Friday, 22 June 2018

The failure of the doctrine of the common man

The novel of the common man was born over 100 years (roughly five or six generations) before the rise of proletarian political consciousness emerged as a discrete force in European society. It appeared right at the time when the flawed seer, William Cowper, was born. These novels, which today we label “epistolary”, because they were written in the form of letters by protagonists addressed to friends and relatives, formed the foundation for the improvement of manners that was so evidently needed for the progress of European society in an age where endemic violence, crushing wealth inequalities, and deadening religious intolerance went hand-in-hand with autocracy. People had little control over their destinies and their lives were for the most part very hard.

Cowper, who came into the world in 1731 (his mother Ann was a descendant of the metaphysical poet John Donne), and who suffered from a mental illness, that was probably schizophrenia, for large chunks of his life, was a proto-Romantic whose innovative poetic insights inspired the young men and women who came to prominence in British letters in the generations after him to look at the world with fresh eyes.

Their advances form part of the platform of reform that made the 19th century such a progressive age. Like Cowper, they were inspired by the establishment of independent government in America, as were the writers of the novel of the common man who lived and worked at the same time he was writing. The second half of the 18th century is full of novels in which true virtue is rewarded in the face of an unjust political settlement, through the deployment of poetic justice. This is the history second-generation Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley had in mind when he famously wrote, in 1821, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

However, since the middle of the 19th century, when further advances were made in the literary arts by continentals (Melville, Whitman, Baudelaire, and Flaubert) that prioritised the individual over the mass of common folk, the elites have used the doctrine of the common man as a control strategy to maintain unearned privilege. By privileging the ordinary they stop ordinary people from becoming extraordinary, and thereby stop them from spending their money on things that cannot be turned to an easy profit.

It is no accident that it was at that exact point in time, the 1850s, that the proletariat gained its most ardent supporter, in the form of Karl Marx. Just at the precise historical moment when Marx was publishing his seminal works, coevals at different places in the world were writing works that privileged the rights of the individual as something that exists apart from the stated interests of the mass of common folk. This confluence of apparently-contradictory events led to the fateful split between high culture and popular culture that continues to bedevil us today. But before we tease this thread out further, let’s look at some of those innovations in a bit more detail.

Melville’s Ahab, in ‘Moby-Dick’, in eternal pursuit of the great white whale, is symbolic of the superhuman conflict that lies at the heart of lived existence. The sailor is an exceptional individual, a man with a vision, but the creature from the ocean’s depths is a stronger force and Ahab meets a grisly end in the story that plays out in the 1851 novel’s inspired universe.

A few years later, Walt Whitman published ‘Leaves of Grass’, a collection of poetry in which the writer privileges the vision of the individual in contrast to that of the broader society in which he lives. The poems in the collection are now considered to be exceptional but in 1855, at the time of the first edition, not much notice was taken of it.

Baudelaire’s ‘Les fleurs du mal’, published in 1857, features an atomised individual, an artist and a man living in the embrace of the city’s alienating psychogeography. Unfit for regular employment, the poet seeks to achieve goals that are marked by milestones that lie on roads that lead away from the mainstream. He is a French exponent of the Russian idea of the “superfluous man” who does not fit easily into categories that society normally uses to regulate itself.

In the same year, Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’ appeared in print in Paris. In this novel, the heroine transgresses against established societal norms and is punished by the world she lives in. She eventually suicides by talking poison when everyone around her abandons her because of her infidelity to her husband.

(In case anyone tells me I missed out on naming Edgar Allen Poe, I have to say that I do acknowledge his debt to the Romantics and his influence on later writers, especially Baudelaire. It’s just that his hey-day came before the 1850s, which is the special point of focus in my argument.)

The subsequent success in the marketplace of works of literature such as these show us that there is an appetite, today, for books that privilege the individual, but still people in the main remain timid and conservative when faced with both new methods and new ideas in the arts. And politicians watch carefully how people follow fashion (even though, irony of ironies, the most fashionable people tend by and large to be the most politically progressive) and aim their messages at the very heart of the putative common man that people think they despise but who is actually their mirror-image. We all think we're geniuses even though we are in fact something less than this: ordinary mortals. For the elites, we are something even less: mere appliances in a machine that serves to enrich them and their families. They care not for our welfare beyond a minimal degree needed to ensure that we remain productive.

Counterintuitively, through constant change the creative industries today work to sunder the people from the moment of cultural innovation, while the people who pay for truly innovative art are the same elites the psychosocial split benefits. Popular culture slavishly follows fashion in industry after industry that is controlled by the elites as they use the separation of the creative class from the proletariat to further their selfish aims. Instead of challenging the people with products that might truly inspire them but that have a chance of failing to earn enough to justify the investment, they push out copy-cat products that ride on the back of the occasional fluke success, keen to capitalise on what they have identified as a profitable niche in the market. The people in the community are the losers because they lose sight of the signs pointing to their own emancipation that had been buried in the fortunate work of art that caught their attention.

This is the context within which the Liberal Party asked the Parliament to support its tax cuts. “Aspirational” being code for the common man, a person the system keeps locked in place due to the effort required for earning a living. “Dare not aspire to anything but a higher salary!”: the siren call of Malcolm Turnbull.

Identity politics cuts both ways. People are social animals and we thrive in communities. We tell ourselves stories in order to forge communities that sustain us in the face of life’s challenges. But these stories can be used by other people to diminish us and to generate solidarity in their own communities (this is called “othering”), so it becomes like a team sport, where people are classified according to their beliefs and tastes and slotted into atomised communities of interest that have their favourite political parties. Our very selves are thus manipulated by the elites and by the politicians who serve their material interests, in order to keep us pliant and amenable to the aims that serve them. Left and right, we are like products that emerge from a manufacturing plant ready to be exploited by people who rely on our complicity to maintain their privilege. Popular culture (spectator sports, rock music, mainstream cinema) is a tool of this class of people, and is designed to keep us docile and useful well into the future.

This is why high art is so dangerous. But high art is both neutered and exploited when it is appropriated by the elites, especially the visual arts. High art is considered to exist outside the legitimate ambit of life for ordinary people and for the most part merely constitutes a utilitarian trope within the nexus of meaning that animates public debate. “Hipsters are wankers,” instead of imaginative men and women who aspire to a different world, one where people cannot so easily be turned to profit.

And poor old Jimmy Barnes has to tell the xenophobic political grouping Reclaim Australia to stop appropriating his songs by playing them at their rallies. To end on a lighter note, I was out walking the other day and went past the cafĂ© near the light rail station where the shop owner plays his stereo loudly in the square. He had on 1979’s ‘Breakfast at Sweethearts’, and on my way back after having eaten lunch at a restaurant I heard 1980’s ‘Cheap Wine’ playing on his stereo.

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