«Culture Matters Roger Scruton. It is with great pleasure and gratitude that I deliver this talk, in response to the award of the Richard ...»
It is with great pleasure and gratitude that I deliver this talk, in response to
the award of the Richard Weaver-Ingersoll Prize. I wish to thank the trustees
of the prize for their recognition, Belmont Abbey and Bob Preston for their
hospitality, and all the friends who helped to make this recognition possible,.
In this talk I want to say a little about why and how the teaching of he
humanities has recently been subjected to such radical changes, and what we
- representatives of a civilisation that is now entering its second Dark Age - must do in response.
The nations of Europe and its diaspora emerged from the Second World War badly shaken, impoverished, and in many cases burdened by socialist government. Many of the European countries had lost everything in the conflict, apart from their national and cultural identity - and in the case of Germany, as Gunther Grass has poignantly shown, those assets too. The Americans found themselves with the task of restoring order and prosperity in the Old World, and were at the same time confronted with the greatest threat to their interests and even their survival, in the shape of the Soviet Union. The social, economic and political situation of the Western world had seldom looked so bleak.
There was one source of hope, however, which was the shared cultural inheritance of Europe. All the nations, whether defeated or victorious, could look for sustenance in the cultural bequest of a continent shaped over two millenia by Christianity and Roman Law. It took an effort of will to believe, but believe they did, that Nazism, fascism and communism were perversions of Western civilisation, that it was possible to return from these local forms of insanity to the inheritance that they betrayed, and that education should henceforth have the recovery of that inheritance as its goal.
Of course that belief was not overtly expressed, nor was it made into a policy. But it was firmly embedded in the minds of those who taught in schools and universities, and it helped to shape the curriculum as I knew it in my youth. It was assumed throughout the European and American academy that the curriculum in the humanities should be focused on the Western cultural inheritance, that schools should pay due respect to Christian worship, and that lessons in history and geography should reinforce the national loyalties of the pupils.
2 Of course, that assumption still left much to be determined. For one thing, the Western cultural inheritance is multifarious, and riven by the conflicting demands of Christian piety and Enlightenment scepticism. But the conflict between Christianity and Enlightenment served rather to strengthen the curriculum than to weaken it, injecting a shared method and common goal into the humanities at every level of study. Literary criticism, philosophy, foreign and classical languages, music, art and historiography, all could be approached through the dialectic of reason and faith. Western culture came across as a prolonged interrogation of the Christian religion, an attempt to understand, express, criticize and evaluate the Christian beliefs and imagery, and to portray the world through eyes that had been both blinkered by faith and dazzled by science but which, thanks to the high culture of our civilisation, had achieved a synthesis and a clarity that was uniquely able to transcend those partial points of view.
People of my generation were brought up in the shadow of this cultural consensus. Some of us leaned towards the Christian faith, others towards Enlightenment scepticism. Some of us saw culture as peripheral to the intellectual life, and science as central, while others were of the opposite persuasion. Some of us were romantics or Georgians in our taste; others were ardent modernists. All of us were persuaded that culture matters, that it should be taught in schools and universities, and taught not just as a curiosity but as a tradition and a form of life. This attachment to Western culture did not mean that either we or our teachers were parochial. On the contrary, the writers who exerted the greatest influence on us were Joyce, Eliot and Pound, the first two steeped in the works of Dante, Baudelaire and Flaubert, the third already inhabiting the world of Confucianism, Noh plays and the shattered pieties of the East.
For us, therefore, Western culture was marked by the universalism of the Enlightenment, and our heroes were building bridges across the world.
Pound in the Book of Odes and Mahler in Das Lied von der Erde linked us to the Confucian culture of China; Britten opened our ears to the music of Bali and the theatre of Japan; Eliot made Dante, Baudelaire and Cavalcanti part of our own poetic tradition; Van Gogh brought us the Japanese print and Lawrence the plumed serpent of ancient Mexico. Wagner, Ruskin and Henry Adams had redeemed the medieval world, just as Goethe, in the Westöstlicher Divan, had opened the way to Hafiz and Rumi. It seemed to us as though culture were one single tapestry of meaning, centred on Europe and the Christian heritage, but pinned to every corner of the globe.
Nor did we doubt that a discipline was available, which would permit us both to absorb the works of our culture and also to discriminate between 3 them. This discipline was criticism, and it was brought intensely home to us by our teachers that criticism is necessary if the culture is to be protected from decay. We absorbed this lesson too from T.S. Eliot, whose Sacred Wood was a seminal book during my teenage years, from F.R. Leavis, whose journal Scrutiny set the tone for academic English both in universities and in schools, from Pound too, whose ABC of Reading conveyed with exemplary clarity the message that a book is a person and must be judged accordingly.
Nor were we cut off from the influence of the new critics here in America.
Cleanth Brooks and R.P. Blackmur both impressed us with their objective vision of literature, while the prefaces of Henry James were and (for me at least, remain) an authoritative proof that the novel is the Western art-form par excellence.
The prevailing sense among students of the humanities was that, if you want to know the meaning of life - of your own life as well as of the lives around you - you should explore your cultural inheritance with a critical eye, so as to repossess the meaning has been distilled in it. The temptation was not other cultures, whatever they might be, but corruption within the culture that is ours - in particular the ubiquitous diseases of sentimentality and kitsch. Our aesthetic ideal was typified by the late quartets of Beethoven and by the poem that Eliot named after them: Four Quartets. These were works imbued through and through with a religious melancholy, and which also achieved a purity of utterance that set them apart from all the ordinary pleasures of high art. And although our suspicion of kitsch came to us primarily from that arch-conservative T.S. Eliot, we found it endorsed by the quasi-socialist F.R. Leavis, by the liberal Thomas Mann and by the Marxists Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. The effort to ‘purify the dialect of the tribe’ was one that could, and did, unite people of all political persuasions, and the study of culture was something higher and more meaningful than the adoption of any political creed. Culture, we believed, is a form of knowledge, while politics is mere opinion.
I don’t doubt that many of you in this room acquired their first respect for the life of the mind in a similar way. And I am sure that the effect was, for you, what it was also for me: a sense of belonging, of homecoming from the alien land of adolescence to a spiritual region in which meaning was everywhere immediate and apparent. This region was what we meant by culture, and culture rose around us and above us like a great cathedral, defining a place of judgement, discrimination and allusion, a place where everything connected and where everything was imbued with a significance that made its study worthwhile. It still seems to me that the best form of 4 education in the humanities would be one in which students enter that cathedral, and enter it as we did, with a critical as well as a wondering eye.
But it is no accident that the image of a cathedral presents itself to me.
This culture into which we were inducted was not just a by-product of Christianity. Although it rejoiced in its universal vision, its central manifestations derived from the Christian faith. Even the pagan writings of D.H. Lawrence depend for their penetration on a language rooted in the Book of Common Prayer and in the imagery of the Psalms and the Gospels.
Four Quartets owed its immense power over people of my generation to its ability to summon the ghost of a Christian belief that had all but died in us, but which was seeking to breathe again.
We were, I think, aware of this intimate dependence of our culture on the Christian faith, and were also convinced that nevertheless our culture could be studied, enjoyed and internalised by unbelievers - could become, for them as much as for the committed Christian, a source of meaning, truth and value. Moreover it never seemed to us that our critical studies were merely subjective, that our tastes were arbitrary or ideologically motivated, still less that - in pursuing them - we were falling victim to some hidden political agenda. The methods of interpretation and evaluation that we applied, when assessing the sincerity, depth, finesse or emotional truth of a particular poem or painting, seemed to us to deliver clear and absolute answers - or at any rate answers as clear and as nearly absolute as the subject allowed. Indeed, we did not fully endorse the suggestion that there was some ‘method’ that we applied in order to establish the superiority of Mozart over Vivaldi, of Milton over Carew, or of Titian over Veronese. For that would have implied that someone else could choose some other ‘method’ and arrive at some other result. It would have implied that the method was something added, chosen by us, in order to decipher a cultural artefact that was otherwise mysterious. The works of our culture were not mysterious to us, but merely deep, in the way that the face of a mother is deep to the eyes of her child.
