Monday, September 28, 2015
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
ELITIST – AND PROUD OF IT
I like what is miscalled “classical” music, meaning European orchestral music and chamber music by established and canonical composers. (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Post-Romantic, Modernist – you see, it isn’t all “classical”). Everything from Gregorian Chant to Bartok.
I like jazz in most of its forms, from the ODJB to Wynton Marsalis. Soak me in a hot Bix, a swinging Henderson, a driving Django, a sophisticated Ellington or a cool Modern Jazz Quartet and I come over all funny.
And - yes – I like some of the pop music of a few generations ago – Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Rodgers and company (and collaborators). Top stuff.
But present me with country-and-western, and nearly all rock and most pop of the last forty years or so, and the inanities of the generations who think the visuals are more important than the music – and I say “No thanks”.
I won’t be a hypocrite about this. I’ve occasionally tapped my toes along with the rock, metal, faux blues, bubblegum stuff, but in very short order it bores me and I tune out. It’s musically unimaginative crap in the main and I have better things to do.
So I’m an ELITIST and a SNOB and I think I’m SUPERIOR to other people because EVERYBODY I KNOW likes rock and pop music so I MUST JUST BE PUTTING IT ON when I say I like that boring old stuff.
I like old novels and poetry written fifty, one hundred, two, three, or four hundred years ago. A well-turned sonnet by Sidney or Baudelaire knocks me out. I’m happy to read a narrative poem by Byron or a polemic by Andre Chenier. You know those big, collected editions of poets gathering dust in the second-hand bookshops? Well I’m the guy who actually dips into them with pleasure and admires the fecundity of poems back then and their respect for metrical forms….
I like the solidity of a novel by Fielding, Balzac, Dickens. The generosity of spirit. The lack of neuroses. I like the clear rationalism of eighteenth century novels and the broad social panoramas of nineteenth century ones. I like a bit of wallowing in the Decadence, too, with Huysmans and Wilde and Musil, and I like some of the asperity of the Modernists. Kafka, some of Joyce, some of Huxley. Oh, I do read a lot of contemporary novels – probably far more than the great majority of readers do. But I struggle to see merit in some of them.
So I’m an ELITIST and I’m TURNING MY BACK ON THE PRESENT and I’m one of those GATEKEEPERS who prevent women and gays and the oppressed classes from being represented and I’m probably a RACIST because the whole canon I’m talking about was produced by DEAD WHITE MEN.
Oh Elitist! Elitist!
What a fun word to throw around when rational argument runs out. It has an immediate emotional impact. The elitist is a snob sniffing at the lower orders, not one of us democratic plain folks, somebody who thinks he’s superior to us.
But, like “rebel”, like “establishment” (see the post Rebellious Establishment), “elitist” is one of those words that is usually misused.
Once upon a time, an elite in society was an unassailable and powerful aristocratic class. The lord in his chateau looking down on the ignorant peasants.
Now the word is co-opted by those who wish to rebuke or ridicule anyone who has tastes or interests running contrary to the mass-produced ones. It is interesting that in America now, “elitist” is the insult word of choice for those who wish to woo the working-class Right, to condemn those who ask for gun control or a more humane foreign policy, and to belittle those who have more than an elementary education. Apparently Barak Obama is an elitist. I know this, because I’ve seen it on innumerable Tea Party-oriented postings.
Regrettably, too, the word is sometimes introduced into academic circles, especially in humanities departments, where people should know better. You are elitist if you go for the best literary models rather than for rap or performance poetry. You are elitist if you are sceptical of media studies and other fashionable “discourses”. You should learn that the study of literature is really just a form of sociology. If the masses are reading it, then it is more important than what a little group of connoisseurs are reading…..
So, being a middle-class person of little income, of absolutely no power, and certainly not living in a chateau, I propose another meaning for elitist.
An elitist is one who seeks for, and admires, what is best. An elitist is one with the perception to know that, while the crowd is often right, it is not always right. An elitist is not in the least anti-democratic, especially not in the political sense. It is open to all people of all social classes to be an elitist. But an elitist has the perspective to know that what is wildly popular today will not necessarily have any lasting merit. An elitist has read enough to know that this year’s best-seller is most often next year’s back number.
In this sense, and in no other, I am happy to be called an elitist.