John Carey, The Intellectuals and The Masses: Pride & Prejudice Among The Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939
Why do our elites despise their own people?
Why have they seceded from the nation to become alienated cosmopolitans? In the age of National Populism, the cultural divide between urban cosmopolitan elites and the masses has become extremely intense. In The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride & Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939, John Carey shows that this divide has deep roots in the rise of Modernism.
In the 19th century, the population of Europe doubled from 200 million to 400 million. Europe became increasingly liberal and democratic. After the passage of the Education Act of 1870, the British public became almost entirely literate. The mass market developed to cater to consumers. Mass circulation newspapers like the Daily Mail which was founded in 1896 arose to cater to the public.
From the perspective of the British literary intelligentsia, this was a highly disturbing development. Intellectuals began to perceive the public as the “masses.” The old days of illiterate deferential peasants in the unspoiled, bucolic countryside of England were long gone and had been replaced by the threatening image of the mass of half-educated, philistine clerks immersed in the new popular culture who lived in the emerging suburbs and whose poor taste was plunging civilization into barbarism. Britain felt like a more crowded place that was full of people who no longer had any use for intellectuals. Modernist intellectuals responded to the rise of mass culture by demonizing the masses in literature.
“I would suggest, then, that the principle around which modernist literature and culture fashioned themselves was the exclusion of the masses, the defeat of their power, the removal of their literacy, the denial of their humanity. What this intellectual effort failed to acknowledge was that the masses do not exist. The mass, that is to say, is a metaphor for the unknowable and the invisible. We cannot see the mass. Crowds can be seen; but the mass in the crowd in its metaphysical aspect – the sum of all possible crowds – and that can take on conceptual form only as metaphor. The metaphor of the mass severs the purposes of individual self-assertion because it turns other people into a conglomerate. It denies them the individuality which we ascribe to ourselves and to people we know. …
The intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from attaining literacy. But they could prevent them reading literature by making it too difficult for them to understand – and this is what they did. The early twentieth century saw a determined effort, on the part of the European intelligentsia, to exclude the masses from culture. In England this movement has become known as modernism. In other European countries it was given similar names, but the ingredients were essentially similar, and they revolutionized the visual arts as well as literature. Realism of the sort that it was assumed the masses appreciated was abandoned. So was logical coherence. Irrationality and obscurity were cultivated. ‘Poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult,’ decreed T.S. Eliot.” How deliberate this process of alienating the mass audience was is, of course, problematic and no doubt different from case to case.”
The villain of this book is Friedrich Nietzsche whose disdain for the masses whom he labeled the “herd animals” and the “slaves” pulsating with ressentiment and whose slave morality was holding back the self realization of “higher men” was a story that resonated with the hyper alienated British literary intelligentsia. The Intellectuals and the Masses is a tour of the torrent of scorn for the masses that poured out of the pens of alienated intellectuals in early 20th century British literature.
“Men, Nietzsche decrees, are not, equal. The mistaken belief that they are is to blame for the degeneracy of Europe. Benevolence, public spirit and consideration for others are despicable herd virtues. The truly noble man is egotistic. He despises pity, which is unhealthy and is valued only by slaves. The warrior is a type of the finest man. War and courage have achieved greater things than charity. men should be trained for war, and women for the recreation of the warrior. The belief that women are equal, or merit education, is a sign of shallowness. They should be treated as property, slaves or domestic animals. This item in Nietzsche’s programme has proved particularly congenial. The early twentieth century intellectual aristocrat is an almost exclusively male fantasy. By comparison women, children and family life are regarded as secondary concerns …
In abandoning Christianity Nietzsche also abandoned the fixed value system that it offered. To forsake Christianity but cling to Christian morality was, he believed, an absurd English peculiarity, observable in ‘little bluestockings à la George Eliot’. He ridicules, in Beyond Good and Evil and Twilight of the Idols, the very concept of moral judgement. Nothing is inherently moral or immoral, he argues. ‘Moral judgement .. never contains anything but nonsense’. It has no truth value. Clearly this conclusion strikes at the very basis of his own position, for his writings consist largely of a series of vehemently expressed moral judgements. If such judgements are illusory, then it is meaningless for Nietzsche to claim that the warrior is better than the slave, or cruelty than pity, and so on …”
In the course of the book, the masses are condemned by British intellectuals for a wide variety of crimes: they are people who take photographs, who crowd the beaches with their children, who eat tinned food, who read Tit-Bits and Daily Mail, they are philistines who play the piano badly, who are the swarms of anonymous gangly clerks who live in the suburbs which have destroyed the English countryside. From the perspective of the intellectuals, the masses have become The Other.
