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  • By David Gosselin

The Intellectuals and the Masses Revisited

With the advent of the modern industrial world, the twentieth century saw the emergence of a new generation of elite literati whose movement, dubbed “Modernism,” largely developed as a reaction to the emergence of a new technologically transformed world. This new literary intelligentsia would adopt a new aesthetic largely inspired by the conviction that the rapidly changing economic, social and political conditions unleashed by modern industrial society and technological progress posed an existential threat to the “traditional” order of European civilization.

As we’ll see, this lesser-appreciated history and its far-ranging effects on the twentieth and twenty-first century thought and culture is brilliantly captured by literary critic John Carey’s shocking and stunning book, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939.

As Carey notes, the reactionary response by the elite aesthetes of the twentieth century was ostensibly due to the massive economic and social changes which created the conditions for a new kind of “mass culture.” Carey writes: “the classical intellectual account of the advent of mass culture in the early twentieth century was by Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset”:

“In Ortega’s analysis, population increase has had various consequences. First, overcrowding. Everywhere is full of people – trains, hotels, cafes, parks, theatres, doctors’ consulting rooms, beaches. Secondly, this is not just overcrowding’ it is intrusion. The crowd has taken possession of places which were created by civilization for the best people. A third consequence is the dictatorship of the mass. The one factor of utmost importance in the current political life of Europe is the accession of the masses to complete social power. This triumph of “hyperdemocracy” has created the modern state, which Ortega sees as the gravest danger threatening civilization. The masses believe in the state as a machine for obtaining the material pleasure they desire, but it will crush the individual.” (Carey., 3-4.)

Carey goes on:

“The ‘Revolt of the Masses’ which these cultural celebrities deplored was shaped by different factors in each European country. In England, the educational legislation of the last decades of the nineteenth century, which introduced universal elementary education, was crucial. The difference between the nineteenth-century mob and the twentieth century is mass literacy. For the first time, a huge literate public had come into being, and consequently every aspect of the production and dissemination of the printed text became subject to revolution. ‘Never before had there been such reading masses,’ remarked H.G. Wells. ‘The great gulf that had divided the world hitherto into the readers and the non-reading masses became little more than a slightly perceptible difference in education.” (Ib., 5-6.)

For the “traditional” ruling classes this unprecedented change in social mobility, economic prosperity and social change meant that access to culture, and therefore ideas, was no longer the exclusive right of a small intelligentsia and its noble patrons.

So, the question was how to preserve the “traditional” order?

Carey writes:

“The intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from attaining literacy. But they could prevent them from reading literature by making it too difficult for them to understand—and this is what they did. They early twentieth century saw a determined effort, on the part of the European intelligentsia, to exclude the masses from culture. In England this movement has become known as modernism. In other European countries it was given different names, but the ingredients were essentially similar, and they revolutionized the visual arts as well as literature. Realism of the sort that it was assumed the massed appreciated was abandoned. So was logical coherence. Irrationality and obscurity were cultivated. ‘Poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult,’ decreed T.S. Eliot.” (Ib., 16-17.)

T.S. Eliot, one among the leading intellectuals of Modernism, was taken by the panic of Modernist intellectuals who felt compelled to come to the defense of the “traditional” European order. This meant recognizing the supposed reality that an eternal gulf existed between the “natural aristocrats” and uneducable barbarian “masses.” So, T.S. Eliot declared:

“There is no doubt that in our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards… destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.” (Ib., 15.)

As Carey further explains:

“…intellectuals attributed their distinction to the supposedly timeless values of which they were the transmitters and guardians. It was part of T.S. Eliot’s aesthetic theory that the true artist’s works transcend time, unlike the products of ephemeral commercial culture. This view easily merged with the belief that art was sacred, ‘a religion,’ as Clive Bell proclaimed in 1914. The artist need not bother about the fate of humanity, Bell stipulated, for ‘aesthetic rapture’ was self-justifying. This notion of artists and intellectuals soaring above the mere human concerns also attracted Ezra Pound, though he gave it a more despotic turn, warning that artists were natural rulers, ‘born to the purple,’ and would shortly take over the world:‘The artist has no longer any belief or suspicion that the mass, the half-educated simpering general… can in any way share his delight…. The aristocracy of the arts is ready again for its service. Modern civilization has bred a race with brains like those of rabbits, and we who are the heirs of the witch-doctor and the voodoo, we artists who have been so long the despised are about to take over control.’ (Ib., 16-17.)

