I was a third year graduate student when I discovered Mathew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, in a lecture course called, sparsely, “Victorian Prose.” Here we were dutifully dragged through selections by Carlyle, Macaulay, Gibbon, and Turner, by a lecturer so prosaic himself that he made sometimes dryasdust writing glitter by contrast.
In those days we were permitted to follow almost any lecture in the term list without formal enrollment, so we would park (or ram) our rusting bikes in the nearest rack, secure it with a cable lock, toddle into Schools in our absurdly intermediate length “advanced Student” gowns (Oxford did not like the term postgraduate, yet) and take a seat on usually uncrowded bum-polished wooden benches.
Dr. Woodward (not a real name) appeared promptly seven minutes after the class should have begun and asked us to open the text to the essay or tract (as Newman was there, too) of the day, which we did , and unassisted by PPT or whiteboard , began our journey backward to the silver t age of British prose.
Later in my life I would return to Oxford as a senior lecturer at Westminster College, a former teacher’s college located on Harcourt Hill above Oxford, in Hinksey where Arnold would sometimes ramble and record his thoughts about the city itself, its dreaming spires and impossible drams, gypsy scholars and Boars of the swine sort, and, to make a living, return to the work of examining the local schools serviced by the graduates of my college.
Arnold wrote rapidly and extensively about the social and literary habits of his day and, like his father, the great educationist Thomas Arnold, reformer of Rugby School, has a thing or two to say about education and the role of “taste” in the sapping of true culture.
Lots of Victorians were obsessed with the question of taste. In Dickens’ Hard Times he deplores the manners of Mr Gradgrind, a dull headteacher who regards floral wall paper an offense against the good taste of plain old-fashioned coverings. The reason: Flowers do not grow on walls.
I spent a lot of time that term worrying about their debates, these Victorians, their worries, their aesthetics, their critiques of the aureate style, their divisions of culture into high, low and mediocre castes.
But no one had more to say on the subject of taste than Arnold, unless it was Thackeray and he said it in long, unfinishsable works of fiction.
When one reads Culture and Anarchy today we get the impression he was just another fusty Oxomian But like Lionel Trilling, one of his greatest fans, it is easy to miss Arnold’s originality and “greatness”– a very Victorian concept , from Carlyle, until you have lived a while longer.
Now that I have lived a while longer, and being mindful of his shortcomings, I have come to appreciate Arnold as a cultural prophet and perhaps the most prophetic until the post-World War II appearance of Adorno’s Culture Industry. Arnold was doing the same sort of thing, was concerned about the same sort of industrialization of taste to satisfy the minimal requirement s of the rising middle class with its new purchasing power and affection for standardization of goods and services.
His most cogent observations about society come in three chapters of his 1869 book Culture and Anarchy—Chapter One: “Sweetness and Light,” Chapter Three: “Barbarians, Philistines, Populace,” and Chapter Four: “Hellenism and Hebraism.”
Of these, Chapter Three is the best introduction to Arnold the social critic. For the author of “Dover Beach” everything depends on accepting his literary-critical caste system. In it he identifies three divisions, the Aristocracy, whom he terms the Barbarians; the middle class–the Philistines–and the working class, the Populace.
Arnold’s ironic hierarchy is not a hierarchy of value but a critique of all three groups: all three reduce themselves to the stereotypical interests of their class, slaves of who they are but driven by aspirations of who they want to be . They are not stereotyped or controlled by more powerful forces or explained, as by the Marxists by the fraught relationship between workers and owners. They are instead the members of self-fulfilling categories and prisoners of taste, lacking the judgement to alter their habits and their position. They are “devoid of facts, judgement and standards of taste” (which he weirdly enough sees as canonical) and prefer their own kind of bathos-– their own emotional matrix, appropriate to their own social or political self-image.
For Arnold the aristocracy was a world of inherited money, great houses, royal connections at the top and loyal servants at the bottom. There was no precise equivalent for this structure in America, even in nineteenth century Boston or Philadelphia. But Arnold thinks the assumed superiority of the British gentry and polite classes is nothing more than a decadent defense of privilege, civilized thuggery with its roots in the barbarism of the middle ages.
The Philistines (the word is his own invention and not a biblical reference) are the rising merchant and ownership class—not so much the owners of the means of production, as in 19th-century England, but today the higher-earning professionals in an information economy. Arnold sees this class especially represented in American society where the aristocracy hardly exists at all and the Populace, as Steinbeck once observed, live on in dreams of one day of being rich and thus become permanent candidates for a higher class.
