Sunday 01 June 1997
The Life of Matthew Arnold by Nicholas Murray, Sceptre pounds 8.99. Whether in poetry or prose, Arnold's voice gnawed conscience-like at brash 19th- century empire-building, seeing through the moral cloak of the Establishment to the greed and cruelty beneath. In another age he might have been a satirist, a Swift or a Waugh. Instead, he became an elegiac poet of the Wordsworth school, a social critic and a conscientious public servant, holding down a position as School Inspector for 35 years. Murray suggests, intriguingly, that Arnold was in many ways the Victorian equivalent of George Orwell. The son of Dr Arnold of Rugby, he was a lifelong opponent of social inequality, a liberal who was passionately in favour of "the free play of thought, the disinterested attempt to see things as they really were". An "elegant Jeremiah", he hated the nation's class structure and commercial mentality, yet he never left the class into which he was born and his spirited attacks on philistinism (a usage he imported into the language) left him in this century covered undeservedly with the tar of elitism and the feathers of a snob.
The Sibling Society by Robert Bly, Penguin pounds 8.99. Praising the "Beatles' affectionate lyrics" at the expense of Kurt Cobain's death-wish, Bly longs for adolescence to get back to where it once belonged. His diagnosis of America's (and, soon, Europe's) problem is a publicist's dream. It is a comprehensive social, psychological and cultural explanation rolled into one easy bumper-sticker formula. Childhood has spread into youth; youth has infected middle age; old age, rouged, facelifted and pumped full of HRT, is a prancing parody of Peter Pan. No one wants to grow up, so there is no hierarchy, respect for experience or comprehension of death. Even the Oedipus complex has been washed away by a wave of single-mother families and community breakdown. Some of what Bly has to say is suggestive. But the folksy way he says it is irritating, a sing-song, tell-you-a-story tone which also masks an underlying authoritarianism. In this reader's mind at least, the warning sirens were wailing.
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