HCJ: The Intellectuals and the Masses

November 18, 2010




John Carey was born on the 5th April 1935 in Barnes, London. He grew up in the Richmond area and won an open scholarship to St. Johns Collage, Oxford. He now works as a chief book reviewer for the London Sunday Times and appears on radio and TV programs such as the Saturday Review and Newsnight.

He is also a Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, and has in fact not left the site since he graduated in 1954; even his country cottage in Cotswold is only half an hour away from the University Library.

When the intellectuals and the Masses was first published in 1992 and was heavily criticised for comparing British intellectual's snobberies too closely with fascist ideology. Carey states that when the book first came out he was alarmed at the bad reviews, but realised that any attention is good attention. He states he enjoys a good debate, but 'being slagged off is not too much fun'.

The Book is highly controversial; in Carey's own words he explains 'it touches on so many vested interested in the arts world, and people do like to think their tastes are truly superior'.

The books fundamental ideas were formed in the lecture hall. The first part of the book, 'Themes', is an elaboration of Carey's T.S.Eliot Memorial lectures which were delivered at the University of Kent in 1989, and two chapters on H.G. Wells in the section 'case studies' were also taken from lectures delivered at the Rye Festival in 1990.

Nietzsche’s view of the masses was shared by most of the founders of modern European culture. Ibsen, Flaubert, Hamsun, Thomas Mann, Hermann and Gide all shared a similar views. However, not all intellectuals agreed with Carey; Arnold Bennett says that even the masses who follow people are all individuals in their own way, even if they are following people. He thinks that if people write books that appeal to the masses this should be seen a good thing, and that the masses that read them should not be looked down on.

The book is an investigation of the social and political attitudes which developed at the end of the 19th century. Carey's basic argument is that the rise of mass democracy and universal education at the end of the nineteenth, and early twentieth century, triggered artists and intellectuals to denigrate the ordinary person by deliberately making their art more difficult to understand. Carey's views are like many other English intellectuals, who are worried about the lack of culture in our society, and "blames this decline on the mass media." Aldous Huxley said the spread of universal education ‘has created an immense class of what I may call the New Stupid.’

Jose Ortega, a Spanish liberal philosopher, thought mass men could be marked out by the fact that they are unambitious and common. One of the only twentieth century fictional characters who stands out from this usually dreary representatives of mass men and women is Leopold Bloom, from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bloom is not totally uncultured, but he is certainly no literary intellectual. Another despised symbol of the mass culture from the intellectuals' perspective was tinned food. ‘… it offends against what the intellectual class as nature: it is mechanical and soulless.’

An anti-Christian theme forms the subplot of the book, which is clearly shown on at the beginning of the book where Carey speculates our contemporary use of the term 'masses'. The word masses has a religious origin, and highlights how Christianity has an unenlightened view of the masses. Although the book contains a collection of intellectual's attitudes towards the masses, Carey reminds us that there is no such thing as 'the masses'; the idea is a 'fiction' whose purpose is to 'eliminate the human status of the majority of the people'. Modernism almost took away the human status from the masses by converting them into scientific specimens, for example: Hitler’s scientific method of the elimination of Jews. So, although the masses do no exist in Carey's cosmology, he has ironically written a book in which they are the starring role. Overall Carey believes that the masses should be controlled, and that if they are given the right to express their views and opinions they will overhaul the intelligentsia. This is again similar to Hitlers views, believing that the masses are a threat.

The early twentieth century saw a conscious effort from the European intelligentsia to exclude the masses from culture. In England this movement was known as modernism. Literature and visual arts were revolutionized.

Carey's view on modernism is that it is a revolutionary way of thinking about the snobbish views on the spread of literacy and art to the popular culture (the masses). He believes modernism's key aim is to exclude as many people as possible from the enjoyment and understanding of culture, so the self appointed mandarins of culture may enjoy their own superiority unhindered by the press of common folk. 'The intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from attaining literacy," 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 obscurity of modernism kept literature (and music and painting) in the hands of 'the cultured'. It kept it out of the hands of clerks, Eastern European immigrants, and the other 'nasty creatures' growing in such numbers.

According to Jose Ortega, the population expansion had various consequences, overcrowding, intrusion and the dictatorship of the mass. Ortega’s thinking is similar to that of Nietzsche, especially Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, who despised the ‘rabble.’ H.G. Wells was also obsessed with reducing the world’s culture and population; he referred to the population growth with dismay. ‘The extravagant swarm of new births [are] the essential disaster of the nineteenth century'. Shaw said ‘The great majority of men have no right to existence, but are a misfortune to higher men', which follows on from much of what Nietzsche believed.

Carey criticises Wyndham Lewis, an English painter and author, and argues his views are similar to those of Adolph Hitler. Hitler believed in an intellectual hierarchy, in which great art produced by special individuals (and especially those containing religious insights) should not be accessible to the masses.

This view can still be seen in modern culture today, such as the superiority of 'high class' art such as the eternal glory of greek sculptures and architecture, timeless classical music (Beethoven), acknowledgment of famous philosophers (Plato), supremacy for intellectuals (Shakespeare) and admiration for well known artists (Picasso). Carey stated that like a fondness of dogs, believing Shakespeare was a great artist, greater than say James Joyce, may betoken Nazi Sympathies.

It was also noted that the technological advances of the time such as photography, radio, newspaper and cinema, which were enjoyed by the masses, were frowned upon by the intellectuals. Between the 19th and 20th century, a literate public had come into being. The newspaper became aimed at the masses, with Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe) pioneering this post-Education Act. Lord Northcliffe catered to the new class of the educated mass by introducing tabloids. European intellectuals rejected all newspapers, believing the rabble ‘vomit their bile and call it a newspaper.’

Some male intellectuals despised newspapers as they encouraged women. Northcliffe considered women as a worthy audience and printed papers specifically aimed at women, for example, the early Daily Mirror.

Although many intellectuals of the time were showing contempt for the masses and newspapers, Arthur Conan Doyle instead created Sherlock Holmes, ‘a comforting version of the intellectual for mass consumption.’ Holmes, like Nietzsche, is a product of mass culture. Holme's purpose was ‘to disperse the overwhelming fears that the urban mass brought'. Sherlock Holmes used newspapers as a resource in his investigations -they are his ally. This heavily contradicts with the intellectuals’ horror at newspapers. This marked a fault line along which English culture was dividing.