Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Puzzling over value 8C: John Carey and 'The intellectuals and the Masses'.

I wasted far too much time reading this. The idea that Pound, Joyce and Eliot, wrote the way they did with the sole purpose of excluding a mass readership to preserve their own sense of superiority is so wayward that only a rigorously argued case, with some kind of convincing primary evidence, would redeem what at first sight appears a ridiculous conspiracy theory.

In the Preface to his book “The Intellectuals and the Masses’  John Carey begins:

This book is about the response of the English literary intelligentsia to the new Phenomena of mass culture. It argues that Modernist literature and art can be seen as a hostile reaction to the unprecedentedly large reading public created by late nineteenth-century educational reforms. The purpose of Modernist writing, it suggests, was to exclude these newly educated (or ‘semi-educated’) readers, and so to preserve the intellectual’s seclusion from the ‘mass’.

The book is remarkably unconvincing, because there is no ‘argument’.  

There are two undeniable facts, which most people might accept.
1) British culture in the period 1890-1939 was riven by social divisions and class snobbery. Many people, including writers, expressed opinions about the ‘masses’ which today seem vile.

2)  Modernist Literature, whatever that means and who ever it might include, required different reading practices than the writing of Marie Corelli and Henry Newbolt.

Were the two casually related?  Carey states they were, but he never attempts to prove the link. All he does is heap up examples of the first. 

While Carey rightly points out the masses were an abstraction:

 ‘The ‘mass’ is, of course, a fiction. Its function as a linguistic device, is to eliminate the human status of the majority of people-or at any rate, to deprive them of those distinctive features that make users of the term, in their own esteem, superior.’ [And 'its function as a linguistic device is....' is typical of the level of thinking throughout the text. One of its functions? Its function in certain contexts?)

He never stops to consider that words like ‘Intelligensia’, ‘Intellectual’ and ‘modernist’ are equal fictions.  Or that their use in his book function as a linguistic device to eliminate any distinctions between writers or cases.  And his refusal to define his own terms, or consider his own assumptions, means he can conscript any writer who said anything nasty to his argument and quote them.

Q) Was D.H.Lawrence, who gets a lot of press in part one, 
A) A Modernist, 
B) Difficult, 
C) An intellectual, 
D) One of the Intelligentsia

Because Carey offers no definitions of any of those terms there are no answers possible to that question.

It is interesting that a Professor of Literature at Oxford could write such a badly argued book. A grade ten student writing an essay that began with the first paragraph quoted above would be required to prove the argument using evidence.

It doesn't get me anywhere in the excellence vs elitism problem either. 

1 comment:

A.E.M. Baumann said...

I have always had issues with accusations of elitism with the Modernists. While it would be hard to say they did not recognized a gap between mass culture -- and by extension the culture mass -- and an artistically sophisticated minority (not the best words but descriptive), the general tone of their writing is not one of creating or maintaining the division but of trying to build bridges across it. In my reading, accusations of elitism is generally political in nature, not evidential. I would not expect Carey's book to be much different -- and it seems not to be.