I studied Eliot as an undergraduate, and not once was his Christianty mentioned, so it’s interesting to discover how fundamental it is to his outlook.
This book contains two long essays: ‘The Idea of a Christian Society’ (1939) and ‘Notes Towards the definition of Culture’ (1948) followed by an appendix: ‘The Unity of European Culture’ which appears to be a transcript of three linked talks given to a European audience in the post-war period. I have a passionate yet stormy relationship with Eliot’s oeuvre; his poetry is marvelous and challenging and representative perhaps of the last flame of real poetic merit of the English language. I’m happy to be proved wrong one day, and I’m sure he would be too. So, naturally, when I discovered these essays by complete accident I ordered a copy to read.
One of the causes of the totalitarian State is an effort of the State to supply a function which the Church has ceased to serve; to enter into a relation to the community which the Church has failed to maintain…
‘The Idea of a Christian Society’
The essay, sitting as it is right on the edge of the second world war, has a kind of breathless tension to it; Eliot is trying to map out exactly and in very practical terms how a CHristian society could be manufactures and sustained, and what elements would make up such a society. He is of course offering an alternative to what he is seeing around him, and a trajectory away from the foundational elements of the West. One does not get the feeling that Eliot believes that such a thing as this Christian society he is mapping out is actually a possibility; despite all its practicalities, there is a sense of impending doom, a crucifiction without a resurrection. But this tension only makes the essay more beautiful and tragic. I mean, it’s 2022 now, and we know this didn’t happen, in fact, the complete opposite.
We know from our reading of history, that a certain tension between Church and State is desireable
‘The Idea of a Christian Society’
But this doesn’t make the essay any less valuable, in fact, it elevates it further. We, looking back, can see that not only was there an alternative to what has developed around us like a virulent social cancer, but that alternative had been at least partially prepared and mapped out loosely before it all went so horribly wrong. There is a reset button albeit not something one might simply press.
in ‘Notes Toward a Defintion of Culture’ we have Eliot experimenting with all the various ways in which the term ‘culture’ can be mobilised and which ways are the most useful. Much of it reminds me of Roger Scruton and the importance of culture being something that eminates from the bottom, up. He also discusses concepts such as class and ‘elites’ in the context of culture, and in particular, English culture of course. Things must bind together for a culture to be healthy, but at the same time, things must be in a constant sense of tension for such things as innovation. Heresy itself is not the enemy, it’s the acceptance of heresy as the norm. In fact, Eliot requires heresy so that orthodoxy might remain robust and healthy, the edge of it’s blade remaining keen: the struggle between centrifugal and centripital forces.
The culmination of this is in his chapter on culture and education. Writing as he was in 1948, it is amazing to read what Eliot beleives will happen to education in the West under the dogma of equal opportunity, for it’s as if he had seen a vision of 2022 exactly. The rise of the State above the family unit and the ever-increasing dumbing down of the democratic model of excellence is delinated brilliantly and with rare deadpan humour.
A measure which is desirable as a palliative may be injurious if presented as a cure.
‘Notes Toward a Defintion of Culture’
The final three short talks on ‘The Unity of European Culture’ is of interest in the sense of the idea of the European Union which came much after, but here Eliot does limit himself to a discussion more specificially about language and poetry, which remains very interings for its own sake.
Overall, the book is a tour de force of intellect and artistic measure and contextualises his poetry even further.
In emergencies we must switch from consensus to command, from freedom to submission, and from the order of the market to the order of the plan.
If Roger Scruton was still alive today, and I had the opportunity to ask him a question about this book, it would be:
“When, I wonder, does one know when it is right to adopt Fallacy in order to avoid the loss of Truth?”
And I suppose his answer might be something like this:
“When one no longer wonders.”
In this magnificent book—measured in tone, epic in scope, focussed in theme—Scruton makes his argument for civilization over tyranny. He’s in the kind of space that contemporary defenders of freedom of speech are in, whereby they are often told that this freedom does not correspond to a freedom from consequence. And there’s some truth to that … as long as it’s inconsequential consequence, like annoyance or unfriendliness; if the consequence is heavily consequential, such as loss of livelihood, assault, cancelation from society, imprisonment … right up to the Soviet bullet in the back of the neck, then, yes, it does imply a freedom from consequence, as without that, the freedom of speech becomes merely theoretical as opposed to practical.
But, even so, the onus of the argument has shifted to justifying freedom of speech—a self-evident good to those with a sense-of-common—as opposed to justifying not having freedom of speech. This involves on of Scruton’s identified fallacies, of which, more later…
The city is a community of neighbours who do not necessarily know each other, but whose obligations come from settlement.
