“The Intellectuals and the Masses”

I just read “The Intellectuals and the Masses,” a book from 1992 by the literary critic and English professor John Carey. I really liked the book, and after finishing it I decided to get some further perspective by reading some reviews.

I found two excellent reviews online, a negative review in the London Independent by Blake Morrison and a positive review in the London Review of Books by Ian Hamilton.

I’ll summarize the book and the two reviews, then share my own thoughts.

John Carey, “The Intellectuals and the Masses”:

Leading Mondernist literary intellectuals in England (D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, and a few others) had strongly elitist and racist views. Really strong views: not just thinking that they and their friends and fellow rich northwestern Europeans were better than everyone else, but racist to the extent of fantasizing about masses of lower-class people being killed.

The story is complicated, though, because many of these authors expressed liberal views in their writing and in aspects of their life. Carey frames some of this as a contrast between their social ideologies, which were rigid and often violent, and their writing, which had a logic of its own. Interestingly, Carey argues that in many case the logic and human sympathy of the imaginative writing made more sense than these authors’ political and quasi-scientific pronouncements. This argument of Carey’s makes sense to me, as it’s consistent with my idea that fiction can be viewed as a sort of prior predictive simulation, a working out of the full implication of some ideas. And I like the paradox that writers can be closer to truth in their fiction than in their purported nonfiction.

In summary, Carey’s point is not that these authors are bad guys (except for Wyndham Lewis, who really does seem pretty horrible) but rather that they were living within a class system and, even when they tried to escape it, were still stuck there. I wish he’d give a bit more credit to the efforts that Orwell, Lawrence, Woolf, etc., made in their struggle to escape this trap.

Carey also makes a connection to Mein Kampf, noting that many of Hitler’s views on the superiority of the artist, the unimportance of the common man, the disparagement of lesser races, etc., fit in just fine with many of the views of the modernists. After quoting a historian as describing Hitler’s ideas on culture as “trivial, half-based, and disgusting,” Carey argues that those ideas are on par with the influential cultural ideas of Wells, Eliot and the rest.

One indirect thing I got from Carey’s book is a better understanding of George Orwell. Remember that famous line in Animal Farm when the man says to the pig, “If you have your lower animals to contend with, we have our lower classes”? I always thought of this as representing Orwell mocking a plutocratic attitude, but, after reading The Intellectuals and the Masses, I’m now thinking that Orwell was implicitly criticizing a general view of his literary contemporaries and predecessors. I hadn’t realized how much this elitism and racism was in the air at the time.

Blake Morrison’s review:

Morrison describes Carey’s book as “Witty, passionate, entertaining and deeply wrong.” Even after reading this review, I still like Carey’s book, but Morrison makes some good points.

First, Carey doesn’t fully explore the contradictions in his thesis. For example, sure, Hitler shared aestheticism and racism with those modernist writers—but Hitler and the Nazis were also notorious for hating intellectuals, burning books, and banning modern art. So there’s some twist here that Carey is missing.

There’s some irritant in modernism, some spirit of rebellion that the totalitarians could not stand. This relates to Carey’s idea that the modernists were truer in their art than in their politics.

Speaking of politics, there’s this sense that modern art is simultaneously left-wing and elitist. But why isn’t modern art viewed as right-wing? Eliot and Pound were key modernists, and they were right-wing. Modern art was designed not for the masses, but for the few: that’s conservative too, right? The paradox, or internal contradiction, here, is that modern art was both elitist and rebellious.

