Saturday, 3 December 2011

Barbarism From Whose Side: The Intellectuals or the Masses?

Review of The Intellectuals and the Masses’ by Prof John Carey

T.S. Eliot sets out one of his plays as a diagram
 I found ‘The Intellectuals and the Masses’  (as is often my wont) whilst browsing in a bookstore, uncertain of what subject I was interested in exploring further. Playing devil’s advocate with my own soul, I interpreted it on a very personal, and confrontational level. Giving myself more credit than I deserved, I felt I had reason to be offended by the premise of an elite group who did not have the noblest motives, in their desire for social and intellectual control of the rest of the population. But there are times when I am not the most accurate barometer of my own purposes. Rather, what this book did for me was to confirm my deepest fears about the nature of intellectualism itself. As a result, I have opened my eyes a little wider in order to observe that class-based societies are in and of themselves, evil, and intellectuals (of all political beliefs) only exist in order to create a consensus that permits  nasty things to occur without a stir or whimper from the rest of us. I grabbed onto this book for dear life, knowing full-well that it explored a decadent period of history in a far away place that I really didn’t have anything to do with. But the way it castigates these so-called great minds, who were deluded into thinking they were superior to everyone else,  appealed to my Australian sense of fairness, and I guess my own youthful sense of idealism.

Who else but D.H. Lawrence
‘The Intellectuals and the Masses’  is an excellent book which made me wonder about my taste in reading, and whether it had turned me into an right-wing intellectual snob, promoting  the benefits of eugenics and the advantages of having Adolf Hitler in power in Germany.  It seems that my literary heroes such as T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and H.G. Wells, in their attempts to pass themselves off as big brains,  were essentially  cold-blooded elitists who didn’t give a damn about the public -- or the term which I prefer, originally coined by Edmund Burke -- ‘the swinish multitudes’. Between 1880 and 1939, a yawning gulf existed between the upper and lower echelons of society in Britain as well as the rest of Europe and  Prof. Carey makes an entire book out of the fact.  A number of writers, despite a benign image of goodwill they fostered toward the rest of humanity, were merely a grubby and insalubrious group of elitist charlatans. They actively encouraged a vicious and reactionary mind-set of  perpetual and fatalistic class bias in order to have their privileged place within society unquestioned into  fruitful perpetuity. I had to investigate further.

Professor Carey aims  accusations against  Yeats, Wells, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence among others. These accusations mainly concern the writers’ shabby treatment of those ‘not in the know’. Who these people are, Carey cannot ascertain, only that they are probably poor, living in the London suburbs, and attempting to make a paltry living at anything that their betters claim is not ‘art’, however their betters may define what ‘art’ is, exactly.  This lumpen mass of proletarians, or whatever you want to call them,  read newspapers and go to movies in an attempt to make sense of their limited lives. The fact that their lives are limited does not move the intellectuals  to  compassion. Instead, they react with outright condemnation. They complain that there are too many people in the world and believe that this creates a mass kind of culture that interferes with their livelihood and their belief in themselves as an intellectual elite.  To highbrows looking across the gulf, it seemed that the masses were not merely degraded and threatening, but also not fully alive. [1] p.10.

 The ‘science’ of eugenics was created as a means for writers such as Yeats, Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, and T.S. Eliot to bemoan the lack of an intellectual aristocracy of which they could be part, in order to stem the rise of the mediocre, and those they regarded as inferior and retarded. [2] p.13.  Instead of supporting the concept of universal education, the intellectuals did everything in their power to discourage and undermine it, tantamount to deliberately making their writing so obscure and irrational that it was almost impossible for anyone (presumably with or without an education),  to understand. [3] p.17.  The self-proclaimed theorist of Modernism, Spanish writer Ortega Y Gasset argued that modernist art acted like a social agent which separated people into two different castes, for the purpose of allowing the elite to distinguish themselves from the drab mass of society. [4] ibid.

The rest of the book is a well-researched and written argument that points to the elitism of a  number of revered writers and how such a mindset  can be directly linked to the rise of European totalitarianism and the persecution of the Jews.  The final chapter entitled ‘Wyndham Lewis and Hitler’ is a devastating critique on the similarities between Hitler’s ideas about culture and those of the English intellectuals of the same period. The Americans possessed cars, clothes and refrigerators, but the Third Reich boasted 270 opera houses, giving it the right to look down on American philistinism and crass materialism, an attitude shared by many English writers and intellectuals. [5]p. 198-99.

Wyndham Lewis was also a painter
 Needless to say, these attitudes seem antiquated to us today, and I was shocked at the pointedness of Carey’s attack on such writers as Lawrence and Yeats, who have been canonised for years by the universities, and our WASP first world society at large. I also had the same reaction when I once  wrote an essay on the life of German composer Richard Wagner. I was shocked to discover that he wrote anti-semitic pamphlets in his own lifetime, and also that his second wife flew the Nazi flag at their Bayreuth residence out of  admiration and support of Adolf Hitler, his rise to power which Wagner himself never lived to witness.

 I think that books and investigations of this kind have the capacity to inherently change the way we think about the people whom we view  as having a talent that is somehow unique, and superior to anything we would be capable of doing ourselves. I recall wading through the letters of outrage published in the Age Monthly Review from readers who were convinced that these accusations of Wagner being an unattractive individual -- at the very least -- were not only superfluous when it came to judging his music, but downright slanderous, that is, if Wagner had been alive to answer to them. With time however, this new information becomes accepted as part of the textual rendering of the person’s life.  It becomes  possible for any individual interested enough to either accept this new information as fact, or deny it for their own personal reasons. To accuse the investigator of being intolerant of the person in question’s own beliefs or the times in which he lived, or  attempting to  be too politically correct. cannot stand up if the information is well researched and argued in a convincing way. I believe this is the case with Cary’s book.

 ‘The Intellectuals and the Masses’ galvanised me in its own way, concerning the nature of social elites, their purpose, and the people we inadvertently choose to rule over us.

My footnotes are taken from 'The Intellectuals and the Masses' by John Carey, London, Faber & Faber, 1992.

The Intellectuals and the Masses

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