Superb Literary Critic Divided Against Himself

To borrow a line from Yellow Submarine, in What Good Are the Arts? the English literary critic John Carey disappears

To borrow a line from Yellow Submarine, in What Good Are the Arts? the English literary critic John Carey disappears up his own existence: His brilliant, provocative, wrongheaded book ends up erasing itself in contradiction.

Mr. Carey, chief critic for London’s Sunday Times, is far too deliberate to be called a bomb thrower. Like his thrilling The Intellectuals & the Masses (1992), the new book is a bloodbath inflicted by a million precise pinpricks. In the earlier volume, Mr. Carey argued that modernism in early 20th-century literature was a horrified reaction to the increased literacy that resulted from 19th-century education reforms, a way of ensuring that art would remain the province of the elite. If that sounds too simple a thesis, Mr. Carey more than supported it by providing details of the class-cleansing fantasies of writers as disparate as H.G. Wells and D.H. Lawrence (“I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace … and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed”). The best parts of the new book build on the anti-elitism of The Intellectuals & the Masses. (Mr. Carey is clearly not persuaded by the argument that immersion in culture makes us better, more moral, people: Hitler, he reminds us, was as strong a friend as the concept of government-funded art has ever had.)

It may make What Good Are the Arts? sound like a relativist free-for-all to say Mr. Carey believes that, given the differences in time, experience and personal taste, there can be no such thing as absolute standards about what constitutes art. It’s more accurate to say that, like all good critics (and Mr. Carey is a superb critic), he’s suspicious of received wisdom. He delights in showing how claims for the superiority of “high” art frequently allow the claimant to flatter his or her own impeccable taste. (Anyone who thinks this kind of snobbishness is a thing of the past might take a look at Woody Allen’s Match Point—or the fawning reviews—where we’re meant to find Emily Mortimer’s character a simp and a cultural vulgarian because she enjoys Andrew Lloyd Weber.)

If the targets Mr. Carey demolishes in this section had a slogan, it would surely be Theodor Adorno’s simplistic generalization about how mass art “automatizes and stupefies.” Mr. Carey is merciless toward those who have turned high culture into the Ozymandias before which they willingly tremble. The air may be thinner in that realm, but it’s at least unpolluted by the odors associated with cooking or labor.

What disgusts Mr. Carey most is the veneration of art over human beings. On that tendency he’s sometimes persuasive; and sometimes—as in the section where he likens Churchill protecting British art works during World War II with German guards who arranged string quartets from musicians they then sent to the ovens—he’s talking out of his erudite ass.

The trouble with What Good Are the Arts? is that Mr. Carey does such a thorough job of rubbishing the snobbishness hauled out in defense of culture that he makes you wonder why he bothers with such a disagreeable pursuit. He’s no doubt right that “the emotions art arouses are fake and transient, compared to those felt in real life”—if only because art is a controlled experience and life isn’t. But that’s an argument more suited to a Platonic philosopher than to someone who has spent his life writing and thinking about the arts. Is Mr. Carey telling us it’s all been a waste?

No. In the second half of the book, he makes the classic humanist case that the arts should be a connection to the human—not a substitute for religion or science, but something that opens up questions of morality, increases our understanding of ourselves and of others by introducing us to characters we might reject were we to meet them in real life. But if the emotions art arouses have some application to real life, then they cannot, as he claims earlier, be entirely fake. Why, then, did Mr. Carey fashion the first half of the book solely as a polemic? Why didn’t he make room there for something besides negation? There’s a bigger problem, though—one I would have sworn Mr. Carey was too smart to be tripped up by.

One of the worst tendencies of fiction writers and fiction critics is the urge, fed by insecurity, to claim literature as the highest art, with which no other may share equal ground. This is what Mr. Carey does, championing literature as the only art capable of criticizing or rejecting itself. If that’s true, what then of the apocalyptic end title of Godard’s Weekend: “End of Cinema”? Or Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a tragedy about the perils of giving yourself over to illusion (like making, or watching, movies). Music and painting, Mr. Carey says, cannot reason. How then can he praise the nonsense language of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” for opening a route to “the flux of the unconscious”? Couldn’t the abstractions of Ornette Coleman or Jackson Pollack do the same?

Mr. Carey claims, convincingly, that great literature contains an element of “indistinctness” that allows us to participate in the imagining of the text. Which, he says, is quite different from “the grotesque liberties” of TV and film adaptations of literature. But he goes on to claim that indistinctness as a deliberate stratagem began with Shakespeare. What escapes him is that, while some literature may or may not be dramatized for movies or TV, Shakespeare wrote literature for the very purpose of dramatization. Aren’t the choices of directors and actors from the Globe on down the same “grotesque liberties” Mr. Carey believes impede our engagement with a work?

Egalitarian that he is, Mr. Carey does a wonderful job of citing people whose lives have been changed for the good by literature—people of the working classes, young convicts who’ve found in books access to a world they always assumed was closed to them. But are we to conclude that the course of a life was never changed by music, art, dance, movies? And what’s the experience of literature for people living settled, stable lives? Can it ever be more than bourgeois self-regard?

To riff on the old Groucho joke, John Carey would only belong to a club that would have people very unlike him as members. That’s what allows him to pry literature free of the mummification of culture. How ironic that he can’t resist putting it in its own ivory tower.

Why is it so damn hard for writers to be generous toward the other arts?

Charles Taylor has written for Salon, The New York Times, The New Yorker and other publications. He’s a frequent contributor to The Observer. Superb Literary Critic Divided Against Himself