Morrison continues:

For all his populist protestations, it’s obvious Carey would much rather be reading Lawrence and Orwell, Gissing and Wells than Jeffrey Archer, Catherine Cookson and their early 20th-century equivalents. Whether this doesn’t imply the superiority of ‘high’ art, whether works like The Waste Land or Women in Love remain undamaged, artistically, by the attitudes underpinning them: these are questions he never faces, just as he never acknowledges the possibility that the ‘difficulty’ of Modernism was a genuine artistic endeavour rather than class warfare – ‘an attempt,’ as Eliot said, ‘to put something into words which could not be said in any other way’. Eliot also wrote that he liked to think his poetry might be ‘read and declaimed in the public house, the forecastle and the shipyard’, that the ‘uneducated’ might appreciate it, and that ‘the audience for the more highly developed, even for the more esoteric kinds of poetry is recruited from every level’: this may have been hopelessly fanciful of Eliot but it doesn’t sound like a conspiracy to exclude proles.

Carey circles around some of these contradictions in his books but doesn’t really address them head on. Carey argues that the notorious difficulty of modernist writing can be explained by the modernists’ desire to exclude the masses, but I’m doubtful: I’m guessing that any disparagement of the mass public was more bravado than anything else, and that these authors would’ve loved to have more readers, had that been possible.

Even so, I still like Carey’s book, and we can get some sense why by turning to . . .

Ian Hamilton’s review:

Hamilton writes:

These Modernists were obsessed with the state of the literary culture: they pronounced on the subject endlessly, and their works can often be read as lamentations over the sorry condition of a world that has no place, no privileged or central place, for works like theirs.

Interesting. He’s turning Carey’s thesis around. Instead of saying that the modernists were elitists and disdained the common reader, he’s saying that the modernists were disdained by the common reader and then became elitists in a dog-in-the-manger maneuver.

That said, this doesn’t explain H. G. Wells, who had a wide readership and didn’t write in a modernist style and was not a political conservative, but shared much of the elitism and disdain of the masses that was so evident in Pound, Eliot, Woolf, etc.

Hamilton makes another interesting point:

When Victorian literary men mused on the forthcoming challenge of Democracy, they tended to assume that, however rough things got, there would still be aristocrats and peasants: in literary-cultural terms, it would be the task of the intellectual/aristocrat to provide an ‘adequate ideal to elevate and guide the multitude’, the reader/peasant. The intellectual’s prestige in the new order would thus be enhanced rather than diminished. His writings, widely available at last, would be acknowledged as the civilising force. A newly literate multitude would turn with gratitude to its ancient tribal leaders, hailing them as prophets, sages, magicians, witch-doctors, druids, take your pick.

But, of course, it didn’t happen that way: the mass press took over.

Again, one can see the theme of elitism coming from frustration at loss of social position.

I can also relate to this passage from Hamilton:

It is as well that the down-with-dons essay was written by a don. Similarly, this polemic against highbrows can the more easily be swallowed, indeed savoured, because it was written by a highbrow.

Similarly, as a quantitative social scientist teaching in the Ivy League, I feel a duty, almost, to criticize the abuses of the form, to stand with the general public and fight the credentialed B.S. vendors from Harvard and the like who are filling our Ted talks and NPR channels with junk science.

OK, ok, I just made it all about me, so forget that part. The point is that Carey is himself engaged in a contradiction, an intellectual being an intellectual speaking against intellectuals, an anti-modernist who, truth be told, might actually prefer some modernist art to some of its overwrought Victorian predecessors, etc. But, in his contradictions, Carey is well qualified to write about the contradictions of the modernists, and perhaps this can give us insight into the contradictions of today.

The writers of the 1900-1930 period were unhappy with their declining importance. But things are much worse for writers and artists now. Who are today’s heroes? Not writers or even musicians? No, our pantheon of culture heroes are: rich men, athletes, some movie and TV stars, a few politicians, some offbeat intellectuals like Nate Silver and Nassim Taleb . . . and that’s about it. Maybe a couple other people I’m forgetting.

Anyway, I enjoyed Carey’s book. It provoked many thoughts. As the saying goes, it’s the kind of book where you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. In particular, I’d like to ask why he didn’t mention Richard Hoggart’s classic The Uses of Literacy, as this would seem to relate strongly to his (Carey’s) theory that the modernists purposely wrote in obscure styles in order to reduce the ability of lower-class readers to follow their stuff.