Evil Days

Ian Hamilton

  • The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia by John Carey
    Faber, 246 pp, £14.99, July 1992, ISBN 0 571 16273 8

When Henry James’s play, Guy Domville, was booed off the London stage, the embarrassed author remarked that at least some of the audience was clapping. These approvers were powerless to out-clamour the ‘hoots and jeers and catcalls of the roughs’, whose roars were ‘like those of a cage of beasts at some infernal zoo’, but for James they represented ‘the forces of civilisation’.

This was one way of describing them. Another would have been to identify them as personal friends of the playwright. Full marks to James, though, for looking on the bright side. A few days later, his face was not so brave: ‘I have fallen upon evil days – every sign or symbol of one’s being in the least wanted, anywhere or by anyone, having so utterly failed. A new generation that I know not, and mainly prize not, has taken universal possession. The sense of being utterly out of it weighed me down, and I asked myself what the future would be.’ This was 1895, and James’s way out of his depression was to decide, ‘That’s right – be one of the few,’ and to direct his art accordingly. He would renounce, he said, ‘the childishness of publics’, and no longer seek to win over a large audience. Henceforth he would not care if ‘scarce a human being will understand a word, or an intention, or an artistic element of any sort’ in what he wrote.

There was a strong element of petulance, of ‘so there’, in James’s resolution, but some would say that this issued from a genuine and significant despair, a despair which should be pondered with sympathy if we wish to fathom not just the personality of Henry James but also the cultural attitudes of some of his almost immediate successors: Eliot, Joyce, Pound and Co, who seemed similarly indifferent to whether or not their intentions would be understood. Few of our key ‘Modernist’ texts do not partake of James’s umbrage, his angered determination to ‘be one of the few’. And yet, like James, 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.

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. By this reckoning, maybe democracy wouldn’t be too bad.

A poet who got going in, say, 1910 would have inherited this kind of thinking, would indeed have taken it for granted as the theoretical foundation of his self-esteem. In a utilitarian democracy he would be able to explain his ‘function’ thus, albeit with shyly downcast eyes. And yet he would also by that date have known that the theory was failing to hold up, or was turning into an impossible ideal. The new literacy had no sooner arrived than it had come under the control and guidance of a new set of tribal chiefs, with Lord Northcliffe and the editor of Tit-Bits at its head. There had rapidly come into being what John Carey describes as ‘an alternative culture which bypassed the intellectual and made him redundant’. It was a culture that used itself up as it went along, but its audience could be numbered in millions and the delights it provided were not all that easy to distinguish from those which the old high culture used to have on offer.

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