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.
This, at any rate, was the consumer’s view. The heirs of high culture saw these new vehicles of entertainment as degradations of the human spirit, manipulations of the mass intelligence, for profit. They also saw that, if so directed, the mass intelligence was likely to turn nasty – books could be banned, homosexuals imprisoned, magazines made to expire from lack of funds. In retaliation, they affected a disdain for the requirements of the mob and began to evoke apocalyptic visions of an imminent ‘deluge of barbarism’; they spoke of ‘the malodorous rabble’, ‘the monster with a million worm-like heads’. By this route, it might be argued, literary intellectuals recaptured a notion of their own centrality: unloved by the unwashed, they could become warriors on behalf of an imperilled ‘life of the imagination’ – or, as John Carey would prefer to have it put, they could figure themselves ‘as engaged upon dangerous and energetic pursuits when in fact they [were] merely looking at pictures and reading books’. And if anyone accused them of simply defending the old against the new, they could point to their various experiments and slogans. ‘Make it new!’ said Ezra Pound, even as he handed out reading lists that stretched back to the Middle Ages and beyond.
The relationship between literary intellectuals and mass culture is hardly a novel subject for discussion. Indeed, at the beginning of the century, literary intellectuals seemed to talk of little else. And, thanks to the Leavises and their cohorts, the discussion eventually spread into almost every schoolroom in the land. In my own late Fifties sixth form, it was taken as axiomatic that all advertising was evil, all journalism a threat to the survival of the species, all pop music a sure way of catching something called ‘sex in the head’ (an ailment we spotty ones already suffered from, and how). We read Brave New World so as to learn how things might work out if we did not read Brave New World. And Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea (a best-seller) was held up for massive ridicule: we asked if we could take this item home with us so that we might the more thoroughly acquaint ourselves with its gross failures of sensibility and moral courage.
And this was pre-TV, pre-Beatles. The actual discussion, such as it was, invariably centred on the ‘predicament’ of the artist-intellectual, his threatened specialness, his alienation from the main, and mainly dreadful, tendencies of modern life. We were taught to believe that the extreme difficulty of, say, The Waste Land was a difficulty born not of sulking or snobbism but of a heroic effort of resistance to the vile regiments of the ill-read. It is indeed shaming to recall what little culture-toffs we were encouraged to become – we who had actually read next to nothing.
Perhaps John Carey was once upon a time put through this same post-Leavis mill. Or was it among the mini-Bowras of Oxford that he learned to despise the superior posturings of literary intellectuals? Critical dictators are treated here with the same scorn as wafting aesthetes: what the two groupings have in common is a settled conviction that their culture is the culture – it was made by and belongs to them.
A university professor, Carey perhaps feels that he himself has spent too many years cut off from the ‘real life’ which he repeatedly blames intellectuals for avoiding, or misrepresenting. In the Seventies I published an essay of his called ‘Down with Dons’ in which he amusingly derided the idea that university professors should get higher salaries than miners, say, or power-workers; in his view, most dons were lucky to get paid at all. After all, what were they for? What did they do? Who needed them? He feels much the same way about certain novelists and poets. Just as ‘the most obnoxious thing about dons is their uppishness,’ so it can be said that highbrow writers have only their own arrogance to blame if they are ignored or ridiculed by lowbrows. This was the way they themselves fixed it, at the start. Instead of bleating about the death of the old culture, they should have tried to make some useful contribution to the new.
And it is here that Carey risks, and is merrily prepared to risk, getting labelled as some kind of redneck. In his dons essay, he tells a story about living opposite an academic household:
The father, a philosopher, was a shambling, abstracted figure, whom one would glimpse from time to time perambulating the neighbourhood, leering at the milk bottles left on doorsteps and talking to himself. If he had any contact with the outside world, or any control over his numerous children, it certainly wasn’t apparent. To make matters worse, the mother was a don too, and the house was regularly left in the children’s sole charge. The result was bedlam. The din of recorded music resounded from the place at all hours, and it never seemed to occur to anyone to shut a window or moderate the volume. One summer afternoon, when I was doggedly trying to mark a batch of A-level papers, my patience gave out, and I crossed the street in protest.
Rereading this now, in the light of Carey’s book, I find myself wondering what he would make of such a tale if the complainer had been a drippy poet and the noisemakers opposite a troupe of complex artisans.
In other words, 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. And not just by any old highbrow. It is well-known that John Carey reads Milton in the Latin and knows where to find all the dirty bits in Ovid. As a reviewer, he is acknowledged to wield one of the sharpest, most entertaining pens in town. Although he berates intellectuals for paying insufficient heed to the details of lives other than their own, he is himself a master of the terminal encapsulation.
