Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Resenting the real thing: John Carey, the intellectual without mass

My day job is not too bad. I walk along the seafront to get there. I don’t have to wear a suit (handy, as I’ve never owned one). I work with attractive and friendly people. I can often make notes toward a supreme blog entry. But there are drawbacks, and not only the pay. Yesterday, the CEO appeared with his notebook and a copy of John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses. He was very enthusiastic about Carey because he resisted the "embedded Kantian ideas" we have in Europe (I think he said that) such as the opposition of high and low art. He said Carey’s book has been hugely influential. It influenced Book Coolie for example, much to my distress.

I found it difficult to compose my reaction - mainly because it is one of extreme violence. Jeanette Winterson goes some way to speaking for me in her review of his latest monument to wrong-headedness What Good are the Arts?: "There is no such thing as high and low art, there is only the real thing".

Carey resents the real thing. While he argues that the opposition of high and low art is wrong, he does so only because he doesn't know what high art is in the first place. If he did, he wouldn't bother making the argument. He thinks that authors write the real thing in order to exclude "the masses" whoever they are (so why didn't Proust and Eliot and Woolf write in Latin?). Everything he writes reveals unacknowledged assumptions, even the titles. Winterson says "What Good are the Arts? seems as idiotic to me as asking: What good is food?" And there's his recent collection Pure Pleasure subtitled A Guide to the 20th Century's Most Enjoyable Books. One wonders what isn't "pure" about literary pleasure? From looking at the contents, it's the choice of a predictable English literary sensibility. What is being rejected here? The unenjoyble modern classic? But what would that be? It seems like an excuse to make sloppy generalities that appeal to the British fear of ideas and call it "literary criticism".

Carey's project is profoundly unhelpful as it will stunt the development of many stuck in otherwise unhappy, unfulfilled lives. I tend to think of myself here, from a proudly anti-intellectual town, from a working class family not one member of which had been to university. Luckily I didn't have a guide like Carey to prevent me from reading all sorts of apparently unenjoyable books without shame (e.g. Proust at 15). The books were in English. How much more accessible do you need to be? As a result, my life wasn't dominated by embedded ideas such as the opposition of utility and pleasure. I couldn't tell the difference. My life wasn't too bad, but there was so much more.

Fortunately I also found the work of a more liberating novelist and critic who has a new book of essays out next year. Unfortunately it won't receive a fraction of the attention got by each dollop of Carey's inverted snobbery.

2 comments:

  1. Do you know what your CEO meant by Carey resisting "embedded Kantian ideas"? As a frustrated (but also lazy) Kant ignoramus I'd love to know. Aaargh. How does one 'get' Kant? Where do you start, if you've not a background in philosophy? Yes, I've tried reading him, but very quickly got lost. I'm interested in contemporary continental philosophy, but feel I have an inadequate grasp of its roots.....

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  2. It seems that it was just a fancy way of summing up the Critique of Judgement - dividing art into High and Low categories or summin. Could never read Kant myself.

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