Saturday, 15 July 2017

Clean It Up!

R.W. Johnson is rude and coarse. Leslie Stephen is charming, tolerant and generous, but even he is a little, a teensy-weeny bit, unkind. Few intellectuals like the liberals. The reason is an old and simple one: the professional’s irritation at the amateur who will insist on bumbling into their workshop and telling them how it should be done.

Liberals are dabblers in ideas. They play with the surface of concepts, whose meaning once learnt at home, at school, in the university, is now acquired through the newspapers, those life-long friends. Rarely do they think about these concepts; instead they admire them, play with them, show them to all who are kind: parents, friends, colleagues at work; such a pleasurable chorus of praise. Outrageous! You calling my ideas toys! And anyway I think about them all the time. Exactly. Far too quick to grasp at my words. Thought without thinking. We need to slow down. Shall we go for a quiet walk...

"Think" has a variety of meanings, and in this case you have confused a generic term with its specific application;1 mixing up the automatic processes of thought with a particular kind of thinking, with analysis: the taking of a concept to pieces to see the layers of meaning it has accrued over time; ideas a cliff face striated by geological strata, most of the meaning lying near the top, just underneath the grass and earth. What about the pebbles at the base? We shouldn't worry about those too much,2 although…But but… Although for most people it is precisely these pebbles where all the value of a concept lies. Ideas for the majority atoms of meaning, a definition in the dictionary. This will not do….! Are you not happy with the image? I will try a different one: for the liberal ideas are like the vegetables they buy in the supermarket: grown, washed and packaged by somebody else. The results are obvious; the ideas not emerging out of a person’s being - we think of the organs, the nervous system, limbs - they remain essentially external, an add-on; pleasant for sure, becoming for sure; but more like clothes than skin. But you cannot… I am not saying you don’t believe in these ideas; that you are not serious about them. Of course you do and are. See: now you are angry with me. We think of Bathsheba’s reaction when a friend criticises her favourite dress; and those shoes, you know, they make you look like a tart. Ideas are very important to the liberal. However, if a crisis occurs the gap between idea and feeling will reveal itself; and if the emotional interests and ideas are radically opposed the latter will be discarded. Bathsheba won’t be wearing those shoes if no one likes them.

Myfanwy walks out of the bathroom. She is wearing a green silk and violet lace chemise. Eric bustles in, and grabs her around the waist, his hands inked with earth and compost…. You brute! Look! Look at those marks. I’ll have to change again now. Get out! Go. Go! Go and wash your hands. 

Poor Eric - he is still new to this game - hasn’t learned that if one wants to maintain the fantasy of the beautiful muse he must keep the outside world, with all its dirt and work, outside the French windows.

We love pretty women, and we love them even more when they dress beautifully, such style, the grace; walking in the street alongside Bathsheba we feel heady with our own handsomeness; the click of her stiletto heels registering our luck, our riches, the happiness of this world. Yes! We really are wonderful! Admiring ourselves in the smiles of passers-by; dismissing the frowns and jibes as envy, the products of poverty. Brutes, mere brutes.

“Yet why should intellect and character be so barren? It seems as if the highest efforts of the most intelligent people produce a negative result; one cannot honestly be anything.” (Old Bloomsbury in Moments of Being)3

An intellectual cannot accept such complacency. Should a gorgeous dress, that gives a beautiful expression to the lithe body, be allowed to conceal the hideous birthmark that disfigures the wearer’s stomach? Of course not! For intellectuals such ugliness is truth; the attempt to hide these things under a beautiful facade condemned as inconsistent, is ridiculed as weakness, is called lies.4 R.W. Johnson is typical; seeing only the surface prettiness and its inconsistency with the life, he forgets a simple fact: that to live in the world of especially the rich and civilised one must believe that everyone is nice, all are talented, and that beauty is what we say it is: we are all captivating!5 Johnson has lived too long amongst the dust and damp of old books…

Johnson fingers Mary Warnock more unequivocally as an English hypocrite. Opposed to co-ed colleges for years, she changed her mind when her husband became principal of Hertford College, which was about to vote to admit women. At that point the ‘First Lady’ of Hertford fell silent on the subject, but when Johnson met her at the side of a cricket field and needled her, she told him that ‘no one could be against co-education when you see what lovely young girls we’ve got at Hertford.’ Warnock was also against euthanasia until her husband contracted a fatal lung disease, whereupon ‘she did a 180-degree turn and ended up sponsoring an Assisted Suicides Bill in the House of Lords.’ This is how confused liberals work; they don’t know their own minds until reality hits them with a misfortune or a piece of good luck, and then they go scurrying for the ship’s supplies like a horde of disabused rats. A strain of British sentimentality sees them as ‘the great and the good’. Warnock is typical: far from being ‘a clear-headed moral philosopher’ she is a ‘classically muddled (and opinionated) British mandarin’. (Jeremy Harding, Bristling Ermine)

It is not easy for those who take ideas seriously to accept an amateur’s frivolity. Even the hyper-civilised, extremely tolerant Desmond MacCarthy is irritated at times with the liberal’s make-believe.

