Friday, 9 September 2016

Gilead and Marilynne Robinson


I'm a bit of a sucker for that sort of high end American intellectual life (think Frasier without the jokes) where everyone appears terribly mature and balanced and to have been brought up surrounded by old oak and nourished on good bourbon.

I'm currently about half way through Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's much praised novel about this wise old small town pastor reminiscing about his life. Everyone seems to like it, I like it, and I haven't finished it (so there is always the possibility of an alien abduction enlivening things a bit later on) but...

Robinson has been much praised for restoring a vision of how religion can survive (indeed, should survive) in modernity. I think it's probably fair to describe that vision as one of providing a space for critical reflection on the everyday. (The narration in Gilead is retrospective, changing nothing in the life, but adding depth and complexity as the everyday is reflected on and retold.) From reading Robinson's interviews and critical reviews of her work, that impression seems not far from her intention:

Psalm 122 is, you could say, the theme song of this vision, and it is a vision that prompts Robinson to a ferocious critique of the abstractions of ideology - including "austerity" as an imperative to save the world for capitalism. She offers a striking diagnosis of the corrupting effect of rationalism: rationalism as she defines it is the attempt to get the world to fit the theory; and because the world is never going to fit the theory, the end-product of rationalist strategies is always panic.
"Rationalism is the omnium-gatherum of resentment and foreboding", whereas reasonableness is interested in "things as they come". The economic crisis is, in this sense, the nemesis of one kind of rationalism, oblivious of the actual complexity of people's motivation.
Where do we find the reasonable rather than the rationalistic? Above all, in the various ways in which we are educated in "imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly"; in a broadly conceived, long-term commitment to building this kind of loving understanding - in fact, in what has often been called a "liberal education". [Rowan Williams here.]

Robinson: I do. That’s what I do. But it rationalizes my lecturing, too. But fear was very much—is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.
You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?

[Robinson in conversation with President Obama here]

Quite apart from my 'Frasier' fetish, I find this all very attractive on one level: reasonable people, thinking the best of each other, and trying to find and promote the good in small communities. Unfortunately, it just strikes me as profoundly unCatholic and only superficially human.

My reaction to this is perhaps not being helped by my currently reading Russell Kirk's Ancestral Shadows. Whilst sharing an affection for small town American life with Robinson, Kirk's vision is rather more likely to end up with an axe wielding revenant than with mature contentment. (And you could add Flannery O'Connor to that as well. Or Walker Percy's physically satisfied moderns who decide to chew their own limbs off rather than suffer the boredom of their secularised lives.) I suppose, unsurprisingly, that Robinson's vision of serious reasonableness is very hard to reconcile with the medieval and Catholic universe of demons and gnashing of teeth. Indeed, it is a reminder of just how much Robinson's Calvinism is essentially an anti-Catholicism, a reasonableness defined as being an escape from medieval superstition and hysteria.

Robinson's Calvinism covers up much of what it is to be human. Although I despise most of what has happened to popular culture since the 1950s, the search for ecstasy through sex n drugs n rock and roll is utterly human and a shadowy tribute to the human desire for a supernatural end. Gilead has little place for the burning ecstasy of the saints or of Jimi Hendrix.

It also has little place for the demonic or the ancestral shadow of original sin. Most serious Catholics I know tend to be very clear about their own unworthiness. They are usually very conscious about their need for the mercy of grace and how little they deserve it. Oddly, in view of Calvinism's debt to Augustine, there is much more of a sense in Catholicism of the essential imperfection of the Earthly City and our final home being with God, rather than with a good bourbon in front of PBS, natural goods though these undoubtedly are.

Perhaps the Robinsonian vision is the correct one. Perhaps we are all reasonable people, striving with good hearts towards a progressive future. I'm afraid I tend to see as well as goodness, the irruption of the lust for domination into all of human life, the dumb certainty that this small creature has it right, and that if only everyone else were as reasonable, everything would be fine. (And with a little, forceful encouragement, it will be.) At the centre of Robinson's Calvinism is the sermon and the self-reflective community:

What do you personally get out of going to church?
I have gone to the same church for more than 20 years. It is my village, so to speak. I see children come into the world and elders pass out of it, and I see lives unfold around me. That is a little part of it. Then I have occasion, rare in the world, to hear a good and learned man say something he takes to be true, to a congregation listening in good faith for whatever truth he has to offer. Finally, I think differently, otherwise, in that place than I do anywhere else. It is as if I can put the world and myself aside for an hour and hear and think more purely. [Here]

These are not bad things. But a Catholic goes to Church essentially to have something burst into a community from outside it  through the Mass. Hopkins' lines

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?



whilst certainly celebrating the immanence of the divine also acknowledges its transcendence, its imposing externality (the martial echoes of 'charged'/'foil'; the violence of 'crushed' (emphasised by enjambment)/ 'rod'), its essential surprisingness.

