* This book is about the response of the English literary intelligentsia to the new phenomenon of mass culture. It argues that modernist literature and art can be seen as a hostile reaction to the unprecedentedly large reading public created by late nineteenth-century educational reforms. The purpose of modernist writing, it suggests, was to exclude these newly educated (or ‘semi-educated’) readers, and so to preserve the intellectual’s seclusion from the ‘mass’.
The ‘mass’ is, of course, a fiction. Its function, as a linguistic device, is to eliminate the human status of the majority of people – or, at any rate, to deprive them of those distinctive features that make users of the term, in their own esteem, superior. Its usage seems to have been originally neither cultural nor political but religious. St Augustine writes of a massa damnata or massa perditionis (condemned mass; mass of perdition), by which he means the whole human race, with the exception of those elect individuals whom God has inexplicably decided to save. 1 Even in modern times, the belief that God is implicated in the condemnation of the mass lingers on among intellectuals, as I show in Chapter 4. Those not saved will, Augustine trusts, burn in Hell. This well-established Christian precedent for disposing of the surplus ‘mass’ by combustion was, as my final chapter notes, given practical expression in our century in Hitler’s death camps.
* The classic intellectual account of the advent of mass culture in the early twentieth century was by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. His book was called, in its English translation, The Revolt of the Masses , and it was published in 1930. The root of its worries is population explosion. From the time European history began, in the sixth century, up to 1800, Europe’s population did not, Ortega points out, exceed 180 million. But from 1800 to 1914 it rose from 180 to 460 million. In no more than three generations Europe had produced ‘a gigantic mass of humanity which, launched like a torrent over the historic area, has inundated it’. 1 Other writers, of quite different casts of mind from Ortega y Gasset, viewed this phenomenon with similar dismay. H. G. Wells, for example, refers to ‘the extravagant swarm of new births’ as ‘the essential disaster of the nineteenth century’. 2
In Ortega’s analysis, population increase has had various consequences. First, overcrowding. Everywhere is full of people – trains, hotels, cafés, parks, theatres, doctors’ consulting rooms, beaches. Secondly, this is not just overcrowding; it is intrusion. The crowd has taken possession of places which were created by civilization for the best people. A third consequence is the dictatorship of the mass. The one factor of utmost importance in the current political life of Europe is the accession of the masses to complete social power. This triumph of ‘hyperdemocracy’ has created the modern state, which Ortega sees as the gravest danger threatening civilization. The masses believe in the state as a machine for obtaining the material pleasures they desire, but it will crush the individual. 3
Ortega’s ideas recall those of Nietzsche, who prefigures many of the developments we shall be concerned with. Nietzsche similarly deplores overpopulation. ‘Many too many are born,’ his Zarathustra declares, ‘and they hang on their branches much too long. I wish a storm would come and shake all this rottenness and worm-eatenness from the tree!’ Where the ‘rabble’ drink, all fountains are poisoned. Zarathustra also denounces the state, which overwhelms the individual. It is ‘the coldest of all cold monsters’. In it ‘universal slow suicide is called life’. It was invented for the sake of the mass – ‘the superfluous’. Nietzsche’s message in The Will to Power is that a ‘declaration of war on the masses by higher men is needed’. The times are critical. ‘Everywhere the mediocre are combining in order to make themselves master.’ The conclusion of this ‘tyranny of the least and the dumbest’ will, he warns, be socialism – a ‘hopeless and sour affair’ which ‘negates life’. 4
We should see Nietzsche, I would suggest, as one of the earliest products of mass culture. That is to say, mass culture generated Nietzsche in opposition to itself, as its antagonist. The immense popularity of his ideas among early twentieth-century intellectuals suggests the panic that the threat of the masses aroused. W. B. Yeats recommended Nietzsche as ‘a counteractive to the spread of democratic vulgarity’, and George Bernard Shaw nominated Thus Spake Zarathustra as ‘the first modern book…’
* Nietzsche’s view of the mass was shared or prefigured by most of the founders of modern European culture. Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People of 1882 showed the isolated, righteous individual as the victim of the corrupt mass. Flaubert wrote in 1871 – a decade before Nietzsche published Thus Spake Zarathustra – ‘I believe that the mob, the mass, the herd will always be despicable.’ One could not, Flaubert asserts, elevate the masses even if one tried. 6 The great Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun provides an extreme example of this anti-democratic animus. Hamsun’s novel Hunger , published in 1890, was a seminal modernist text. Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Gide all recorded their debt to Hamsun, and Isaac Bashevis Singer has called him ‘the father of the modern school of literature’. Hamsun’s Nietzschean view of the mass is epitomized in a speech by his character Ivar Kareno, hero of the Kareno trilogy, a young, struggling author of fiercely anti-democratic views:
I believe in the born leader, the natural despot, the master, not the man who is chosen but the man who elects himself to be ruler over the masses. I believe in and hope for one thing, and that is the return of the great terrorist, the living essence of human power, the Caesar.
Hamsun eventually found his great terrorist in Hitler, and he was the only major European intellectual to remain faithful to him to the end. A week after Hitler’s suicide he published an admiring obituary in which he celebrates the Führer as ‘a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations’. ‘His fate,’ mourns Hamsun, ‘was to arise in a time of unparalleled barbarism which finally felled him.’ 7
The ‘Revolt of the Masses’ which these cultural celebrities deplored was shaped by different factors in each European country. In England, the educational legislation of the last decades of the nineteenth century, which introduced universal elementary education , was crucial. 8 The difference between the nineteenth-century mob and the twentieth-century mass is literacy. For the first time, a huge literate public had come into being, and consequently every aspect of the production and dissemination of the printed text became subject to revolution. ‘Never before had there been such reading masses,’ remarked H. G. Wells. ‘The great gulf that had divided the world hitherto into the readers and the non-reading mass became little more than a slightly perceptible difference in educational level.’
