People Are Strange

British intellectuals have always had a weird affinity with ideas of the natural and authentic. The brutal slavery of peasant life was romanticised by writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Part of Mellors’s appeal as a lover, both to Lady Chatterley and D H Lawrence, was that his agricultural background brought him closer to God and attuned him with the rhythms of the earth. The hero survivors of H G Wells’s apocalyptic novel The War in the Air set up a farm ‘among the clay and oak thickets of the Weald’ where ‘they loved and suffered and were happy’. The novelist George Gissing, visiting Europe, was appalled at Italian industrialisation and commercialism but was delighted to find a genuine ploughman: ‘His rude but gentle face, his gnarled hands, his rough and scanty vesture, moved me to deep respect.’ From John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses: ‘Peasants had been popular with William Morris, with the Arts and Crafts movement, with Eric Gill and with early Fabians, as well as with Paul Gaugin and the Pont-Aven school.’ Peasants were earthy, sensual, spiritual, free and pure: best of all, they knew their place. Carey: ‘their traditional qualities of dour endurance, respect for their betters and illiteracy meant that the intellectual’s superiority was in little danger from them.’

As Carey also says, peasant life was also attractive because it represented a feudal way of life that was dying out. The industrial revolution and population boom meant that writers and artists had to push through crowds of rowdy clockout labourers on the way to the coffee house. The countryside that Lawrence and Wells rhapsodised about was colonised by suburbs. The Education Act of 1871 meant more and more people could compete for the attention of the reading public. It was thought that newspapers and magazines would replace the novel altogether. Democratic reform created an emergent class of low born but upwardly mobile ‘clerks’ – working men who had read a little and could do middle class jobs, the kind of people Irvine Welsh calls ‘the clued up working class’.  They wanted to make and sell things – worse, they wanted to read and write things.

Prominent British intellectuals reacted to these developments with horror. In his essential study of intellectual misanthropy John Carey shows just how bad the sickness was. The idea of humanity as a ‘mass’ was first coined by St Augustine, who wrote of a massa damnata: the species is damned, apart from a tiny proportion who God will ascend into heaven come Revelations. But it was in the late nineteenth century that the idea gained currency that there were the one per cent of intellectuals who felt true and great emotions, and the horde that didn’t and wouldn’t want to.  It did not occur to the great minds that there was no such thing as The Masses, just millions of individuals with stories and needs and desires and elegies and complications – an infinite treasure of artistic material.

Instead Huxley and Shaw pondered on how to handle the new breed. Eugenics, not yet discredited by the Nazis, became fashionable in certain circles, where writers and artists tossed around various ideas for species improvement, and to prevent the mass from spreading further through its vulgar habit of having children. 

Thomas Hardy summed up the paradigm:

You may regard a throng of people as containing a certain small minority who have sensitive souls; these, and the aspects of these, being what is worth observing. So you divide them into the mentally unquickened, mechanical, soulless; and the living, throbbing, suffering, vital, in other words into souls and machines, ether and clay.

Lawrence thought that the majority of people were not just soulless but ‘dead, and scurrying and talking in the sleep of death.’ As Carey points out, if you believe that someone is technically not alive, actually killing them is no great reach. In a letter of 1908, Lawrence fantasised about building ‘a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace’ for ‘all the sick, the halt and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’.’

If most people didn’t have souls, and deserved to die, then what was the point of democratic reform and universal education? William Inge: ‘The democratic man is a species of ape.’ Hardy thought democracy would lead to ‘the utter ruin of art and literature.’ T S Eliot believed that ‘there is no doubt that in our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards’. He suggested the number of people in higher education be cut by two thirds. The novelist George Moore said that war, famine and disease were ‘mild and gracious symbols compared with that menacing figure, Universal Education’. D H Lawrence, of course, recommended that ‘All schools be closed at once’ because ‘The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write.’ Alternatives for mass of education proposed by intellectuals included monasteries, and – Lawrence again – craft workshops, fighting, gymnastics and domestic science. 