It matters little to Carey that this or that artist-intellectual might have been diagnosed by Freud as neurotically excluded from a social mainstream that he yearned to join. So far as this analyst is concerned, there is something obscene and unforgivable in the spectacle of an effete and dandified poseur spouting about the need for a return to ‘bloodshed, slavery and the wild ways of the old pagan world’ when all he ever does, from day to day, is hang around cafés and studios in Paris. Thus, after quoting almost a full page of crazed anti-democratic rhetoric by George Moore, Carey remarks: ‘We need to remind ourselves, reading this, that Moore was not (or not merely) a crackpot and a pervert, but the friend and collaborator of W.B. Yeats and a leading figure in the Irish literary renaissance.’ It is the ‘not merely’ that rescues Carey’s puritanism from the easy piety which sometimes seems to threaten it, but there is a steeliness there too, perhaps even a mild relish. At moments like these (and there are several in the book) one is tempted to call Carey’s humour donnish.
In the end, though, it all comes back to uppishness: the uppishness of other writers, that’s to say. When great artists start dipping into their Great Artist box of tricks, Carey is always likely to see red. Indeed, we might easily be left with the impression that he wished the whole lot of them had never chosen to put pen to paper. He intimates at one point that, in spite of all the Nietzschean rubbish he came out with, D.H. Lawrence had some sensuous merit, and Carey has a fondness for James Joyce that enables him to play down that author’s mutterings against the ‘trolls’ and ‘rabblement’ of Ireland. But it is not clear that he reckons many of the others – Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and so on – to be indispensable.
But then the book is not meant to be straight literary criticism. It is about attitudes, not artworks. And on the matter of attitudes, Carey’s testiness can be joyously unreined. He has no patience with high-flown talk about predicaments and alienation. He is first of all an educator. His sympathies are with readers rather than with writers and he believes that, with the advent of mass literacy, a great educational opportunity was missed. Instead of sneering at Leonard Bast’s pretensions, Forster should have been teaching him at night school. But that could never have happened because, however the intellectuals chose to dress up their disdain, it was actually class-based – it had its roots in a fear and loathing of the mass, a revulsion which in some cases turned into super man delusions or fantasies of mass-extermination. (There is a chapter in the book on Hitler-as-European-intellectual, student of Nietzsche, colleague of Wyndham Lewis, and so on.) Carey assembles some damaging material along these lines. Much of it has already been displayed in John Harrison’s 1966 book, The Reactionaries, but not so wittily or angrily as here.
There is an ever-present risk that Carey’s generalising bent might go berserk, so that all bad things in the world can be traced back to a few authors of the Modernist persuasion. And this can be disconcerting, since he is also seeking to persuade us that intellectuals don’t matter or that the really sad and funny thing about them is that they perpetually overestimate their own importance. He is on surer ground, and seems happier, when he speaks up on behalf of writers whom the toffs have, in their arrogance, misread or undervalued. Authors like Chesterton, Conan Doyle and, pre-eminently, Arnold Bennett (‘the hero of this book’) are not much scrutinised in universities, and this is presumably why Carey thinks they need defending. And he defends them very well, evincing a warmth of engagement with the texts which some of his other, posher subjects might have thanked him for. To which John Carey might reply that it is Bennett’s warmth of engagement with the lives he writes about that marks him out from the shrinkings and recoilings of the Modernists. Unlike those self-pampered swells, Bennett sought and gained a large slice of the new readership; he wrote for it and of it, without uppishness. He saw no difference between high culture and low culture. The point of all culture, he believed, is to reveal ‘the miraculous interestingness of the universe’. A writer is an ordinary chap, but lucky: his life is ‘one long ecstasy of denying that the world is a dull place’. Not for Bennett the damp souls of housemaids, the lonely men in shirt-sleeves looking out of windows, the constant carping about the drabness of suburbia, the hatefulness of industry, the menace of science, the pathos of book-hungry clerks. This artist-intellectual, Carey says, is one of us. He is inclusive, hospitable, abundant: he ‘gives us access to the realities that blaze and coruscate inside dowdy or commonplace bodies’.
There is undeniably a touch of the social worker or the adult-educationist in operation here, and it can lead Carey into some dubious side-sneers of his own, as when, praising Bennett for his attitudes to parenthood, he claims that ‘literary intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century tended to opt for childlessness and child-neglect’, and then gives two examples – of neglect. To take childlessness as a symptom of aloofness from the hurly-burly of real living seems pretty stern. Most of the great writers of the 18th century were childless – but so what? And we might raise an eyebrow also when, speaking of a sick-bed scene in Bennett, Carey comments: ‘What are real are not the pastimes intellectuals value – literature, art, philosophy – but the offices of death-bed and sickroom, where man is reduced to matter.’ But then this is Carey’s way: he writes all the more lovingly of Bennett because Bennett is routinely patronised by aesthetes. As he once said: a ‘common reason for liking particular literary works is precisely the knowledge that other people do not like them.’