* ‘The Education Act of 1871,’ he explained, ‘was producing readers who had never before bought books, nor could have read them if they had.’ Publishers were finding that people wanted not George Eliot nor the ‘excessively literary’ Bernard Shaw, but adventure stories like Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In this situation, Shaw concludes, ‘I, as a belated intellectual, went under completely.’ 10
Shaw was joking, of course. He did not go under, but he made a conscious decision to write for the millions. By the end of the 1880s he had made himself, as Max Beerbohm acknowledged, ‘the most brilliant and remarkable journalist in London’. Newspapers, Shaw conceded, were ‘fearfully mischievous’ but indispensable, so he resolved to use them for self-publicity. 11
It was to cater for the post-Education-Act reading public that the popular newspaper came into being. The pioneer was Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe. In 1896 he launched the Daily Mail , the paper with the biggest circulation at the start of the twentieth century. Its slogan was ‘The Busy Man’s Paper’ – a hit at the idea of a leisured élite. ‘A newspaper,’ Northcliffe insisted, ‘is to be made to pay. Let it deal with what interests the mass of people.’ The principle of his new journalism was ‘giving the public what it wants’. To intellectuals, this naturally sounded ominous. Intellectuals believe in giving the public what intellectuals want; that, generally speaking, is what they mean by education. 12
Furthermore, the popular newspaper presented a threat, because it created an alternative culture which bypassed the intellectual and made him redundant. By adopting sales figures as the sole criterion, journalism circumvented the traditional cultural élite. In an important sense, too, it took over the function of providing the public with fiction, thus dispensing with the need for novelists. This development hinged on the emergence, in the later nineteenth century, of what became known as the human-interest story, a kind of journalism Northcliffe encouraged. In the Daily Mail , and its rival, Beaverbrook’s Daily Express , the concept of ‘news’ was deliberately extended beyond the traditional areas of business and politics to embrace stories about the everyday life of the ordinary people. As Helen MacGill Hughes points out, this level of journalism supplied for the masses essentially the same aesthetic pleasure that literature gave to the more sophisticated, and commercialized what had previously circulated informally as a component of popular culture – in gossip, ballad and broadsheet. The question ‘What are human-interest stories for?’ observes Hughes, will have the same answer as the question ‘What are novels for?’ 13
Among European intellectuals hostility to newspapers was widespread . The rabble ‘vomit their bile, and call it a newspaper’, according to Nietzsche. ‘We feel contemptuous of every kind of culture that is compatible with reading, not to speak of writing for, newspapers.’ 14 Surveying the cultural scene in the Criterion in 1938, T. S. Eliot maintained that the effect of daily or Sunday newspapers on their readers was to ‘affirm them as a complacent, prejudiced and unthinking mass’. 15 The cultural arbiter F. R. Leavis carried on an extended campaign against newspapers, and the linked evil of advertising, in the pages of Scrutiny. The mass media aroused ‘the cheapest emotional responses,’ he warned…
* Dreaming of the extermination or sterilization of the mass, or denying that the masses were real people, was, then, an imaginative refuge for early twentieth-century intellectuals. Less drastic, but more practical, was the suggestion that the mass should be prevented from learning to read, so that the intellectual could once more dominate written culture.
* 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 different 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. 46 How deliberate this process of alienating the mass audience was is, of course, problematic and no doubt differed from case to case. But the placing of art beyond the reach of the mass was certainly deliberate at times. As Val Cunningham points out in his British Writers of the Thirties , Geoffrey Grigson founded the periodical New Verse in 1933 quite explicitly as a reaction against mass values. New Verse , Grigson planned, was to be verse rebarbative to the mass. In the first number he deplores the revolt of the masses, as analysed by Ortega y Gasset, and the vulgarization of ‘all the arts’ that it has occasioned. New Verse will provide a forum where writers are free from the limitations of mass intelligence, and can communicate exclusively with one another. 47
Ortega y Gasset himself, in The Dehumanization of Art, reckons that it is the essential function of modern art to divide the public into two classes – those who can understand it and those who cannot. Modern art is not so much unpopular, he argues, as anti-popular. It acts ‘like a social agent which segregates from the shapeless mass of the many two different castes of men’. Ortega welcomes this process. For, being aristocratic, modern art compels the masses to recognize themselves for what they are – the ‘inert matter of the historical process’. It also helps the élite, the ‘privileged minority of the fine senses’, to distinguish themselves and one another ‘in the drab mass of society’. The time must come, Ortega predicts, when society will reorganize itself into ‘two orders or ranks: the illustrious and the vulgar’. Modern art, by demonstrating that men are not equal, brings this historical development nearer.
* As an element in the reaction against mass values the intellectuals brought into being the theory of the avant-garde, according to which the mass is, in art and literature, always wrong. What is truly meritorious in art is seen as the prerogative of a minority, the intellectuals, and the significance of this minority is reckoned to be directly proportionate to its ability to outrage and puzzle the mass. Though it usually purports to be progressive, the avant-garde is consequently always reactionary. That is, it seeks to take literacy and culture away from the masses, and so to counteract the progressive intentions of democratic educational reform.
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 Bast, 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 the 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.
* For many intellectuals, the camera epitomized mass man’s lack of imagination. Baudelaire condemned photography as a ‘sacrilege’ which allowed ‘the vile multitude’ to ‘contemplate its own trivial image’. 14 ‘The mere multitude is everywhere with its empty photographic eyes,’ complained Yeats. 15 Explaining the popularity of photography, Lady Eastlake observed that the desire for art belonged to a small minority ‘but the craving for cheap, prompt and correct facts resides in the public at large’. 16 The camera was early identified as the art substitute favoured by clerks, suburban dwellers and similar philistine types. The suburban ideal in art, shuddered George Moore, is ‘the degrading naturalism of the colour photograph ’. In Gissing’s The Whirlpool, published in 1897, Cecil Morphew opens a camera shop on Westminster Bridge Road, observing that the ‘swarms’ of men who go back and forth along it morning and evening are just the sort that take up photography – ‘the better kind of clerk and the man of business who lives in the south suburbs’.
* The role of the camera in changing the direction of art and literature was charted by Walter Benjamin in his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, published in 1936.
