Monday, July 31, 2017

The Intellectuals and the Masses by John Carey

Subtitle: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939

(Book Review)

Why I Read This Book

Left to myself, I would never have picked up this book.  But this book came courtesy of Whisky Prajer, who not only recommended this book to me, but went through the trouble of shipping it out to me in Vietnam.

A few weeks back, Whisky sent me this message:

Probably not an easy title for you to get ahold of, but I think you'd get a kick out of it:

I replied:

I probably won't find it out here. But, you never know. Often books can sit for a few years on my  "to read" list before I stumble across them in odd and unexpected places. Or on my next trip back home. Are you going to give this one a review on your blog

It's been a pile of years since I read it, and the Amazon reviews for it are generally pretty sharp so it's not something I'm much compelled to do. It's a shame mail to Vietnam is so shitty, I'd send you my copy. 
Is this in connection with clearing out your old bookshelves? 

Yeah, exactly
I'll tell you what then: if the book's on it's way out anyway, you could try sending it my way. I ordinarily discourage people from sending me anything valuable, because the mail here is not 100% reliable. But it's still about half reliable. And if the book is on its way out anyway, then I guess there's nothing lost by trying. 
...Well, the book made it out here, and now here I am with the review.

General Over-all Impression

I liked the book well enough, but I wasn't quite wowed by it the way Whisky Prajer had been.

To which I simply attribute: different people, different temperaments, different interests, etc.

At first glance, it's easy to see why Whisky Prajer thought of me in connection with the book.  The book covers the early modern period (my pet historical interest) and it talks about many of the same authors and books I've reviewed on this blog (full list below.)  For example, H.G. Wells, who I've repeatedly - praised - on this blog, is the subject of not one, but two whole chapters. And this book puts D.H. Lawrence in context, and helps me to better understand the themes of Lady Chatterley's Lover.  

But on the other hand...
I've never really had a lot of patience for analyzing the themes of literature.
Despite being an English minor at college, I've always been much more interested in literature as a narrative rather than as vehicle for philosophy.
It's the same impulse that drives me to narrative histories instead of analytical histories.  I like stories.  I have neither the temperate nor the intellect to engage deeply with themes.

And while it is true that I've bitten off some heavily thematic books in the past, this has been more broccoli than pleasure.  I read the classics for the same reason a lot of people read the classics--a sense of obligation--I feel like I should.  (And if you read my book reviews, you'll notice that I complain a lot whenever the book gets too deep or philosophical).

That, plus I'm not nearly well-read enough to enjoy a book like this.
I enjoyed the chapters on the authors that I have read (the two chapters of H.G. Wells were really interesting). But I had less interest in authors I had never heard of--George Gissing, Arnold Bennett, Wyndham Lewis.
The ideal reader of this book is better read than I am, both in literature and philosophy.  (Nietzsche's theories are reference frequently, but I have never read a single thing by Nietzsche).

Whisky, if you read his blog (and if you don't, you're missing out), is a lot better at this stuff than I am.  He's very good at analyzing the themes of literature, and of popular media in general.  So it's not hard to imagine why a book like this would have appealed to him.

I regret to say I won't be able to do this book justice with my own analysis.

But with all that out off the way, it would be an exaggeration to say I got nothing out of this book.  I gained a lot of interesting tidbits from this book, and I'll try to share what I learned below.

First, a comment on readability:

John Carey writes very readable prose.  So despite the fact that I had limited interest in George Gissing, Arnold Bennett, Wyndham Lewis, etc, my eyes never really glazed over, and I was able to get through the end of the book painlessly.  John Carey was able to hold my interest with his prose.

What is This Book About?
It's always risky to attempt to describe in a few short paragraphs what an author has spent 246 pages doing.  But that caveat aside, here's my attempt at a summary.

England in 1880-1939 was undergoing a transformation.  In the last century, population had exploded as never before.  (Of course it's nothing like the population crisis we are currently facing, but it was still unprecedented for its time.)

As the overcrowded cities began overflowing into overcrowded suburbs, the landscape of pastoral England started to change rapidly, and many intellectuals began to lament the loss of the peaceful countryside, and started to complain about the excess of population.

