John Gross: The Literary Liberal

I was sorry to hear of the death of John Gross.  His Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters is one of my favourite books and has been since I was a teenager.

We were living in humid Hamilton, New Zealand, a city that was growing fast with wide sticky roads and sprawling ranch style houses.  My father was an estate agent at the time and rented out flats, and in one of these he had found a box of books which he gave to me. Among them was a fat hardback – expensive in New Zealand at the time – called The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters by John Gross.

The Rise and Fall etc is a history of British intellectual life since 1800, with potted biographies of literary journalists and neat, throwaway remarks about the periodicals they wrote for and the movements they were involved in. It is very readable, with an open, tolerant humorous tone.  I did not know the voice of the English liberal, but I found it congenial.

The chief practical purpose of literary histories is to teach us something about books that we have never read and probably never will.

Indeed.  I knew that one day I should get round to reading J S Mill*.  In the meantime I made do with Gross’s synopsis.  I trust him since when he writes about authors that I have read – George Eliot, George Orwell – he gives what I think is a fair assessment.

He writes about Carlyle:-

. . . he was very much a portent.  He points forward, not indeed to fascism itself, since after all he never crossed over into the realm of active politics, but to the trahison des clercs, the long procession of artists and intellectuals whose hatred of the modern world has led them to flirt with brutally authoritarian regimes or to clutch at obscurantist dogma.  And, as with so many of his successors, the infected areas of his work cannot simply be cordoned off from the healthy.  Both are the product of the same fundamentally imperious approach to social complexities, of an imagination naturally drawn to clear-cut diagnoses and drastic solutions, impatient of hedging and compromise.  It is so the credit of such a man that he should nevertheless have been willing to prescribe unromantic short-term palliatives (organized emigration, elementary schools, etc.) but this was hardly his first claim on the consideration of his contemporaries, any more than it is on ours.  His most enduring distinction as a social critic is to have brought into dramatic focus the ruthlessly disruptive effects of unrestrained laissez-faire industrialism.  Trying to describe the larger forces at work in his society, he fell back on metaphors of homesickness, uprooting, disharmony.  As metaphors, they are brilliantly suggestive; but as the point of departure for any kind of comprehensive political programme, they need to be handled with care.  Like many other romantics, Carlyle ultimately seems to be judging society as though it were an unsuccessful work of art.  The analogy is dangerous, since social cohesion can never be as absolute as artistic unity; it will always be easy for those who dream of restoring an organic society to despair, and tempting for them to assume that a deliberately imposed uniformity will come to much the same thing in the end.  A romantic is properly concerned with integrity – the integrity of a personality, the integrity of a poem.  But politics is the art of rough, very rough approximations; and ever since Plato, the desire and pursuit of the whole has usually turned out, taken far enough and translated into political terms, to be a first-class recipe for totalitarianism.

Well, that was me unconsciously armoured against the ideological interpretations of literature which I later came across when I went to university.  And immunised against the revolutionary bugs that floated about in the seventies.

I recently bought the second edition of Man of Letters (reissued in 1991) where in an Afterword John Gross laments the successful colonisation of English departments by the theorists:-

. . . there is a hostility not merely towards the freelance, but towards the free response.  For in spite of its apparent variety, a great deal of critical theory is coercive, designed to enforce approved social and political attitudes (roughly speaking, any attitude that rejects ‘traditional hierarchies’).  The belittling of the belle lettrist, the person who writes as he pleases, is a bottom a demand for ideological conformity.

The body of theory that has accumulated over the past few years, taken as a whole, seems to me a monstrous excrescence, a vast distraction, a paltry substitute for the experience of literature itself.  I believe that in time it will fade, but I am filled with a cold horror at the thought of how much further it could spread before it does.

I’m glad John Gross has read the theorists for me.  I’ll take his word for it.  When I come across theorists or sons of theorists I find this:-

I am sceptical of this orientation toward the self from the antierioty of the monument. As Donohoe has it, the complex appearing of the monument is only such that it forms a correspondence with the self, with Da-sein. In turn, the objectification of death becomes subjected to an ontic appeal. Not only that, but the temporality of the monument, as stretching beyond time, places the self in a privileged location, insofar as temporality becomes re-presented in and through the self…

I don’t need to go on.

*I did.

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16 thoughts on “John Gross: The Literary Liberal

    January 17, 2011 at 12:37

    That extraordinary bit of crit-twaddle I discover to be the work of one Dr Dylan Trigg. Terrific – reads like a Slavoj Zizek parody.