In his onw terms, Arnold saw the populace as the low-paid and unskilled workers, America’s nineteenth century huddled masses and both field and industrial wage slaves– today perhaps the working poor.
However you slice the distinctions, America to Arnold is the land of the Philistines, and the term became associated with the sort of culture that emerges when our “best selves” have been squandered on the ordinary, the prosaic, the dull and unchallenging– above all, the uncritical. This word is a powerful totem for Arnold who sees the life and function of the critic as being fundamentally different from a life of practice. A critic he claimed in a famous article in the Fortnightly Review must stay out of the realm of practice or he will lose his power to affect change, desirable change, in society.
A university man himself, Arnold does not see university education as the way to achieve critical perspective. It is one of the quirks of British society of the mid- nineteenth century that education was not the up-and-out solution to the problems of critical perspective or taste, not a normal means for upgrading the social condition of ordinary Englishmen. It would remain, as a commodity for changing status, largely inaccessible to the people Arnold often calls hoi polloi. Writers like Ruskin felt otherwise, but at the core Arnold remained an elitist whose complaints about the yawpishness of the Barbarians and the Philistine wallowing in low culture were not cries for social-aesthetic improvement but a bystander’s lament on the way things are. Arnold was an ardent Biblicist: his voice has more in common with the prophets than with other literary figures of his own time. England is an unrepentant, sectarian Israel and he has been sent to scold her and set her straight.
For all his complaining about bad taste and Philistinism and the mediocrity of the masses (a situation Adorno many years later would blame on the industrialization of culture by money craven capitalists’) there is without doubt a strain of intolerance in Arnohd’s critique.
In culture, using the French Academy as his model, he laments the absence of an equivalent central governing body that would guard and teach “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” “There is something to be said for setting cultural standards, especially when we consider how market-driven and niche-oriented our society has become—more about maximizing profits than inspiring quality and creativity,” wrote a commentator in 2013. But the prestigious literary organizations that do exist made no pretense of serving the population at large. Arnold’s hankering after a French style solution found its voice later in European Fascism and Communism–that is to say in political remedies for matters of taste and creativity. Short of an Academic solution, and not seeing the universities as means of social change, Arnold puts language and literature in the hands of cultural watchdogs empowered by the state to promote and safeguard “the best that has been thought and said in the world,” a principle that today seems less revolutionary than naïve and mildly dangerous.
At the same time Arnold recognizes that in other realms of life the inability of the masses to change willingly or rise in feeling and thought to the demands of a crisis is a special social hazard. People without the critical sense to use language and understand the “things” of culture run the risk of being duped by religionists and politicians. They are, to use his phrase “blind to the light” of religion and prefer its comforting sweetness . “If the followers of a doctrine are really dupes, or worse, and its promulgators are really fanatics, or worse,” he writes, “it gives the doctrine no seriousness or authority the more that there should be found 200,000 souls,—200,000 of the innumerable multitude with a natural taste for the bathos,—to hold it, and 20,000 rifles to defend it.”
So too in politics, which in the land of the Philistines is the twin sister of religion Politicians address voters “with so much flattering and coaxing, that they [the public] shall not suspect their ignorance and prejudices to be anything very unlike right reason, or their natural taste for the bathos to differ much from a relish for the sublime.” Politicians, in other words, say what lends comfort to their constituencies, rather than what supports their best selves. And yet, because what the people demand is the bathos that serves their self interest, the religionist and the politician must cloak their sermons and speeches in whatever language it takes to coax, comfort, and lead away from the truth.
While this manipulation has short term success for the purveyors of bathos, its long term effects are catastrophic — anarchy first, and the death of a civilization second. Nowhere he felt is this condition more obvious (he wrote in 1869), than in America.
Arnold blames the press for encouraging this state of affairs. Newspapers, he writes, deal in bathos under the assumption that we shall “by the mercy of Providence, and by a kind of natural tendency of things, come in due time to relish and follow right reason.” More simply, the press indulges our lowest tastes while assuming that higher ones will somehow emerge when needed. He says, there exist “a certain number of aliens, if we may so call them,—persons who are mainly led, not by their class spirit, but by a general humane spirit, by the love of human perfection; and that this number is capable of being diminished or augmented.” And so for the great Critic of bad taste and habits, the solution is not to be found in any social mechanism but in the leaven–that small number of aliens–of the uncomfortable who defy class in favour of the general good, the general welfare. –Rousseau, thou shoulds’t have been living at that hour.