We need cultural critics who will still stand up for the best that has been thought and said in the world
Matthew Arnold: Outstanding for the depth of his perceptions and his engagement with society
For Matthew Arnold it was “sweetness and light”; for T.S. Eliot it was “Derby Day, Henley Regatta . . . a cup final . . . the dart board, Wensleydale cheese . . . Gothic churches and the music of Elgar”; for George Steiner it had become a victim in Bluebeard’s Castle; for anthropologists it is the customs and habits of a people or community; for the Daily Mail it is what celebrities do; for the Guardian it is everything from modern dance to new books on internet dating, in the section called “Culture”. Never has the word meant so many various things; never has it combined so flexibly to form other derivatives and phrases — cultural stereotypes, culture shock, multi-cultural, counter-culture, cultural relativism, enculturation; never has it cropped up in so many surprising new contexts. Gary Neville on Match of the Day recently described a top footballer as “cultured”. I don’t think the multi-millionaire mentioned was found reading Chekhov in the changing room.
Whatever it is, it’s a messy, mixed-up affair, its many riches muddled up with all kinds of tawdriness in permanent disarray, fraught with insuperable problems to do with class, race, education, intelligence and taste, and saddening to almost every true lover of the arts. So too is the critical field around it. Unlike the production of great art, which simply cannot be, in the short term, willed into being, high-quality criticism and analysis should be well within our reach. But we bow to popular will, so that instead of encouraging genuinely interesting people to talk and write about important things, we have set up as celebrities the judges of occasionally amusing, and generally laughable, carnivals of dancers, pop singers and chefs. Hence this brief critique of critics; hence the urgent need for gifted and sensible writers uncramped by the ideologies which have seized the word and as many courses and students as they can for their drab and charmless discourses, punctuated continually by dreary academic references (Briezeblok and Buldozser, 1999).
Cultural criticism, we should remind ourselves, can be almost as important as the art itself, can indeed be part of the art. There have been great creative critics, from Alexander Pope (in The Dunciad, Epistle to Lord Burlington, etc) and Dr Johnson onwards, who combined the two arts with the skill of genius. Byron was another, in his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, Vision of Judgment, and parts of Don Juan. Can you name a great contemporary cultural critic? Someone who could, in writing about literature and other aspects of our culture, hold a candle to T. S. Eliot on poetry, or Herbert Read on modern art? I asked several highly knowledgeable people, who struggled to do so.
Matthew Arnold, a poet-essayist like Dr Johnson, was perhaps the first modern cultural critic in English. In Culture and Anarchy he defined the key word as “being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world”; he felt the fragility of civilisation, and sweepingly labelled the British middle classes Philistines and the aristocrats Barbarians. In the corpus of Victorian poetry his “Dover Beach” seems arrestingly modern. In fact the lines “And we are here as on a darkling plain . . . Where ignorant armies clash by night” could have been written yesterday. In this gloomy lyric, written about 60 years before the First World War, he was facing the religious, philosophical and cultural uncertainties of Europe.
Nonetheless, as a hard-working writer and inspector of schools, he embodied “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. He was remarkable for the extent of his reading across the cultures of Europe, the depth of his perceptions, his engagement with society, and the eloquence of his expression. He felt that the poet had a special insight into the heart of a civilisation. Do any contemporary poets feel the same? Or do we now turn for this to novelists? Is it possible that we are not sure where the heart of our civilisation is? It was he, incidentally, who inaugurated with the scientist T.H. Huxley the “two cultures” debate in its modern form.
Arnold’s nearest relative in Britain in the next century was T.S. Eliot, who encapsulated the worries of a shattered Europe in images of the desert — a “handful of dust” rather than Arnold’s “naked shingles of the world”. His breadth of literary knowledge was similar to Arnold’s; some of his phrases, too, have entered the language, and he too did his best to keep aspects of the classical heritage alive in our literature. He could title an essay, without any of the irony we would read into it today, The Man of Letters and the Future of Europe.
