Useful Curmudgeon

Roger Scruton may not be a household name, but he is a contemporary cultural exemplar from the British side of the pond, someone who has given clear and eloquent expression to his challenging point of view. He is a conservative intellectual, a philosopher with a specialty in aesthetics, and a social thinker who started life in an English village, attended the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe (where T. S. Eliot briefly taught), went on to study philosophy at Cambridge, and thereafter pursued a stormy career as a teacher at Birkbeck College in London. At odds with the left-wing academic establishment-over politics, modern architecture, the value of tradition, Christianity (or the lack thereof) in modern life-he founded the Salisbury Review, an organ of opinion meant to embolden defenders of the Western cultural heritage and gall postmodernists who advanced the idea that high culture was an elitist power play.

In the 1980s, Scruton became the polemicist that many academics loved to hate. And while the historian Eric Hobsbawm, his colleague at Birkbeck, defended the Communist Party and still managed to become a Companion of Honour, Scruton was headed for academic disaster. He reports his book The Meaning of Conservatism “blighted what remained of my academic career.” He then taught and lectured in Eastern Europe, sharpening his position by observing the agitprop, desperation, and vacuity of the regimes about to fall. He tried practical politics and the Conservative Party, but was coolly received by people who sniffed at his cerebral approach to public affairs.

What does such a man have to offer us as citizens of a country where neoconservatives are in long supply, and think tanks overflow with their ideas? The answer is the resources of a polymath, the wit and decency of an honest observer, and the spiritual charge of a man of wisdom. Gentle Regrets, his memoir, is far more than a collection of fertile ideas: it’s the colorful story of a learned man’s life and the argued attempt to help others reclaim treasures of mind and soul that are being relegated to the discard bin.

The book, nevertheless, is strangely titled and unevenly constructed. The faults of construction include chapters that go on about his musical interests, that recount stories of Iris Murdoch’s taste in food, that are a bit tedious about dogs and horses. Such problems may come from the title: our author loses focus at times because he starts to think of himself as gentle. On the contrary, Scruton is a battler, a bully of the bullies, and his apologia-which this book is-is filled with sharp attacks on pop culture, sarcasm directed at London’s preposterous Millennium Dome, savage depictions of Progress when it takes the form of wrecking townscapes and forgetting literary and artistic greatness, and a Christian apologist’s feel for what’s wrong with his world. He’s in the impolite British tradition of John Ruskin denouncing wealth and visual vulgarity, Orwell embracing poverty, and D. H. Lawrence cursing the mechanization of personal relations.

He tells us how he got to be what he is. First there was his father, a bit of a crank, an antiestablishment, antimonarchy socialist who crusaded against the destruction of old buildings. Then there was a wonderful school where ideas and books-especially ones by modern writers who revered tradition-were the precious currency of boys from hard-working middle-class families. Scruton began as a highfalutin teenager who immersed himself in Spengler’s Decline of the West, a book that taught a first lesson in regret and the tragic sense. Rembrandt and Mozart won’t disappear in the future, but they will be lost “because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message will have gone.” T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets taught him about spiritual renewal and got him out of the German philosophical pessimism.

At Cambridge he learned and then rejected positivist, antimetaphysical philosophy and soon discovered his idol, Edmund Burke. That philosopher helped Scruton discover his intellectual mission-the defense of culture in a commodified, kitsch-ridden world of what’s-the-newest-thing. Modern literature’s masters-Joyce, Proust, Eliot-were carriers of Western values; modern architects and planners were dismantlers. The “aesthetics of modernism” (a Scruton putdown)-which he observes in places ranging from Finland to Paris and London, in architects including Le Corbusier and Frank Gehry-is a disastrous attempt to “purge the world of history.” Burke taught him the best cultural lesson of his life-the trust (not the contract) that has to be created among the living, dead, and unborn if civilization is to endure.

There were other lessons-social, political, and spiritual. Let it be said that Scruton unashamedly mixes political values and the development of the soul. He doesn’t have anything good to say about “rights”: “Life, freedom, and well-being are not rights but gifts.” As an intellectual, he’s a man out of his time-and has (not surprisingly) been out of a regular job. Don’t try this line youself: “Someone who believes in real distinctions between people has no place in a humanities department, the main purpose of which is to deliver the ideology required by life in the postmodern world.” But the hard-to-swallow, hard-liner quality here is part of a philosophy of gratitude and generous understanding of what civilization and faith have given us-order, reason, beauty, transcendence-and what we can expect if we forget these gifts.

Scruton is especially good at depicting the soul-numbing look and feel of utopian social planning. A lover of cosmopolitan excitement and intellectual ferment, the hurly-burly of traders in ideas and goods, he’s the ideal satirist of the “Technical Research Centre of Finland” and the town of Tapiola, one of his ports in a storm when he was out of Birkbeck. This place seems like it was laid out by the firm of G. Orwell and M. Python: “a garden city of white concrete, some of it veneered with white lavatory tiles. Hominoid sculptures stand meaninglessly on concrete pathways....Houses and apartments are thrown down at illogical angles among dreary trees.” At the Centre a scientist is “concerned to extract aesthetic rules from given forms so as to work them into a computer program.”

What sustained Scruton was not only the “cathedral” of great art and literature, but also a number of spiritual friendships. He has had a rough passage as a Christian-born an Anglican, married to a Catholic and divorced, compelled by inner need to reconnect with his church. Unusual personalities have helped him discover the sacred. Two in particular are movingly described. The first is Msgr. Alfred Gilbey (of the gin-distilling family) who is a fabulous combination of urbanity and sanctity. Living at the Travellers Club in London and saying Mass in a secret chapel there, Gilbey seems to have escaped from the pages of Evelyn Waugh. The portrait is a literary gem. Scruton’s portrait of Basia, a devout and brilliant Polish girl with whom he discussed philosophy, is equally skillful and may partly justify the “gentle” of this book’s title. In any event, Scruton has produced a minor classic, a searching treatment of his own spirit in conflict with the spirit of the age.

Published in the 2006-09-08 issue: 
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