If you know John Carey your heart beat a little faster when you heard he was coming to Dublin for the Writers’ Festival. If you don’t know John Carey you haven’t been paying attention.
Professor Carey is a literary critic, author, and Merton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford. He has chaired the committee for the Booker Prize, reviews books for the Sunday Times and is a frequent guest on television and radio. In her introduction, interviewer Selena Guinness (author of “The Crocodile at the Door”) described her guest as an iconoclast writer and figure in literature. All true. Yet in person he isn’t at all what one expects. An iconoclast ought to be gigantic, imposing, a bit, well, in your face. Not so Professor Carey. He is softly spoken and genial. His intelligence and critical skills hum like a dynamo in the background, but are never showy. In many ways he is a perfect example of his message, which is: the real worth of anything, whether it’s a human being or a work of art, is not always immediately apparent to the casual eye.
For a man who has spent his career challenging elitism both in terms of class and of education, Professor Carey sadly admits that some of his own literary heroes were elitists. Carey cites a letter D.H. Lawrence wrote in 1908, in which he fantasised about building ‘a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace’ for ‘all the sick, the halt and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the “Hallelujah Chorus”.’ Lawrence further suggested that ‘All schools be closed at once’ because ‘The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write.’ Carey sums up this philosophy, saying, “His ideas lead straight to Auschwitz.”
Other greats of the modernist period, Woolf, Eliot and Pound, were also intellectual snobs and it is this sense of the perceived superiority (by themselves, at least) of the elite that raise Carey’s hackles. And yet, he tells us, one can enjoy the works of Lawrence or Woolf yet remain appalled by their elitism.
Carey related a story about fellow university student, Sir Roy Howard, who once dismissed him as ‘nobody’. The term rankled and, one suspects, continues to wound. It was this elitism both in terms of class and of education that has made Carey a determined advocate for art that speak to everyone. It was a philosophy he brought with him to Keble University, where he first taught. He made it his mission to bring in grammar school children rather than those who had been nurtured exclusively in public schools. This attempt to change the class system met with some degree of success, Carey says matter-of-factly. That such actions should ever have been considered extraordinary seems bewildering now, decades later.
In books like “What Good are the Arts” and his current work, “The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life”, Professor Carey has removed much of the mystique from both the institutions in which he functions and the artists he has spent his life studying. Art, he tells us, should be accessible to all. Taste is relative and is determined by education and background, by what we’ve been taught.
He denies that it is impossible for a work to be both literary and popular. “Lord of the Flies” was popular with 20m copies sold, he says. But it also won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What better example of a work that is both literary and popular? He adds that many people consider Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to be major poets.
The sum of the event served as no more than a teaser for John Carey’s work as an erudite and highly educated man whose life’s mission is to make art accessible to all comers, regardless of background, education or social status.
Interviewer Selena Guinness did a fine job of introducing the audience to the professor’s life and career. They share a history and an easy rapport. One in of her final questions was obviously designed for those students who were present. Ms Guinness posed a question about heuristics touching on Barthes and New Historicism. No doubt the students were delighted. Still, it was evident more than a few of the non-elite members of the audience were bewildered by the question.
Oh, the irony.