That, plus the education act of 1870 had a huge effect on the literacy of the population  (W).  Not only were the masses expanding, but for  the first time in history, the masses were literate.
In ages past, the ability to read books was what separated the intellectuals from the masses.  Now, everyone could read books, so the intellectuals had to look for new ways to separate themselves from the masses.
And thus was born the obscure genre of modernist literature--a genre deliberately devised to be as difficult for the reader as possible, in order to separate the intellectuals from the common clerk.

But even more than that, many of these intellectuals flirted with the idea that there were too many people, and that some sort of population control was necessary.
The punchline of the book comes in chapter 9, in which Carey draws a line from the intellectual culture of England in this period straight to Hitler.  (Actually it's not really a surprise punchline, because Carey had been making Hitler allusions since chapter 1.  But he brings it all home in chapter 9).
Hitler's views, John Carey argues, were actually not as unusual as we'd like to believe.  Rather, many of Hitler's views can be found firmly within the mainstream of European intellectual culture of this period.

My Take Aways--And Other Random Observations
Despite everything I said above, it would be an exaggeration to say I gleaned nothing useful from this book.  I'll try to detail my main take-aways (and some other random observations) down below.

* Many novels give a picture of the world in which humanity is divided into two groups: the sensitive intelligent people, and the unthinking sheep-like people.  This is true especially of the period John Carey talks about, but is also true of other periods.
Often when reading these novels, I have in the past felt a sense of inadequacy.  I've felt a sense of panic that I might be one of the unthinking herd, and that I must work harder to be one of the intelligent free-thinking people.
John Carey argues successfully that this view of the world is just literary snobbery.
In reality, there is human drama to be mined from all classes of society.  (In later chapters, John Carey contrasts the authors who understood this against the authors who did not.)
Perhaps my main take-away from this book is that in the future, I'm not going to be so taken in by novels that portray the vast majority of people as unthinking herds, and I will no longer spend so much time worrying about whether I'm one of the "special people".

* The population problem has waxed and waned over the decades as a topical issue.
Back in the early 1970s, the population problem was a hot issue with the progressive crowd. (At the time, it was mostly because of Malthusian (W) concerns).
The issue became less popular in the 80s and 90s in liberal crowds, in part because it was recognized that population control measures targeted the most poor and vulnerable (the forced sterilization campaigns in India (W), the one-child policy in China, and the resulting female infanticide (W) ).
Now, the issue is once again topical, since it is increasingly recognized that the amount of humans on the planet is directly tied to the amount of global warming.  And it is increasingly looking like global warming is going to wipe us all out.
Reports seem to vary from source to source, and from week to week.  But the more alarmist reports that I've heard indicate that we could be heading for a mass extinction before the end of the century.
If you believe that the very future of the species is in danger, than its easy to believe that no preventative measure is too extreme.  (And in the privacy of my own mind, I've flirted with some of these ideas myself).
On the other hand, as John Carey shows, these ideas have an ugly history.  Hitler was greatly influenced by fears of over-population.
But then what to do?
That will be the biggest question for the future generation.
The postscript for this book plainly states the dilemma.  Yes, John Carey says, unchecked population growth is a real issue.  But how can we address this without turning into Hitler?

* John Carey writes explicitly about the period 1880-1939.  But actually his concerns is still are still relevant today.
John Carey writes that between 1880 and 1939, the intellectuals were concerned that the masses were breeding out of control, and that this would cause the future intelligence of humanity to diminish.
This is exactly the premise of the 2006 movie Idiocracy, which shows that this idea never went out of fashion.  (Full disclosure, I haven't actually seen Idiocracy.  But I'm influenced by the 2014 gizmodo article: Idiocracy Is a Cruel Movie and You Should Be Ashamed For Liking It ).

* Also connected with today: A lot of the hand-wringing we see today about the deterioration of popular culture (people complaining about how popular comic book movies are these days, etc) finds parallels in John Carey's book, where he writes about how intellectuals were also concerned about the dominance of low-brow culture in 1880-1939.
John Carey connects some of these themes in his postscript, in which he writes about the current disdain intellectuals have for TV

* This book also reminded me of Chomsky.
Chomsky argues that the intellectuals don't trust democracy, because they don't trust the masses to make decisions.
In many of his books and lectures, Chomsky goes through the history of this idea (example here), and shows that the distrust of the masses has a long history in American intellectualism.
Although John Carey is writing about England, the tone is remarkably similar.
Where they differ, however, is that Chomsky distrusts mass popular media.  Since mass popular media is controlled by the corporations, Chomsky sees mass popular media as a form of popular control. Popular media presents a view of the world that is patriotic and friendly to big-businesses. (George Orwell, writing in the 1930s, had the same concern about Boys Weekly magazines.)
John Carey, on the other hand, seems to view distrust of popular media as itself a form of elitism.

