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

Saturday 07 November 2009 01:00

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.

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