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The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) - John Carey

Related: John Carey - intellectuals - mass - Modernism - Modernist literature - nobrow - popular culture - relativism

The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (1992) - John Carey [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

The obscurities of modern art and literature, according to Carey (English/Oxford; John Donne, 1981), were devised by the intelligentsia to exclude the new reading public for whom they had contempt--a thesis that Carey applies here to, among others, George Gissing, H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and Wyndham Lewis. Nietzsche, Yeats, Shaw, Flaubert, Ibsen, Ortega y Gasset, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce -- indeed the entire modernist movement, says Carey, depicted the ``masses'' and the popular culture they generated with disdain. --via Kirkus Reviews

Description and criticism

From Kirkus Reviews

These writers, the author contends, worshiped the lofty, isolated, high-minded artist who produced an alienating art without human or narrative content to which the masses could relate. Followers of Freud, the intelligentsia feared crowds and condemned their suburban refuges as culturally impoverished ecological disasters. Gissing concluded that the masses were ineducable, while Wells considered them manifestations of a ``biological catastrophe.'' Meanwhile, Bennett, the ``hero'' of Carey's study, believed that the people could be redeemed through the study of literature, although Wyndham Lewis- -whom Carey compares to Hitler--felt that the democracy they believed in was effeminate. The author attempts to demonstrate how Mein Kampf was firmly rooted in the intelligentsia's orthodoxy--and how the incineration of Jews was an extension of it. Members of The intelligentsia, he says, believed that they formed a natural aristocracy united by an esoteric body of knowledge that protected them from the herd. Concluding with a chilling analogy, Carey suggests that the influence and style of the turn-of-the-century intelligentsia survives in the obfuscations of contemporary criticism. Provocative, courageous, certainly stimulating--and reflecting a profound understanding of the often invisible yet potentially insidious relationship between aesthetics and politics, as well as of how art can be used to camouflage the most repugnant ideas. -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates via Amazon.com

Reason review:
Carey's hero is Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), who wrote novels that clerks could read. Bennett was aware he stood apart: "Bennett's whole quarrel with intellectual contempt for the masses is that it is a kind of deadness,...a dull, unsharpened impercipience shut off from the intricacy and fecundity of each human life." Bennett, like Dickens or the Brontë sisters, "did not see why what the masses liked should automatically be accounted trash." He wrote in 1901 that "everyone is an artist, more or less," in their lives and perceptions. --http://reason.com/9407/bk.mccloskey.html [Oct 2005]

Negative Roger Kimball review:

Professor Carey's thesis is that modernism was born in an access of snobbish revulsion to the spread of literacy and popular culture; modernism, he says, is less a cultural movement motivated by certain aesthetic and spiritual imperatives than a social cabal. Its chief ambition is to exclude as many people as possible from the enjoyment and understanding of culture so that the self-appointed mandarins of culture may enjoy their own superiority unhindered by the press of common folk. In this sense, modernism is fundamentally "antidemocratic." "The intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from attaining literacy," Professor Carey explains. "But they could prevent them reading literature by making it too difficult for them to understand-and this is what they did. The early twentieth century saw a determined effort, on the part of the European intelligentsia, to exclude the masses from culture." Hence the aesthetic experiments of a Mallarme, an Eliot, a Joyce, a Virginia Woolf were undertaken not for any compelling aesthetic or spiritual reason but simply as an exercise in obscurantism.

For Professor Carey, one powerful index of modern intellectuals' alienation from the masses is their disdain for tinned food. Tinned food looms large in the first chapter of The Intellectuals and the Masses. Writers as disparate as E. M. Forster, Eliot, Knut Hamsun, John Betjeman, Graham Greene, and Wells didn't like the stuff; hence they were snobbish elitists with no feeling for common humanity. In the work of the popular writer Jerome K. Jerome, tinned food became "genial and amusing" (whatever that can mean), which explains why he receives Professor Carey's Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval and why, in the world according to Carey, the non-tinned-food intellectual establishment rejected Jerome's work as infra dig. --http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9406/reviews/kimball.html [May 2006]