As will become increasingly clear, the belief in eugenics, the “science” of breeding, was also considered an indispensable weapon to quell the “revolt of the masses.” Chief among the spiritual leaders of this new Modernist avant-garde of “natural aristocrats,” Carey notes, was Friedrich Nietzsche.

“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.’” (Ib., 13.)

As Carey observes, W.B. Yeats, another chief proponent of the Modernist ethos, suggested that Friedrich Nietzsche was leading the charge as a “counteractive to the spread of democratic vulgarity,”:

“W.B. Yeats developed a keen interest in the beneficial potential of eugenics which was stimulated by his reading of Raymond B. Cattell’s The Fight for Our National Intelligence, published in 1937. The passing of a Eugenic Sterilization Law in Germany in 1933 had alarmed moderates in the Eugenics Society, but Cattell congratulates the Nazis on being the first government to adopt sterilization of the unfit as a means to racial improvement. Yeats, too, is undeterred by developments in Germany. In On the Boiler, published in 1939, he records the conviction of ‘well-known specialists’ (i.e. Cattell) that the principal European nations are all degenerating in body and mind, though evidence for this has been hushed up by the newspapers lest it harm circulation.” (Ib., 13-14.)

Carey notes Yeats’ adherence to eugenic ideas propounded by Raymond Bernard Cattell (20 March 1905 – 2 February 1998), a British-American psychologist with strong eugenicist sympathies:

“Following Cattell, Yeats reports that innate intelligence can now be measured, especially in children with great accuracy, and tests prove that it is hereditary. If, for example, you take a group of slum children and give them better food, light and air, it will not increase their intelligence. It follows that education and social reform are hopeless as improvers of the breed. ‘Sooner or later we must limit the families of the unintelligent classes.’ This is the more urgent, Yeats warns, because these classes are breeding so rapidly: ‘Since about 1900 the better stocks have not been replacing their numbers, while the stupider and less healthy have been more than replacing theirs.’ The results are already apparent, Yeats suggests, in the degeneration of literature and newspapers and in regrettable benefactions…” (Ib., 14.)

Carey goes on:

“Yeats is cheered to recall that during the Great War Germany had only 400 submarine commanders – and, indeed, 60 percent of the damage to shipping was the work of just twenty-four men. So the ability of a few educated people to massacre thousands of their fellow mortals should not be underestimated. Indeed, so favourable seem the auguries that Yeats’ main fear is that war between the elite and the masses will not break out after all: ‘the danger is that there will be no wat, that the skilled will attempt nothing, that the European civilization, like those older civilization that saw triumph of their gangrel stocks, will accept decay.’ Though On the Boiler is Yeats’ most forthright contribution to the debate, eugenicist principles are, of course, readily observable in his poetry – as when he thanks his ancestors for providing him with blood “That has not passed through any huckster’s loin.” (Ib., 14.)

Naturally, eugenics offered members of Europe and America’s “high-minded” society the intellectual justification for human culling, sterilization and the controlled breeding of those deemed less fit, that is, those who thanks to the rapid technological and economic advancements in society had violated the sacred Malthusian and Darwinian principles of nature—the true religion of the modern Anglo-American establishment on both sides of the Atlantic to this day.

Carey explains:

“A more selective way of eliminating the mass might be found, some intellectuals believed, through the science of eugenics. The term eugenics was coined by Francis Galton in the 1880s, and the Eugenics Education Society, founded in 1907 (the name was shortened to the Eugenics Society in 1926), hoped that by discouraging or preventing the increase of inferior breeds, and by offering incentives to superior people to propagate, the danger of degeneration inherent in the mass might be avoided. W.B. Yeats joined the Society. Shaw and Aldous Huxley were sympathetic. T.S. Eliot’s line in ‘Gerontion’ about the Jew who was ‘Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp’ suggests a belief in the importance of good breeding which would have been readily understood in eugenicist circles.” (Ib., 13.)

While shocking to some, eugenics was considered a settled “science” in the early twentieth century—and arguably the most important policy question (in the eyes of many high-minded intellectuals). Not surprisingly, the leading “natural aristocrats” of the literary intelligentsia were among some of its chief proponents. Furthermore, they had the advantage of being the celebrated men of letters who could wield the power of their pens to color and shape the collective imagination through their art and “fictional” stories. Some famous examples include H.G. Wells’ many dystopian novels (Island of Dr. Moreau, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Island, and D.H. Lawrence’s works exploring the spiritual significance of “blood” and hereditary natures.