Eliot’s Notes Towards a Definition of Culture (1948), is, not surprisingly, a dour and depressing book. It has none of the buoyancy of Culture and Anarchy, but as well as defining culture with far greater care than Arnold, Eliot makes many perceptive, mostly disillusioned points. He criticises Arnold for over-praising “intellectual ability without the more human attributes” which is “admirable only in the same way as the brilliance of a child chess prodigy”. He said that a civilisation cannot simultaneously produce great folk poetry at one level and Paradise Lost at another (proved since?); that cultural disintegration may ensue upon cultural specialisation (likewise); that culture at the upper group level breaks into fragments, each representing one cultural activity alone (indisputably so). He felt, above all, that Arnold failed in religious vision. He had already written his masterpiece, Four Quartets, charting his own semi-mystical path through the debris.
But Eliot had lost touch with the zeitgeist in the Quartets — few were and are able to follow him. George Steiner, writing In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes towards the Redefinition of Culture (1971), found himself unable to understand how Eliot could feel the way he did just after the Holocaust. For his part, he introduced us to the word Kulturpessimismus, and his views (backed up by the vast expanse of his reading and cultural reference) have had more influence on the next generation of critical writers than Eliot’s. This group, which included Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Clive James and John Berger, demonstrated brilliance, ambition, breadth of knowledge and interest, and in some cases a sparkling handling of the essay form.
Of these, instinct leads me to dwell briefly on Amis, whose subject-matter ranges from life in America to numerous writers of varied provenance and types from Cervantes to Larkin. He is so eloquent and insightful about his subjects that he often seems a better critic than novelist (though in the latter capacity he has offered scathing depictions of some of the murkier alleyways of our times). Comments like the following in The War Against Cliché (2001) suggest what he might have become as a critic:
It now seems clear that literary criticism was inherently doomed. Explicitly or otherwise it had based itself on a structure of echelons and hierarchies; it was about talent and elite. And the structure atomised as soon as the forces of democratisation gave their next concerted push. These forces — incomparably the more potent in our culture — have gone on pushing . . .
This assertive, engaging way of thinking, with its unacademic turn of phrase, shows the value of the independent critic.
Amis has style, intelligence, wit and force of personality; and he has the essential passion for literature and cultural values. But he never aimed to be a great, or really scholarly critic, only an entertaining and perceptive one.
This he certainly has achieved: reading him, we are in very different territory from that of the chap who announced in the Spectator that he had written a book called How to sound cultured: Master the 250 names that intellectuals love to drop into conversation. (Still, I must get hold of a copy asap.)
Amis is 67 now, and we should be turning to the best minds of a younger group. Let me define more exactly, though, what my ideal cultural critics might be like, and identify some of the forces that are driving them off course. They would, for a start, be able to write about European and American literature and culture as well as our own; to articulate why certain films are better than many novels, and why the best, say, Turkish film of a certain year might be better than all the produce of Hollywood; to evaluate recent poetry, music and architecture (within, for the non-specialist, reason); to write persuasively, memorably, and with luck wittily. They should be highly intelligent; have a lively and educated sensibility; be formidably well-read (though not as well-read as Steiner); have at least some talent in an art form such as poetry or storytelling (though probably not first-rank); know at least two or three languages; be a lover of other arts such as music and architecture; be extremely interested in history and philosophy; be discerning enthusiasts for the best in the contemporary arts, and willing to look for greatness in forms such as film. Crucially, they should be able to look forward as well as back. Exhaustive knowledge of any kind is unnecessary, but depth, breadth and taste are essential. Politically, they should be moderates, since otherwise bias may cloud judgment. It is difficult to imagine a really good critic of the far Right or far Left, but party allegiance is otherwise irrelevant; they might or might not have a strong political instinct, but they would need to know and be able to counter the opposition. They should try to avoid the intellectual weaknesses we can spot in the past: the naive-seeming longing for perfection of Arnold, the utopian socialism of Shaw, the nostalgic Christianity of Eliot, the anti-intellectualism of Orwell and the Movement writers, even the obsession of some conservatives with the canon. They can find some new, idiosyncratic fault of their own.
