Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Menace of the philistines

[In Menace of the Masses] Professor Carey argues that writers such as DH Lawrence, EM Forster and WB Yeats attempted to elevate reading beyond the reach and understanding of ordinary people as soon as ordinary people were finally able to read. Influenced by philosophers such as Nietzche, this elitism and contempt for the common man eventually mutated into a fascination with eugenics and a belief that the survival of civilisation demanded the extermination of certain types of people.
If "ordinary" people can read, is reading English written by DH Lawrence, EM Forster and WB Yeats "beyond" them? Is it beyond you? Does your answer suggest that the greatest works of the greatest artists transcend any supposed intention and speaks to everyone, even the little people John Carey wants to protect from such blinding light?

And what does Carey know about Nietzsche? He couldn't even spell it.

See also Lesley Chamberlain's note in the excellent Nietzsche in Turin.


  1. Anonymous9:03 am

    Stephen, my dear fellow, it's the person who wrote the BBC blurb, not Carey, who can't spell Nietzsche. Do pay attention.

  2. Jeez. If you read more carefully, ie subtley, I'm not referring to the blurb's spelling (I wrote "couldn't" rather than "can't"). There's a famous instance of a football manager who said, when asked what his chairman knew of the game: "He couldn't even spell it". That doesn't mean he couldn't spell it, but you get the point. Or maybe you don't. Do I need to explain that too?

  3. Anonymous6:35 am

    Addressing the question of reading D.H.Lawrence, I think it takes a certain sensibility to appreciate him. You need your Lawrences and you need your pulp fiction.

    Literature is like the encompasses all sorts.

    BlueRectangle Video Book Reviews

  4. Anonymous9:43 pm

    Actually, in Ireland, if that counts, Yeats is generally regarded as an easy poet. People (even politicians) quote substantial chunks from memory. Perhaps it's because the references are Irish, which probably makes them obscure to the real world. He appears on calendars, postcards, advertisements, speeches about change, especially that particular kind of change that leads to terrible beauty, remarks on swans, fairies, old priests, rag and bone shops and their ladders, holidays in Byzantium, sailing holidays... and so on. WW

  5. Beckett wrote in French, no doubt to exclude the English working class. There can be no other explanation!

  6. Anonymous12:02 am

    Ha, that's good.

    Something strikes me though:

    Now and again it becomes trendy to read a common poet like Kipling, but you'll always be a sophisticate with a copy of Finnegans Wake or En attendant Godot in your man-bag.

    There is something attractive about esotericism, especially for the reader. I don't see why authors shuld be seens as unsusceptible to its magnetism really.

    So, to me, Carey's project does not seem unfounded *in theory*. However, it's odd to class Yeats as a poet of the elect. As the anonymous poster said, he's pretty much The Great National Poet of Ireland. Very well liked.

    About Lawrence, I suppose you could swing the argument either way. I mean, you construe his mysticism as being aimed at a sophisticated ear. You'd need to back it up pretty well though, and be pretty thoughful about how you did that.

    I don't know.

  7. Yeats may be 'well-liked' in Ireland, but he's little read. Now that 'the Great National Poet of Ireland' is part of the heritage industry ('calendars, postcards, advertisements', etc.) he is, in fact, impervious to reading. An idea of what he is about has entered the 'national' consciousness; what profit is there in reading him except except to have the image of th epoet projected by the Irish Tourist Board reflected back at you (but reflected without illumination)? It is illustrative that the poems for which he is most known are the facile, early Celtic Twilight twaddlings he wrote as a young man. His later work - notable for its violence of both imagery and prosody - is ignored or elevated to a Platonic realm of Poetic Genius, where its dissent from the assumptions of a smug bourgeoisie are transmuted into background noise, mood music for the national self-esteem of a newly rich and vulgar polity.

    We Irish like our writers alright, just so long as we don't - y'know - have to actually read them.

  8. I don't read Yeats either. I don't need to - many of his poems are already in my head.

    I just don't understand this attitude (i.e. Carey's and his admirers) toward writers and their works separate from one's experience of reading them. Is it esoteric to me, is it sophisticated to me? What good are the arts for me?

  9. Anonymous1:58 pm

    Oh, by the way, how many of the Great poems (the type of poems that politicians quote) of the 20th century are facile?

    Loads of poets wrote them: Binyon, Kipling (especially), Frost (sometimes), Yeats (as you said).

    It's a general tendency. I'm not sure whether it happens during the reading of the writing of them. That's something else though.

    See you later guys.

  10. Anonymous11:29 pm

    As another Irish commenter, Carey is clearly up his arse. The idea that DH Lawrence was trying to push literature beyond the masses reach is luaghable. And as for this line in the blurb that one is presumably meant to react with justified annoyance and moral outrage- "The cultural elite mistrusted tabloid journalism and its attempts to appeal to female readers." Why the hell would anyone with any feeling for humanity feel anything but distrust or despair at tabloid journalism, and the denigrating of people which ensues from such a lowering of cultural mores. All this caring for the masses masquerade of Carey's amounts to is something like the argument of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, where mankind is deemed incapable or unworthy of freedom and so the kindest thing to do is to satisfy their need for enslavement. And thus- Brave New World, tabloid culture, etc.



Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.