Matthew Arnold On Inequality

In his 1879 essay ‘Equality,’ Matthew Arnold wrote about inequality too:

What the middle class sees is that splendid piece of materialism, the aristocratic class, with a wealth and luxury utterly out of their reach, with a standard of social life and manners, the offspring of that wealth and luxury , seeming out utterly out of their reach also. And thus they are thrown back upon themselves–upon a defective type of religion, a narrow range of intellect and knowledge, a stunted sense of beauty, a low standard of manners. And the lower class see before them the aristocratic class, and its civilization, such as it is, even infinitely more of out of their reach than out of that of the middle class; while the life of the middle class, with its unlovely types of religion, thought, beauty, and manners, has naturally in general, no great attractions for them either. And so they too are thrown back upon themselves; upon their beer, their gin, and their fun. Now then, you will understand what I meant by saying that our inequality materialises our upper class, vulgarises our middle class, brutalises our lower.

And the greater the inequality the more marked is its bad action upon the middle and lower classes….

[O]ur aristocracy…is for the imagination a singularly modern and uninteresting one. Its splendor of station, its wealth, show, and luxury, is then what the other classes really admire in it; and this is not an elevating admiration. Such an admiration will never lift us out of our vulgarity and brutality, if we chance to be vulgar and brutal to start with; it will rather feed them and be fed by them….our love of inequality is really the vulgarity in us, and the brutality, admiring and worshipping the splendid materiality.

[Matthew Arnold: Selected Essays, edited with an introduction by Noel Annan, Oxford University Press, 1964]

Arnold does not speak here of rage, outward or inward directed, but he might as well have. For there is a black envy here, in his mention of an ‘admiration’ that is not ‘elevating’ but that instead ‘feeds’ and is ‘fed’ by ‘vulgarity’ and ‘brutality.’ This corrosion of sensibilities that inequality produces–all the more acute as the inequality grows more pronounced–cannot be anything but a destabilizing force, one that may not restrained too long.

In some cultures it is said staring at someone eating brings bad luck to the person eating. The watcher is urged to show some manners; the eater turns away to consume in peace. A pair of hungry eyes looking at sustenance denied them cannot but ruin the appetite of those conscious of their gaze. Matters, no doubt, are infinitely worse when the food on the plate has been stolen from those watching, when they have been forced to serve it up with their own hands.

The converse, of course, of such a superstition, is that the ostentatious consumer of food denied others reminds others of their misfortune, rubs their faces in it. He runs the risk too, of having his plate snatched out of his hands.

Schopenhauer on Revealing Our True Feelings

Thus spake Schopenhauer:

If you want to know how you really feel about someone take note of the impression an unexpected letter from him makes on you when you first see it on the doormat.¹

Why does Schopenhauer imagine that these kinds of reactions of ours would be particularly revealing of our ‘true’ feelings towards our acquaintances? One can hazard some educated guesses.

First, Schopenhauer suggests that on hearing from someone unexpectedly, we are caught off-guard, unprepared by social conditioning and convention, unable to fall back on safe, canned responses.  Thus, our first reaction is very likely to be an instinctive one, a ‘true’ indicator of our visceral, deeply rooted feelings. (There is also the small matter of the fact that more often than not, we will be alone when we pick up the mail and thus, unlikely to be putting on a performance for anyone else.) Schopenhauer deliberately does not suggest that our true feelings would be revealed during a chance personal encounter with an old acquaintance; for then our reactions would be affected by his presence, his eyes upon us.  We might then ‘perform’ for him. Rather, we must be made conscious of our acquaintance without feeling we need to ‘perform’ for him and conform to his expectations of how we would respond to his presence, his station in life, his role in ours. (Presumably, Schopenhauer might think we would have a similarly authentic reaction were we to unexpectedly encounter someone’s letter or photograph in a personal collection of ours; there again, we would be alone and able to respond unguardedly and unselfconsciously.)

