Literary populism – my ‘soul of arrogance’

[Edit 10/05/07 – Mr. Wright has been good enough to apologise in reply to my response on his LJ, which makes the following look astonishingly childish and petulant with hindsight. I leave it here as a lesson for myself, and consider this matter closed.]


Oh dear. It looks like my rapidly written little rant from yesterday has upset John C. Wright:

“I cannot join Mr. Raven in the idea that it is mean or wrong-headed to have standards, or that it is somehow cruel to have high standards. I can admire things I cannot appreciate.”


As I mentioned in my comment left in reply, I never said that. Or at least I never meant to; I know I wrote that piece rather quickly (and not in the best of tempers), but a few re-readings fails to show me the point where I said that it was wrong to have standards. I did (and still do) say that projecting your personal standards onto others is an act of elitism, and (as was the entire point of my original post) that elitism very effectively puts people off reading classic literature.

But it appears the problem is that I have entirely misunderstood the nature of elitism. Let’s allow Mr. Wright to explain:

“The sixth reason is that it takes humility to be an elitist, whereas being a populist is the soul of arrogance. An elitist, someone who likes great books because they are great, not because he likes them, is as humble as a mountaineer standing before a titanic, mysterious, unclimbed peak. To climb that mountain is work, at least at first, we all agree. But once you have achieved the summit, and all the world is under your heel, how far you can see! What things those content with lower perspectives will not view! The humility of a mountaineer is this: he does not think of himself as he climbs, he thinks of the rock under this fingers and toes. He did not make the mountain, he is not the one who piled it up. That is the work of former years, previous generations, so to speak.

The populist, on the other hand, looks in the mirror, and seeing only his own little self dressed in his own little circles’ little fashion, preens and says he is as large as the mountain. Who can actually prove he is taller than me? (says the populist) “By my measuring rod I have invented for myself this day, I say I am taller! My taste is just as good as his. He likes the Venus de Milo, and I like Charlie’s Angels It’s the same. He reads HAMLET, I read GREEN EGGS AND HAM. To each his own!” “

Hmmm. Well, that’s me set straight. I regularly use the phrase “to each their own”, never knowing that I was actually being sweepingly arrogant to others by doing so – evidently I should have been ramming my own opinions down their throats as gospel. I wondered why my career as a reviewer and critic was moving so slowly …

Luckily, most of Mr. Wright’s supporters have had the humility to lambaste me in the privacy of his Livejournal; how shameful it would have been to be bearded in my populist’s den by such bold mountain climbers, here, in front of all those who know my populism and shelter beneath it in shame at their own lack of humility!

The one bit I still don’t get is why he called his post ‘The Judgement of Paris’. I mean, how can one be judged by a city?

3 thoughts on “Literary populism – my ‘soul of arrogance’”

  1. Ha. It’s all well and good to admire great literature and set standards for yourself, but his presuppositon that those standards are absolute defeats his whole argument, IMHO.

  2. In case anyone did not see my apology on my site, here is it again: the good Mr. Raven was writing about mocking someone because he hadn’t read a certain great book. He is correct that such behavior is cruel and petty–certainly no one ever enjoyed a book because someone shamed him into it. I reacted as if he were saying something much stronger: that there was no difference between great books and good ones, or, worse, that holding up some books as great is merely a pretense, and inflated self-opinion.

    While that might have been in interesting discussion to have, what actually happened is that he said something quite reasonable, and I went off half-cocked. I suppose it must be the thin air up here on top of the mountains of literary greatness. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am taking myself and my elevated tastes out to see a Spiderman movie.

    (The phrase the judgment of Paris is a classical allusion. There was a shepherd boy who had to judge between three beautiful goddesses, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, and his choice so outraged the great mother goddess Hera, the wife of the great father god Him-a, that the Nazis took Paris without shelling the city. Paris was drunk at the time, or, as we say, plastered. This is were we get our word for Plaster of Paris, which we still use to this day.)

Leave a Reply