17 December 1998

The central Scrutonizer

An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, by Roger Scruton

Culture is a fuzzy idea. Biologists know that a culture is something you grow in a petri dish; and indeed, the oldest recorded uses of the word “culture” refer either to agricultural cultivation, or to divine worship, both meanings stemming from the Latin colere, to attend to. Those who read Roger Scruton’s new book (presumably after passing an IQ test set by inscrutable, purple-robed bookshop mandarins) will learn that his idea of “culture”, too, is an ancient one: high art is a replacement for religion.

Scruton’s thesis is that “the high culture of our civilization contains knowledge which is far more significant than anything that can be absorbed from the channels of popular communication”. What this turns out to mean is that high culture offers us not knowledge of facts but knowledge of how to feel. On Scruton’s view only the contemplation of high art, in an age devoid of true religion, enables us “to rehearse the possibilities of feeling on which an ideal community — a community of sympathy — is founded”.

It seems that religion was only ever, in Plato’s formulation, a “useful lie”. The rituals of religious practice were not means to some supernatural end but an end in themselves, even while they provided the social glue on which the community depended. It is only when we treat things as ends in themselves that they can acquire transcendental utility. Scruton provides a list of things which must be valued in this way: education, sport, hiking, fishing, hunting and art. Hunting and fishing? Elsewhere, Scruton argues that the knowledge of God is the knowledge of what to feel in the face of nature. This seems eccentric from a man one of whose avowed feelings in the face of nature is to try to kill bits of it.

What he laments is the loss of “the experience of the tribe”. Scruton offers an unexpectedly pretty and sympathetic picture of an American football match, where “even if the gods do not take part, you sense them rising in their graves, to peer with shy fascination from behind the screen of our forgetting”. He does not try to prove, however, why fox-hunting, say, should be regarded as intriniscally a better tribal pursuit than rave music. He does have a chapter on modern pop, teeth-grindingly entitled “Yoofanasia”; but it is bizarre to claim that Nirvana, REM, the Prodigy and Oasis are all of a type; it is simply wrong that the guitar part to Nirvana’s “In Bloom” involves “hitting all the strings”; and to criticize pop records because they involve “much mixing and editing” is to ignore the fact that classical CDs are produced in exactly the same way.

Yet there are lovely and provocative ideas here, too. “You are overhearing the machine, as it discourses in the moral void,” Scruton warns of electronic music, although he does not consider whether this might not in fact be useful, as a way of getting to know the enemy better. It is also true that “transgression is also institutionalized by pop, so as to become a new conformism” — one is reminded deliciously of thousands of Rage Against The Machine fans jumping up and down and singing along joyously to the chant “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”.

He is brilliantly mordant on the “pre-emptive Kitsch” of modern art, which “in place of imagined ideals in gilded frames […] offers real junk in inverted commas”. For an encore, he denounces the “theology of deconstruction”, in a scintillating peroration, as the work of the devil. It seems that the modernists’ project, characterised by Scruton as “the attempt to guard the sanctuary of sentiment against the salesman, and to shut the door in his face”, has failed. For Scruton, Wagner is the great modernist, exemplary because his cosmogeny enjoins us to live “as if” we inhabit a world of gods and heroes. This line of thinking, notice, is more pessimistic than Kant’s injunction to live “as if” your acts became universal law. It is a retirement from the struggle, a declaration that, in Freddie Mercury’s words, nothing really matters. Nevertheless, it would be better if we lived as if it did.

Scruton is one of those who takes perverse pleasure in seeing the Enlightenment itself as a “tragedy”, rather than locating the tragedy, as it seems to me we should, in the Enlightenment project’s abandonment. So everything before the mid-18th century was a golden age, and must be defended to the hilt. He defends tradition irrationally: “Bourgeois society is not the outcome of design . . . It arose by an ‘invisible hand’ from the gift of human freedom.” It is not clear, however, why Scruton privileges the contingent (or emergent) over the designed: the mythical “invisible hand” could be equally held responsible for countless disasters, like BSE, or, indeed, the ubiquity of pop music.

Nor are his views on sex, as he well knows, going to win any converts. He laments the fact that procreation is now the individual’s affair, rather than being the concern of the entire community: but that describes precisely women’s emancipation from the role of breeding chattels. And in an otherwise persuasive argument about the distinction between pornography and erotica he describes a woman in an erotic painting thus: she is “as much a person as any other, whose sexual favours must be purchased by risk, adventure and respect”. A friendly logician might point out that what is purchased cannot be a favour.

An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture is written in an incantatory mode rather than an argumentative one, so that it is not incoherent for a critic to disagree with the letter while admiring the spirit. In prose of sad beauty, Scruton guides the reader through what he calls our “catacomb culture”, lit by a few flickering flames. But it is unclear for whom he is writing. There is a disclaimer at the front: “It is impossible to give a convincing defence of high culture to a person who has none.” It often feels like an exercise in preaching to the converted, and those who value high culture usually have a good idea why already. This fascinating book might, therefore, have been more powerful had Scruton injected his intimate, civilized murmur with something of the proselytizer’s fury.