Second, Schopenhauer suggests that most social encounters are well-defined and circumscribed ones, their parameters of acceptable behavioral responses quite clearly delineated by all manners of social norms, conventions and niceties; in these settings, we are not being ourselves but are rather, playing very particular roles. As he notes elsewhere in his essays:

There is an unconscious appositeness in the use of the word person to designate the human individual, as it is done in all European languages: for persona means an actor’s mask, and it is true that no one reveals himself as he is; we all wear a mask and play a role.

Here Schopenhauer takes refuge in the unnecessary essentialism of ‘himself as he is’. While this is perhaps unsurprising for someone so fond of the otherwise incomprehensible notion of ‘thing-in-itself‘, he could well have rested content with noting that what we consider someone’s personality is merely the sum total of these roles. There is nothing left over once these roles are accounted for. As the first aphorism suggests, Schopenhauer does think there is a ‘genuine core’ left over. But perhaps even our reaction to the unexpected letter might be a kind of role-playing, one performed for the ever-present witness of our selves. Certainly, in the conversations–sometimes silent, sometimes not–we have with ourselves all day long, we constantly acknowledge the presence of this other.


1. Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, ‘On Psychology’, R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin, New York, p. 171.

Mukul Kesavan on Making the Familiar Strange

Mukul Kesavan concludes a wonderful essay on Lucknow, the English language, Indian writing in English, the Indian summer, and ice-cream with:

[T]the point of writing isn’t to make things familiar; it is to make them strange.

Kesavan is right. To read is a form of escapism and what good would it be if we all we encountered on our reading adventures was more of the mundane? To write too, is a form of escapism, and again, what good would that do if all we felt and experienced through that act was a return to what we had left behind? This departure can, as Graham Greene memorably pointed out, serve as therapeutic relief from what would otherwise be the unmitigated grimness of weekday existence:

Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation. [From: Ways of Escape, Pocket Books, New York, 1980]

Kesavan’s observation alerts us to the fact that in writing, in seeking to describe either the existent, the elapsed, the imaginary or the yet-to-be realized, we seek to go beyond its bare particulars, to dress it up with our words and imagination. But that isn’t all. A good writer sees things we don’t, he is able to match words to objects in ways we can’t. In this new vision, which makes the previously invisible visible, in these new correspondences, which establish unimagined linkages, the familiar becomes strange. This works because the world from day to day is never the world unmediated, raw, unfiltered or ‘given’ or anything like that. It’s already dressed up for us; by the languages we learned, by our histories, our experiences. The writer steps into this neat arrangement and disorders it all. He cannot but if he is any good.

The writer reminds us there are other conceptualizations of the world possible, other ways of drawing meaning from the world’s meaninglessness. The poet, a species of writer, does this in the most radical of ways because he shows us that the language that has served as descriptor and tabulator of the world can itself be drastically reconfigured and pressed into new tasks and responsibilities. This can be captivating and fearful alike. We wonder: how much of the hard-earned and constructed stability of the world, erected as a bulwark against the peculiarity that otherwise peeks at us around its corners, will be diminished by a new description afforded us by a radically different piece of writing? The writer and the poet become peddlers of magic potions, a sip of which induces visions.

This power of the writer is most commonly visible in the novel, of course, but it is perhaps most dramatically visible in the travel essay, written about one’s most familiar habitations, perhaps one’s hometown, by a visitor.  Even the most well-traveled of paths can appear spanking new and mysterious all over again as the traveler fits a new garb to the old land.

Fiction, Non-Fiction, Essays, Posterity

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post disagreeing with Katha Pollitt’s claim that (roughly), Even the best non-fiction writers only get read by future generations if they are lucky enough to have written some quality best-selling fiction. Pollitt had referred to “columnists and essayists and book reviewers” in her original post, but in my response, I broadened the category to “non-fiction.”

That post triggered some interesting responses. Corey Robin wrote in to say that he disagreed with the small list of “essayists” I had generated (while agreeing with my disagreement with Pollitt):

Arnold, Barzun, Burke, and Bacon are not known and remembered primarily for their essays; they have other bodies of work that we mainly remember them for. You’re right about Montaigne, Johnson, and Sontag, and I’d also throw in Hazlitt, Chesterton, maybe Benjamin, and James Baldwin.