Another major worry for the feudal intellectual class was the growing emancipation of women. The French pseudoscientist Gustave Le Bon defined the masses as essentially female: headstrong, malleable, easily distracted. The mob, like the woman, takes its pleasure and destiny in prostration at the feet of a strong man. One of Wells’s characters complains that there is not a single woman who ‘wouldn’t lick the boots of a Jew or marry a nigger, rather than live decently on a hundred a year.’ Wells devoted his fiction to wiping out great swathes of humanity in bizarre and outrageous ways. Carey speculates that the recurring Crab People monster in Wellsian dystopia, given its ‘hungry, fishy orifice, threatening to devour and surrounded with what seem like hairs’ might ‘prompt a sexual explanation.’

His most fascinating case study is of the novelist George Gissing. Gissing married a prostitute, and was said to have beaten her. ‘His ideal woman,’ Carey writes, ‘would probably have been a clean, refined whore – nicely spoken, well behaved, but ignorant, and degraded by her vocation, and consequently irredeemably inferior to the educated male who becomes her lover, tutor and disciplinarian.’ Naturally, Gissing hated female education and aspiration. A supporting female character in one of his books enrolls at London University, where ‘her complexion is ruined; her hair falls out… The examinations, when they arrive, prove too much for her. She collapses on the last day with an overtaxed brain and is carried out delirious. She never really recovers.’ The idea that women are genetically unsuited to study and knowledge – which goes back to Genesis – was satirised to great effect in Harry Enfield’s ‘Women: Know Your Limits’ sketch.

Of course there was nothing the intellectuals could really do about the growth of the literate mass. All they could do was ‘prevent them reading literature by making it too difficult to understand… In England this movement has become known as modernism’ – and later, of course, postmodernism. It’s from this separation that the artificial barrier between genre and literary fiction derives.

What’s interesting is that this appears to be just a European disease. New York School pioneer Frank O’Hara was no less an artist than D H Lawrence, yet he shared none of the British writer’s prejudices on consumption and urbanisation. As well as his celebration of the film industry (‘Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on!’) O’Hara defended the city in ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ and it’s worth quoting him at length:

I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes – I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass. Do they know what they’re missing? Uh huh.

It would be good to see a new edition of Carey’s book for the 2010s. There are still middle-aged male intellectuals who support fascist movements, who believe that only they can see through the manufacture of consent, who feel challenged by women who compete on their level, and who see themselves as apart from and above the soulless, tabloidal and consumerist mass. There is still the cult of the natural and the authentic, and what Stevie Smith called the ‘stampede of the sensitive and the intellectual person away from the vulgarities of the secular world’. The poet John Betjeman raged against ‘radios, cars, advertisements, labour-saving homes, peroxide blondes, crooked businessmen, litter, painted toenails and people who wear public school ties to which they are not entitled.’ A century on, his successors slam The X-Factor, Lady Gaga, Richard and Judy’s Book Club, Sky Plus, binge drinking, cheap flights, Wayne Rooney, the FarmTown Facebook game, the pubic wax, James Bond films, breast milk ice cream and the Eastern European fictional meerkat that does price comparison website adverts.

While I agree with most of what Carey says, he could have pointed out that to some extent snobbery is understandable. There is a lot of greatness in mass culture, but also some things of dubious value and others that are just plain evil. Personally I always felt separated from most people, and a lot of what interests two thirds of humanity I find stupid and pointless: I never saw the appeal in football or singing contests or fatherhood.

Contemporary politicians, too, have forgotten that there is no such thing as ‘the masses’. The current government has thrown social change into reverse, with higher education policies that T S Eliot would have approved of. We are in a culture that confuses philistinism with integrity, and where a wilful stupidity masquerades as common sense. There’s a growing infantalisation and proletarianisation of public space. We’re told to agree with welfare and immigration policies because they are what The People want: and if The People want something, who are you to disagree? How can anyone be right against The People? Marko Attila Hoare puts it well:

Instead, for the last twenty years or so, our politicians – both Labour and Conservative – seem to have been following an inverted form of Flaubert’s dictum, and to believe that the point of democracy is to lower the ruling class to the level of stupidity attained by the masses.

Now more than ever, the liberal-creative has been thrown into the mass. Artists and intellectuals have to escape from suburbs and small towns like everyone else. They have to get up and work for a living like everyone else. They have to struggle to hold on to shared houses in the cowboy rental market like everyone else. They are part of the city like everyone else. They have to write in short bursts and register their presences on Twitter when the floorwalkers have passed by.

As Gregory Riding says in Success: ‘I am one of you now. How did this happen?’

‘I am a man of the people. Vox populi, vox dei’

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