What can Arnold teach us?

What, I ask myself, would Matthew Arnold say about contemporary politics and public debate? And a silly answer I get back, because I now pile shallowness on pomposity by admitting all I’ve read by him is “Dover Beach.” But somehow I seem to have absorbed more than I deserved of his ideas and you should too.

To cement my status as a Philistine I’m going to quote famous Western author Louis L’Amour: “Someone has said that culture is what remains with you after you have forgotten all that you have read…” In this case culture is what remains after you never read it. But I bring it up because it’s amazing how much remained.

For instance, in teaching university courses I assign book reviews, which my students hate. I suggest various technical aspects of reviewing books, but always to help them make an overall appraisal. And now I discover that Matthew Arnold, who really invented the profession of “critic” in the mid-nineteenth century, said “Literary criticism’s most important function is to try books as to the influence which they are calculated to have upon the general culture of single nations or of the world at large.” Which is exactly what I wanted my students to be doing. I just didn’t phrase it that clearly… until now.

Comedian Bob Newhart joked that “You don’t actually have to be intelligent if you can just create the perception. This can usually be accomplished by a reference to Kafka. Even if you never read any of his – or her – works.” On that basis I’m going to praise Arnold after reading not his works but the Oxford Past Masters profile of him by Stefan Collini.

If citing Arnold makes me sound snobby it is far from obvious that he would object, since he described criticism as “the disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” But even if it is pompous, there are worse tasks one could set oneself. And that word “disinterested” is extremely important in this context. For there’s another major theme in Arnold’s writing that I had somehow absorbed: his warning about the distorting effect on our intellectual decency of putting cause ahead of cultivation.

When he spoke of being “disinterested” Arnold did not mean we should not reach firm conclusions or defend them vigorously. He himself did both, though to be honest I don’t share a lot of his beliefs. But here’s what I do share. According to Collini, partly through long, tedious contact with English Dissenters in his day job as school inspector, Arnold realized “that those whose fundamental identity was given to them by their status as members of a sect could not help but respond to all ideas and values, and judge all issues, from the constraining vantage point of the person with a grievance.”

The sentiment may not seem remarkable today, with political correctness all around us. But I spend much of my time watching politics as a journalist and commentator. And I found this passage electric because it now applies not only to the genuinely marginalized or self-marginalized but to our mainstream parties and to people in power as well. Partly through the process of sharpening their polemical weapons by taking on the tone of the legitimately aggrieved, and partly due to a general coarsening of intellectual and cultural life, they have succumbed to this peril in their rhetoric and their thinking.

Party men and women nowadays do not evaluate an issue or an event from a broad perspective, considering its place in the long history of human thought and action and its probable impact on the general culture before fitting it into their partisan concerns. Instead, they instantly weigh its usefulness or danger to their entrenched positions, and base all their thinking about it on that narrow, crumbly foundation.

As for political activists and politicians as individuals, do they not remind you of Arnold’s question about what “the everyday, middle-class Philistine... finds so attractive in Dissent? Is it not, as to discipline, that his self-importance is fomented by the fuss, bustle and partisanship of a private sect, instead of being lost in the greatness of a public body? As to worship, is it not that his taste is pleased by usages and words that come down to him, instead of drawing him up to them; by services which reflect, instead of the culture of great men and religious genius, the crude culture of himself and his fellows? And as to doctrine, is it not that his mind is pleased at hearing no opinion but its own, by having all disputed points taken for granted in its own favour by being urged to no return upon itself, no development?” Now attend a party convention… and weep.

Through your tears, recall Arnold’s belief that the “best spiritual work” was “to keep man from a self-satisfaction which is retarding and vulgarizing”. Now admit it: The parties you like exhibit this deplorable quality every bit as much as those you do not. Don’t they? (And while you’re at it, watch out for this problem in the blogosphere as well.)

I do not presume to appropriate Arnold for my own narrow causes. Rather, I hope I can claim to be affiliated, however imperfectly and without having noticed it, with his program. Can we not still aspire to think broadly before acting narrowly? When we contemplate the opinions and programs of those we despise, can we not try to hold fast to one more Arnoldian sentiment for a troubled age: “One gains nothing on the darkness by being... as incoherent as the darkness itself.”

So there you are. I’m going to read some Arnold… as soon as I’m done with Kafka’s plays… or essays… or whatever she wrote.

John Robson is a writer, broadcaster and university lecturer in Ottawa, Canada.


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