Another commenter, Lauren Hahn, wrote,

The examples you give of essayists who did not write fiction are problematic. Ben Jonson, of course, wrote brilliant plays (Volpone!) and poetry as well as essays. Matthew Arnold wrote brilliant poems. Hitchens did not write plays or poems.

Later, Corey and I also got into an interesting Twitter dialogue with Jeff Sharlet; Katha Pollitt herself showed up to clarify her initial claim (with some interesting examples; do read the comment); and later, Mukul Kesavan suggested, using Borges and the standard New York Review of Books piece as examples, that Pollitt’s claim was correct:

[W]e can be certain that the generic ‘literary’ essay that is the stock-in-trade of the NYRB and its imitators, has the shelf-life of fresh produce. Or fish.

These discussions threw up some interesting points of contention:

  1. The distinction between “essayists” and other “non-fiction writers”; I started too broadly but this was inevitable, given that many writers who wrote essays also wrote other material: philosophical and political tracts most notably. Consider Barzun, who has written many “general” essays but is a historian of ideas and culture and a philosopher of education. Or Burke, who I had down as an essayist, is perhaps most straightforwardly considered a political theorist and philosopher. (Incidentally, in response to Hahn above, I would say that my examples were intended to be not of writers who confined themselves to essays but rather those that we remember primarily for their essays; Sontag, as I noted, wrote fiction too, but I’d be surprised if anyone remembers her writing for that reasons).

    This disagreement in general suggests the category “essayists” is too narrow, and “non-fiction” is too broad when it comes to picking the appropriate target for comparison with “fiction” in reckoning how well one’s writing will endure. I think if a comparison between “non-fiction” and “fiction” is made, the case is hopelessly muddled. But even restricting the comparison to “essays” and “fiction” is hard. Because I don’t think we have great agreement on who an “essayist” is or what an “essay” is. Is this defined by subject matter, writing style, length of piece, forum of publication, or something else? “Essay” is a vague predicate when applied to works of prose, and our categorization of writers as “essayists” is an exercise in classification that will always reveal boundary cases that don’t quite fit in. 

    I suspect “essay” is often reserved now for a piece of prose that is intensely personal (i.e., there is an element of autobiography in it); even the quasi-philosophical piece can become an “essay” then if the writer makes explicit that his view is not from “nowhere” but from his personal standpoint. I’d be interested to hear from folks on what they would include in the category and what they would leave out, and how a line would be drawn between different kinds of writing so that we could more accurately classify writers as “essayists” or something else.

    I think if nothing else, this discussion made me realize the original comparison between different kinds of writers’ ability to earn posterity’s recognition is not a very interesting one if “essayists” is restricted too narrowly.

  2. The “popular” and “serious” distinction. In the discussion that Robin, Sharlet and I had on Twitter, the central disagreement was about my rather loosely-worded claim that “Well, fiction is always more likely to reach a broader market than the non-fiction a writer puts out.” Sharlet contested this point, and he was right. The implicit suggestion in this claim of mine was that “fiction” is somehow “popular”, while “non-fiction” is “serious” and the greater accessibility to markets comes about because of the “pop” nature of fiction. This conflation of “fiction” with “popular fiction” was careless on my part. Sharlet later suggested that by my examples, I was attempting to point out “exceptions to the rule” but he’d suggest rather, that “nonfiction is the new rule.” When I asked if this meant that in the modern context, “nonfiction writers and fiction writers stand equal chance of access to markets of readers”, Sharlet replied, “my understanding is except for a few stars, nonfiction far outsells fiction now.”

    The question then remains: What kind of non-fiction? Essays? Reportage? Political tracts? Literary criticism? Another interesting question this prompts is why this might be the case now. Have fiction markets become saturated? Is there an expressed preference for the consumption of “non-fiction” now? Have bloggers had something to do with this?