The masses provoke extreme nausea in Virginia Woolf. George Orwell associates them with dirt. D.H. Lawrence fantasizes about gassing them. T.S. Eliot believed they were already dead inside. George Bernard Shaw advocated exterminating them in On The Rocks. James Joyce had Leopold Bloom masturbate and read Tit-Bits on a toilet in Ulysses. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is the dystopian product of mass culture. H.G. Wells finds dozens of ways to kill off the masses in his novels. In The War of the Worlds, the Martians invade and destroy the suburbs of London. In The Time Machine, the masses have evolved into the subhuman Morlock race. In The World Set Free, they are annihilated in a nuclear holocaust.
This is a good example of the common attitude in E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End:
“When early twentieth-century writers depict beneficiaries of this reform – representatives of the newly educated masses – they frequently do so with disdain. The effort of the mass to acquire culture is presented as ill-advised and unsuccessful. E.M. Forster, for example, in his novel Howards End depicts a lower-class young man called Leonard Best, who works as a clerk in an insurance office. Leonard lives in a nasty modern flat, eats tinned food and is married to a vulgar young woman called Jacky, who is, Forster tells us, ‘bestially stupid’. It would be false to pretend that Forster is wholly unsympathetic to Leonard. His loyalty to Jacky verges on the tragic. But what Forster cannot condone is Leonard’s attempt to become cultured. If only his ancestors had stayed in the countryside, he might have made a robust shepherd or ploughboy. But like thousands of others, they were ‘sucked into the town’, and Leonard strives to educate himself by reading the English literary classics and going to symphony concerts. Despite these efforts, Forster makes it clear, Leonard does not acquire true culture. He has a ‘cramped little mind’; he plays the piano ‘badly and vulgarly’. There is, Forster assures us, not the least doubt that Leonard is inferior to most rich people. ‘He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable.’ The novel has a cautionary ending, for Leonard’s wish to obtain culture proves fatal. Attacked by one of his upper-class characters, he symbolically grabs at a bookcase for support, and it falls over on top of him, so that he dies of a heart attack. Such are the dangers of higher education, we gather, when it is pursued by the wrong people.”
E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence traveled the world in search of a more authentic, primitive man. Lawrence looks for him in Italy, Australia and Mexico. Forster looks for him in India. Both Lawrence and Forster went abroad in search of the primitive due to their alienation from the masses. We learn that Nietzschean supermen Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis abandoned their own children. George Gissing was the first English novelist to make the intellectuals’ case against the masses:
“The commercialization of literature suggested to him another version of the crowd – the unseen millions for whom journalists and popular writers cater. The spectre of this invisible multitude of readers, lurking just behind the columns of newsprint, drives Gissing’s Will Warburton frantic as he scans the papers for situations vacant:
“In spite of loathing and dread he began to read the thick-serried columns of newspaper advertisement. Wanted! Wanted! Wanted! Wants by the thousand; but many more those of the would-be employed than those of the would-be employers … To glance over these columns is like listening to the clamour of the hunger-driven multitude; the ears sing, the head turns giddy. After a quarter of an hour of such search, Will flung the paper aside, and stamped like a madman about his room. A horror of life seized him; he understood, with fearful sympathy, the impulse of those who, rather than be any longer hustled in this howling mob, dash themselves to destruction.”
The job columns catapult Will into the existential angst of an individual in a mass civilization. They are only silent newsprint, yet they seem to him a ‘howling mob’.”
The book culminates in Carey’s argument that Adolf Hitler shared many of these attitudes of early twentieth century Modernist intellectuals and their disdain for the masses. The inclusion of Hitler though in this account seems like a reach. Hitler identified with the German people. He also despised Modernism. The Third Reich famously condemned degenerate art and crushed the avant-garde.
Modernism isn’t liberalism or democracy. It is a sensibility that is compatible with a wide variety of ideologies. It is elitist, cosmopolitan and transgressive. It is driven by a feeling of hyper alienation from the traditional culture of the bourgeois or the masses. It is the background of Christopher Lasch’s books The Culture of Narcissism and The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. This lack of vertical solidarity between the elites and the masses is plunging our civilization into a new crisis.