Anyone seeking a vivid illustration of the proposition that an expensive education is no barrier to stupidity will wish to consult John Carey’s new book, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Not that the book lacks learning, exactly. Its author, the Merton Professor of English at Oxford and frequent commentator on the BBC, displays all the expected academic curlicues. On the very first page, for example, he speculates that our contemporary use of the term “masses” is religious in origin, deriving from Augustine’s vision of a massa damnata, a condemned mass of humanity, which in turn derives from the Vulgate: Romans 9:21 speaks of a potter having complete power over a massa, a shapeless lump. This allusion has the double advantage of suggesting depths of erudition while also casting aspersions on Christianity for its supposedly unenlightened view of the masses. (An anti-Christian animus, in fact, forms a subplot of the book.) And although it seems odd, to say the least, that a book about “the intellectuals and the masses” in the period from 1880 to 1939 could be written without even mentioning Karl Marx (or Engels or Carlyle or Matthew Arnold or Hannah Arendt or . . . : the list goes on and on), hundreds of endnotes bear witness to Professor Carey’s abundant reading in his own literary fiefdom.
The Intellectuals and the Masses began life in the lecture hall. The first part of the book, called “themes,” is an elaboration of Professor Carey’s T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, delivered at the University of Kent in 1989. Two chapters on H. G. Wells in a section of the book called “case studies” (which also includes chapters on Arnold Bennett and Wyndham Lewis) were given as the Henry James Lecture at the Rye Festival in 1990. That everything about Professor Carey’s effort is an affront to the memory of Eliot and James-not just to the memory of the men themselves, but to the ideals of culture that they struggled to articulate-is one of the governing ironies of his book.
The Intellectuals and the Masses is ostensibly an investigation of the social and political attitudes of such fin-de-siecle and early modernist writers as Wells, George Gissing, Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Lewis: “the response,” as Professor Carey puts it, “of the English literary intelligentsia to the new phenomenon of mass culture.” In fact, it is an attempt to discredit both the idea of high culture and the vocation of intellectuals by equating them with . . . Hitlerism. Yes, as in the philosophy and practice of Adolf Hitler, German dictator, 1889- 1945. More about this later.
In the high school that I attended, the Jesuits encouraged us to meditate on various useful adages. One that The Intellectuals and the Masses brought to mind runs as follows: “Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish.” Professor Carey denies and affirms with breathtaking promiscuity; and as for distinctions, the chief distinction of his book is that it is oblivious to them. Thus, for instance, Eliot and Yeats come out looking suspiciously like Hitler, while Hitler is described in terms that Henry James might be proud of. And while the subject of the book is a group of intellectuals’ attitude toward the masses, Professor Carey assures us that there is no such thing as “the masses”: the whole idea is, “of course,” “a fiction” whose purpose is ”to eliminate the human status of the majority of people.” (An amusing study might be made of Professor Carey’s reliance on the phrase “of course”: the more dubious the proposition, the more likely it will be bolstered by an “of course.”) In other words, although the masses do not exist in Professor Carey’s cosmology, he has taken the trouble to write a book in which they have the starring role. The whole thing is a kind of high-wire act without a safety net.
Professor Carey’s thesis is that modernism was born in an access of snobbish revulsion to the spread of literacy and popular culture; modernism, he says, is less a cultural movement motivated by certain aesthetic and spiritual imperatives than a social cabal. Its chief ambition is to exclude as many people as possible from the enjoyment and understanding of culture so that the self-appointed mandarins of culture may enjoy their own superiority unhindered by the press of common folk. In this sense, modernism is fundamentally “antidemocratic.” “The intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from attaining literacy,” Professor Carey explains. “But they could prevent them reading literature by making it too difficult for them to understand-and this is what they did. The early twentieth century saw a determined effort, on the part of the European intelligentsia, to exclude the masses from culture.” Hence the aesthetic experiments of a Mallarme, an Eliot, a Joyce, a Virginia Woolf were undertaken not for any compelling aesthetic or spiritual reason but simply as an exercise in obscurantism.