Caveats and Criticisms

I'm not an expert, so someone better educated than me will have to critique John Carey.

However, I will say that much of what he has to say lines up perfectly with my old college literature class on Modern British Literature.
In that class, we were also taught that modernists deliberately made their books as difficult to read as possible to distinguish the intellectuals from the common man, just as John Carey says.
And we were also taught that many modernists (like Ezra Pound, Yeats, and T.S. Elliot) had fascist sympathies.  Just as John Carey says.

So from what little I know, John Carey's thesis seems to check out.

Nevertheless, I was a little uneasy with his technique of arguing from example.  He collects several examples of quotations from intellectuals from this period, and then uses these quotations to support his thesis.
But given all the reams of material that were published during his period, how easy would it be to cherry pick quotations?

Mind you, I have no particular reason to think John Carey was cherry picking.  But the thought that it would be so easy to do with a book like this stayed in the back of my mind as I read it.

And indeed, the first two critical reviews of this book that pop on Google (here and here--both from The Independent, for some reason) accuse John Carey of selective quotations among other sins.

There are also a few times when John Carey seems to be struggling just a little bit too hard to make all the facts fit into his thesis.

On page 26, when talking about The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon published in 1895, Carey writes: "It was admired by Sigmund Freud, Ortega y Gasset and, it seems, Adolf Hitler, who probably read it in the German translation."
Interesting choice of words here: "it seems...", "probably..."
My reading of this sentence is: "We have absolutely no proof Hitler came anywhere near this book, but I'm going to insinuate he did anyway because it fits my thesis."

Another stretch comes in the chapters on H.G. Wells.  John Carey writes about how frequently crab monsters appear in H.G. Wells's fiction, and surmises: "The psychological origins of this horror in Wells's writing are ultimately impossible to divine.  But the hungry, slimy, fishy orifice, threatening to devour and surrounded by what seem like hairs, might, given his resentful feelings about women, prompt a sexual explanation." (p.129)
...Well, maybe.  But then again, maybe not.  Actually I think John Carey was right the first time.  "The psychological origins of this horror in Wells's writing are ultimately impossible to divine." Anything after that is stretching it.
As you can see from the above quotation, the first time John Carey floats this idea he's careful to qualify it as speculation.
But as Carey goes on to write about Wells, this idea pops up several more times, and Carey loses his qualifications.  He starts to present the "crab monster=vagina" idea as if it were established fact.

Connections with Other Books I've Read
Regular readers of this blog know that I enjoy pointing out connections between the books that I've reviewed.  It's probably of interest to no one else but me, but it amuses me to keep track of it.  (Feel free to skip this section).

* I mentioned it above, but I'll repeat it for this section--two chapters are on H.G. Wells in which (among other books) the themes of The War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine are analyzed.

* This was actually a very useful book to read after Lady Chatterley's Lover, because it really helped to put Lady Chatterley's Lover in context.
While reading Lady Chatterley's Lover, I couldn't really understand why D.H. Lawrence was going on and on about the transformation of the English countryside.
John Carey puts this in context perfectly, and explains that the vanishing countryside was the preeminent preoccupation of English intellectuals of the period.
It's actually somewhat puzzling that John Carey doesn't quote from Lady Chatterley's Lover more, since D.H. Lawrence's obsession with the changing landscape so perfectly illustrates his thesis.  But he only makes reference to Lady Chatterley's Lover once, and that reference is about the social class aspect of the book and not the land.
Carey does spend more time on D.H. Lawrence's other writings, however, and mentions his flirtation with fascist ideas (something also touched on in the introduction to my copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover).

* E.M. Forster, another author I've recently read, also gets mentioned a lot.
I gave Forster's views on race-relations a very sympathetic write-up in my review, but according to John Carey, Forster was another English intellectual snob who despised the masses.
The whole reason Forster was so interested in India, according to John Carey, is because he found the Indian peasants more exotic and thus interesting than the English masses.

