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

1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£22000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Thame i...

Graduate Project Manager

£25000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

PPA Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Teaching Assistant Cornwall

£45 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Plymouth: TEACHING ASSISTANTS REQUIRED F...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: out of time, polling and immigration and old words

John Rentoul
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past