“With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis … Art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to … ‘pure’ art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter.” 18
The culmination of this process was abstract art, but an early sign of the elimination of subject matter was the new importance of fog, especially in paintings of London. Whereas, as John House has noted, earlier artists like Doré had seen London fog as gloomy and threatening, Whistler, Monet and Pissarro all valued the indistinctness of fog because it expunged fact and realism. Monet said that what he liked most of all in London was the ‘mysterious cloak’ of fog, and this appreciation of fog’s effect on London went back to Gautier, whose 1842 essay ‘A Day in London’ praised the ‘mystery and vagueness’ fog brought, and the way it softened the ‘barrenness’ and ‘vulgarity’ of civilization. 19
In literature, the counterpart of this foggy elimination of subject matter is to be found (as Benjamin suggests) in the Symbolists, and also in T. S. Eliot, who sets against the ‘certain certainties’ of the mass the vague, private areas in which the individual soul has its being, it is impossible to say just what I mean!’ exclaims J. Alfred Prufrock, encircled by the city fog. Only in vagueness can Prufrock survive (‘Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”’), and the poetic style Eliot evolves to convey Prufrock is suffused with vagueness, like the fog-smudged cityscapes of Whistler or Monet. We cannot tell what happens in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. The shapes are blurred. Who are the ‘you’ and ‘I’ at the poem’s start (‘Let us go then, you and I’)? Are they Prufrock’s two selves? And which two selves? Is he looking at his reflection in a mirror before going out? Does he ever get to the room where the mysterious women come and go, talking of Michelangelo? These famous unanswerable questions about the poem have generated so much debate only because they have been mistaken for answerable questions, which is like supposing that a Monet is really a Canaletto that has been accidentally smudged. The questions are unanswerable because the poem designedly withholds the information needed to answer them. It withdraws itself into indefiniteness, eluding the fact-hungry masses. The fact that we cannot be sure what it is about is essential to what it is about.
* This fusion of pastoral and historical pageant to provide a cosmetic version of the mass becomes the dominant motive in the fiction of E. M. Forster. Repelled by what he saw as the coldness of the English middle classes, and especially by their coldness to homosexuals, Forster looked southwards to Italy for more congenial life forms.
* All D. H. Lawrence’s later life could be seen as a quest for an unspoiled mass of this kind. Reading his letters from about 1920 onwards we find him becoming disappointed with one nation or racial group after another as they fail to meet his standards of simplicity and primitivism – first the Italians, then the Sardinians, then the Indians, whom Lawrence, unlike Forster, finds disgusting (‘silly dark people’ with ‘temples like decked-up pigsties’), then the Australians (‘almost imbecile’), then the South Sea Islanders, who stink of coconut oil, and finally the Mexican Indians, who fill Lawrence with hope when he first hears of them, because they are said to be unspoiled sun-worshippers and rain-makers, but who turn out to be Americanized like everyone else and to have, Lawrence decides, ‘no inside life throb’ left in them at all.
* Forster’s and Lawrence’s quest for a mass untouched by modern industrial civilization was an offshoot of the widespread intellectual cult of the peasant. As representatives of simple, healthy, organic life, 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 Gauguin and the Pont-Aven school. Nietzsche endorsed this fanciful pastoralism, selecting in Thus Spake Zarathustra ‘a sound peasant, coarse, artful, obstinate, and enduring’ as ‘the noblest type’. 26 Irish writers, notably W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge also found admirable simplicity and folk wisdom in peasants. Unlike Germany and Ireland, England had no peasants left at the end of the nineteenth century, so English writers seeking a pastoral version of the mass had to invent them, or, like Eric Gill and other simple-lifers, pretend to be peasants themselves.
* An alternative to promoting the masses to peasanthood is to blame them for not being peasants, or point out how much more attractive they would have been had they remained peasants. J. B. Priestley, watching the coronation crowds in 1937, felt disillusioned with the English people. They had lost the natural life of woods and fields. ‘Most probably,’ he lamented, ‘they did not know how to make love or even to eat and drink properly.’ 29 Priestley does not divulge what alerts him to this curious possibility. But his implication is clearly that proper love-making, eating and drinking are what used to go on in the woods and fields, and many intellectuals of his day would have agreed with him.
* Although Orwell had apparently not read, or at least never mentions, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and their colleagues in the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, the impasse at which Winston arrives was essentially the same as theirs. The Frankfurt theorists (except Benjamin) shared the view that mass culture and the mass media, as developed under capitalism, had degraded civilization in the twentieth century. They blamed radio, cinema, newspapers and cheap books for ‘the disappearance of the inner life’. Like Winston, they wished to believe in the revolutionary potential of the proletariat. But they regarded the masses as dupes, seduced by capitalism’s equivalent of Prolefeed. Happily gobbling down the products of the commercialized ‘culture industry’, the masses had developed a ‘false consciousness’, so that they no longer saw things as the Frankfurt theorists wished. Consequently, Horkheimer reports, ‘truth has sought refuge among small groups of admirable men’, and ‘the general intellectual level of the masses is rapidly declining’. Following this line, Marcuse preaches the confessedly ‘élitist’ doctrine that genuine art must be inaccessible to the masses. Only the individual can appreciate ‘high’ culture – and mass civilization threatens to obliterate the individual. ‘The picture of freedom against society,’ Adorno proclaims, ‘lives in the crushed, abused individual’s features alone.’ This is not so very different from O’Brien’s warning to Winston: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.’ 40
To the Frankfurt School as to Orwell’s Winston, then, the masses are a disappointment. Wallowing in consumer pleasures, they refuse to take on the revolutionary role the intellectual ascribes to them.
* The massive expansion of suburbia, and the antagonisms, divisions and sense of irrecoverable loss it generated, were major shaping factors in twentieth-century English culture. They exacerbated the intellectual’s feeling of isolation from what he conceived of as philistine hordes, variously designated the middle classes or the bourgeoisie, whose dullness and small-mindedness the intellectual delights in portraying (that is, inventing). Hostility to the suburbs as ecologically destructive quickly fused with contempt for those who lived in them. The supposed low quality of life encouraged by suburban conditions became a favourite theme for intellectual ridicule or censure. Mrs Leavis in Fiction and the Reading Public stigmatized the ‘emptiness and meaningless iteration of suburban life’, as well as the ‘inflexible and brutal’ idiom of suburban people, ascribable to newspapers and radio. Life for the suburban dweller is, she reported, ‘a series of frivolous stimuli’. Cyril Connolly in The Unquiet Grave considered suburbs worse than slums. ‘Slums may well be breeding-grounds of crime, but the middle-class suburbs are incubators of apathy and delirium.’ Graham Greene in The Lawless Roads described suburbia as ‘a sinless, empty, graceless chromium world’.
* Intellectuals were, of course, in no position to generalize about the suburbs, since the subject was too various for categorization. Like ‘masses’, the work ‘suburban’ is a sign for the unknowable. But ‘suburban’ is distinctive in combining topographical with intellectual disdain. It relates human worth to habitat. The history of the word shows how a development in human geography that caused widespread dismay came to dictate the intellectuals’ reading of twentieth-century culture.
* George Moore: “Injustice we worship; all that lifts us out of the misery of life is the sublime fruit of injustice. Every immortal deed was an act of fearful injustice … What care I that some millions of wretched Israelites died under Pharaoh’s lash or Egypt’s sun? It was well that they died that I might have the pyramids to look on. Is there one amongst us who would exchange them for the lives of the ignominious slaves that died? What care I that the virtue of some sixteen-year-old maiden was the price paid for Ingres’ La Source ? … Nay more, the knowledge that a wrong was done – that millions of Israelites died in torments, that a girl, or a thousand girls, died in hospital for that one virginal thing, is an added pleasure which I could not afford to spare. Oh for the silence of marble courts, for the shadow of great pillars, for gold, for reticulated canopies of lilies; to see the great gladiators pass, to hear them cry the famous ‘Ave Caesar’, to hold the thumb down, to see the blood flow, to fill the languid hours with the agonies of poisoned slaves! Oh, for excess, for crime! I would give many lives to save one sonnet by Baudelaire; for the hymn, ‘A la très-chère, à la très-belle, qui remplit mon cœur de clarté’ , let the first-born in every house in Europe be slain; and in all sincerity I profess my readiness to decapitate all the Japanese in Japan and elsewhere, to save from destruction one drawing by Hokee. Again I say that all we deem sublime in the world’s history are acts of injustice; and it is certain that if man does not relinquish at once, and for ever, his vain, mad and fatal dream of justice, the world will lapse into barbarism … But the old world of heroes is over now. The skies above us are dark with sentimentalism … nothing remains for us to worship but the Mass, the blind, inchoate, insatiate Mass; fog and fenland before us, we shall founder in putrefying mud, creatures of ooze and rushes about us.”
* Though Bullock is on the side of Thorne and clerks, he is also depressed by them and makes Thorne voice his depression: ‘What is life but heroic pretence? Our houses are jerry-built, our clothes shoddy, our food adulterated, ourselves not what we are. It is the penalty of civilization.’ Civilization also stunts Thorne’s body. He has a narrow chest and one shoulder higher than the other, and he fears that clerks are not real men. He envies bricklayers and navvies, and daydreams about joining his brother, who has emigrated to New Zealand. He imagines himself outside a log cabin, stripped to the shirt, tucking into a big meal of bacon and beans. Towards the end of the novel the call of the wild proves irresistible. Thorne makes his big decision, buys tickets for New Zealand and heads for ‘freedom, life, the open air’. He wants his children to have ‘a chance of being something better than typists and clerks’. 24
The image of the clerk as stunted was standard in intellectual portrayals. Leonard Bast has a ‘spine that might have been straight’ and a ‘chest that might have broadened’ – might have, it is explained, had his forebears stayed in the country, allowing him to become a shepherd or ploughboy.
* In response to the revolt of the masses, intellectuals generated the idea of a natural aristocracy, consisting of intellectuals. On the question of precisely what makes natural aristocrats aristocratic, there was some disagreement. One suggestion was that there was, or ought to be, a secret kind of knowledge which only intellectuals could possess – a ‘body of esoteric doctrine, defended from the herd’, as D. H. Lawrence put it. 1 W. B. Yeats agreed. When he joined the Hermetic Students of the Golden Dawn in 1890, it was part of a widespread revival of occultism, centred on Paris, which answered intellectual craving for a source of distinction and power that the masses could not touch. Yeats also felt that the intellectual aristocrat had natural links with titled people – the old aristocracy of birth – who would constitute his patrons and audience. He announced in 1916 that he had invented a new kind of drama: ‘distinguished, indirect, and symbolic, and having no need of mob or Press to pay its way – an aristocratic form’. 2
Other intellectuals attributed their distinction to the supposedly timeless values of which they were transmitters and guardians. It was part of T. S. Eliot’s aesthetic theory that the true artist’s works transcend time, unlike the products of ephemeral commercial culture. 3 This view easily merged with the belief that art was sacred, ‘a religion’, as Clive Bell proclaimed in 1914. The artist need not bother about the fate of humanity, Bell stipulated, for ‘aesthetic rapture’ was self-justifying. 4 This notion of artists and intellectuals soaring above mere human concerns also attracted Ezra Pound, though he gave it a more despotic turn, warning that artists were natural rulers, ‘born to the purple’, and would shortly take over the world:
“The artist has no longer any belief or suspicion that the mass, the half-educated simpering general … can in any way share his delights … The aristocracy of the arts is ready again for its service. Modern civilization has bred a race with brains like those of rabbits, and we who are the heirs of the witch-doctor and the voodoo, we artists who have been so long the despised are about to take over control.” 5
Pound later acclaimed Mussolini as his ideal artist-dictator. Behind all these recipes for supremacy we can observe the pressure of mass culture, driving intellectuals to invent new proof of their distinction in a world which increasingly found them redundant. The awkward question was, how could the superiority of the intellectual or artist be demonstrated, and in what, precisely, did it consist? In considering how intellectuals tackled this problem we must start with Nietzsche, because his answers represent intellectual aspiration in its most extreme form.
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.
