Thursday Book: Professor of the unpopular

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The Independent Culture


Sometimes you just can't get a reference out of your head.

The Scottish poet Tom Leonard once wrote an acerbic little 1980s skit about a young Conservative philosopher called Hawdyir Scrotum. No matter how many Demos pamphlets, chat-show appearances or increasingly well-respected books he produces, I always have an image of Roger Scruton in this testicular pose.

Perhaps it's also because I once was given his book Sexual Desire to review. The tome's choice moment? How doing it doggy-style with your loved one was "essentially objectifying, and thus profane". I suppose that being the world's most rigorous conservative thinker must have its consequences for your view of libido: all that endless ordering, ranking, disciplining.

Roger (or Hawdyir) Scruton is now, it seems, a freelance like the rest of us, having left his Professorship of Aesthetics at Birkbeck College, London. And if a smug certitude about stating the obvious was ever a strong pitch in the marketplace of ideas, then he has just hit the ground running. Immediately, one must say that Scruton is a limpid prose stylist; he will continue to be a boon to panicky opinion-page editors looking for a clearly- argued and deeply-felt dose of conservativism.

But one must also say that there is a quite maddening - and not especially intelligent - hankering for Eden in this new book. Or if not Eden, then the rustic stability of what Scruton calls "common culture", meaning all those happy, pre-modern societies who feared their gods, loved their elders, and kept everyone in their place. Their homes were for breeding, their rituals were for blooding the next generation, and their culture - from the Greeks to Shakespeare - functioned as a mere conduit for all this earthy appreciation of love, death and the divine.

Scruton is happiest with culture as displaced religion, viewed through the large round spectacles of anthropology. And he is never happier than when charting its long fall towards the unholy present. The only upward curve away from our bestial profanity is what Scruton calls "high culture". In an Enlightenment world driven by science and democracy - and thus permanent mobility and change - high culture keeps those old certainties alive in its stately imaginings and ornate forms.

It consoles the bourgeoisie, uneasily aware that their own secular energies have brought about their own alienation. All they can do, as they thrill to Wagner and melt to Poussin, is to live "as if" the tatty world of trains, telephones and toothpaste was still a home for nobility, duty and virtue. Even modernism (Eliot, Baudelaire, Joyce: the usual suspects) was an attempt, in Scruton's view, to keep transcendence alive amid the kitsch, cynicism and sentimentality of mass culture.

So high culture becomes a kind of virtual reality, like a helmet that power-wielding minorities place over their heads to blot out the sights and sounds of modern life. To "pop" high culture up - Kennedy with his hair gel and neon violin, Branagh with his Shakespeare-for-the-multiplex, Three Tenors for a tenner, and all that - turns out to be entirely inappropriate. Keep it elite, says Roger.

I imagine what a generation that points towards the next century, rather than tugging at the frayed roots of the 13th, might say. "Fine. Leave us with our insanely ambitious drum'n'bass composers (Goldie, 4 Hero), our cinematic auteurs who present the complexities of the present (Coen Bros, Kubrick), our novelists who charge the English language with a postmodern fervour (Amis, Warner, Welsh)." But Scruton, unwisely, decides to trundle his aesthetic into these lower regions, like an interested uncle doing the twist at his nephew's junglist massive. "The electric guitar owes much of its appeal to the fact that it is strapped on and brandished like a dildo," he writes. There are many other such M'Learned Friendisms to savour here.

Much labour is expended here trying to show that only a certain, bourgeois- endorsed lineage of culture can bring us truth, beauty and goodness. Yet Scruton is actually much more interested in social order than in aesthetics. In the most predictable way, he traduces the formulaic and repetitive nature of pop music, concluding that it pays no attention to tradition and precedent.

This makes you realise that Scruton is still primarily an ideologist rather than a philosopher. The reverse is now true. Anyone who enjoys the electric arts at the moment - whether visual, textual or aural - is almost frog-marched into a kind of mass-market auteurism devoted to tradition and precedent. What else are all the glossy music-and-film mags doing but taking a "high-cultural" attitude to the work - establishing canons, analysing technique, invoking the great masters? Who could really say that Channel Four's new digital movie channel is not as enriching an institution as a week of Salzburg Festival events?