As Carey observes, Nietzsche was the spiritual father leading the charge as a “counteractive to the spread of democratic vulgarity.”

“Anti-suburban aesthetes were attracted by Nietzschean postures. They liked to claim that art was essentially undemocratic, and that what nourished it were bloodshed, slavery and the wild ways of the old pagan world. George Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man, published in 1888, is an early statement of this case, reminding us of Eliot’s later objection to ‘suburban democracy’:Democratic art! Arts is the direct antithesis to democracy… Athens! A few thousand citizens who owned many thousand slaves, call that democracy! No! what I am speaking of is modern democracy – the mass. The mass can only appreciate simple and naïve emotions, puerile prettiness, above all conventionalities.” (Ib., 55.)

In case there were any doubts, Carey notes that Nietzsche spent a good deal of his life polemicizing against what he considered the vast worthless, unequal and uneducable masses:

“Men, Nietzsche decrees, are not equal. The mistaken belief that they are is to blame for the degeneracy of Europe. Benevolence, public spirit and consideration for others are despicable herd virtues. The truly noble man is egotistic. He despises pity, which is unhealthy and valued only by slaves. The warrior is a type of the finest man. War and courage have achieved greater things than charity. Men should be trained for war, and women for the recreation of the warrior. The belief that women are equal, or merit education, is a sign of shallowness. They should be treated as property, slaves or domestic animals. This item in Niezsche’s programme has proved particularly congenial. The early twentieth-century intellectual aristocrat is an almost exclusively male fantasy. By comparison women, children and family life are regarded as secondary concerns.” (Ib., 72.)

D.H. Lawrence, another Modernist luminary, was exemplary of this modernist school, being one of the most outspoken Nietzscheans of the English world:

“‘That everyone can learn to read will ruin in the long run not only writing, but thinking too.’ D.H. Lawrence vigorously develops this theme. ‘Let all schools be closed at once,’ he exhorts. The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write. Illiteracy will save them from those ‘tissues of leprosy,’ books and newspapers. Without education the masses will, Lawrence hopes, relapse into purely physical life.” (Ib., 15.)

Carey cites a shocking letter Lawrence wrote to Blanche Jennings, which reads:

“If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the Hallelujah Chorus.” (Ib., 12.)

As Carey explains:

“Hatred of mankind and the wish to exterminate it become associated in Lawrence’s mind with the idea of being cleansed and happy: ‘To learn plainly to hate mankind, to detest the spawning human-being,’ he writes in 1917, ‘that is the only cleanliness now.’ The thought of the earth ‘all grass and trees’ with no works of man at all, ‘just a hare listening to the inaudible—that is Paradise.” (Ib., 11-12.)

Finally, Carey observes that the occult notion of “blood” was at the heart of Lawrence’s Nietzschean spiritual quest to save the better parts of mankind from the mass of barbarian hordes:

“The same contrast between ill-health and worship of the healthy body is apparent in D.H. Lawrence, Nietzsche’s major English disciple. All Lawrence’s central concepts are derived from Nietzsche. ‘My great religion,’ he wrote in a famous letter of January 1913, ‘is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true.’ This could be a summary of Nietzschean doctrine, and its key word, ‘blood,’ is from Nietzsche, who wrote in The Will to Power that the only nobility is of blood. Nietzsche explains that he does not mean by this aristocratic lineage. Precisely what he did mean – and what Lawrence means – is hard to define. However, ‘blood’ for both of them evidently includes instinct, bodily sensations and masculine sexual urges. It is in these that real wisdom inheres.” (Ib., 75.)

While often cast as a literary development which emerged in the wake of a new world of industrialism, rapid technological transformation and mass literacy among a new rising middle class of citizens in the West, Carey’s Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 paints a much more nuanced picture, revealing the dark underbelly of the Modernist ethos. This inconvenient history, which offers significant insights into the underlying thrust for Modernist aesthetics, is one which many intellectuals within modern academic circles prefer to ignore. Alas, Modernism has historically received a soft-ball treatment, especially due to the many academics who have prided themselves on their position as the chosen interpreters of this quasi occult-like sect of enlightened literary oracles.