* ‘Breeding’ is an important word for Nietzsche and for Lawrence. In combating the mongrel vulgarity of the masses, good family and pure blood are advantages, we gather. Nietzsche declares that one has a right to be a philosopher only by virtue of one’s origin. One’s ancestors, one’s blood, are the decisive factors. The philosopher’s lofty glance that looks down on the mob and its ‘duties’ and ‘virtues’ takes generations of good breeding to produce. ‘Breeding’ is always a term of approval in Lawrence. Alvina, in Lawrence’s The Lost Girl, is said to have ‘a certain breeding and inherent culture’, which give her a deep ‘ancient sapience’; and Connie Chatterley is relieved to see that Mellors, though a gamekeeper, is a gentleman: ‘She saw at once, he could go anywhere. He had a native breeding.’ 14
Lawrence follows Nietzsche, too, in discrediting logic and rationality . Ideas, which are the components of mental consciousness, are not real, he emphasizes. They are like dead husks or spectral abstractions. They are ‘thrown off from life, as leaves are shed from a tree, or as feathers fall from a bird’, and form a ‘dry, unliving, insentient’ insulation between us and the universe. Further, they are mechanical. The mind prints off like a telegraph instrument the grey representations which we call ideas. In his essay ‘Democracy’, Lawrence develops the case against ideas in order to devalue Christian humanism. The real enemy today, he maintains, is idealism, which seeks to instil love of humanity and the public good. These notions are, in Lawrence’s terms ‘a trick of the devil’, because they deprive life of its reality, substituting mere abstractions for the warm, felt pressures of which life is actually composed. 15
Both Lawrence and Nietzsche are in an awkward position when discrediting ideas, since they are, of course, expressing ideas themselves . Their arguments reflect their frustration, and their urge to escape the limiting conditions of their merely human state. As supermen they can expose the inbuilt fallacy which disqualifies all human thinking, but they can do so only by human thinking. Reason, said Nietzsche, ‘is a mere idiosyncrasy of a certain species of animal’, and does not relate to any reality. Nevertheless, reason was all he had to use.
Lawrence’s dissatisfaction with logic, like Nietzsche’s, arose, too, from a suspicion that logic would not warrant his conviction that he was a natural aristocrat. This conviction always intensified when he came into contact with what he regarded as particularly unwholesome outbreaks of democracy, such as trades unions or the United States of America. ‘I don’t believe either in liberty or democracy,’ he wrote when planning a trip to America in 1921. ‘I believe in actual, sacred, inspired authority: divine right of natural kings: I believe in the divine right of natural aristocracy, the right, the sacred duty to wield undisputed authority.’ ‘Divine’ is obviously a questionable term for Lawrence to use, since he did not, in any clear sense, believe in a divinity. His belligerent repetitions reflect his feeling of impotence in confrontation with the mass – ‘the monster with a million worm-like heads’. He tells himself that he will gradually call together ‘a choice minority, more fierce and aristocratic in spirit’, and that when labour troubles have led to revolution, then he will take over: ‘then I shall come into my own’. But the unlikelihood of such a political development was humiliatingly clear, and there was also the nagging consciousness that claims to natural aristocracy ran counter to his own deep poetic awareness of the singularity and uniqueness of every created thing. For if everything is unique, then it cannot be compared with other things, nor pronounced superior or inferior, and with this realization claims to natural aristocracy dissolve.
* Bound up with the question of how you recognize natural aristocrats is the question of what privileges they should enjoy. Both problems engage Clive Bell in Civilization, a work on which, Bell’s dedicatory letter tells us, Virginia Woolf acted as consultant. Civilization depends, according to Bell, on the existence of a small group of people of exquisite sensibility, who know how to respond to works of art, and who also have a refined appreciation of sensory delights such as food and wine. Without this ‘civilizing élite’, standards are bound to fall. Signs of decay are already apparent. ‘There are now,’ Bell regrets, ‘but two or three restaurants in London where it is an unqualified pleasure to dine.’ 21
What distinguishes these rare and gifted beings is their ability to detect ‘pure form’ in works of art. They pay no attention to the human interests or emotions which artworks might seem to arouse. Though these are what people incapable of aesthetic emotion look for in art, they are actually ‘sentimental irrelevancies’. True art does not consist in ‘what the grocer thinks he sees’, but in the ‘sense of ultimate reality’ the artwork yields to ‘educated persons of extraordinary sensibility’. No artist, Bell feels sure, has ever believed in human equality. ‘All artists are aristocrats.’ And by the same token true appreciators of art must always be few and superior. ‘The mass of mankind will never be capable of making delicate aesthetic judgements.’ 22
It follows that, if society wants to be civilized, it must establish conditions favourable to the preservation of the gifted few. Connoisseurs of pure form cannot be expected to earn their own living, for ‘almost all kinds of money-making are detrimental to the subtler and more intense states of mind’ required for artistic appreciation. Consequently, people of taste and discernment must be supported by public funds. They alone will be fully educated, and the state will make them a regular and ample allowance throughout their lives. It will also take responsibility for their children should they have any. Bell admits that this arrangement entails a degree of inequality, but all civilizations, he argues, have been built on inequality. Civilization requires the existence of a leisured class, and a leisured class requires the existence of slaves. Besides, the leavening effect of the civilized élite will, or may, percolate through to the slaves. The ‘barbarian’ in his ‘suburban slum’ may notice that the élite scorn gross pleasures (‘football, cinemas’), such as he wallows in, and this may entice him to sample refined artistic pleasure himself. A flaw in Bell’s scheme is that the barbarian, even if he develops artistic tastes, will not be able to indulge them, as he will remain deprived of the leisure obligatory for civilized life. This is not a complication Bell pursues, but he seems to anticipate some discontent on the part of the slaves, for he stipulates that his civilization will need an efficient police force. 23
Since for Bell what makes a civilization civilized is the presence of people able to view artworks in the approved way, such details as the form of government remain subsidiary. There is absolutely no reason, according to Bell, why tyrannical and despotic regimes should not be perfectly civilized. ‘To discredit a civilization it is not enough to show that it is based on slavery and injustice; you must show that liberty and justice would produce something better.’ ‘Better’, in this context, means, we note, more adapted to supporting people like Bell. This is the vital criterion. Liberty and justice are not good in themselves. 24
Bell accords with the general intellectual consensus in recognizing that civilizing women presents special difficulties. It is impossible, he decides, for a housewife to be civilized, for home and children blunt her intelligence and sensibility. But single women (‘old maids’ in Bell-speak) cannot be civilized either, for women must make love to men before the ‘exquisite’ is available to them, and before the ‘subtlest and most impalpable things of the spirit’ can float into their minds. In ancient Athens the sensitive and intelligent women were mistresses or prostitutes ( hetairae ), and so, Bell proposes, they should be in his civilization. Only a mistress, with a wide choice of ‘delightful lovers’, can overcome the drawbacks of her sex and attain civilized status. 25
Any theory of natural aristocracy must attribute the aristocrat’s superiority either to intrinsic qualities (secret knowledge, better artistic taste, superior vitality, etc.) or to some kind of supernatural selection. The theories we have considered so far, including Bell’s, opt for the first alternative. But Bell also inclines to the second, though rather mistily. By contemplating ‘pure form’ in artworks, his civilized élite will become aware of ‘the God in everything’, and taste the ‘ecstasy’ of the mystics, which is unavailable to the ‘vulgar’.