I was struck at the Conference by the absence of shyness and nervousness in the speakers; the naturalness with which most of them began to speak and the naturalness with which they stopped. This was heartening to me. For apart from that estimate of our civilisation which is summed up in the saying of Tolstoi’s, ‘The rich will do anything for the poor except get off their backs’—an arrow I shall never be able to pull out of my conscience—the principal consideration which makes me democratic in feeling is a preference for the plain claptrap of the semi-educated to the more insidious and perfect humbug of the well-to-do. If a man is going to pretend to be better than he is, sans peur et sans reproche, perfectly pure, perfectly disinterested, adequately informed on every necessary point, quite unbiased in judgment and all the rest of it, I prefer that the result should not be much more plausible than a child dressed up as a Red Indian. (A Glimpse of the Labour Party in Humanities)

We remember Virginia Woolf’s criticism of the lesser Elizabethans: though we want fabulous things in our fictions we also want our Lancelot and Guinevere, our dragons and behemoths, to be made of something more than clouds and papier mâché; even in Avalon we must smell the morning air, touch the petals drenched with dew.6 Today, the marvellous beasts have left the poems and plays for the television and computer screen: we see them on the news, find them amongst the articles of political commentary, the essays of social comment; there are rather a lot in the New Statesman. We even find them in the literary pages of the TLS. It becomes a bore. For the truly educated mind the fairy tales of the liberal press are enervating. So much high talk. So many abstract concepts, that are never defined, analysed, compared with a reality they are supposed to convey. We enter a room eager for a serious conversation and… The evening is a wasteland of empty talk; our interlocutors going on and on about dwarfs, satyrs and the pretty pink angels who tomorrow will save us; yes they will, I read it in the Guardian; they are doing a wonderful series on this; the next one will be next Saturday, you must…I will lend you…

We need more than ideas if we are to understand our world.

I don’t understand you. A fantasist, is that what you are calling me? I just don’t… Cartoon characters! What are you saying? That I should believe in mythical beasts? What, Merlin really existed? But that’s impossible! What! Merlin’s more real to you that my own mother and father. You’re having me on, aren’t you? Come on, stop it. Stop mucking about. 

The problem of metaphor. So easy to confuse the unwary. Especially the layman, today’s liberal. So let us be clear. Today, Hieronymus Bosch would include Politicians, Artists, European Technocrats and the Celebrities of the Press in his Garden of Earthly Delights. These our fabulous creatures.

Leslie Stephen, who gave up the academic life, is more civilised than the choleric Johnson, who didn’t. Stephen feels sorry for the young girl, the whimsy of her foolish mistakes making her so attractively fragile. He is no puritan. He admires her beauty and taste: the dark red of her cotton blouse, the pleated silk of her black skirt, swishing around her ankles. He is a little bit in love. He buys her a multicoloured scarf, which she wears swinging freely from neck to waist, to reveal that dark demureness as a pose, a role to play; he knows it, and loves her a little more. Of course Kitty will not stay long in the study. He is happy she is there at all.

And the good, kindly, well-meaning people—for, doubtless, there were some such even at the court of Herod—would have been sincerely shocked at the discovery that the vehement denunciations to which they had listened were in good truth the utterance of a tortured and unhappy nature, which took in all sincerity a gloomy view of the prospects of their society and the intrinsic value of its idols, instead of merely getting up indignation for purpose of pulpit oratory. They—complacent optimists, as kindly people are apt to be—have made up their minds that a genuine philosopher is always a benevolent, white-haired old gentleman, overflowing with philanthropic sentiment, convinced that all is for the best, and that even the ‘miserable sinners’ are excellent people at bottom; and are grievously shocked at the discovery that anybody can still believe in the existence of the devil as a potent agent in human affairs. (Carlyle’s Ethics, in Hours in a Library, Volume III)

Kill off Kitty and we destroy civilisation. For without such decoration, and the hypocrisy that goes with it, our lives are hardly bearable.

Auden belongs to Stephen’s culture; his Shield of Achilles capturing perfectly a civilised thinker’s response to the intellectual’s dilemma: the lovely music of the liberal folk song, with its simple calls for the ideal, contrasting with the complex lines of the ugly realities they are forever trying to hide.