But I came to this book (lovingly on the way to Scruton completion-ism) immediately after a book suggested to me by friends called “Bronze Age Mindset”: a book I lost patience with about a third of the way in. But it was an interesting thing to prelude Pessimism, because, while the authors of both books oppose what is now called ‘The Woke’ in contemporary society, they are also both poles apart in their response. Bronze Age Pervert (BAP) calls for a return to a mindset of the Axial Age that adopts the very fallacies that we crawled out from into the West; a zero-sum game life/death emergency mindset. While Scruton champions the development of agriculture as maybe the greatest achievement of mankind, BAP laments it as the descent into ‘bugmen’ status. While Scruton champions finally forgiveness and irony, BAP wishes for conflict and identifies irony as ‘faggotry’ (ironically, or otherwise). That such a thing as “Bronze Age Mindset” exists and is read if not widely but … AT ALL, is a testament to the degree at which the fallacies Scruton identifies have taken hold.
…we see the marks of the same transition – from wandering collectivities to free individuals, from clans and blood-brothers to law-abiding neighbours, from a life of emergencies to one of settled worship, in which the words and rituals are found to evoke the eternal, the reliable and the true.
The fallacies of Best Case Scenario, Zero Sum, Planning, Moving Spirit and Aggregation are mapped out beautifully, and for those who have heard Scruton speak, you can hear the timbre of his voice in your mind as you read… And he responds with a bottom up versus top down alternative, an ‘organic’ and ‘we’ approach (the ‘we’ First Person Plural) as opposed to the collective ‘I’. In this way, he contrasts the strawman argument of conservatism being essentially about individualism. The rights of the individual are important, of course, but only insofar as the individual is part of a group of other individuals who have shared interests in themselves as a group, past, present and future.
It’s ten years since this book was published, but it has matured like one of Scruton’s prized Burgundies. He admits at the beginning that his arguments are futile to those who live under the sign of one or more of the fallacies. In fact, to even point out any of these to the fallacious is to only, in general, further strengthen the hold it has on them. He is writing for those of us who do not, then. Are we perfect then? Are we so smart and the fallacious dumb? Does everything work out well for ‘we’ the holders of the great beacon of truth?
They accept the world and its imperfections, not because it cannot be improved, but because many of the improvements that matter are by-products of our cooperation rather than the goal of it.
Of course not. We have, in a sense, committed a terrible act, which Scruton compares to the first murder in the bible: we have killed our brother, we have turned our back on brotherhood and tribal alliances. Which of course makes us vulnerable to Believers outside of our agreed upon geography. ‘We’ have a land, a region, and an identification though this with others who we may not even know, but they are part of us within that agreement. And when disagreements occur, they are worked out on their individual merits and, in the future, reference is made to these solutions for further disagreement. There is not so much a top-down entity, God or god-like, but a grass roots negotiation process.
…when unreason triumphs, it does so in the name of reason.
Pessimism, as the title suggests, has its uses. And to be scrupulously pessimistic is one way to at least avoid falling into the destructive fallacies Scruton identifies. It is the unscrupulous optimist who is willing to destroy everything that social evolution has brought to us through tradition and careful community agreements etc. in the hope that by making everything crash down something so much better will emerge … despite the many lessons of history otherwise.
The fallacy here, of taking a retrospective view of something that has not yet happened, became an integral part of progressive thinking not only in politics but also in the arts.
Scruton also looks at art and architecture while considering the fallacy of the Moving Spirit. Reference to the Zeitgeist for persuasion. That you have to get-with-the-times-Daddio… This call comes up particularly during such things as referendums on gay marriage. Don’t be in the past. This is now. Think of how history will judge you. Etc. Zeitgeist literally means time-ghost, and it is as if the things is a ghost-like figure that can haunt all timeframes at once. It lives in the future, present and past.
The emphasis on originality is something that the bohemian could consider a good, but Scruton rightly points out the difference between an originality that still develops upon the grounding of human beauty, and the acts that are merely empty efforts at originality for its own sake. Because it is original it has value. The absurd recent situation with the banana taped to the wall of a gallery comes immediately to mind. Originality needs a framework, something to hang itself on, lest it be far worse than the derivative done well. Reaching for the original must be a concern for an artist, of course, but always within certain boundaries, just as humans live within their perceptive boundaries.
It involves an attitude of care – care towards institutions, customs and consensual solutions. It involves a recognition that it is easier to destroy than to create, and that we fulfill our task on earth if we look after the small corner that is ours, and take that ‘ours’ to heart.