For Professor Carey, one powerful index of modern intellectuals’ alienation from the masses is their disdain for tinned food. Tinned food looms large in the first chapter of The Intellectuals and the Masses. Writers as disparate as E. M. Forster, Eliot, Knut Hamsun, John Betjeman, Graham Greene, and Wells didn’t like the stuff; hence they were snobbish elitists with no feeling for common humanity. In the work of the popular writer Jerome K. Jerome, tinned food became “genial and amusing” (whatever that can mean), which explains why he receives Professor Carey’s Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval and why, in the world according to Carey, the non-tinned-food intellectual establishment rejected Jerome’s work as infra dig.
When not ruminating on their own aversion to Spam, many readers will doubtless have occasion to wonder about Professor Carey’s grasp of history. They will note that he nominates Gissing, author of New Grub Street and other novels, as “the earliest English writer to formulate the intellectuals’ case against mass culture.” In fact, the masses have always excited writers’ consternation. For example, Shakespeare, in one of the Henry plays, writes that “the common people swarm like summer flies.” This is exactly the kind of statement that Professor Carey pounces on as evidence of elitism in the authors he discusses. Never mind that it is not Shakespeare but a character who offers this analogy: another problem with Professor Carey’s procedure is that whenever it suits his thesis he fails to distinguish between what characters are made to say and the views of their authors in propria persona.
Part of the problem is that Professor Carey is in the grip of a paralyzing literalness. “Spatial metaphors of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture,” he explains, “are logically meaningless, of course. When Oscar Wilde, for example pronounces that ‘Aesthetics are higher than ethics,’ it does not actually mean anything, any more than it would mean anything to claim that aesthetics were 2 feet to the left or right of ethics.” Really? Would it be impolite to remind the Merton Professor of English that there is a linguistic device, not terribly uncommon, known as metaphor? That when a writer speaks of “high art” he does not mean to imply that such art is physically higher than popular art? That when W. H. Auden spoke of the thirties being a “low dishonest decade” he did not, mirabile dictum, mean that the thirties were located somewhere underneath the decades that came before. One might have hoped that even an Oxford Professor of English might have grasped this distinction.
These are the sorts of things that one encounters throughout The Intellectuals and the Masses, but in the end they concern only the details of Professor Carey’s presentation. His real complaint about the nefarious machinations of the intelligentsia (Professor Carey uses the terms “intellectual,” “modernist,” and “intelligentsia” more or less interchangeably) goes far beyond food preferences and spatial metaphors. According to him, writers from Eliot and Yeats to Thomas Hardy (!), D. H. Lawrence, Wells, and Gissing conspired to demonize the masses and expel them from the ranks of humanity. Largely because of Eliot’s influence, Professor Carey informs us, “the assumption that most people are dead became, by the 1930s, a standard item in the repertoire of any self-respecting intellectual.” Moreover, he adds darkly, if most people are dead already, “their elimination becomes easier to contemplate.”
It’s only a short step from here to the philosophy of Adolf Hitler.
When he expatiates on tinned food and modern intellectuals’ dislike of mass society, Professor Carey is unwittingly funny. But when he gets around to drawing parallels between the intelligentsia and Hitler, he goes over the edge. About the time that Professor Carey brings Hitler into the discussion one realizes that the humming sound in one’s ears is the theme from The Twilight Zone swelling softly in the background. Consider the logic: “It was part of T. S. Eliot’s aesthetic theory that the true artist’s works transcend time, unlike the products of ephemeral commercial culture.” True enough. The same could be said of just about every serious thinker who ever turned his attention to the nature of the appeal of art. But for Professor Carey, Eliot’s aesthetic theory is dangerously similar to Hitler’s. “Hitler also believed just as firmly as, say, T. S. Eliot or Wyndham Lewis in the permanence of aesthetic values.” Hitler also liked dogs. Does a fondness for dogs indicate incipient Nazi tendencies?