An Open Conspiracy

Among the chief leaders of this new literary intelligentsia was the Fabian socialist and “science fiction” writer, H.G. Wells. As any lover of letters knowns, “fiction” often comes closest to truth. So, Wells spent many years writing fictional works inspired by Darwinian and Malthusian ideas of evolution, eugenics, and population control. He wrote story after story which artfully envisioned scenarios in which a new system of world governance would emerge and check the aberration which resulted from the rapid technological transformation of man’s economic and social conditions.

For instance, Carey writes:

“In his novel of 1899, When the Sleeper Wakes, a character called Graham comes out of a cataleptic trance to find himself 203 years in the future. London has by this time become a huge glass-roofed conglomeration of innumerable levels – ‘a gigantic glass hive’ – with a population of 33 million. Down in the subterranean levels of the city live the pale, toiling masses (‘Masses – the word comes from your days – you know, of course, that we still have masses,’ a guide explains to Graham). This submerged population talk in a crude dialect and listen to ‘Babble Machines’ (the replacement for newspapers), which broadcast crude, false news items and shout slogans – ‘Blood! Blood!’ or ‘Yah!’ – to attract attention. Even in the upper city levels, Graham finds, there are no books anymore, only videos or porn-videos, labelled in simple phonetic English. He feels battered by the sheer size of the congested mass, and begs to be alone. ‘Let me go into a little room,’ he weeps.” (Ib., 123.)

While Wells’ fiction often involved some dystopian twist, his non-fiction works were often utopian diatribes concerned with the dire necessity of dealing with growing population numbers and an emerging middle class of supposedly “low-grade humanity.”

Carey writes:

“In his non-fiction works Wells committed himself to formulating ways in which this dreadful future could be averted and the world population controlled. As he saw it, the main problem was the mass of low-grade humanity such as inhabits the underground in When the Sleeper Wakes. All over the world, he observes in Anticipations, published in 1901, ‘vicious, helpless and pauper masses’ have appeared, spreading as the railway systems have spread, and representing an integral part of the process of industrialization, like the waste product of a healthy organism. For these ‘great useless masses of people’ he adopts the term ‘People of the Abyss,’ and he predicts that the ‘nation that most resolutely picks over, educates, sterilizes, exports, or poisons its ‘People of the Abyss’ will be in the ascendent.” (Ib., 123.)

What would his new utopian Open Conspiracy against the revolt of the masses entail? Wells writes:

“The new ethics will hold life to be a privilege and a responsibility, not a sort of night refuge for base spirits out of the void; and the alternative in right conduct between living fully, beautifully, and efficiently will be to die. For a multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear-driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hatefully happy in the midst of squalid dishonour, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts, and increasing and multiplying through sheer incontinence and stupidity, the men of the New Republic will have little pity and less benevolence.” (Wells., 298-299.)

Naturally, the literature of this intelligentsia came to embody what it considered a natural and healthy disdain for the “masses.” The most prominent but subtle expression of this sentiment was a new kind of high-brow art for aesthetes and elites. As a result, a new artificial kind of divide emerged. One of the major effects was the segregation of “high art” and the growing domain of mass culture and entertainment. The result was a widening of the gulf between the privileged educated intelligentsia and the newly emerging literate middle class. In a word: the literary intelligentsia’s main contribution to keeping the so-called barbarians at bay was to create art which could only be appreciated by “natural aristocrats” (and those who paid them homage).

Carey writes of Ortega y Gasset, who “in The Dehumanization of Art, reckons that it is the essential function of modern art to divide the public into two classes—those who can understand it and those who cannot. Modern art is not so much unpopular, he argues, as anti-popular. It acts ‘like a social agent which segregates from the shapeless mass of the many two different castes of men.’” (Ib., 17.)

While it goes beyond the scope of this essay, other scholarly works have exhaustively demonstrated how the rise of elite Modernist culture and its academic whisperers was by no means “natural,” but supported by elite institutions established by the reigning élite of the Trans-Atlantic world.

As Frances Stonor Saunders writes in her ground-breaking The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters: The Cultural Cold War, much of this was achieved using a web of CIA foundations and trusts, which would be used to covertly finance various modern music and art festivals and literary awards for those deemed the natural aristocrats and defenders of “tradition.”

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