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas…

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
    Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries seated for the day was hot;
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

Do we envy an intellectual’s life; bitter at her own wisdom; hating her lost innocence?7 We feel sorry for her, suggest she gives up the books and the magazines; get a job in WH Smith… What! You’re a fool, a heretic. You know what you are, you’re a reactionary… Because I suggest that society is too complex for simple ideas? That politics is different from knowledge; that Plato got it completely wrong; that a life must come before a concept?8 Next you’re going to suggest…

I will! The universities are dangerous. Their buildings overflowing with Platonic characters who want to unload their bile - they call it truth, reality, reason - onto a world that they hardly understand, and which, inevitably, is rejecting them, decade on decade.9 For the universities have changed. The intellectuals have migrated to them, and in many departments, we think of the humanities, they are muscling out the scholar and serious thinker. This is a place where ideas not reality now rules.10 To understand society - this world of politics, of business, of human interaction - we have to involve ourselves in their spheres of activity, absorb ourselves into its surface features. It is through such involvement and acceptance that we attain not only social success but a deeper understanding of how a society works; profundity, as Nietzsche once so acutely wrote, is superficiality.11 But this is a hard business. Lucky those that leave the university at twenty one. Escaping just in time, they have learned just enough to keep the fairy tales alive.

But what about Auden? We brought him to the party, then left standing him alone, in the corner. Oh, sorry my dear chap, I didn’t mean…it was Lady Agatha, she’s so very keen on this John Cornford memorial… Charles rearranges the white ceramic jug on the whatnot. Don’t worry about that, I was watching that young woman over there, by the window; she is wearing an extraordinary creature on her back; you see: it looks like a gigantic strawberry, with a long lizard like tail and dragonfly wings. I was wondering if she was going to jump out; then I imagined her climbing up on to that window sill, preparing herself to fly… The poet has it both ways: looking at ugliness he turns it into art.


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1. For a masterly demolition of a scholarly consensus based on such a mistake see Alan Macfarlane’s discussion of the concept “peasant” in The Origins of English Individualism. Peasant as a shorthand for agricultural worker is often confused with a specific type of agriculturist - the peasant.

2. One of the best exponents of thinking in this sense is Quentin Skinner; see his masterpiece: Liberty Before Liberalism.

3. David Hume reached a similar conclusion: Reason is essentially destructive: of appearance, of our sanity, of itself (A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects).

4. Nicely captured by Jenni Diski in her piece on Doris Lessing and her circle: Doris and Me.

5. We think of Bert, drugged up on happy pills in Howell Davies’ Congratulate the Devil: 

Bert had always been a kindly creature, a decent, well-tempered man. He had always been prepared to help anybody, if he could do so without any great inconvenience to himself.

Though in this novel the civilised people are seen as narrow, selfish and vastly egotistical. It is an outsider’s point of view. An outsider who does capture the rancour of the alienated intellectual - Roper.


7. Class is a further element, identified by Lawrence Durrell:

…Campion almost immediately plunged into a description of his party to ease those pent-up feelings within him. Blair at once recognised behind the acid and brilliant sketches he drew of other people the familiar motive: the sense of social inferiority which had made so many artists difficult companions for him. He remembered one horrible occasion when D.H. Lawrence, upset by some imagined slight, refused to talk to him except in an outlandish Derbyshire dialect—which was intended to emphasise his peasant upbringing. (The Dark Labyrinth)  

8. Republic is an extraordinary book, which reveals the animus of the academic against the world outside: because it can never be rational enough to fit into his simple framework of ideas.

9. Tim Parks highlights a typical example in his review of a book on Garibaldi, where the female academic tries to reduce this gigantic hero down to her tiny and insignificant size. (The Fighter)

10. Very apparent in David Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man. For a marvellous discussion of the intellectual, within the British context, see Stefan Collini’s Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain. See also his Mind Your Language for an up to the minute account of university life, where scholars and intellectuals are being put under increasing pressure by administrators, who would like to turn learning (a deep knowledge of a subject) into "learning", a product sold to consumers (students).*1

At the start of his talk Collini mentions a rhetorical strategy used by politicians and university managers: to dismiss criticism as mere talk. For these characters don't talk, they do things, this doing they call reality. Such language bears a superficial resemblance to my critique above. And I am conscious that I could be badly floored by Collini's judicious blows. While I am more sceptical of ideas than him - at least in the realm of politics, where history, power and the personalities and inertia of individuals and groups is overwhelming - I do believe they are important, and that they do radically alter behaviour, by structuring thought and action. But most ideas are useless. Too often they are mere talk. Because they do not have any purchase on the society. The influence of particularly oppositional ideas - ideas that can change the political paradigm, overthrow the existing hegemony - is usually limited to periods of crisis, when an old culture collapsing is suddenly amenable to new and radically different concepts; we think of Britain in the 1970s. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't articulate them: like dissidence in mid-term Soviet Union (1960s) it is woodworm eating into the hegemonic house. Precisely because they are socially ineffective they need to be expounded. Nevertheless, we have to make a distinction between serious ideas and ideas that have little or no content; what I call cartoon concepts; these I do abuse, attack and junk. Hopelessly, of course, for it is the cartoons that have influence, and determine our lives.

