Another Undeniable Fact Denied

Nick Cohen said something interesting in the Observer the other day:

To take it from the top, the scandal about Britain’s television stations and many of its other cultural institutions is not that they are run by people who are motivated by anything so high-minded as converting the public to a political philosophy, but that they are run by well-educated and very well-paid men and women from the upper-middle class who protect themselves and their privately educated children from competition by feeding the masses mush – the favoured policy of aristocracies down the ages. That they do none the less read liberal newspapers and pretend that their pursuit of profit and market share is a radical blow in the anti-elitist class struggle is merely a sign that they have fooled themselves along with everyone else.

Yeah. [waves small flag of indeterminate hue and pattern] That’s one of the things I always don’t get about this supposed anti-elitism thing. Why is it considered right-on and good and of the moral high ground to tell everyone that putative ‘high’ culture (which is a very debatable category anyway, and remarkably often consists simply of popular culture that’s older than immediately contemporary popular culture) is ‘elitist’ and therefore tainted and reprehensible? Why is it not considered far more elitist to withold putative ‘high’ culture from people who might well like it and get quite a lot out of it, might in fact have their lives changed by it? Ever seen Ken Branagh’s ‘A Mid-winter’s Tale’? That’s about having one’s life changed by ‘Hamlet,’ as Branagh in fact did. It’s about being perfectly ordinary, not an aristocrat or otherwise privileged or ‘special,’ being a lower-middle-class provincial teenager like millions of others (like Shakespeare himself in his day, like Marlowe, Jonson, Clare, Mary Anne Evans) and being shaken to the roots by a 400 year old play. Does that make Branagh an ‘elitist’? Should he have resisted the life-changing? Should he have told himself that Shakespeare was only for posh people and gone back to Reading and got a job selling paper? Should Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi? Should Keats have stuck to his pills, as John Gibson Lockhart advised him, and leave poetry to the well-born Harrow and Cambridge types like Byron? If not, why is it now considered elitist to think it’s worthwhile to offer people of any class or status a chance to read Lear and The Tale of Genji and the Iliad and Don Quixote?

Jonathan Rose has a lovely article on this at City Journal. (If you haven’t read Rose’s wonderful book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, do yourself a favour and read it now. The article should inspire you in that direction.)

In 1988, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, president of the Modern Language Association, authoritatively stated (as something too obvious to require any evidence) that classic literature was always irrelevant to underprivileged people who were not classically educated. It was, she asserted, an undeniable “fact that Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare do not figure significantly in the personal economies of these people, do not perform individual or social functions that gratify their interests, do not have value for them.

Rose gives many examples of why that statement is flat-footed nonsense, and repulsively insular to boot.

For all his gentle liberalism, even E. M. Forster shared that class prejudice. In his 1910 novel Howards End, the pathetic clerk Leonard Bast tries to acquire a veneer of culture, but his efforts are hopeless…The reality was profoundly different. The founders of Britain’s Labour Party identified Ruskin, more than anyone else, as the author who had electrified their minds and inspired a vision of social justice. At the time, the brightest working-class boys often entered clerkdom, one of the few professions then open to them, and they often brought to their office an incandescent intellectual passion…None of this interested Forster or, for that matter, most literary scholars of the past 25 years. Some of the latter did investigate the responses of readers, but not “common” readers. The audience that mattered, wrote Cornell University deconstructionist Jonathan Culler, consisted of “oneself, one’s students, colleagues, and other critics”—all members of the academic club…As a result, academic literary criticism became ever more ingrown, disengaged from the general public, and fractured into several mutually unintelligible theoretical sects.

But no matter, because the struggle against ‘elitism’ is in great shape. People are being told to put down that book and turn the tv on, so the hell with the WEA and all its works. Right? Right.

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