Personal responsibility is a key theme in the face of the fallacies that surround us in the West. There is still much to hold on to. We sacrifice our regressive violent demands to master the world through forgiveness, in order to live with strangers as a ‘we’, and to live in the irony of being able to see what’s wrong with what’s wrong, just as much as what’s right.
From the culture of forgiveness springs the other habit that helps us to be at home in the society of strangers. This is irony, by which I mean the habit of acknowledging the otherness of everything, including oneself.
Irony, in its full social form as alluded to here, n’est plus à la mode; it is something that we have lost touch with not because it was lost to us, far from it, but because it has become corrupted into a catabolic self-destructive urge; a cultural form of a death drive. I started writing this review before Chinese Flu really hit us here in Europe, but at the same time that Greece was fighting on its borders. The wondering time has finished, and this is a dark day for all of that. The correct form of Pessimism is breaking through in a strangely provocative way. There may be changes. They may last long.
I wrote this review in 2013. I am now in a German city, but at the moment it lacks a sun. I might squint, but only for the figurative effect. I am a lot closer to reading L’Etranger by Albert Camus (sans translation) now, in that I can read through it, and get the gist when I lack meaning; but it is still hard work, and lacks the experience of reading literature, as opposed to reading a street sign. Literary fluency is still something to achieve.
Writing about the most influential single book of your life (not that that means anything) is a little like staring into the sun, the same sun here in an Australian suburb as that of an Algerian beach: so I shall squint, if you don’t mind.
Firstly, Sandra Smith’s work is excellent. I have read all four English translations of L’Etranger that I am aware of at least once over the years (Stuart Gilbert, Joseph Laredo, and Matthew Ward being the other three. If you know of another, please let me know). Each has its own life, appropriately; which could be just as much to do with me as it does with the translation itself. I am learning French, starting this year, with the express intention of one day reading this book as the author wrote it. It’s a five year plan.
I have particular imaginings related to Camus writing this story. He wrote it between 1939-40, but it was not published until the Spring of 1942 in occupied Paris. This is a story about how someone lives. Meursault is an ordinary enough office clerk, with a strange kind of anti-social sincerity that the reader immediately encounters in the first two sentences, one of the most famous opening couplets in literature. Meursault talks to us in a candid manner, as if he’s talking to himself. As if, sometimes, he’s trying to re-assure or convince himself of what he’s saying. He’s worried about something foundational, and tries to own his retreat back to first principles.
Some have accused him of being a sociopath. Perhaps there’s a spectrum there, but he is aware of how people react to him, and he genuinely wants people to not be upset. But he also wants to engage with people clearly and openly. He is disinterested in that kind of scientific manner, but not uncaring. His manner of caring is to be honest. Most of all, it is to experience that he leans. He is a caring hedonist, a hedonist who wishes to experience pleasure, but doesn’t wish any more meaning be ascribed to it than the universe offers. Which is none.
When Marie asks him if he loves her:
She asked me if I loved her. I told her that didn’t mean anything, but I didn’t think so.
When Meursault sees her pain in reaction to his response, he softens his honesty as best he can. It surprises him when he answers genuinely and others are so surprised. He is capable of lying, and he does so several times, when someone is bothering him and he realises what they want to hear and so he says it so they will go away and leave him alone. But to people he cares for, as for himself, he is more himself. And that’s the self we are privy to. When he looks at the world his descriptions of a plain Sunday afternoon are almost like a striking impressionist work of art.
He likes smoking. He likes chocolate. He likes swimming and women. He tells the Judge in Part II: One of the characteristics of my personality was that physical sensations often get in the way of my emotions. He shoots and kills a knife-wielding Arab on a beach. Later, in the courtroom, he says it was because of the sun. The ever present heat overhead, the inevitability of life, that-which-cannot-be-avoided-and-beats-down-on-us-all. This was not before he stopped his friend from doing the same thing earlier.
The sky seemed to split apart from end to end to pour its fire down upon me. My whole body tensed as I gripped the gun. It set off the trigger.
…and it was then, with that sharp, deafening sound, that it all began.
Until he is on the way to the guillotine and:
…it might be finished.
That journey is Meursault’s journey towards an acceptance of the Absurd: to put simply, Camus’ notion that human beings live in an essentially meaningless universe where they are compelled as part of that living to search for (and often demand) some sort of essential meaning. It is not until his last outburst at a chaplain purges him of evil, and empties him of hope, that he can finally, for the first time, open himself up:
…to the tender indifference of the world.
This indifference, a tender indifference, is an understanding of how to live in that gap, to be happy, to allow for happiness, within that Absurd gap. He is happy on the path to death, and he is willing the participation of others in it, even if they are hateful. Meursault becomes the ‘…only Christ we deserve.’
