In Defense of Snobbery
From The American Spectator.
August 26, 2008.
Odd to think that it still rates a headline ("Amy Winehouse Gets Into Cambridge") in the national press — at least in the U.K. — when some witless bit of self-pity from a "pop diva" is set by a professor at an ancient university as part of an English examination question about the definition of the word "lyric." Final year English students at Cambridge were invited to compare Sir Walter Raleigh’s "As You Came From the Holy Land" either to Miss Winehouse’s "Love is a Losing Game" or to Bob Dylan’s "Boots of Spanish Leather" or to "Fine and Mellow" by Billie Holiday. "Some students," wrote the reporter for The Times of London, "said they felt that comparing Winehouse to Raleigh — arguably the enfant terrible of his day, with a similar passion for smoking exotic substances — was entirely warranted. ‘I think it’s cool,’ one said. ‘Poetry doesn’t have to mean Keats and Byron.’"
Give that kid a first-class degree. Although it may be true that, as a university spokesman told The Times, "There is no right or wrong answer to this question," I wouldn’t give much for the chances of any candidate who said otherwise — who wrote, for instance, that the comparison was silly or even that Amy Winehouse and her co-writer, Mark Ronson, came off badly from it. All the conventional academic wisdom these days is in favor of such bogus parallels. "Seamus Heaney is on record admiring Eminem," the spokesman told the Times reporter. Who’d have thought it? Well, actually anybody would. It would be much more surprising if a poet or professor could be found to denounce such pop cultural comparisons. Yet the British press runs the same story every few years, as The Times itself reminds us. The last time was in 2001 when a lyric of the Bee Gees was used to comment on the nature of tragedy. Professor John Kerrigan of St John’s College took the occasion to observe that "the line in the Bee Gees song where he sings, ‘The feeling’s gone and you can’t go on,’ is a fair summary of the end of King Lear."
As it happens, Robin Gibb of the BeeGees was also in the news recently for complaining that he and his brothers weren’t taken seriously enough and making an implicit comparison between them and Mozart. Now there’s an exam question for you: What’s the difference between the Bee Gees and Mozart, or their lyrics and King Lear? The answer would once have been thought too obvious to be interesting, mais nous avons changé tout cela. That the sufferings of Lear are sublime and those of the Gibb brothers or Amy Winehouse are banal is a truth to which every bosom but the most callow must surely return an echo, and yet, as George III is supposed to have said of the "stuff" in Shakespeare, it doesn’t do to say so — or not unless you want to be "flamed," as I was recently. Mr Neal F. Guye of Coos Bay, Oregon, wrote of my review of Iron Man for the TAS website: "I really tried to appreciate your online magazine. I really did. But it’s clear that you employ angry mental defectives." He means me there. "Indeed, you give them a forum. It would be a total waste of my time to refute this idiotic review on a case-by-case basis. I’ll simply let you know that I’m 40 years old, fiercely conservative in every way, and that this is, by no small margin, the worst review I have ever read."
Far be it from me to tell Mr Guye his business, but I’m neither angry nor a mental defective. Stupid, maybe, but not deranged. What he should have accused me of was not insanity but snobbery. It’s come to something when one has to point out to one’s critics one’s real weaknesses that, in their eagerness to flame one, they have unaccountably neglected to exploit. If I had taken on Neal F. Guye’s self-appointed task of reducing James Bowman, critic, to a pile of smouldering ashes, I’d have written something like this: "Mr Bowman" — I always think it adds force to one’s criticism if one is polite about it, don’t you? — "betrays the bias of an outmoded, élitist brand of conservatism that is a recipe for intellectual oblivion and is no longer held even by the cultural writers and critics at other conservative publications. In short, he thinks he’s better than the millions upon millions of red-blooded, conservative American fans of comic books, and of movies that look like comic books. If TAS wants to get off the fast-track to cultural irrelevancy, they should get rid of this anachronistic snob instantly."
Terence Blacker in the London Independent makes a rather similar point about those who would make fun of Mr Gibb’s delusions of grandeur, and if Neal F. Guye had had the wit to do the same, I should have had little enough to say in reply. He would have been right, and the Spectator’s editors, if they knew what was good for them, would have done well to banish me to my sub-Platonic cave where the pictures on the wall are all from movies made before 1965. But before I go, I would just like to point out the irony in my being found guilty of intellectual snobbery, for the aesthetic views I formed when I myself wandered the well-manicured courts of Cambridge back in the 1970s were formed precisely in reaction against what I saw as the intellectual snobbery of those who affected to find serious social and aesthetic significances in the pop cultural artifacts of the day. They were poseurs; they were pseuds eager to show how large-brained they were by their ability to see hidden merit where it was invisible to those gifted with nothing more than common sense and some familiarity with the great works of the past.
The death in May of the British musicologist Wilfred Mellers reminds us of one such person, though the canard that he was supposed to have said that Lennon and McCartney were "the greatest songwriters since Schubert" was not true. That was William Mann. Others, including Leonard Bernstein, who ought to have known better said similar things. But as Mellers had written a whole book, The Twilight of the Gods, about the Beatles, taking his musicological speculum to the Fab Four and thereby dignifying them almost as much, it was not altogether an undeserved charge. At least it seemed like a charge to me and my fellow snobs. I remember once a friend telling me of a particularly trendy teacher taking this line about the revolutionary working class geniuses from Liverpool who overthrew the tired old musical establishment with fresh and original songs making serious social statements. He was in full flight to this effect when somewhere at the back of the room a voice could be heard declaiming in a bored monotone: "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah/She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah/She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!"
That’s rather how I feel when I hear my fellow conservatives commending such childish drivel as Iron Man or the new Indiana Jones movie in the belief — as I perhaps unworthily suspect — that this will make them sound cool, and hip and smart, the kind of sophisticated critics (for such they now seem to us) who can spot aesthetic merit in the very places where those already blessed with the fame and the money that comes with popular success would have wished them to find it. Well, doubtless I am blind to it myself, but such people should know that their opinions ally them to one of the most favored projects of the cultural left, which is to incorporate the heroic tale of the breaking down of distinctions between "high" and merely popular culture into a larger, triumphalist narrative of liberation from the moral and aesthetic constraints imposed by the panjandrums of high culture prior to the 1960s. The reception of the comic book and rock’n’roll into the artistic pantheon is another of the victories of the revolution of the 1960s.
That is the view of David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. Mr Hajdu attempts to fasten on to cultural reactionaries like me the stigma of McCarthyism on the grounds that, in the early 1950s, Congressional hearings were being held both on the hidden Communist influence in America and on the hidden dangers of comic books — and, of course, the progressive assumption that both these dangers were ridiculously overstated. I suppose there can be hardly any point in my mentioning that, if you doubt the hidden dangers of comic books, you only have to look at the movie business today, with its merely fantastical Iron Men and Indiana Joneses, compared with what it was in the 1950s when prophets like Frederic Wertham (The Seduction of the Innocent) were warning of the moral and social breakdown that the unchecked proliferation of comic books would produce. Mr Hajdu can’t see it of course, but you’d think that the odd conservative somewhere might still be sufficiently unalarmed by the stigma of cultural snobbery to say that the old boy was right.