Clinkety-clink, here they come in handcuffs and leg-irons, the Modernist intellectuals, Eliot and Pound, Yeats and Nietzsche, people you find it hard to read, or, if you are Kingsley Amis, gave up reading years ago, Freud and Ortega y Gasset, Woolf and Wyndham Lewis, off to the correction centre, snobs and aesthetes, misogynists and maniacs every one. Wash your mouth out, Ezra, less of your lip, Virginia, take that sneer off your face, Tom.
The Modernists have never been short of enemies. Hitler, under whose leadership the books of Mann, Freud, Zola and Proust went up in flames, cleansed German art galleries of degenerates such as Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and Gauguin. Stalin, with the help of a monster called Zhdanov, stamped out the bourgeois decadence of Akhmatova and Mandelstam. In Britain we have been more lenient: hatred of Modernism has been confined to the occasional tetchy outburst - Philip Larkin, for example, identified the 'principal themes' of modern art as 'mystification and outrage'.
John Carey has written the sort of book that Amis, Larkin and the Movement generation would have liked to have written themselves. Witty, passionate, entertaining and deeply wrong, he argues that 'the principle around which Modernist literature and culture fashioned themselves was the exclusion of the masses, the defeat of their power, the removal of their literacy, the denial of their humanity'. The realism and logical coherence it was assumed the fact-hungry masses appreciated were abandoned; irrationality and obscurity, symbolism and ambiguity took their place.
Carey's chief enemy is Nietzsche, who wrote that a 'declaration of war on the masses by higher men is needed' and who encouraged intellectuals everywhere to lord and lady it over the rabble. The newspapers the masses read, the horribly sprawling suburbs they lived in, the tinned food they ate, their sentimental interest in such lowly matters as children, their pathetic efforts to educate themselves or acquire 'culture', their pasty faces and sloping shoulders and stunted physique, their shallow herd belief in 'democracy', the silliness of their women: all these were treated to writerly contempt.
Behind the contempt lay fear, of course. Fantasies of mass annihilation or sterilisation, Carey shows, were common in Modernist literature. The masses were bacteria, a plague or virus; they were only half-alive; they behaved, in crowds, like savages, like an unruly id. The only way to tolerate them was through a sort of populist pastoral (Pound's equation of a Metro crowd with 'petals on a wet, black bough'), or to escape to Italy and India, where the peasants were more colourful. If all else failed, you could always go scaling Alps: up there in the mountains you felt free, and properly superior.
In Carey's anthology of offensive attitudes, few escape the rap. James Joyce almost does, because he treats with loving thoroughness the profoundly ordinary life of Leopold Bloom. On the other hand, Carey points out, 'Bloom himself would never and could never have read Ulysses' because of its avant-garde techniques. A revolutionary means of evaluating literature beckons here (is The Tempest worthless because Caliban wouldn't have got on with it?), but Carey contents himself with pronouncing Joyce guilty of 'duplicity'. He sniffs out a similar sort of doublethink in Orwell who, whatever his Leftist convictions, found the masses both dirty and smelly. Even Mass Observation is seen as a sinister project, because it treated working people as specimens.
In the end only one writer passes muster: Arnold Bennett, 'the hero of this book'. Bennett loves the things other intellectuals detest: seaside crowds, popular journalism, modern bathrooms, advertising. He doesn't feel ashamed of making money from writing. He knows what 'normal people' value, and it's not 'the pastimes intellectuals value - literature, art, philosophy'. Carey, who can be wonderfully sarcastic describing the writers he dislikes, becomes almost lyrical in his sentimentality about his hero: Bennett, he says, 'gives us access to the realities that blaze and coruscate inside dowdy or commonplace bodies'.
The alternative to Bennett, the last chapter suggests, was Hitler. Echoing Donald Davie, who once claimed that the line from imagism in politics to Fascism in politics is clear and unbroken, Carey argues that many of the Fuhrer's beliefs - in natural aristocracy and the divine spark of genius, in the inferiority of women, children and non-Aryans - were rooted in highbrow orthodoxy. (Hitler's hatred of modern art is not alluded to.) So fictional dreams of mass extermination became the Nazi death-camps, and empty ideas became hollowed flesh. Thankfully, since the passing of Hitler and the Modernist intellectuals, things have begun to look up - Carey finds hope in the lack of obscurity in contemporary poetry, and in television programmes such as Civilisation. But the old contempt for the masses is still there, he believes, in deconstruction, Roland Barthes, and dread academic theory.
For 15 years, John Carey has been our leading Sunday books reviewer - the Archbishop of Wapping, preacher and moral guide, a man who likes to play the part of Joe Public against the snobs of Sissinghurst, the ghouls of Garsington, and all the other dandies and fops and charlatans. This book, too, is empowered by Carey's almost Marxist energy in speaking up (rather as the poems of Tony Harrison do) for the mob against the nobs. His chapter on the suburbs is a triumph of academic research and private indignation. No one, having read it, could ever again use the adjective 'suburban' in casually pejorative fashion.
But Carey, who praises Wells for being in two minds at once and thus saved from 'mere prescription', is too busy hammering the drum of his thesis to allow himself equivalent mental room. He does not seem to have noticed, for example, that in lumping European intellectuals into one mass he is practising the same individuality-denying method he castigates them for; nor that his putdowns of modern writers mimic their own tone of know-better superiority; nor that, in an age when crowds clamour to see Picasso exhibitions, his idea that ordinary people can't appreciate Modernism carries its own sort of condescension.
For all his populist protestations, it's obvious Carey would much rather be reading Lawrence and Orwell, Gissing and Wells than Jeffrey Archer, Catherine Cookson and their early 20th-century equivalents. Whether this doesn't imply the superiority of 'high' art, whether works like The Waste Land or Women in Love remain undamaged, artistically, by the attitudes underpinning them: these are questions he never faces, just as he never acknowledges the possibility that the 'difficulty' of Modernism was a genuine artistic endeavour rather than class warfare - 'an attempt,' as Eliot said, 'to put something into words which could not be said in any other way'. Eliot also wrote that he liked to think his poetry might be 'read and declaimed in the public house, the forecastle and the shipyard', that the 'uneducated' might appreciate it, and that 'the audience for the more highly developed, even for the more esoteric kinds of poetry is recruited from every level': this may have been hopelessly fanciful of Eliot but it doesn't sound like a conspiracy to exclude proles.
Carey is rightly condemning of the snootiness and worse he uncovers, and which a public-school-and-Oxbridge-education still seems to breed. But Modernist intellectuals have no monopoly on condescension. You can find hauteur in even so resolute an anti-Modernist and anti-intellectual as Philip Larkin, with his 'cut-price crowd' and seamy Whitsun wedding parties. You can find it in Betjeman, too - 'an eight-hour day for all, and more than three/of those are occupied in making tea'.
Towards the end, Carey withdraws from the wilder fringes of his thesis. Looking at the explosion in world population, which it is estimated will grow from 5.3 billion in 1990 to 8.6 billion in 2025, he uses a word his despised intellectuals might have used ('no one can tell how the planet will feed and accommodate such hordes') and admits that their predicament is to some extent our predicament, too. He might have added that a fear of the mob (see Shakespeare's Coriolanus) has been persistent since ancient times, and that a preference for woods and fields over housing estates still seems pretty widespread, not least among occupants of housing estates. If Carey had allowed himself to ponder such paradoxes he might have written a wise book rather than a merely clever one.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies