The Cultural Elite has always known that forming an educated opinion is dangerous work.
In E M Forster’s singular work of epic elitist hand-wringing, Howards End, we meet lowly would-be Intellectual Leonard Bast, who tries to escape social destiny through the self-betterment of education. Not being a natural heir of the Intellectual Aristocracy, Forster tells us, this isn’t really on — and poor Leonard [SPOILER] ends up crushed, to death, under a gloriously ironic bookcase.
Today, for those of us not of Bloomsbury luvvie-lineage, foolishly striving to think and learn under the daily threat of a suspicious IKEA death, fear not. Help is at hand in the form of How To Sound Cultured: Master the 250 Names That Intellectuals Love to Drop into Conversation.
This is a book about how to avoid forming opinions; generously ensuring personal safety for Britain’s Non-Intellectual community.
It continues the grand tradition of Christmas publishing, in which millions of defenceless trees are felled annually to house the deathless prose and barely-concealed contempt of each season’s Pippa Middleton equivalent (“A really late start warrants brunch, in lieu of lunch.”; “There is something very British about tea.”); sacrificed at the altar of Depressingly Lucrative Uselessness, and, more widely, the Faux-Mo Intellectualism currently afflicting our cultural grey cells.
For this tome — the latest innocuous-seeming horseman in the apocalypse-of-independent-thought — we can thank resident commoners Hubert van den Bergh and Thomas W. Hodgkinson; two individuals who have effortlessly transformed the history of ideas into the intellectual equivalent of an episode of Made in Chelsea.
True to form, then, it’s delightfully smutty and carefully emptied of content. Hannah Arendt: less the philosopher ‘renowned for her analysis of dictatorial regimes’ (yawn) — more (divertingly) Jew who shagged a Nazi! Frida Kahlo: rampant lesbian bed-hopping revolutionary! Grotesque injury! ‘Downy moustache on her upper lip’! Andy Warhol: wig-wearing fame-loving attention-seeker. Got shot!
Our authors are also at pains — like the MiC production team slowly lobotomising the nation week by week — to make these sexed-up summaries and romantic curveballs as easy for us Non-Intellectuals to follow as possible. So behold, intellectual underlings, Gerhard Richter’s technique: ‘paint applied thickly on top and then smeared with a squeegee’ — 'squeegee' helpfully glossed with a thoughtful aside, just in case, as ‘(the kind you might use to scrape ice from your windscreen)’; or consider Spinoza: ‘(pronounced:... spin-O-za)’, in case we skipped phonics.
Happily, too, the book offers 'usage’ suggestions — 'If someone asks you your favourite artist, you might reply, “I’m tempted to say Richter; but he’s worked in such a variety of styles...”' — and delivers extensive lessons in the art of saying nothing while appearing to say very much. Richter’s work is ‘innovative, dynamic, and pleasant’: equipping readers with the universally non-committal lexicon of 21st century beige. 'Like any great artist’, it opines later, Warhol’s success ‘was, to some extent, a marketing ploy' — 'but only' it backtracks hastily (lest anyone asks how so? Or, In what way specifically? Or, what might you mean by that?) ‘to some extent’. Elsewhere, we’re told that the ‘brazen commercialism’ of Jeff Koons ‘can seem rather fun’... betraying, if not useful thought, at least a well-evidenced passion for fiscal opportunism as it tenderly rearranges its cultured buttocks on that well-worn fence.
There’s no doubt it’s heady stuff. Two pages in, and my synapses are swooning in frankly sluttish submission; the brain, lying prone, spindly neural pathways waving like an upturned beetle, shrieking who needs ideas when you’ve got the history of exchanged bodily fluids?!
Happily, lest our faculties succumb entirely, this book ignores three key things:
- We’re not in an Austen novel.
- Life is not a 1970s dinner party.
- Camilla Long lives and breathes and has swiftly devoured this on national radio (‘Tragic.’).
Less happily, it does still enthusiastically cash in on the timeless fears of inadequacy fuelled by ‘High’ and ‘Low’ realms of knowledge; and, too, those thoroughly more modern anxieties around filtering opinion — in our information-saturated, comment-heavy age — and the necessity of intellectual haste, with all its pitfalls.
It is a strange truth that as our knowledge grows, thinking for ourselves is only getting trickier.
But one thing is clear: if these are our guides, I’ll take the bookcase.