Once he has started down this slippery slope, Professor Carey can’t help himself. He goes on to suggest that “there are marked similarities between the cultural ideals promulgated in the Fuhrer’s writings and conversation and those of the intellectuals we have been looking at.” And it is not simply that Hitler believed “just as strongly as the intellectuals in the eternal value of what intellectuals consider great art.” He was also-“like many English intellectuals” (may we say “of course”?)-worried about cultural decline and degeneracy, and “blamed this degeneracy on the mass media.” There is more. Toward the end of his book Professor Carey informs us that Hitler embraced
numerous cultural ideas prevalent among English intellectuals in the first half of the twentieth century, some of which are still espoused today. The superiority of ”high” art, the eternal glory of Greek sculpture and architecture, the transcendent value of the old masters and of classical music, the supremacy of Shakespeare, Goethe, and other authors acknowledged by intellectuals as great, the divine spark that animates all productions of genius and distinguishes them from the low amusements of the mass-these were among Hitler’s most dearly held beliefs.
Keep this in mind: like a fondness for dogs, believing that Shakespeare and Goethe were great artists-greater than, say, Jerome K. Jerome-may betoken Nazi sympathies.
According to Professor Carey, there are other ways in which modern intellectuals resemble Hitler. It’s not just that they bemoan cultural decline and admire Hamlet. They also share a whole range of psychological foibles. In his chapter on “Wyndham Lewis and Hitler,” Professor Carey gives us the particulars. “There are,” he writes,
a number of obvious similarities between the two figures. Both were obsessive, and expounded their relatively small collection of ideas with unflagging repetitiveness. Both regarded themselves as unjustly neglected artists, and took this neglect as the central fact around which to construct their distorted and vindictive models of the societies in which they lived. Both were powered to a considerable degree by hatred and resentment.
What is one to make of a book that features Hitler as a champion of high art and has trouble distinguishing between the worldviews of T. S. Eliot and a fascist dictator? “The tragedy of Mein Kampf,” Professor Carey writes, “is that it was not, in many respects, a deviant work but one firmly rooted in European intellectual orthodoxy.” George Orwell’s comment to the effect that there are some ideas so silly that only an intellectual could believe them comes to mind. (Incidentally, you might have thought that Orwell-sturdy, no-nonsense chap that he was-gets good marks from Professor Carey. Not so. Despite his sympathy for the working class, Orwell betrayed various elitist attitudes: to wit, “he believed in freedom, but dirt repelled him.”) It is another of this book’s central ironies that Professor Carey himself is a member of the species he castigates: he, too, is an intellectual, albeit an academic intellectual, formulating exactly the kind of thing his peers in the lecture hall and common room want to hear about the nature of the intellectual vocation today.
What is missing from Professor Carey’s portrait of the modern intelligentsia? Good sense. He has noticed that Wells had some crackpot theories about eugenics and that Lewis was a vociferous admirer of Hitler (though he neglects to mention that Lewis recanted in 1938). He has discovered that Eliot was a bit of a snob and that Lawrence espoused some pretty fruity ideas about, well, about almost everything. But what Professor Carey completely fails to appreciate are the problems- spiritual, artistic, social problems-that the writers he discusses were struggling with. Some of these problems are perennial: the artist, the intellectual, has always to some extent set himself apart from his society. Aristotle noticed this quite a while ago when he observed that philosophy arises only when the necessities of life have been secured and there is leisure sufficient for reflection.
Other problems faced by modernist intellectuals were new. By the 1880s, when Professor Carey opens his chronicle, bourgeois commercial society had begun to transform the Western world. Wealth and literacy were spreading with unprecedented swiftness. This brought new cultural opportunities but also new cultural dangers. Many intellectuals saw the world of traditional culture crumbling around them, assaulted by everything from religious skepticism to the rise of a trashy entertainment industry that deliberately blurred the line between serious art and frivolous diversion. One important aspect of this problem was the extent to which commercial interests poached upon the prestige of high culture in order to purvey mass entertainment.
Hannah Arendt saw this clearly in her essay “The Crisis in Culture.” ”When books or pictures in reproduction are thrown on the market cheaply and attain huge sales,” Arendt wrote.
this does not affect the nature of the objects in question. But their nature is affected when these objects themselves are changed-rewritten, condensed, digested, reduced to kitsch in reproduction, or in preparation for the movies. This does not mean that culture spreads to the masses, but that culture is being destroyed in order to yield entertainment. The result of this is not disintegration but decay, and those who promote it are not the Tin Pan Alley composers but a special kind of intellectual, often well read and well informed, whose sole function is to organize, disseminate, and change cultural objects in order to persuade the masses that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and perhaps educational as well. There are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say.