* For refugees from mass culture, the Roman Church was also winningly authoritarian and anti-democratic. Evelyn Waugh seems frequently to confuse Catholicism with social distinction…
* Baudelaire, Eliot concedes, may have been evil, but at least he was ‘man enough for damnation’. In a world consisting of ‘electoral reform, plebiscites, sex reform’, even damnation, Eliot suggests, is a kind of salvation, since it redeems one from ‘the ennui of modern life’. Baudelaire hated women and thought love evil, but ‘he was at least able to understand that the sexual act as evil is more dignified, less boring, than as the natural, “life-giving”, cheery automatism of the modern world’. What an unboring, dignified sexual act would be like, Eliot does not divulge, but he makes it clear that it would be superior to anything available in contemporary secular life. ‘It is better,’ he concludes, ‘in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least we exist.’ This appalling sentence leaves out of account, we notice, the effect of evil on its victims. A murderer, like Greene’s Pinkie, could hardly be said to make things ‘better’ for those he kills, even if he enhances his own spiritual reality. Eliot disregards such side issues, because he is intent upon the spiritual aristocrat, apart from and superior to the mass. Nietzsche, in the same vein, declared that the criminal ‘has this advantage over many other men, that he is not mediocre’. 30
The image of the Catholic that attracts Greene is never that of a church member subsumed into a body of believers, for that would reduce the convert to a mere recruit. When he went to Mexico in 1938, it was in the hope of finding evidence of Catholics being persecuted, and though he was disappointingly too late for any real atrocities, his artistic fascination with victims and outsiders remained a powerful element in his Catholicism. As a fugitive, hunted down by the pack, or as a rebel, cast out by God, the Catholic acquires the glamour of singularity – a glamour not available to mere faithful sheep. This meant that Greene had to seek an accommodation with Catholicism which would give him the special status of renegade. He made no secret of the fact that he was not convinced of God’s existence, which placed him on the perimeter of Catholic Church membership, and in his later years he discontinued going to confession or mass. 31 So, despite his Catholicism he remained ‘On the dangerous edge of things’ – like a Nietzschean solitary on his mountain peak, except that in Greene’s version there would be gunmen among the pine trees, closing in.
Even among intellectuals who have not entered a recognized church, we can observe a tendency to invoke God when they are driven to justify belief in the superiority of intellectuals and the artworks they prefer.
* The intellectual’s stratagem of appealing to God to justify the preeminence of intellectuals did not, of course, stop with Huxley. George Steiner’s recent book Real Presences shows the same inclination. It is in part an onslaught on mass culture, conveying the intellectual’s customary disdain for journalism, gadgetry and the empty lives most people lead. Like all Steiner’s books, it is a dazzling display of erudition. The index lists some 300 artists, musicians, philosophers, poets and cultural notables, ranging from Theodor Adorno to Gioseffo Zarlino, the Renaissance music theorist. Throughout Steiner firmly and persistently distinguishes what he calls worthwhile or significant or serious art and literature from the trash and kitsch most people prefer. Given a free vote the bulk of humankind would, he feels sure, choose football or bingo rather than Aeschylus. Further, they cannot be proved wrong. The truth or falsehood of literary and artistic judgements is not, he concedes, verifiable.
So how can the intellectual’s preferences be vindicated? How can the natural aristocrat establish his aristocracy? At this point Steiner, like Huxley, invites God to step in. All great art and literature, he declares, is ‘touched by the fire and the ice of God’. 40 Some of it, he admits, may have been produced by non-believers, but they must have been non-believers who felt God’s absence as an ‘ overwhelmin g weight’. The analogy is with Graham Greene’s kind of Catholic, who is unsure God exists but remains, by implication, as serious and spiritually distinguished as a believer, if not more so.
Steiner, then, forcibly recruits God as a cultural adjudicator, whose job is to vouch for those examples of art that intellectuals prize. What art, if any, God might like, Steiner does not inquire, and has no means of knowing (though if it is the biblical God he has in mind, the divine prejudice against graven images suggests artistic priorities incompatible with those of Western intellectuals like Steiner). The question of God’s likes and dislikes is irrelevant, though, to Steiner’s case, for God’s role in the transaction is not to make choices but to sanction the intellectual’s – that is, Steiner’s – judgements. This means that God is reduced to a convenient fiction, and in this respect He has the same utility, within intellectual discourse, as the ‘masses’. Like the masses He must conform to the intellectual’s imaginings; like the masses He must ratify the intellectual’s distinction.
* Writing to his friend Eduard Bertz in 1892, George Gissing gives a devastating summary of the cultural evils he sees around him. It is impossible to take up a newspaper without noting the ‘extending and deepening Vulgarity’ of the great mass of people. This is partly due to American influence, he fears, but the ground is prepared for it ‘by the pretence of education afforded by our School-board system’. Society is being ‘levelled down’. Democracy appeals only to base, material motives. ‘Thus, I am convinced, the gulf between the really refined and the masses grows and will grow constantly wider.’ Before long we shall have ‘an Aristocracy of mind and manners’ more distinct from the vast majority of the population than aristocracy has ever been before. 1
Intellectuals were to go on repeating these forebodings for decades. Precisely the same fears and loathings activated F. R. Leavis and his Scrutineers in their quest for superior ‘sensibility’, and they dominate his wife Q. D. Leavis’s anatomy of popular culture in Fiction and the Reading Public . Gissing’s anxiety about ‘levelling down’ is still echoed by intellectuals today, and the modern intellectual habit of contrasting English ‘philistinism’ with the allegedly richer culture to be found in France, Italy, or other countries where intellectuals spend their holidays, is also prefigured in Gissing, who fancied that he discerned in Italians an ‘innate respect for things of the mind’ lacking in ‘the typical Englishman’. 2 Gissing seems, in fact, to have been the earliest English writer to formulate the intellectuals’ case against mass culture, and he formulated it so thoroughly that nothing essential has been added to it since. The case has not been developed or advanced; it has simply been repeated. One reason for reading Gissing is that he allows us to watch the superstitions that dominate our idea of ‘culture’ taking shape.
