Howard Jacobson: Call it snobbery if you like, but someone has to rage against the dying of the light

The rush to rescue Jordan's false breasts from Amis's teeth is more than gallantry

Share
Related Topics

Doesn't matter where you look at the moment, at low culture or at high, the issue is the inability of the public to distinguish good from bad. Better dancers get thrown out of Strictly Come Dancing because worse dancers have a certain something about them that appeals to prepubescent girls and their only just post-pubescent mothers. Similar criteria operate to the real or feigned fury – there's no telling the difference – of X Factor judges. Nick Griffin appears on Question Time, talks bilge and gains supporters. And Martin Amis delivers a side swipe at Jordan aka Katie Price aka God knows who else at the top of the best-selling fiction list – Dan Brown? Stephenie Meyer? – and gets abused for being a snob.

I'm for banning the word snob in matters of cultural discrimination. When we're all going to hell in a hand cart a man can't be called a snob for drawing attention to it. Beside which, it's ad hominem. You can be a snob and you can still be right. You might express concern about global warming because you don't want hoi polloi to have a tan as deep as yours, but that doesn't mean there's no such thing as global warming.

I was disappointed to see this newspaper take the wrong side in Amis vs Jordan last week. First it was my friend and colleague David Lister who reprimanded Amis for making "a personal attack on a woman's physical attributes", though I'm damned if I can see how Amis's reference to Jordan's "two bags of silicone" is an attack on her physical attributes since they aren't her physical attributes. Were I to start wandering around with a 20in plastic phallus prominently displayed it would be entirely my business, but it wouldn't be my physical attributes people were laughing at. What is more, were 20in plastic phalluses to catch on among the impressionble young and become the sine qua non of masculinity, concern for the sad bastards submitting themselves to surgery would not constitute a personal attack on me.

I am all for living in a pluralist society where no one's idea of normality trumps anyone else's, but they are hard times indeed when you can't call silicone silicone and ludicrous ludicrous.

The second assault on Amis came from my colleague Janet Street-Porter who falsely analogised Jordan's "silicone bags" with Amis's teeth – false first, because Amis's famous dentistry was not by all accounts cosmetic, and second, because his success as a writer is not predicated on it. Janet Street-Porter went on to invoke sour grapes – not as an alternative description of Jordan's implants, but to explain Amis's disdain for them.

Let me be clear. This is not a defence of Martin Amis who can perfectly well defend himself. Nor is it an attack on colleagues who are only saying what others say. The issue is what we're reading at the moment and why we're reading it. A principle is at stake. The universal rush to rescue Jordan's false breasts from Amis's teeth is more than gallantry: it's a denial of judgement itself. It exalts worthlessness on the grounds that no one has the right to decide what is without worth. Rage, rage, the poet says, against the dying of the light. Reader, this is the dying of the light.

If I'm for banning the word "snob", I am for banning the phrase "sour grapes" still more. There is, quite simply, no life of the intellect – and not much in the way of ordinary intelligent conversation left either – when we can think of no motive for criticism but sour grapes. It is an essential rule of argument and the fair exchange of ideas that we assume disinterestedness even when there might be reason to suspect the opposite. That few of us attain that ideal Socratic disinterestedness in which ideas alone determine our judgement I concede. We are human. We survive or we don't in a state of constant evolutionary conflict. The muddy pool in which that man swims is the muddy pool from which I would like to drink. So there is bound to be an admixture of self-concern in all I say and do. The fair and sensible thing is to factor envy in, as we factor the need for air into our considerations of human motivation, and then proceed, having concern only for the justice of the argument advanced. Did the round-earther envy the flat-earther the number of his adherents? No matter. The earth is round.

Else we are bound upon a wheel of charge and counter charge. Assume that envy is the only conceivable reason Amis deplores the crap that people read and what is to stop me assuming that envy – for Amis's powers of articulation, say – is the only conceivable explanation for your assumption. And so we go.

Why anyone would choose to celebrate celebrity culture's invasion of literature at a time so bleak for books and those who read and write them – Jordan, you will remember, does not write her own, though she does "say how I want the stories" – is beyond answering here. Dissent fatigue could be part of it. Prophets of moral or intellectual decline go crazy in the end. And yes, can drive the rest of us just as mad. It's easier to turn on the telly and fall asleep. So we're a bunch of dunces. So what?

Everything has its season, I accept. And if the novel as an expression of our deepest feelings is dying, it is dying. But why would anyone rejoice that what's replacing it is the novel as expression of our shallowest feelings? To whom do we do a favour by offering to see nothing objectionable in brain-numbing prose, nothing retrograde to sense in an obsession with fame and riches, nothing demeaning to our intelligence in banality of expression and commonplace of thought, nothing in short to complain about in the utter degradation of what it is to be a thinking, feeling person?

What's wrong with escapism, it is asked, as though the only way to escape the torpor of existence is to become more torpid still. It is not considered good parenting to stupefy our children with alcohol, or to drug them into painless oblivion, or to deny them a good education on the grounds that it's snobbish to refuse a bad one. So how are we able to justify filling their minds with dross?

Entertainment? Don't make me laugh. If the evisceration of the entire artistic enterprise – language emptied of its subtle music, emotion reduced to bullet points of basic wants – is entertainment, then so is being knocked down by a bus.

Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Pentagon has suggested that, since the campaign started, some 10,000 Isis fighters in Iraq and Syria have been killed  

War with Isis: If the US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy