Melancholy roar

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture

Roger Scruton <em>Duckworth, 152pp, £14.99</em>

When a man stops believing in God, to paraphrase Chesterton, he doesn't then believe in nothing, he believes in everything - in anything. As we approach the end of the century, traditionally a period of convulsion and rising superstition, there is certainly a powerful feeling that we are lost without belief; that the hard facts of science, with its grand unifying visions of a final theory of everything, do not provide all the answers. But where to turn, especially when orthodox religion, demanding as it does a compelling, perhaps irrational, leap into faith, seems increasingly incapable of filling the God-shaped hole in our lives?

In this country, where the relevance of Christianity is receding like a mirage, the fastest growing religion is the dead-end opportunism of neopaganism - which is not a religion at all, merely an ersatz belief system, rooted in the myths, cosmic connections and earth mysteries of pre-history. What is so attractive about paganism for its many followers is its intense exoticism and inclusiveness; it has none of the difficulty and anguish of actual belief.

Rather, neopaganism is enormously eclectic and, since pagans have no sacred text of revelation or scripture, no fixed belief in a single divine being or in any concept of judgement and salvation, it can absorb anything: ecofriendliness, anti-road protests, personal growth, radical feminism, alternative medicine, magic, body piercing, tattooing. In fact, neopaganism is the perfect belief system for the postmodern world - a skewed, uncertain world, where anything goes and self-expression is all.

Roger Scruton's new book is an elegiac survey of this "postmodern" landscape of relativism and unbelief. He stands on Dover beach, like Matthew Arnold before him, his pale face buffeted by the winds of change, listening to the melancholy long withdrawing roar of faith as it is engulfed by the sea of secularism. Scruton is a cultural pessimist: he believes that a sad twilight has settled on our contemporary culture; that it is later in the day than we could ever have realised. There will, so his argument goes, never be another Mozart or Shakespeare. The levelling threat of democracy, the tyranny of the majority, mass man, with his banal fascination in popular culture, in sport, pop music, celebrity and film - all this has destroyed irrevocably the public world of high culture, in which the greatest works of our culture flowered.

In this Scruton speaks with the voice of T S Eliot, a romantic conservative who argued that genuine originality and newness in art could only find their place in the context of tradition and who believed that a world stripped of the ornamentation of belief is not worth having. Scruton, like Eliot and indeed F R Leavis, transforms culture into something approximating religion: a moral ideology offering guidance and redemption in a heathen age. And as he surveys a contemporary landscape of decline, he can sound like a dotty cleric, as he laments the hard interest in sex among the young, the bacchic abandon of the rave scene and the general cheapening of marriage.

There is a Kantian subtext in much of what he writes. For Scruton cannot make that final leap into faith. He has a scientific worldview and accepts Darwinian evolution as self-evidently true; yet he has a religious temperament, and accepts that empirical reality is all we can know but not all there is. He believes, too, in the ethical vision and civilising potential of religious ritual and in the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But, like Kant, he is left with the problem of squaring conflicting world views, reconciling cold rationalism with belief, the temporal with the metaphysical. Still, there are compensations. The disinterested appreciation of high art, for instance, can serve as a bridge between the temporal world and ultimate reality, between, to employ a Kantian distinction, the phenomenal, or transient realm of appearances (that which we perceive) and the noumenal realm of permanent generalities (things as they are in themselves).

How serious is Roger Scruton? Well, he is a fearless slayer of cant. Formerly, as the editor of the virulently right-wing Salisbury Review, he delighted in offending liberal orthodoxies, in launching missiles of disgust against the perceived ills of modernity. Single mothers, homosexuals, socialists and feminists have all found a place in his ministry of contempt. As a result, the philosopher Ted Honderich has called him the "unthinking thinking man" and Isaiah Berlin would not hear his name mentioned in his presence.

In An Intelligent Person's Guide Scruton reserves his heaviest artillery for the ahistorical thrust of youth culture, "yoofanasia" as he wittily puts it, and above all for Jacques Derrida and deconstruction, which he perceives as the devil's work. Derrida has argued that there is no truth, but only "truth"; that the connection between a sign and its referent is entirely arbitrary; that reality is a construct or "text" and that there is no single correct interpretation of a text derivable from the intentions of its author. The text, like the world, has no "transcendent" meaning beyond its own arbitrary network of signs. All this may appear deeply tedious and imply, as Scruton says, a world "of uncreation, without hope or faith or love, since no 'text' could possibly mean those transcendental things. It is a world in which negation has been endowed with the supreme instruments - power and intellect."

But Derrida should not be dismissed unreservedly. His contribution was to inspire a new way of reading, to show how a text could be read against itself, read as much for what is absent as for what is present, for the gaps, omissions and aporias in the narrative. This model of reading is not unlike the Freudian notion that much of our inner-life and motivation are unknown to us and that our desires, thoughts and actions are unconsciously motivated.

Where all this leaves us at the end of the 20th century is anyone's guess. For one of the weaknesses in Scruton's pastoral conservatism is that he seems to have no sense of the excitement and urgency of the contemporary condition, no understanding of the excitement of cities or of the anarchic, hectic potential of globalisation - of web talk, cultural fusion, miscegenation. As he looks back at what has been lost, he fails to see what stretches before him like a huge turbulent sea of unknowing: namely the future. The shock and strangeness of the new. Discovery. And he demeans the small, the seemingly trivial cultural gestures that make life worthwhile, beyond the parameters of high culture - a great cricket match, a favourite pop song, a nightclub.

Still, for all his stylised nostalgia, his call for the resurrection of the holy in art and his unashamed fogeyism, Scruton should be applauded for his courage to be serious and his desire to be different. It is hard to think, with the possible exception of Bryan Appleyard, who else has the interest in, and flair for, popular communication to make modernity and its discontents their urgent subject.

Jason Cowley is the literary editor of the "New Statesman"

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family