I do not need to remind you of the changes that have cast that vision of culture in doubt - or rather cast it out completely from the academic study of literature, art, music and history. Take a look at the average Department of English or Modern Languages in America, at the publications of university presses in the humanities, at the learned journals and conference programs, and you will be presented with quite another vision of culture from the one that my contemporaries acquired. Western culture will still be an important theme; but it will be approached as something alien, culpable, oppressive, something to be held at a distance or, if approached, subjected to 5 acts of sustained aggression. The teacher in a humanities department will not, as a rule, be imparting Western culture to the students but inoculating them against it. He or she will be assuming a standpoint outside that culture, adopting ‘methods’ that allegedly distance him from the texts and works of art that he studies, and which purge him of any commitment to their vision.
On the surface these methods are highly disparate and not obviously compatible. To venture the briefest of summaries: there is the neo-Marxist approach of Fredric Jameson; the structuralism of Roland Barthes; the poststructuralist theory associated with Michel Foucault; there is feminist criticism, either in its staid American version typified by Judith Butler or in the flamboyant and anarchic vision of Luce Iragaray and Julia Kristeva (who also adds a Marxist and a structuralist flavour). There is the ‘Deconstruction’ of Jacques Derrida, the postmodernism of Jean-François Lyotard, the New Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt, the post-colonialism of Edward Said, the New Pragmatism of Richard Rorty and the spectacular advances made by 1 Queer Theory and lesbian discourse analysis.
However, the appearance of variety is deceptive. What these ‘methods’ have in common is far more important than what distinguishes them, since it is the thing that explains why they exist. They are united in their oppositional stance to Western culture and to the civilisation from which that culture has grown. And they share a predilection for intellectual gobbledygook. Moreover there is a deep connection between the gobbledygook and the political agenda. The gobbledegook is a kind of alchemy, which clothes the agenda in a veil of expertise, while also rendering it immune to rational criticism. I won’t burden you with examples, and in any case you all know the style. But here, nevertheless, is an
illustrative sentence from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak:
The rememoration of the ‘present’ as space is the possibility of the utopian imperative of no-(particular)-place, the metropolitan project that can supplement the post-colonial attempt at the impossible cathexis of placebound history as the lost time of the spectator.
There are a lot more empty sentences where that one came from and now that Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont have compiled their sottisier (Intellectual 1 The best introduction to the world of literary theory is Frederick Crews, Postmodern Pooh, London 2002, a book which treats the subject with the seriousness that it deserves.
2 (‘Psychoanalysis in Left Field and Fieldworking: Examples to Fit the Title’, in Speculations after Freud:
Psychoanalysis, Philosophy and Culture, ed. Sonu Shamdasani and Michael Münchow, London and NY, Routledge, 1994, p. 63.) 6 Impostures), it is no longer scandalous to laugh at them. What the reader is immediately aware of, however, is that, whatever the sentence is about, it is no laughing matter. The style is one of po-faced, or pomo-faced, seriousness, not without a certain air of menace. The ability of writers like Sokal to laugh at such utterances is matched by the total inability of their authors to laugh at anything. Literary ‘theory’ is a joke-free zone, and never more humourless than when pretending, as Jacques Derrida sometimes pretends, that it is all a joke. For laughter, like irony, is a kind of acceptance. In the normal run of things to laugh is to forgive, since what we see as absurd no longer threatens us. Literary theory, however, is not prepared to forgive its target for anything whatsoever.