The main theme studied in John Carey’s book is that of the divide between the educated elite, or intelligentsia, and the masses, or newly educated.
To explain the terminology used above, Carey says that before education reforms resulted in widespread literacy, people could very easily be divided into two groups- those were educated, and those who weren’t. The educated could read and write, understood art and music, had knowledge of economy and philosophy. Those who were not classically educated were not educated at all; they could only do manual work and were employed by the elite for their labour.
Once literacy became more common, the common people’s ability to understand the written word represented a threat to their masters. They could continue to educate themselves by reading papers and pamphlets, and exchange their knowledge by writing things down.
This, Carey explains, is the point at which the ‘mob’ became the ‘masses’. They were able to organise themselves into a political force capable of making real changes, and what today’s politicians like to call “social mobility”. The industrial revolution saw the birth of technologies such as large scale publication, long distance travel, high speed delivery, cheap photography and film. All of this and more meant that the growth and spread of knowledge and skill among the masses was a great deal faster than it would have been otherwise.
Until this time, the elite had been comfortable and confident that their bloodlines and organisations were unassailable from below, and they only needed to concern themselves with the commoners when some odd jobs needed doing. The idea that the masses could someday be their equals, or even overthrow them, was somewhat intimidating. Something needed to be done.
Carey and other likeminded authors assert that the divide between the intellectuals and the masses only continues to exist today because of a devious and calculated effort by those who sit at the table to keep the dogs on the floor where they belong.
One such tactic was to fabricate a very clear line between high culture and mass media. Carey notes that this rise of the masses coincides with the birth of modern art and literature. Professor Carey would tell me that “coincides” is the wrong word, as the modernist movement was specifically designed to keep the masses from encroaching on the intelligentsia’s territory. If we look at modernist books such as Joyce’s Ulysses, we can agree that Joyce’s Freudian, ’stream of consciousness’ style is tricky for even an agile mind to wrap itself around, let alone that of the newly educated.
Similarly, modern art’s departure from accurately depicted landscapes and figures in favour of abstract and experimental imagery required a different kind of thought process to appreciate; the meaning existed in the mind of the viewer as much as it did in the paint of the canvass. Enjoying art ceased to be as simple as enjoying the newly available photography.
Carey would tell us that this kind of shift was a successful attempt to halt the enemy at the gates by ensuring that the high and trendy arts remain out of reach of the masses. I find this rather difficult to swallow: Nietzsche, the father of the Modernist movement, was against being part of any herd, and so it’s difficult to accept that his teachings were the result of some kind of battalion of gentlemen conspiring to protect the integrity of each others’ estates. Similarly, Monet’s spawning of modern art was due to cataracts, not the Illuminati. Or perhaps that’s what they want you to believe…
This is not to say that Carey’s book is to be dismissed with a derisive snort. He accurately notes authors who depicts the common people as ugly, inept and incapable of matching the elite- one example of such literature even describes the ironic death of an average man who tries to better himself; crushed to death under a pile of the books he was trying to learn from. If modern literature isn’t a mechanism of the intelligentsia, it certainly depicts their feelings if such a group exists.