Which "Enlightenment" values?

Thierry Chervel takes issue with John Gray's pessimistic worldview

Thierry Chervel, editor of the German website Perlentaucher (and its English-language sibling, Sign and Sight), has fastened on to something John Gray says towards the end of his recent NS review of Timothy Garton Ash's latest book, Facts Are Subversive.

Gray notes that Garton Ash abandons the term "Enlightenment fundamentalism", which he had previously used, to controversial effect, in a 2006 essay for the New York Review of Books entitled "Islam in Europe" (there, Garton Ash described the Dutch Muslim apostate and women's rights campaigner, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as an "Enlightenment fundamentalist", setting off a pan-continental debate in the process):

If Garton Ash is reluctant to talk of Enlightenment fundamentalism, this may be in part because it suggests that we are at risk of drifting into an intractable conflict. Yet clearly the danger of clashing fundamentalisms is real.

According to Chervel, Gray's "pessimistic worldview" (which I anatomised in an NS profile here) requires the presence of contending world-historical forces locked in eternal and intractable conflict. "Calling the Enlightenment fundamentalist," Chervel writes, "is the dream of an apocalypticist who is waiting for the clash of cultures to happen."

Leaving aside the question whether Chervel has characterised Gray's views correctly here, it is certainly the case that "the Enlightenment", for Gray, is a kind of secular salvation myth, a vision of human perfectibility that inspired Lenin as much as Locke, Mao as much as Mill. And, for that reason, you could be forgiven for thinking that, in Gray's hands, "Enlightenment" is a historical term of art so capacious and flexible that it explains almost nothing (this is certainly what Will Hutton suggested to me when I spoke to him for the profile: "[The] dark, troubling aspect of John's thinking is that he tracks all mistakes back to the Enlightenment: Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Marx, Alan Greenspan, New Labour are all tributes to Enlightenment theology. It doesn't wash. ... [P]rogressives should be wary of a thinker who is so sceptical about the Enlightenment.")

But as Gray himself is well aware, and as Garton Ash in fact points out in another piece in the new book, there wasn't one Enlightenment, but several:

To say "Enlightenment values" is not enough. Which Enlightenment? The Enlightenment of John Locke, which claimed freedom for religion, or that of Voltaire, which aspired rather to freedom from religion?

And nor does a commitment to, say, a secular public sphere (if that isn't an Enlightenment value, I don't know what is) require a blanket vilification of religion and all its works, or, pace Gray, an unempirical belief in the inevitable decline of religious faith. As Garton Ash recognises,

we ... need to be clearer about the difference between secularism and atheism. Secularism ... should be an argument about arrangements for a shared public and social life; atheism is an argument about scientific truthm individual liberation and the nature of the good life. ... The public policy argument about freedom from or in religion should operate on different levels.

 

 

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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