Foremost among these superstitions is belief in an entity called ‘the masses’, which is by definition uneducated. Whether the masses could ever conceivably be educated or not is, for Gissing, a question of prime importance. It is noticeable that when he introduces a new character in a novel, he has two standard procedures. He concentrates either on the character’s facial features or on the character’s bookcase. The facial features yield, under Gissing’s scrutiny, extraordinarily detailed information about intellect and personality. From the nose, the chin, the curve of the lips or eyebrows even the most fugitive weaknesses of moral and mental make-up can with confidence be diagnosed. 3 The contents of the bookcase invariably corroborate the evidence of physiognomy, and are divisible into two categories. Shelves which contain poetry, literature, history and no natural science belong to sensitive, imaginative, intelligent characters . Shelves which contain politics, social science, technology and modern thought of virtually any description brand their owner indelibly as at best semi-educated and at worst cruel, coarse and dishonest.
* The contrast between the coarse scribblers who entertain this mob and genuine writers is the theme of Gissing’s greatest novel, New Grub Street, Here the struggling novelist Edwin Reardon, who believes in old-fashioned literary values, is modelled on Gissing. He has ‘never written a line that was meant to attract the vulgar’, and he dies destitute. His opposite number is the young journalist Jasper Milvain, ambitious, cold, shallow and prepared to do anything for money. ‘Literature nowadays is a trade‚’ boasts Milvain. He aims to produce ‘good, coarse marketable stuff for the world’s vulgar’. He knows there is no value in what he writes. Given certain basic skills anyone with brains can succeed in ‘out-trashing the trashiest that ever sold fifty thousand copies’. Encouraged by Milvain, his sisters start to write successfully for women’s magazines. He warns them to avoid unusual ideas and confine themselves to ‘vulgar thought and feeling’, so that they will ‘just hit the taste of the new generation of Board School children’. 50
Milvain is unprincipled in love as well as art. He throws over his fiancée and weds Reardon’s widow – a hard, ambitious woman who reads, of all things, social science. Milvain embodies myths still current among intellectuals. Gissing takes it for granted that in striving to reach a wide audience Milvain must write trash. The idea that popular writing might have ‘literary value’ is not entertained. It is assumed, too, that writing for a mass readership is easy. Anyone, or certainly any intellectual, could do it if he chose to debase himself.
* [H.G. Wells] realized, of course, that the population problem was even more acute outside Europe. In The Open Conspiracy, the book which he offered as a plain statement of his essential essential ideas, the profligate fertility and ‘inchoate barbarism’ of the inhabitants of the Orient and Africa are seen as obstacles to any real human progress. In India, North Africa, China and the Far East, Wells regretfully reports, ‘there goes on a rapid increase of low-grade population, undersized physically and mentally, and retarding the mechanical development of civilization’. In these ‘decadent communities outside the Atlantic capitalist system’, almost no intelligences would be found, he predicted, capable of grasping his plans for world improvement.
* A more insidious evil than newspapers, and less resistible, was woman. Though Wells was highly susceptible to feminine allure, his considered view of woman’s influence on civilization was not favourable. For one thing, it was undeniably woman’s unchecked fertility that was to blame for the population problem. For another, women notoriously used their sex appeal to captivate young males and force them into marriage, thus tying them to the breadwinning treadmill and effectively ending their lives as thinkers. This fate overtakes Wells’s Mr Lewisham, among others. The evidence suggests that Wells thought of women as by nature extravagant, and addicted to clothes, chatter and shopping. There is not a single woman, complains the consumptive Masterman in Kipps, ‘who wouldn’t lick the boots of a Jew or marry a nigger, rather than live decently on a hundred a year’.
* In later non-fiction works Wells applies his attention less to the extermination of inferior breeds and more to the application of birth-control within his New Republic itself. He concedes that the science of genetics is still imperfect, so selective breeding, such as eugenicists favour, is impractical. Not that he opposes, in principle, the idea that only certain couples should be allowed to have children, but the selection of those couples on genetic grounds grounds surpasses, he warns, current human knowledge. Accordingly he proposes to restrict parenthood to those who have the money and intelligence to make responsible child-rearers. The authorities should set minimum standards of clothing, cleanliness, growth, nutrition and education, and if these standards are not met, the child will be taken away and reared by the state at the parents’ expense. If the parents fail in their payments for the child’s maintenance, they will be put into celibate labour establishments to work off their debt, and they will not be released until the debt is fully discharged. These measures, Wells feels, will ensure a fall in the birthrate of ‘improvident, vicious and feeble types’.
* Wells is often thought of as a rationalist, bringing science to the succour of mankind and planning technological Utopias. This view is not false, but it is incomplete. Many aspects of modern mass-mankind repelled him – newspapers, advertising, consumerist women, cities. A return to peasant life was preferable. The development of his fiction suggests that destruction lured him even more powerfully than progress. Reducing the world’s population became an obsession. In fantasy he took – again and again, and with mounting savagery – a terrible revenge on the suburban sprawl that had blighted Bromley.
* Arnold Bennett is the hero of this book. His writings represent a systematic dismemberment of the intellectuals’ case against the masses. He has never been popular with intellectuals as a result.