* George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying is another book that I'm surprised John Carey didn't make more use of--it so perfectly fits in with his themes.  But John Carey only mentions it once on page 10.
John Carey spends about 5 pages analyzing Orwell's attitude towards the poor (p.39-45) in which he quotes from some of George Orwell's essays1984, Homage to Catalonia, and Down and Out in Paris and London.

*Ayn Rand is noticeable by her absence--her obsession with the supermen distinguishing themselves from the unthinking unfeeling herds would have fit in exactly with John Carey's thesis.  Presumably she was excluded because she was writing in America, and because she published just slightly outside the range of John Carey's selected dates.  (The Fountainhead was published in 1943).

* Stevenson's Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are both mentioned as examples of the kind of adventure stories that started replacing serious literature with the advent of mass literarcy.  As is Jack London.

* In the conflict between high art and low art, Shakespeare is repeatedly mentioned as an example of high art.

* Wagner is mentioned as an influence on Hitler.

* Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock - Holmes are mentioned frequently as counter-points to the modernist snobs.  Sherlock Holmes stories actually targeted the growing middle class, and treated them like real human beings.

* Rudyard Kipling is mentioned as another writer who was actually sympathetic to the middle-class clerks.

* Jules Vernes and Victor Hugo are listed as examples of two high-brow authors published in the middle-class magazine Tit-Bits

* War and Peace is given as an example of the type of book that Wyndham Lewis thought was dangerous for the masses to read.

* Arnold Bennett, one of the authors John Carey examines, is quoted as viewing The Brothers Karamazov  and Crime and Punishment as among the "supreme marvels of the modern world".  Turgenev is also mentioned as one of Arnold Bennet's favorite authors.

* One of the scenes in Arnold Bennett's book that John Carey quotes involves one character asking another if they had read Zola's La Debacle.  The other character had not, but had lived through the actual Paris Commune instead.

* In her autobiography, Emma Goldman mentions several times how fond she was of Nietzche's work, and what an impact Nietzche made on her.
According to John Carey, Nietzche was a terrible person, but John Carey does mention (on page 4) that many of Nietzche's progressive fans read him selectively.  (I've actually not read Nietzche, so I can't comment).

* John Carey also talks about Graham Greene, and Greene's unique version of Catholicism (which John Carey views as another type of snobbery).

Video Review
Video review here and embedded below.  (Not one of my better videos admittedly.  For whatever reason I had a hard time keeping my train of thought together on this one.  This is the danger of doing unscripted videos.)

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky (July 2017), Unconscious Mentality, Some Speculations

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Life Intermediate: Unit 1 p.9

(Supplemental Materials for Specific Textbooks--Life Intermediate)

Lead-in: docs, pub
Transcript: docs, pub
Taboo (using words from the transcript): drive, docs, pub

Listen and read. 5 of the words in the transcript are wrong.  Can you find them?

M: And this next photo is another one I really like. It’s of two sisters in Brunei.  They’re attending a family party to celebrate a birthday.
W: Oh, that’s a terrible picture.  The colors are gorgeous, aren’t they?
M: Yeah, it’s a big celebration, their father’s birthday, so they’re wearing their best outfits.
W: I love all the different shades of red in the dresses.  The pale green one looks fantastic with the dark scarf, such a contrast.  And it’s a very peaceful photograph too.
M: Well, that’s an interesting comment, because actually, can you see the way they are holding their hands? It’s a traditional prayer and it symbolises war.
W: Really?  And I always think that green is a very peaceful colour too.  It makes me feel quite excited!
M: Perhaps these girls both feel the same as you!  Well, this next movie is completely different.  Wait a minute, here we are.
M: And this next photo is another one I really like. It’s of two sisters in Brunei.  They’re attending a family party to celebrate a birthday.
W: Oh, that’s a (1)beautiful picture.  The colors are gorgeous, aren’t they?
M: Yeah, it’s a big celebration, their father’s birthday, so they’re wearing their best outfits.
W: I love all the different shades of (2)green in the dresses.  The pale green one looks fantastic with the dark scarf, such a contrast.  And it’s a very peaceful photograph too.
M: Well, that’s an interesting comment, because actually, can you see the way they are holding their hands? It’s a traditional prayer and it symbolises (3)peace.
W: Really?  And I always think that green is a very peaceful colour too.  It makes me feel quite (4)calm!
M: Perhaps these girls both feel the same as you!  Well, this next (5)photograph is completely different.  Wait a minute, here we are.

put on
put on
pick up
stand for