Professor Carey is an academic version of the “special kind of intellectual” Arendt is talking about. He can’t understand that there might be crucial differences between high art and popular entertainment. In the course of his book, he quotes Auden who, at the end of his life, said that “I don’t see how any civilized person can watch TV, far less own a set.” Professor Carey expresses wonder and contempt for Auden’s dismissal of television. According to him television “has immensely extended the opportunity for knowledge. It has also given the majority, in Britain at any rate, unprecedented access to traditional culture, not only through such star ventures as Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, or the BBC Shakespeare series, but through countless everyday drama productions.”
There is a great deal that might be said about this observation. Not only does it perfectly embody the type of educated philistinism that Arendt warns us about, but it also reveals an important contradiction in Professor Carey’s entire discussion. He professes to value television for providing the masses with access to “the traditional culture.” But ”the traditional culture” is precisely what Professor Carey denigrates throughout his book. The central failing of the modern intelligentsia, in his view, is largely a function of its attempt to preserve “the traditional culture” in the face of the depredations of mass culture. When Eliot makes the effort to salvage the past, it’s an example of cultural elitism; but when television provides its prepackaged, watered- down entertainments, it’s a victory for the masses.
Professor Carey’s T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent are not only a travesty but a tragedy as well. For the fact is that the anticultural animus that informs Professor Carey’s reflections are not the eccentric maunderings of an idiosyncratic crank. On the contrary, they represent business as usual in the world of academic discourse today. It tells us a lot that a man who thinks that the cultural imperatives of modernism are indistinguishable from Hitler’s murderous tyranny should be invested with one of Oxford’s most prestigious professorships.
Carey mentions Auden only to dismiss him as a cultural dinosaur. It is a pleasing and instructive coincidence, however, that Auden himself once delivered the T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent. That was in 1967: twenty-odd years before Professor Carey, though from our perspective today it seems like a different epoch. Auden’s lectures, published as Secondary Worlds, brood about many of the same issues that provoked the writers Professor Carey discusses. At the center of Auden’s concern is the place of art in a democratic society. Auden understands, in a way that completely escapes Professor Carey, that modern commercial democracies pose profound challenges to the survival of art and intellectual integrity. He speaks, for example, of the “corruption of language” that has been “enormously encouraged by mass education and the mass media.” “Until quite recently,” Auden observes,
most people spoke the language of the social class to which they belonged. Their vocabulary might be limited, but they learned it at first-hand from their parents and neighbors, so that they knew the correct meaning of such words as they did use and made no attempt to use any others. Today I would guess that nine-tenths of the population do not know what 30 percent of the words they use actually mean. Thus, it is possible to hear someone who is feeling sick say, “I am nauseous,” for a reviewer of a spy- thriller to describe it as “enervating,” and for a television star to say of an investment agency which was sponsoring his programme, “They are integrity-ridden.” . . . Again, while it is a great blessing that a man no longer has to be rich in order to enjoy the masterpieces of the past, for paperbacks, first-rate color reproductions, and stereo- phonograph records have made them available to all but the very poor, this ease of access, if misused-and we do misuse it-can become a curse. We are all of us tempted to read more books, look at more pictures, listen to more music than we can possibly absorb, and the result of such gluttony is not a cultured mind but a consuming one; what it reads, looks at, listens to is immediately forgotten, leaving no more traces behind than yesterday’s newspaper.
Auden understood that the prospect of a “consumer culture” in which the highest products of civilization become transient fodder for entertainment is really an anticulture. Note well that Auden is not ”antidemocratic.” Like Matthew Arnold before him, he believed that the work of culture will not be finished until “the raw and unkindled masses of humanity” know the benefits of culture, “until the best that has been thought and known in the world [is] current everywhere.” But Auden also knew that pretending that the masses were not “raw and unkindled” or that there is no such thing as “the best” served only to deceive, not to enlighten, his fellow man. Professor Carey prefers pretense to the unpleasant truth. And that is one reason he has written such an execrable book.
Roger Kimball is Managing Editor of the New Criterion.