell her (not even if I thought so) that she can’t really enjoy reading those books, and that she is only trying to impress. In real life, one may try to avoid such people; but when you’re trying to have an enjoyable conversation with someone on a book board about “Ulysses”, say, board, then these constant ignorant (and rude) comments do become more than merely tiresome.

      The Guardian column is just a Guardian column, absolutely. Sadly, this column has received much support from many music writers and academics, all keen, I’d guess, to prove their “right on” credentials. And these things do have an effect. When we were looking for a sixth form college for our boy, we found only two in the entire catchment area that taught music theory (and one of them has since disbanded its music department); others that had music departments (many did not have any at all) were teaching things like recording & sound-mixing techniques, how to form a rock band, and such like. Nothing about music theory, or, heaven forfend, learning how to read music. We are fast approaching a state where only children in private education will be receiving proper music tuition: the rest – well, the rest will have the freedom to develop their inner creativity or whatever.

      Oh dear, this one has turned out to be a monster post too, hasn’t it? Enough material for half a dozen good rants here…

      All the best, Himadri


  5. Nothing wrong with monster posts – and it is your blog after all!

    You’re spot on about academics apparently feeling the need to prove how right-on they are. I finally locked the gates of my own little musical world when some “rapper” won the Pulitzer Prize for music. O tempora! O mores!

    Thanks for looking into the edit button. IT techs are fluent in corporate speak and it seems this was no exception. I just hope you didn’t get accused of “reaching out”!


  6. I wouldn’t begrudge Carey the confrontational title. On its own, it seems black-or-white, simplistic, adolescently antagonistic, but it’s a deliberate throwback to the intellectual context of the 1920s and the 1930s. Recall Ortega’s Revolt of the Masses and Pareto’s theory of elite cycles.

    The elitism of artists and intellectuals like the Bloomsbury group is a subject too complex to allow for a three-line summary. It’s quite possible that some of them wished to make their literary output only accessible to experienced readers with a certain cultural luggage. One could think of “difficulty” as a sort of signaling: this is a highbrow piece and not some pulp fiction.


    • The principal fiction writers associated with the Bloomsbury group are, I think, Katherine Mansfield, E. M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf. Neither Mansfield nor Forster is particularly difficult (not their prose, at any rate). Woolf certainly is difficult, but to claim that she deliberately made it difficult merely to signify its literary status, rather than as something inseparable from her artistic vision, seems to me gratuitously insulting to her artistic integrity, and, in the absence of any possible supporting evidence, uncalled for at the very least.


      • I don’t see this as status signaling by the author – rather, the perceived difficulty is an honest warning to potential readers, “this isn’t easy reading; it’s not pop literature.” The reader might feel prepared for the challenge and take it up, or find oneself unprepared but interested (in which case he could first try works from Woolf’s Common Reader), or get hopelessly bored at once and turn away. It’s not an attempt at exclusion, but rather a gradus ad Parnassum approach. But I doubt that’s what John Carey had in mind – although what exactly a man of his learning and wit has to say can only be found out by reading his work.

      • Indeed – “it’s not an attempt at exclusion”. But this is precisely what John Carey, in the programme I referred to in my post, claimed it is. I wish I knew how best to react to this. What Prof Carey said I vehemently disagree with, but I have far too much respect for him to express my disagreement too openly.

  7. Posted by sandra McGregor on January 21, 2019 at 12:24 pm

    I find this very interesting. Congratulations to your son.


  8. […] • Himadri Chatterjee, “Putting the Plebs Back in Their Place“ […]


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