My obituary’s written,” a tearful but paradoxical Eliot Spitzer told Vanity Fair a year or two after his forced resignation as governor of New York, “and that is a very hard thing to live with.” The obituary itself would presumably be a very hard thing to die with, but what he meant was that it was hard to live with the knowledge—already, most likely decades before his death—that he would be remembered principally for the prostitution scandal that had forced him from office. In doing so he was taking up what Richard Dawkins would call a meme but which we traditionalists prefer to call a rhetorical topos of our fame-obsessed culture. In the same way Bryan Cranston calls Walt White of Breaking Bad “the role that will undoubtedly be the first line of my obituary” and the golfer Tom Kite said of his winning the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 1992, “Well, at least now I know what the first line of my obituary will be.”
John Waters is said to have said that, “Even if I discover a cure for cancer, the first line of my obituary is bound to mention that I once made a film where Divine eats dog s–t. Which would be OK with me.” Sometimes the prophecy can be defeated, of course. Four years ago, as the final vote on Obamacare came down to the wire, Marjorie Margolies (as by then she was styling herself) wrote with the aim of stiffening the sinews of her fellow Democrats that, “I had no idea that when I voted for the Clinton budget [in 1993], I was writing the first line of my obituary.” True enough, it was the first line of her political obituary. Now she’s trying to make a political comeback in Pennsylvania’s Thirteenth Congressional District, and she may, in any case, look forward to being remembered as Chelsea Clinton’s baby’s other grandmother. Eliot Spitzer should be so lucky.
When the New York Times headlined the other day that “Richard H. Hoggart, 95, ‘Chatterley’ Defender, Dies,” it was because his book The Uses of Literacy, which led all but one of the British obits that I read, was not well-known in America. The British exception was the Times of London whose lead, concurring with its New York namesake, was about “A star witness for the defence in the trial for obscenity of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960.” The obituarist added that Hoggart’s evidence “was widely regarded as having provided the key piece of evidence that persuaded the jury to find the publisher Penguin not guilty of obscenity.”
What everyone in Britain remembers about that trial are the words to the jury of the prosecuting counsel, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, when he asked: “Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” This, too, has become a meme or topos in the cultural lore of our times, establishing beyond a peradventure that decorousness of speech or writing is something that only an old, out-of-touch, and dying elite could possibly care about. Naturally, the shame of the late Mr. Griffith-Jones, a decorated war hero and one of the prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials, at revealing himself to be a stuffy old rich guy who, no doubt on account of his personal “issues,” didn’t like literature that used obscene language, made the inevitable subject for the first lines of his obituaries when he died in 1979.
The trial itself has since become a meme or topos of the liberationist account of cultural history, which is increasingly the only account there is—a fact to which Hoggart’s friend from his University of Hull days, the poet Philip Larkin, was playfully alluding when he famously wrote that
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) —
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Yet I think we have been slow to recognize that the Chatterley trial also marked the end of the division between high and low culture and, therefore, the beginning of the process by which what the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called the “official culture” of the West, which had existed in uneasy symbiosis with a bawdy, “transgressive” unofficial culture for centuries, was overthrown and replaced by the formerly unofficial culture, now newly dignified as official. In other words, no Lady Chatterley, no “Sir” Mick Jagger.
There was a certain irony, therefore, in the fact that the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 under which Lady Chatterley was prosecuted had been brought in by the British government as an enlightened measure to distinguish serious literature, thought conducive of the “public good,” from mere trash and pornography, which was banned. But of course what happened was that the great and the good who testified for the defense—who, besides Hoggart, consisted of a Who’s Who of the British literary establishment of the day, including Aldous Huxley, E.M. Forster, Graham Greene, and Rebecca West—succeeded in persuading the jury not just that Lawrence’s strange and even creepy view of sex tended to “public good” but that all vaguely literary sex must do so. Those eminences may not have intended it, but the jury was clearly right to see their testimony as the capitulation of the official culture to the long censored, suppressed, or stigmatized but now triumphant unofficial one.
At the time, it is doubtful if anyone could have written, as Holland Cotter recently did in the New York Times of the exhibition at the Neue Galerie in New York, “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” that “the show itself is one of the few in an American museum in the past two decades to address, on a large scale, the Nazis’ selective demonizing of art, how that helped foment an atmosphere of permissible hatred and forged a link between aesthetics and human disaster.” In other words, not just the modernist works the Nazis hated but the very existence of any such thing as “degenerate art”—or, in the words of the Obscene Publications Act, art which was “such as to tend to deprave and corrupt”—was something that only a Nazi could believe in. And belief in it leads directly to “human disaster,” if not a new Holocaust. The exhibition, I’m afraid, marks that plainly absurd point of view as yet another of our civilizational memes.
Hoggart became what one observer of the trial called “the man of the match” for asserting, to the incredulous Mr. Griffith-Jones, that Lady Chatterley was “highly virtuous if not puritanical.” He couldn’t see that that was precisely the trouble with it, representing as it did a conscientious inversion of the morality on which a healthy society depends. Sex for Lawrence was as a new, secular sacrament: a truly dangerous idea, conducive of the public bad. But a further irony lay in the fact that the book that appeared in the first line of most of his British obituaries, The Uses of Literacy, published three years before the Chatterley trial, had been an act of cultural conservatism, a plea for the establishment to take seriously the working-class culture in which he himself had been brought up and a thunderous denunciation of the tide of trash that was even then beginning to undermine it.
I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Hoggart, if only as that now-extinct breed, a culturally conservative socialist. “‘Progressivism,’” he wrote in The Uses of Literacy (originally intended to be titled “Misuses of Literacy”), “assists living for the present by disowning the past.” He also took a strong line against comic books and fantasy and most popular music, though his almost mystical belief in high culture struck me as rather undiscriminating—hence his testimony in the Lady Chatterley trial. True, he had a bee in his bonnet about American popular culture and “consumerism,” which he saw as the greatest threats to cultural authenticity, whether of the high or low sort. He was not to foresee that American pop culture was about to be remade, repackaged, and re-exported as British—to America!—in the following decade.
In a way he was a British equivalent of Irving Howe and Dwight Macdonald who at around the same time were blasting away at America’s “middlebrow” culture, as Fred Siegel explains in his fascinating new book The Revolt Against the Masses, discussed in these pages by Tom Bethell last month. But, unlike Hoggart, Howe and Macdonald recognized no genuine popular culture to set against the meretricious kind. Theirs was a pure intellectual snobbery, without any of his moral seriousness, and born of an assumed aristocratic disgust for the amusements of the lower—and, indeed, the upper—middle classes. By contrast, Hoggart was merely nostalgic for the British working class culture of his youth that was about to disappear into the very different milieu of the middle class, on the one hand, and the underclass on the other. At least they were very different then. Now they have gotten back together in a single popular culture that embodies everything Hoggart once hated. If he didn’t foresee this, one might have hoped that it would have led him to a reconsideration of his view of obscenity. That would have made a striking first line of his obituary.