Positive review by Ralph McInery

Carey notes the influence of Nietzsche on the writers who meet Ortega’s specifications for modern artists, and he finds this fear of the threat the masses are taken to pose in the most surprising authors: Yeats, H. G. Wells, A. R. Orage, editor of New Age, Ibsen, Knut Hamsun. The last ended up celebrating Adolf Hitler. Indeed the connection between the anti-popular motif of modern art and totalitarianism is a story in itself. F. R. Leavis shared the concerns of Ortega, fearing that culture faced an unprecedented crisis due to the rise of the mass media. Carey notes the general contempt for newspapers in the writers he studies, and contrasts it with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, whose knowledge of newspapers is uncondescendingly exhaustive. The great detective’s ability to discern the individual by way of common clues strikes Carey as "residually religious, akin to the singling-out of the individual soul, redeemed from the mass, that Christianity promises." This suggests that there is something unchristian in the contempt for the masses one finds in Ortega. -- Ralph McInery, Art for the Masses via http://www.touchstonemag.com/docs/issues/14.7docs/14-7pg22.html [May 2006]

Positive review by Donald N. McCloskey

John Carey's readable book, which was successful in Britain and is now issued over here, assaults what is known in English departments as "modernism." Modernism was best summarized by the poet Philip Larkin, who was also a jazz critic, as the "Three Ps": [Ezra] Pound, Picasso, and [Charlie "Bird"] Parker, the three artists who in Larkin's view destroyed modern art. Modernism's main shtick was and is obscurity. When T.S. Eliot versified in The Waste Land about the vulgar suburbanites coming to work--"Unreal City,/Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,/A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many"--he required two footnote references, one to Baudelaire and the other to the Inferno, III, 55-57. --http://www.reason.com/9407/bk.mccloskey.html [May 2006]

Euan Ferguson on the dumbing-down myth

John Carey, from whose seminal and often marvellous book The Intellectuals and the Masses this comes, has argued, almost entirely convincingly, that the last century was peppered with instances of 'the elite' and 'the intellectuals' warning of a hideously dumbed-down future. Much of this was simply a fear of overpopulation, but a great deal of it was simple snobbery. The rabble 'vomit their bile, and call it a newspaper' railed Nietzsche. 'There is no doubt,' argued TS Eliot, 'that in our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards... destroying ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanised caravans.' DH Lawrence wanted to 'go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed' and gas them in a 'lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly'. Euan Ferguson, 2002 via http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/humanities/story/0,,773191,00.html [May 2006]

Ken Mogg connects Alfred Hitchcock to John Carey:

Huysmans and Wilde certainly underpinned AH's attitude to what he privately called “the moron millions”. But in fact such an attitude was almost de rigueur amongst British intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s, especially after T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land came out in 1922 depicting its crowds of office workers swarming across London Bridge with the dead of Dante's Inferno. “The implication”, writes John Carey, “seems to be that London's crowds are not really alive…” (John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses, Faber, London, 1992, p. 10.) The starts of Rich and Strange and North by Northwest both seem indebted to Eliot, I have argued: see, for example, Mogg, 1999, p. 154. --http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/05/hitchcock.html [May 2006]

Jonathan Rose's positive review of John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses

WHEN IT IS published in the United States, John Carey's polemic The Intellectuals and the Masses will probably startle reviewers. It certainly caused a flap when the British edition came out in the summer of 1992. Though an Oxford professor, Carey is a blunt literary populist: he argues that the fundamental motive behind the modernist movement in literature was a corrosive fear and loathing of the masses. Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset, George Gissing, H. G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, T S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, and Graham Greene all strove to preserve a sense of class superiority by reviling the mean suburban man. They convinced themselves that the typical clerk was subhuman, bestial, machinelike, dead inside, a consumer of rubbishy newspapers and canned food. The intellectuals had to create this caricature to maintain social distinctions in an increasingly democratic and educated society. Many of these writers ultimately disposed of the masses through fantasies of wholesale extermination, usually rationalized on eugenic grounds. --Jonathan Rose quoted in The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001), this copy sourced http://www.autodidactproject.org

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