* Later, when he had made his mark as a novelist, these humble antecedents were not forgotten by the intellectuals. He was ‘an insignificant little man and ridiculous to boot,’ declared Virginia Woolf’s brother-in-law, the art critic Clive Bell. ‘He was the boy from Staffordshire who was making good, and in his bowler hat and reach-me-downs he looked the part.’ According to Somerset Maugham , Bennett looked like ‘a managing clerk in a city office’, and was ‘rather common’. Wyndham Lewis sneered at his ‘grocer origins’; Virginia Woolf at his ‘shopkeeper’s view of literature’. Bertrand Russell found him so ‘vulgar’ that he could not bear to be in the same room. T. S. Eliot told his cousin in a letter of 1917 how annoyed he had been when he was discussing psychic research with W. B. Yeats and a red-faced man ‘with an air of impertinent prosperity and the aspect of a successful wholesale grocer’ came up and interrupted them, in ‘a most disagreeable cockney accent’. This, he discovered, was Arnold Bennett. It particularly aroused the intellectuals’ venom that Bennett should have presumed to make money from literature, as they could not. D. H. Lawrence described him to Aldous Huxley as a ‘sort of pig in clover’, and Ezra Pound satirized him as the corrupt, venal and philistine Mr Nixon, pontificating in the ‘cream and gilded cabin of his steam yacht’. 2
Bennett did indeed make enough money from his writing to buy a yacht – in fact, two.
* Bennett defends himself in his deliberately provocative – and very funny – autobiographical sketch The Truth About an Author , published in 1903. Here he explains that he had meant to keep himself ‘unsullied for the pure exercise of the artist in me’, and his first novel, The Man from the North , had been written ‘in the vein of the écriture artiste ’. But it had made no money, and his exclusive dedication to art and penury melted away ‘the instant I saw the chance of earning the money of shame’. 3
Bennett did not renounce art, of course, but he did not expect others to keep him while he produced it. In The Truth About an Author he goads the apostles of art by insisting that what an author labours for is ultimately ‘food, shelter, tailors, a woman, European travel, horses, stalls at the opera, good cigars, ambrosial evenings in restaurants’. His recognition of this has allowed him to approach the business of self-promotion systematically: ‘I wanted money in heaps, and I wanted advertisement for my books.’ His reviewing has also been strictly businesslike. On average, he reckons, he reviews a book and a fraction of a book every day of his life, Sundays included. He fits reviewing into unoccupied corners of time, and can polish off five novels inside three hours, earning three guineas. He does not, he admits, read every word, but, being an expert, he does not need to. 4
The Truth About an Author was an exercise in intellectual-baiting and should not be taken too seriously. Bennett’s reference to ‘the money of shame’, for example, was a joke, for he by no means thought it shameful to write for money. His aim was to mediate between highbrow and lowbrow culture. Intellectuals, he believed, should write so as to appeal to a wider audience, and he did not see why what the masses liked should automatically be accounted trash. In Fame and Fiction he analyses a number of best-sellers – by Marie Corelli, J. M. Barrie, etc. – to show that their popularity rests on genuine qualities which demand respect, and which only those besotted with the ‘dandyism of technique’ could ignore. This is what he would have expected to find, for between the popular and the highbrow reader there was, he argued, no essential difference.
* Bennett’s whole quarrel with intellectual contempt for the masses is that it is a kind of deadness, a mark of inferior not superior faculties – a dull, unsharpened impercipience shut off from the intricacy and fecundity of each human life. Hence for Bennett the heightened sensibility of the artist is not antagonistic to the masses but looks to the masses – or, rather, to the hidden lives which that crude metaphor deletes – for its natural succour.
* Aiming, as he did, to narrow the abyss between highbrow and lowbrow, he had to find a theme that was wider and more permanent than social problems – a universal theme that would have meaning for human beings at every level of intelligence and culture. The theme he chose was youth and age. This subject, inexhaustible in its implications and relevant to every mortal, is the keystone of his writing.
* The theme of youth and age naturally draws Bennett’s attention to children and the hopes parents invest in them. This is an interest that distinguishes him sharply from early twentieth-century intellectuals. The intellectual code regards fondness for children as suburban or middle class. According to this view, parenthood is a distraction from the serious pursuit of culture. ‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art,’ warns Cyril Connolly, ‘than the pram in the hall.’ 56 Literary intellectuals in the first half of the twentieth century tended to opt for childlessness or child neglect. Wyndham Lewis, for example, refused to have children by his wife, and took no responsibility for the illegitimate children his mistresses gave birth to. His son and daughter were both given away, ‘I have no children, though some, I believe, are attributed to me,’ he told a friend. ‘I have work to do.’ 57 The novelist Jean Rhys left her first child, a son, near an open window in midwinter, so that it caught pneumonia. It was sent to a hospice for the poor and died there aged three weeks while Rhys and her husband, the Dutch writer Jean Lenglet, were drinking champagne in their Paris flat. Rhys’s second child, a daughter, spent much of her early life in institutions. 58 When Olga Rudge bore Ezra Pound a daughter in 1925, the baby was handed over to a peasant couple to be reared in a remote village in the Austrian Tyrol. 59
Bennett, by contrast, appreciated that for normal people parenthood is the most important thing that ever happens.
* The apotheosis of the ordinary in Bennett carries an anti-intellectual charge. It reminds us that what is most valued in most people’s lives has nothing to do with art, literature or ideas, and it admonishes us that such lives are no less sensitively lived for that absence.
* Wyndham Lewis is the intellectuals’ intellectual. ‘There is no one,’ Rebecca West attested, ‘who can more deeply thrill one.’ T. S. Eliot called him ‘the most fascinating personality of our time’ and ‘the greatest prose master of style of my generation’. He encouraged Lewis to contribute to every issue of the Criterion. For Osbert Sitwell, Lewis shed ‘a new and illuminating light’ on every subject he touched upon. Edgell Rickword applauded him for trying to arrest ‘the degradation of values on which our civilization seems to depend’, and for ‘reasserting the terms on which the life of the intellect may regain its proper ascendancy’. It is symptomatic of the priorities of the Lewis lobby that Arnold Bennett should appear in Jeffrey Meyers’s biography of Lewis as a ‘complacent and philistine parvenu ’, a ‘middlebrow novelist’, who ‘adopted the obtuse attitude of the common reader’. 1
Comparison of Wyndham Lewis with Hitler is, of course, prompted by Lewis’s eager championship of the Führer in Hitler , published in 1931, Left Wings Over Europe, 1936, and Count Your Dead , 1937. There are a number of obvious similarities between the two figures. Both were obsessive, and expounded their relatively small collection of ideas with unflagging repetitiveness. Both regarded themselves as unjustly neglected artists, and took this neglect as the central fact around which to construct their distorted and vindictive models of the societies in which they lived. Both were powered to a considerable degree by hatred and resentment.