2 Samuel 1:23 Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided: they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
I shall liken Harold Bloom unto Saul, and Roger Scruton unto Jonathan. As far as I know, they never met. When I Google the names together I get an old Guardian hit piece that includes them both on the same hit-list of ‘Jeremiah’s of History’ moaning about cultural decline; so, moaning about moaning. Then there’s a blurb Scruton has done for Bloom’s book Ruin the Sacred Truths:
“The wit, the eclecticism and the gripping paradoxes…the force of [Bloom’s] intellect carries the reader from pinnacle to pinnacle, showing a new spiritual landscape from each.”—Roger Scruton, The Washington Times
There’s a reference to Bloom on figurative language in Scruton’s piece ‘Against Deconstruction’ in 1993. But otherwise, no evidence of a physical meeting I can divine. But that’s fine. They met in me. And they they died within ninety days of each other with the turn of a decade between them, like Saul and Jonathan, in their death they will not be divided. In me, at least.
Other than my father, these two men were my biggest living influences. I first ‘met’ Bloom as a foil in the contemporary academy of 2003-2006. Sometimes they would throw up a kind of straw-man to show the contemporary student how-not-to-think about something. In this case, it was how-not-to-think about Shakespeare. It’s a dangerous tactic, of course, because those students feeling something of the cultural climate control mechanisms around them are ready to hold on to something that might prove to be a counterpoint. Which it did for me. A counterpoint that proved more further to be THE point.
No such luck with Scruton, unfortunately. I did not come upon him until 2018, as a YouTube suggestion maybe attached to my interest in Jordan Peterson. If I had come across him, I now like to fantasise, I might well have finished my Ph. D. I was enjoying many of the thinkers my Supervisors were putting me in touch with, the usual suspects of 20th century post-Freudians and deconstructionists, but I was enjoying them as interesting intellectual exercises, and philosophical riddles. I found beauty in their writing, but not in their ideas. I wanted to pursue aesthetics in my work, but I was not being given anything of substance, there was no traction. If I could have had Scruton put in front of me, even as a foil to all the Eagleton…
I was, however, I admit, a lazy student; easily distracted. It might not have made any difference.
They were lovely and pleasant in their lives
But their affect has been profound. It’s easy to be defined by your enemies. To be an infidel of negation. I am against this… But what am I for? As I responded to the direction of my culture, it’s movement progressive for the sake of progression, no matter where or toward what end, and lent away from traditional anarchism into conservatism, I found nothing around me to move through. Neo-conservatism wasn’t even a system of thought, but an economic series of planned jerks of the knees. And religious and paleo-conservatism had too much hand in the rejection of the celebration of art, the beauty in demanding movement within a cultural vector of permissiveness that is essential for our culture to thrive. The necessity of the Bohemian edge.
Harold Bloom had paved the way for my own sense of the Bohemian with his heartfelt spiritual joy for great literature, just as he wrestled with it and made demands of it; his intellectual spine never bowed down to the purely transcendental and romantic. The beauty lived in the world, as much as out of it. He was a perfect realist on an unreal stage. I could love things I despised. It was a terrific terrible freedom, manifestly bohemian in its outlook, but focused fully in the art. So he was Saul, the anointed one, and the eventually rejected one. He was perhaps to close too God, instead of being after His own heart.
Like Jonathan to Saul, Scruton takes the step away, and makes it a lived world. Most importantly, when he talks about the necessity of having a creative approach to conservation; to understanding that things need to be kept, but that things need to change. He was a prince but could never be a King. The King finds it hard to move behind the curtain of power. Look at Shakespeare’s Henry. The Bohemian falters.
But Scruton could make it seem so. This is how important he is. He makes room for conservatism to enlarge into something that isn’t just about conservation of what WAS and maybe IS, but conservation of the bohemian spirit that has made what WAS and IS … what it was and is. And WILL make something greater to conserve further. Let’s have something worth fighting for, yes; but it’s only worth fighting for if you hold on to what is great you have won, hard-fought from from the enemy. The enemy being that of formal regression, in all its guises: regressive leftism, regressive rightism. And if you conserve un-creatively, you regress just as quickly … maybe more.
How are the mighty fallen?
The mighty fall just like the weak, in the same way, in the same sad solitary way. In ninety days. In three minutes. In a hundred years. We all fall. But it is heartening that some stood. And that some are mighty, and encouraging, and making some kind of mark, even on those they never met. There’s still a voice in them, like the silent voice you hear when your reading alone. It’s not just you, reading. And it’s not just the author, writing. It’s a silent sound that makes sense even more than the sensible.