I’m reading a very good short book by John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses. It touches on a subject that greatly interests me, namely which blessings are available to the average person, and which are not. Literature, for example—clearly not all of what passes as literature is going to be accessible to everyone, or even potentially accessible. Which leaves me wondering, are some joys just beyond the reach of most people, or do we make an important mistake when we assume that such things are joys?
I like a writer who is upfront about his intentions. Carey introduces his book as follows:
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’.
Sometimes changing circumstances can shine a bright light into the dark recesses of our hearts. As long as access to “the best that has ever been thought or said” was limited by practicalities, intellectuals could view their special social status (and the lifestyle it required) as noblesse oblige. But once the public became literate, that status had to suddenly be defended; there’s not much special about a club that just anyone can join.
The end point of this attitude, of course, is the old Groucho Marx quip: “I refuse to join any club that will have me as a member!” Most of us are not so secure in our conviction that we are right and the rest of the world is wrong, so we like to have at least a few others in our club for reassurance (and for purposes of mutual admiration). But there must be a gate, and it must be manned vigilantly.
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 in 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.
What has surprised me in reading Carey’s book is how transparently contemptuous the intellectuals were of the newly educated public, what they referred to as the masses. Writers we all admire (or think we admire) wrote some pretty vile things about these folks. And Carey claims that it was made possible only by conjuring up a notion of “the masses” which had no basis in reality.
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.
Intellectuals aside, isn’t this a fairly accurate description of the rhetorical strategy of our age? We are quick to seize on any group characteristic that doesn’t include us, whether it be racism or environmental wackoism or climate change denialism or easy believism or fundamentalism or feminism or capitalism or socialism or partriachalism or egalitarianism or clericalism or individualism. We apply the name to ‘people’ who don’t actually have names or faces or histories, who we have no personal acquaintance with. And then we proceed to point out to those inside the gates how ridiculous these ‘people’ are, how absurd, how irrational, how lacking in character, how … inferior they are to us.
Carey makes a telling observation about the idea of the masses.
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. Even in modern times, the belief that God is implicated in the condemnation of the mass lingers on among intellectuals […]
Outer darkness comes in many forms, and there is no small pleasure to be had in consigning others to it, since it reinforces the idea that God has very strict standards for choosing those He will love—and it’s sweet to have made the cut.
Lately I’ve been exploring the opposite attitude, namely that if it is something that separates me from a (potential) brother—and who isn’t a potential brother?—then it is adiaphora, neither mandated nor forbidden. I don’t want to deal with the difficult cases by dehumanizing them in order to consign them to outer darkness, I want to confront them in their rich, complex, confusing, mixed-bag humanity.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote this:
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.
It reminds me of a friend I had once, a very kind and sweet older woman who along with me attended the most liberal Episcopal church in Austin, the most liberal city in Texas. She was a dedicated parishioner, participating fully in the life of the church. At one retreat we both attended, somehow the conversation turned to overpopulation, and she told me that even though it was pretty tough-minded she could see the wisdom in China’s one-child policy. In that moment it was very, very important to me that we were sitting across a picnic table from one another, that I could see the thoughtfulness in her face, that I had a history with her and knew her to be kind and sweet and very serious about her faith—because it forced me to wrestle truthfully with the things in our thinking that separated us, rather than simply write her off as an abstraction.