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New Age "Asiatic" thought ... is establishing itself as the
hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. (Zizek)

Monday, October 9

hitler for highbrows

For reasons that I hope will become clear, I love this guy -- perhaps because all the right sort of people seem to hate him so much.

Before Carey left to become a lowly book reviewer, he was the Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford University. Having mentioned the people who hate him -- and the horse he rode in on -- let me mention one right off: - David Womersley, who is himself Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford. For as this review on The Social Affairs Unit website is prefaced, Womersley "is left unimpressed by John Carey's What Good are the Arts?"

...Carey shows, to his own satisfaction at least, that many of the claims made over the centuries on behalf of art -- that it embodies a keener insight into the human condition, that it exerts a lenifying or civilizing influence on those who are devoted to it, that it is fully appreciated only by those who have laboriously acquired the mental and sentimental equipment to do justice to it, that it can connect us to the divine – are at best self-serving mysticism, at worst class-inspired deception.

Now, as self-serving mysticism and class-inspired deception are the chosen beat of Mystic Bourgeoisie, this bit of upper-crust sneerage was, suffice it to say, enough to make me buy the frickin book.

But first, excuse me? Lenifying? Though my 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary is no more than two feet from where I'm typing this, I'll be damned if some smarmy Oxonian is going to make me get up and heft one of those weighty tomes. Instead, I google lenifying. The first hit tells me:

Verb: lenify

  1. Cause to be more favourably inclined; gain the good will of - pacify, conciliate, assuage, appease, mollify, placate, gentle, gruntle

"Gruntle" ought to be a clue here. As in: I was gruntled to discover that Dr. Womersley's above-cited write-up was the second hit. Clearly, we are being told that, had we closely read our Bacon and Dryden, then -- and only then -- might we be qualified to parse the good don's review. If I may be permitted: what an asshole!

Writing in The Washington Post (January 29, 2006), Michael Dirda says about Carey leaving Oxford for the Sunday Times...

Now even for public intellectuals, this isn't a typical career move. Carey's biographical note further indicates that he's also been "a soldier, a television critic, a beekeeper, and a bar tender." Of course, we've all done lots of things in our lives, but to mention them on a dust jacket suggests that these previous jobs are somehow important to this book. And they are. What Good Are the Arts? is in fact an intensely argued polemic against the intellectually supercilious, the snooty rich and the worship of high culture as a secular religion for the spiritually refined and socially heartless. Anyone seriously interested in the arts should read it.

Let me repeat and savor that line: "a secular religion for the spiritually refined and socially heartless." Ah, I think I hear music! (Possibly the Kyrie from Palestrina's Missa Aeterna Christi Munera.)

Yes, well anyway, we've already encountered Carey in these very pages, though I doubt you'll remember. Let me quote myself, for example, from The Will to Power (my blog post, not Nietzsche's notebooks -- though those come into it). In The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939, John Carey writes of the modernist literary elite's withering contempt for humanity at large (p. 12):

The old, the sick and the suffering suggest themselves as particularly ripe for extermination. Nietzsche affirms that "the great majority of men have no right to existence, but are a misfortune to higher men." He blames the corruption of the European races on the preservation of sick and suffering specimens. The breeding of the future master race will entail, he warns, the "annihilation of millions of failures."
This leads Carey into a discussion of the eugenics movement....
As in so much else, Nietzsche was the trendsetter in this area of early twentieth-century progressive thought. In The Will to Power he contemplates the establishment of "international racial unions" whose task will be to rear a master race -- a new "tremendous aristocracy" in which "the will of philosophical men of power and artist tyrants will be made to endure for millennia." Meanwhile, there are certain people, such as chronic invalids and neurasthenics, for whom begetting a child should be made a crime. In numerous cases society ought to prevent procreation by the most rigorous means, including, if necessary, sterilization. The prohibition of life to decadents is, Nietzsche urges, vital.

Good heavens. No wonder people don't like John Carey.

One person who particularly doesn't like him is the anonymous coward who wrote the following Amazon review of The Intellectuals and the Masses. Titled "Intellectual hatchet-job," here it is in all its verbatim glory...

When I adjudicated secondary-school debating competitions, there was always one dependable red flag that signalled a crumbling argument: the comparison with Hitler. Hitler was the teenager's favourite: if you could infect your opponent's argument with just a touch of Hitlerism, the crowd was instantly on your side and your opponent now had to climb a mountain of odium to win them back. The biggest and most facile cliche was always the favourite amongst the weak speakers for knocking down an argument with one brute blow. All that was required to make it work was the unthinking presence of a large crowd.

With this in mind, it is disturbing to discover that an Oxford Professor of Literature is able to do no better. Carey has written an entire book that appeals to the masses (for its dishonest nature similarly requires an unthinking audience for its success). It confirms from on high the masses' most vulgar sterotypes about some of our most well-respected intellectuals and writers: their snobbery, elitism, wilful esoterica and even their supposed personal problems. Given this fact, it's no surprise that a comparison with the lowest common denominator of villains crops up - yes, Hitler.