They will have to be willing to fight for their position. Few would deny that the massive assault on the traditional aesthetic structures of British culture that had its roots before the First World War has continued ever since. What writers in the 1940s referred to as “mass” culture has produced not only irresistible waves of popular culture, but the intellectually well-drilled movements summed up by terms such as post-modernism, structuralism, cultural relativism and multi-culturalism. Writers in these movements, marked by a propensity to theorise at length, have been generally less cultured than modernists such as Eliot and Joyce who were obsessed with reinventing rather than picking over the carcase of the European literary tradition. In short, they have been Philistines, not something that would have bothered Marx, who inspired many of them, because he was a monstrous Philistine himself.
Steiner saw the greatest danger as coming from the deconstructionists, postmodernists, and post-structuralists, who flap like eager vultures around the Promethean body of Art. The school of the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton has produced many an unreadable chapter with a title such as “Althusser and Foucault in English literary theory” (why are these guys messing around with our literary theory anyway?). Marxism argued that culture was a tool of the elites to manipulate the lower classes, and such perspectives are common in the humanities and the young schools of cultural studies. Their tracts are usually badly written. Take, at random, Culture and Citizenship, edited by Nick Stevenson:
[G. H.] Mead’s work . . . allows us to see that citizenship is necessarily rooted in the inter-subjective nexus of the lifeworld. Following Habermas (1987), however, I contend that a lifeworld perspective is not sufficient, on its own, for critical social theory. A systems perspective is also required . . .
There is a great deal of lugubrious Gallic authority. Oh for some sweetness and light! (Arnold and Epictetus, 1851.)
Multiculturalism can mean various things, some of them entirely desirable, but that it can have a doubtful effect in aesthetic terms is suggested by the shift in texts set for GCSE English, where, for the “Different cultures” paper, pupils will encounter random international poems which have value as documents, but very mixed aesthetic or intellectual merit. This is partly no doubt because the dominant culture (ours) produces lots of poems with equally little value or content, but also because we accept the fact that by and large most teenage boys and a lot of girls are going to struggle beyond the point of anybody’s endurance with anything from the “literary heritage” that isn’t about war (Wilfred Owen has always gone down pretty well).
Behind such shifts are the cultural relativists who have been a force in anthropology for over a century — they tend to follow something called “the Benedictine-Herskovitz formulation” which says that what is right or good for one individual or society is not right or good for another, even in similar situations. This means “not merely that what is thought right or good by one is not thought right or good by another, but that what is really right or good in one case is not so in another” (Frankena, 1973). Some would go still further, such as Alison Dundes Renteln in the US, who believes that “there can be no value judgments that are true, that is, objectively justifiable, independent of specific cultures”. This approach is a decisive attack on the old objective-subjective hypothesis as propounded by the Cambridge academic I.A. Richards — that (very roughly speaking) it can be conclusively demonstrated that a certain text is actually better than another. His theorem has turned out to be harder to prove, in the end, than Fermat’s last one. Such relativism is corrosive of critical standards. Perhaps we have not tried hard enough to prove it. Perhaps it might help if someone were to offer a million dollars. Maybe somebody very rich, cultured and liberal, in the true sense, like an American billionaire . . . ?
Otherwise, we must rely on talented individuals: writers such as the critic and scholar James Wood, born in 1965, now working in the US. Everything he writes is highly interesting and engaging, and if he were able to broaden his scope, and (preferably) return home, he might do much. Such writers need readers; and a group of brilliant and younger rivals. We can live in hope.
The battle between high culture — that of the real artists, their patrons, critics and audiences (which could be all of us) — and the anarchists and populists, is as vital as ever. This is what cries out for harder reading and thinking. There are other forces which are not on the side of the angels: increasing democratisation, the economic forces of globalisation, producing a rootless technocratic class and offering so many tempting routes to materialist excitements; there are the infinite tentacles of the internet. It is not so much the withdrawing roar of the waves down the naked shingles that depresses, as the ceaseless clamour of their electromagnetic counterparts, so difficult to avoid, so impossible to control, and (on balance, despite all the brilliant stuff) so massively, heedlessly Philistine.