    January 17, 2011 at 12:42

    Crazy name, crazy guy! A lovely piece on Gross though – I must read that book…

    January 17, 2011 at 14:27

    terrific stuff to melt my brain with this busy monday!

  4. January 17, 2011 at 15:03

    Noseybonk can see Dr Dylan Trigg.

  5. Gaw
    January 17, 2011 at 15:50

    Sales of The Rise and Fall… appear to have picked up, as is often the way following the death of an author. I bought it second-hand for 1p on the weekend, it was £2 yesterday and it’s £4 today.

    January 17, 2011 at 16:04

    I blame the Dabbler, Gaw – posts like the excellent one above aren’t exactly going to prevent a run on copies of ‘The Rise and Fall’, are they?

    Not for the first time, my morning visit to the Dabbler was followed swiftly by a visit to Amazon. Although not invariably a fan of English liberals and all their works, the sort of writing quoted above is bliss – and the little joke about elementary schools absolutely seductive. So, if anyone else is planning to buy a copy, I’d recommend that you hurry up, while there are still a few of them about!

  7. Gaw
    January 18, 2011 at 09:11

    Barendina, I’d love to take credit for those sales but we were a bit late to the game – this, amongst other reasons!. Having said that the Google rankings of our pieces are peculiarly high. If you search for ‘John Gross, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters’ you’ll find that, once you’re through the Amazon and Wikipedia entries, our post is second after a piece by The Guardian. Same for lots of other of our posts too. Not sure how that happened.

    January 18, 2011 at 09:18

    …Because Google has impeccable taste. My favourite of The Dabbler’s now countless Google-conquerings is this one because Nige is above the actual site for the painting at the National Gallery.

    January 18, 2011 at 09:32

    Dylan has a blog! And wonderfully pretentious it is too, but not quite as much as the photo of himself above the biography page: all the cliches about the romantic, rootless intellectual are in there. Not sure whether it helps to pull those Left Bank chicks though.

  10. Brit
    January 18, 2011 at 09:41

    Within the first few lines of Dylan’s blog we have:

    My point of departure is the following question: how can the gaze of the other make me disappear? I have skirted around this question in various ways before, mostly through considering Heidegger’s analysis of anxiety and the Nothing. But the question is deserving of a far broader analysis than metaphysics alone.

    I think I’ve found a new hero.

    January 18, 2011 at 10:57

    We should be grateful that the nut has moved to Paris, has he started smoking a pipe yet?

    Broad analysis = studying burdz, he could have stayed over here and done that.

  12. Brit
    January 18, 2011 at 11:01

    Perhaps if we all gaze at him hard enough he’ll disappear completely (up his own…)

    jonathan law
    January 18, 2011 at 12:03

    Dr Trigg has that uncanny gift of finding words for things that one has so often felt — and how deeply! — yet never been able to articulate:

    The only question that matters is: how do we resuscitate and conjoin the living and the dead into the same organic body?

    Perhaps I can only speak for myself, but the same question has often slipped wraith-like into my mind on those weird autumn evenings with the cold mist
    curdling in the hollows of the Peat Moors and the sounds of the marsh birds caling, calling, calling from the King Sedgemoor Drain. Somehow at such times all other questions begin to seem unworthy.

    And as DT so wrenchingly observes:

    If I were to open my body up in the chest cavity, then what I would see is a narrative that has been carved in the materiality of the planet Earth for centuries. If I was to remove my eye from its socket and examine it with my other eye, then what I would see is the genesis of vision itself, the very possibility of light and darkness encountering one another.

    I suspect that great phenomenologist of the Other, Frank Key could not have put it more tellingly.

  14. Gaw
    January 18, 2011 at 12:46

    Thank you, Jonathan – you’ve made my day.

    Banished To A Pompous Land
    January 18, 2011 at 14:58

    ‘The only question that matters is: how do we resuscitate and conjoin the living and the dead into the same organic body?’

    Isn’t there still a law against that? Certainly the conjoining bit.

    I suspect malty, that he is studying dead burdz and thus should stay in France where they are probably more understanding.

    January 18, 2011 at 16:19

    ‘If I were to open my body up in the chest cavity, then what I would see is a narrative that has been carved in the materiality of the planet Earth for centuries.’

    Another acolyte of that TV favourite of Jean-Paul and Simone’s…Silent Witness.

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