The Intellectuals and the Masses

I've been meaning to read this book for a long time, but finally managed to get my hands on a copy. It is subtitled 'Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880 - 1939'. Having read John Carey's 'What Good Are the Arts?' some time ago, and found myself agreeing with just about everything in it, I wanted to find out what he had made of Lawrence, Woolf and the rest. Now - about half way through - I find that it's one of those rare books that I am reading VERY SLOWLY in an effort to prolong the sheer pleasure. It's witty, sharp, intelligent and full of profoundly disturbing insights - but written in the most elegant prose imaginable. Beware though. You may never feel the same about certain parts of the literary canon again.
Just to give you a flavour of the whole, here's Carey writing about sculptor and designer Eric Gill and others like him who - keener on the cult of the peasant than they were on the great 'mass' of humanity, which they persistently tried to dehumanise - pretended 'to be peasants themselves.' Gill, seemingly, wore a variety of 'peasant' costume, including a 'belted smock and, in winter, loose scarlet silk under drawers.' But all the same, he wasn't too keen on the idea that everyone should be taught to read and 'hoped that a bomb would fall on Selfridges.'
This is a clever and entertaining assault on the founders of modern culture. It was first published (to establishment consternation) in 1992. Wish I'd read it sooner: the kind of book that you want to shout 'Yes!' and applaud after every chapter. Not only that, but I began to see disturbing parallels between this and so much of what passes for commentary on 'mass' culture nowadays. I was amused, though, to find a Louis MacNeice quote, about hospital nurses spending their savings on 'cosmetics, cigarettes and expensive underclothes.' His snobbery and sexism were strangely echoed in a letter which I received only a few years ago from somebody in a position of authority within a major literary organisation. When I had said that I simply couldn't afford the fees (this was nothing less than the truth) he - it had to be a he - accused me of spending my earnings on lunches, cosmetics and the like instead. A true inheritor of MacNeice's prejudices!


Anonymous said…
Scarlet underdrawers - great stuff!
Meanwhile I'm fuming on your behalf at that half-baked literary bigwig!