Collini attacks the administrator's view, arguing, quite correctly, that nearly all our actions are framed within a conceptual language that both creates and shapes those actions. Language is not a self-contained system with no connection with the world. Yet his talk shows that the administrators who run the universities, because they are forced to use the language of advertising, and the boosterism it entails, are creating an enclosed and self-sustaining verbal universe, increasingly distant from the reality they sell. The administrators are projecting their own fantasies - their own language game - onto their critics. And there is something more here...

Scholarship and science is the attempt to close the gap between words and things, such a gap a natural part of human society.*2 The university is the place where such a narrowing of this gap was once believed important; especially in the 20th century when language was identified as a patient in need of a cure; for the tendency of language was thought to impose itself - with its fantasies, its illusions - between us and the external world. The implication of Collini's talk is that a high level academic idea - the problematic nature of language, its tendency towards autarky - has filtered down - via the intellectuals of the 1960s (Derrida, Foucault...) - to the bureaucrats, who use it without sophistication or scepticism. Today's universities a case study in how something wholly abstract becomes almost totally concrete; it takes approximately a century.

*1 I have used "intellectual" and "academic" quite loosely in this piece; because I want to bring out a trait common to them both: the preference for an abstract idea of truth over the realities of day-to-day human interaction; or to put it another way the bias towards knowledge and a prejudice against politics. Collini in his marvellous book defines the intellectual as someone who has mastered a specialism and who then uses the authority this conveys to talk about general topics, often of a moral or political nature; the archetype commonly believed to exist in France in the late 1940s and early 50s - it is Sartre, of course, who added the distinctive trait of a radical independence from the establishment culture. Many academics are not intellectuals, and quite a few intellectuals are not strictly academics, but there is nevertheless overlap - both use ideas and both seek authority in knowledge. The difference may be put this way: academics are trying to close the gap between the world and knowledge, by extending and deepening the latter; the intellectual in contrast has already acquired the truth and believes that the world must adapt to it. The intellectual essentially a priest; the academic a technocrat. 

The ideal is the professional amateur, as expounded by Bernard Williams in the preface to Shame and Necessity: to have true understanding we must marry the specialist detail with philosophical insight; while he later adds - for the serious scholar and intellectual - a moral engagement with the world that seeks both to understand and to change it. Though a particular kind of understanding is crucial: we must have a political grasp of politics; respecting its nature and limits; accepting its own quite distinct truths, that are often resistant to the facts and arguments found in academic journals and moralising books. Little wonder that he quotes Nietzsche copiously.

Collini belongs to a similar culture, and in his talk extensively quotes from The Robbins Report to highlight the vanished assumptions of a past that now seems very distant.

...we must postulate that what is taught should be taught in such a way as to promote the general powers of the mind. The aim should be to produce not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women. And it is the distinguishing characteristic of a healthy higher education that, even where it is concerned with practical techniques, it imparts them on a plane of generality that makes possible their application to many problems - to find the one in the many, the general characteristic in the collection of particulars. It is this that the world of affairs demands of the world of learning. 

† The contrast between these two types is revealed by Richard J. Evans' review of Shlomo Sands' autobiographical polemic: Unending History.

*2 Lucidly put by Alan Macfarlane in his Reconstructing Historical Communities: there are three levels of analysis in a community: what it is thought people should do; what people think everyone is doing; what they are actually doing. 

The intellectual tends to concentrate on the morality; the academic on the actuality; but to really understand a society we must give due weight to what people actually think they are doing; such thought full of illusions, prejudices, mistakes and simple ignorance; and this particularly so amongst the middle classes, who are overly reliant on a public realm dominated by opinion - in the newspapers, on TV, in the internet. (For a fuller discussion see my Critic as Clerk, and especially footnote xlvi. For a long analysis of that strange place The Public Realm see my The Temperate Zone.)

11. Outside society, in scholarship and science, reality is different. There truth is deeper and more secret, and vast excavations must be taken underneath the surface to uncover it.

For Nietzsche’s animus to the academic life, which he felt as intellectually constricting, see M.S. Silk's and J.P. Stern’s Nietzsche on Tragedy; it has many insights. Max Weber experienced similar feelings - see my Feel the Thought.

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