The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life (2014)

John Carey writes:

I suppose I could be accused of reducing these great novels to picture shows, and that’s probably true. They did seem primarily visual to me. When, later, I saw the 1956 film of War and Peace I thought that for all its changes and omissions it belonged to the same kind of artistic reality as the novel, and nowadays when I reread War and Peace Natasha is always Audrey Hepburn. Besides, I’d argue that from the perspective of cultural history the nineteenth century was essentially a struggle towards visual representation. Dioramas, daguerreotypes , lithographic newspaper illustrations – step by step they all brought camera and film closer. So it’s not surprising the century’s great novels should strive in the same direction.
The exception is Dostoyevsky, who is far more spiritual and psychological than visual, which is probably why I was less keen on him. I found his plots rambling and his sentimental religiosity – well, just sentimental religiosity, especially in The Idiot . I know this may seem shallow and philistine, but I think it’s a reaction Dostoyevsky tempts you to have, to see if you’ve got the depth he requires of you, and I hadn’t. In the famous Grand Inquisitor section of The Brothers Karamazov what I admired most was Ivan’s sardonic , unanswerable rejection of Christianity. Ivan is a rationalist and he’s arguing with his brother Alexei, a religious idealist, about why a supposedly loving God should allow suffering. He tells Alexei a terrible, true story about a Russian general, a rich landowner with aristocratic connections, whose great pride was his pack of thoroughbred hounds. One day a little serf-boy, aged eight, threw a stone in play and hurt the paw of the general’s favourite hound. The general assembled all his serfs, including the boy’s mother, to witness the punishment . The terrified child was stripped naked, and made to run. Then the hounds were released, hunted him down, and tore him to pieces.
Christians are bound to forgive the general, Ivan points out. They must forgive everyone. But he finds the idea of such a monster being forgiven abhorrent, whoever does the forgiving. ‘I do not want a mother to embrace the torturer who had her child torn to pieces. She has no right to forgive him.’ He acknowledges that forgiveness is necessary if the world is to attain divine harmony. But for him the suffering of the innocent is too much to pay for divine harmony, and he wants no part in it.

* The only other twentieth-century writer who, it seemed to me, could challenge comparison with Lawrence and Orwell was Joseph Conrad. He was completely different from them, because he believed in nothing at all. Orwell believed in socialism, Lawrence in his dark gods. But for Conrad all belief was illusory. In a letter to his friend Cunninghame Graham he likens the universe to a knitting machine, which has come into existence by pure chance – the collision of atoms. It has created, and will destroy, everything, including mankind. The sun will cool and the human race will perish ‘in cold, darkness and silence’, and it will be an insignificant detail in the vast insignificance of the cosmos. ‘The most withering thought is that the infamous thing has made itself: made itself without thought, without conscience, without foresight, without eyes, without heart. It is tragic accident – and it has happened.’ To believe in anything positive or hopeful is, for Conrad, ridiculous, like believing that you can convert the knitting machine into a machine that does beautiful embroidery by applying ‘the right kind of oil’. Everything is meaningless – the chance product of a meaningless universe that creates and destroys us. ‘It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time, space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions – and nothing matters.’ In the face of this implacable, alien cosmos, Conrad decided, the only reasonable attitude is ‘cold unconcern’ – though he admitted to Cunninghame Graham that observing the ‘remorseless process’ and the human beings caught up in it can also be ‘sometimes amusing’.

* So I bought a complete, multi-volume Thackeray from Blackwell’s – for almost nothing – and read it through. It was a terrible disappointment. Vanity Fair , I found, was not just Thackeray’s first great novel, it was his only one. After Vanity Fair his fiction got steadily duller and more pompous until, when you reach stuff like The Virginians, it is soporific at a pharmaceutical level.

* All of us, I suggest, not just Donne, choose religious beliefs that meet our imaginative needs, and it is because they meet our imaginative needs that we choose them.

* that the book I wrote in between the two anthologies got absolutely terrible reviews. It was called The Intellectuals and the Masses , and was essentially a simple study in cultural history. I pointed out that the huge increase in the population of Europe in the nineteenth century caused consternation among many observers. In Britain the situation was complicated by the Education Acts of the 1870s which created, for the first time, a mass reading public and mass-circulation newspapers. Among British literary intellectuals the response to these developments was almost universally hostile. They resented the ‘semi-literate’ masses, despised their pretensions to culture, and detested newspapers . The more extreme among them, such as W. B. Yeats, D. H. Lawrence and H. G. Wells, considered ways in which the masses, or large sections of them, might be exterminated. Others, more moderately, argued that universal education was the mistake, and should be stopped. Though the intellectuals could not actually return the masses to illiteracy, they could exclude them from high culture by making it too difficult for them to understand, and that is what they did. They created what we now call modernist literature, which cultivates obscurity and depends on learned allusions, comprehensible only to the highly educated. Similar developments, I noted, occurred in other arts such as painting and music. I backed up these points with quotations from T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, and others.
My modest proposals about the social origins of modernism were greeted with howls of fury. Reviewers seemed beside themselves with rage. It was alleged that I hated culture, and wished to condemn the population to ‘an endless diet of television soaps, the Sun newspaper, and royal scandals’. I was a commissar, an ally of Mrs Thatcher in her war against the arts, a lackey of the Murdoch press, and a puritan with a ‘class-based, priggish horror of champagne’. As a professor of literature I had no business criticising literary figures, anyway, I was told. It was ‘fouling my own nest’ and ‘biting the hand that fed me’. Although the reviewers were united in vituperation, their arguments were at times mutually contradictory . One lot thought it monstrous that I should search out illiberal opinions, sometimes from the writers’ private correspondence. Others maintained that everyone had always known the writers I mentioned were fascists, so there was nothing original in my findings.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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