  3. Why might it be the case that fiction ensures greater enduring fame? Now, I think the original discussion, and the examples of Montaigne, Johnson and Sontag, show that even with “essayists” there are some counterexamples to Pollitt’s claim. But why might Pollitt and Kesavan think that fiction ensures greater fame? The facile answer to this is that fiction is not a creature of its time in the way that essays might be. Some fiction can speak to universal themes that span space, time and cultures. But other pieces of fiction are, of course, hopelessly parochial in those same dimensions. And when one considers the category “essays” to include political tracts or philosophical speculation, those can often cease to be confined by temporal boundaries as well. It isn’t a conceptual feature of fiction that it will always be less parochial.

    But where fiction does come off best is in comparison with those pieces that are necessarily creatures of their time: journalistic pieces (see my post on “Essays and Expiry Dates”); book reviews; some kinds of travel writing (not all; see for instance travel writing that has now become an important historical sources in its own right); topical political commentary (like the tedious modern pieces of election analysis).

    In general, I’m not sure that a general sort of claim can be made about how well some kinds of writing endure based on their fictionality as a parameter. Rather, when it comes to assessing enduring fame or a place in posterity, there is only one way to do it: keep checking over time. In Law and Literature, Richard Posner suggested that coming up with necessary and sufficient conditions for a work to be judged a “classic” was a doomed exercise and that the best way to exercise that judgment was to see how long it continued to be read. I agree.

Essays And Expiry Dates

My post yesterday on reportage and war porn, in which I quoted from a 1999 essay by Sebastian Junger, prompted a thought related to my December post on fiction and non-fiction and writing for posterity: How well do reportage-style essays hold up to the demands of time? (I ask this question as someone who, having made the claim that non-fiction will endure just as well as fiction in ensuring fame, is now a) dealing with the broadness of the category “non-fiction” and all the confusion it created in discussions surrounding that post and b) trying to get clearer on what kind of non-fiction will endure best over time and be granted posterity’s acknowledgement)

In the post linked to above, I had, in responding to Katha Pollitt, said,

“columnists” and “book reviewers” are more inclined to be creatures of their age who risk rapid obscurity unless they write more substantive and possibly popular work.

Junger’s essays, of course, are not columns or book reviews. But neither are they extended meditations on philosophical, literary or cultural subjects; rather, they are long-form journalistic pieces written for venues like Vanity Fair, Harpers, Men’s Journal, Outside, and National Geographic Adventure; other than the essays on wildfires and fire-fighting, they were written to cover topical hot-spots of human and political conflict: Kosovo, Kashmir, Sierra Leone, Cyprus. The wildfires and whale-hunting essays belong to the kind made popular by forums like Outside magazine; the standard theme in this kind of writing is “man-against-nature revealing the human spirit in all its wonderfully varied cussedness.” (Man-Against-Nature as a theme is, I think, more likely to endure and age better than Man-Against-Man-In-A-Particular-Time-And-Place.)

In reportage essays, the expectation is that the traveling reporter will send back news but also background; the reporter will inform, update, ruminate, and crucially, prognosticate. The last part carries the most potential to date the essay; if fate deals the writer a cruel hand, readers in the future are likely to be struck–and turned off–by the silliness of the prognostication. In any case, such essays by virtue of being extended reports or news, are very much captive to that particular time. They are meant to be read soon; they are meant to make contemporary understandings of a ‘trending’ subject more extensive and thoughtful; but they are extremely unlikely to make for useful or illuminating reading down the line. The backgrounders in the essays, by virtue of space limitations, tend to be superficial; indeed, they have to be, if the essays are to maintain their readability in the intended forum. If you want a detailed history that underwrites Kosovo, Kashmir or Cyprus, you’d be an idiot to look for it in the pages of a Vanity Fair or Harpers essay. (In Junger’s essays, I enjoyed the material on Cyprus the most, and I suspect part of that was because of the collaboration that that required Junger and Scott Anderson to be placed in, and reporting from, the Greek and Turkish portions of Cyprus so that a contrast between their respective narratives could be brought out).

When it comes to reportage style history, the longer form will work better; the extended, improved, and more likely-to-endure version of this style of writing is perhaps the book-length reportage project like David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (which, interestingly enough, started as an essay for Harpers).

Much more to be said on this. But later.