The most objectionable aspect of the book is that instead of examining the validity of the selected writers' ideas on their own merit, Carey focuses mainly on their personal shortcomings. In attempting to appeal to a not especially bright readership, Carey certainly knows what he's doing: after all, once you are made to think that Nietzsche was resentful and unfulfilled, that H.G. Wells had sexual problems, that Virginia Woolf was annoyed by bland banter because she was approaching madness, and that Wyndham Lewis had similar thoughts about art and culture to Hitler, it's difficult to warm to their ideas, whether right or wrong. The chapter on Lewis and Hitler is particularly funny since on the basis of the incidental similarities Carey finds between the two, thousands of other writers could be accused of Nazism.

Why would an academic take on such a mission? Why write an entire book deliberately quoting the top writers out of context and classifying them as maladjusted fools? Why stoop to such such low-bred ad hominem attacks? If the Professor feels that literature suffers from a lack of popular appeal, demonising some of its finest luminaries is hardly going to help.

One reason I quoted that in its entirety is a little number that was described in a 1994 Wired article titled Meme, Counter-meme, and has come to be known as Godwin's Law. To wit: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." Godwin's Law is now enshrined on its own Wikipedia page. Back in the day, Godwin and I traded email occasionally, and I have no reason whatsoever to think ill of him. He had a legitimate point. In the Wired piece he says that such offhand comparisons...
trivialized the horror of the Holocaust and the social pathology of the Nazis. It was a trivialization I found both illogical (Michael Dukakis as a Nazi? Please!) and offensive (the millions of concentration-camp victims did not die to give some net.blowhard a handy trope).
However, the article ends with this...
In time, discussions in the seeded newsgroups and discussions seemed to show a lower incidence of the Nazi-comparison meme. And the counter-meme mutated into even more useful forms. (As Cuckoo's Egg author Cliff Stoll once said to me: "Godwin's Law? Isn't that the law that states that once a discussion reaches a comparison to Nazis or Hitler, its usefulness is over?") By my (admittedly low) standards, the experiment was a success.
Unfortunately, this "law" also creates a convenient excuse to discount discussion of the genuine protofascists, fascist apologists and outright Nazis that have inhabited our history, literature and "spirituality" for at least a century and a half.

Would the shocked-just-shocked Amazon reviewer have found Carey's chapter on Wyndham Lewis and Hitler quite so funny if he'd bothered to notice that Lewis wrote a book titled Hitler in 1931 in which he explicitly praised der Führer and National Socialism? Had he actually read The Intellectuals and the Masses, it seems strange that he would have missed Lewis's Hitler, as Carey mentions it by name on the first page of that chapter and quotes from it in several places. In introducing one such quote, Carey writes...

[Lewis's] depiction of Hitler similarly stresses the Führer's rigorous, clean-living masculinity. The "celibate inhabitant of a modest Alpine chalet -- vegetarian, non-smoking, non-drinking," Hitler "has remained the most simple and unassuming of men." His myrmidons, the Nazi storm troopers, have, Lewis assures his readers, been much misunderstood in England. Far from being armed roughs and hoodlums, they resemble a "picked police force." Legality is their watchword. The mere sight of them is enough to allay civilized fears.
These hefty young street-fighting warriors have not the blood-shot eyes and furtive manners of the political gutter-gunmen, but the personal neatness, the clear blue eyes, of the police. The Anglo-Saxon would feel reassured at once in the presence of these straightforward young pillars of the law.

Hitler, Wyndham Lewis
Chatto and Windus, London, 1931, p. 65

Whew, huh? No reason to be alarmed -- long as your Anglo-Saxon papers are in order. Nothing to see here, move along...

But who was Wyndham Lewis, exactly?

Percy Wyndham Lewis is credited with being the founder of the only modernist cultural movement indigenous to Britain.
OK, so that doesn't make much sense. There was really only one "modernist cultural movement," and it started in England, sure. But saying it was the only one indigenous to Britain is like saying... Oh, never mind. It's just stupid. Why am I not surprised, though? The quote comes from a loving tribute to Lewis on OswaldMosley.com -- Mosley having been the founder of the British Union of Fascists. Reading further, we learn that...
Lewis was an extreme individualist, whilst rejecting the individualism of 19th Century liberalism. His espousal of a philosophy of distance between the cultural elite and the masses brought him to Nietzsche, although appalled by the popularity of Nietzsche among all and sundry; and to Fascism and the praise of Hitler, but also the eventual rejection of these as being of the masses.

So, summing up, the good news is that Wyndham Lewis ultimately rejected Hitler and Nazism. The bad news is that he repudiated them because they were... vulgar.

Me, I'm sticking with John Carey. And, because I'm out of time, Roger Kimball will just have to go fuck himself.




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