Although much has been made of the way in which Robinson's vision of the importance of religion offers a contrast to secularising narratives, I'm not so sure. Everyone loves her. She wins prizes and Presidents woo her. The idea of religion as adding depth and shade to an already existing (secular) design is one we all already love. And a world tweaked thus would be less overtly hostile to some forms of religion. (We would all be in Church to hear a good and learned man say something.) But we would be deaf to grandeur and squalor, deaf to the way that religion roars of something else terrible.

Could Robinson's Congregationalism produce this?











Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Imposing progressive narratives on art

                                       


                                 'To a lesbian with a hammer, everything looks like a male'


Without attempting for the moment to go into all the complexities involved, art might be argued to provide a space in which a disinterested contemplation replaces the busy drive for usefulness that tends to fill our lives. Whatever idiocies can exist in modern art, it sometimes still remains a space in which we can pause, withdraw from everyday life and seek the dearest freshness deep down things.

This thought has cropped up a number of times in recent days. I have great sympathy when Sir James MacMillan talks of 'snapping' at Pat Kane's cultural smugness:

‘The last time I saw him was at a post-devolution party at the National Museum of Scotland; the kind of lavish event where the Scottish liberal elites gather to exult in one of their regular self-congratulatory orgies of entitlement and privilege. He looked at me, with tears in his eyes and said falteringly “Look at all this James; we are now the new modern Scottish establishment.” Something snapped in me that night, and I’ve never been the same since…’ (From here.)

Something similar is clearly fuelling the rapper Loki in his latest work (avoid if you're sensitive about swearing):




And finally, when The Quietus dismisses The Smiths for their whiteness, I can't help admire the blindness that allows such a dismissal of the truth behind their laments for a vision of lower middle class life in the north of England which might (if taken seriously) lead to a greater understanding of Brexit and UKIP:

...right from the outset, Morrissey and The Smiths represented a fatally reactionary moment in British pop culture - a severing of punk and post-punk's honourable links with black musics. They were here to reject colour in every respect, be it the gaudy, neon-lit backdrop of Top Of The Pops against which Morrissey wanly cavorted, or the colourisation of indie afforded by its embrace of dance music and reggae. Their wistful cover artwork, harking back to popular icons of the 50s and early 60s, were redolent of a time when black people had a near-zero cultural imprint on the British consciousness, unless you counted the hugely, inexplicably popular The Black And White Minstrel Show. This was explicit, as well as implicit. Morrissey spoke of a conspiracy to promote black music in the British charts, while opining that reggae was "vile".

Now the cases are different, and I have no desire to fall into the same trap as I am accusing progressives of by oversimplifying. But all do seem to be cases where the disruptive possibilities of art as truth telling are being undermined, and where a great part of the problem is the imposition of a monological progressive narrative on raw art.

So when I see an article in the LA Review of Books on queerness in childhood literature, and an article on the Netflix series Stranger Things which complains about its emphasis on the pursuit of prettiness by the lead girl character, I recognize a similar pattern of failing to allow the openness of art by the imposition of a progressive narrative. To begin with Stranger Things, for those who haven't seen it, it is an evocation of 1980s childhood buddy movies with a thriller/horror dimension: think Gremlins crossed with the X Files. Unfortunately, it commits the cardinal progressive sin of allowing a (rather androgynous) central girl character to 'pretty herself up':

Eleven touches her new blonde wig in front of a mirror in Mike’s house. “You look pretty,” Mike tells her. “Pretty?” she asks, not sure whether to believe him. It’s a word she’ll repeat a few times throughout the series — gazing at her reflection, seeing the way Mike looks at her. While she struggles to comprehend other words the boys introduce, “pretty” is one that Eleven understands immediately and intimately. She was robbed of an entire childhood, but having been denied prettiness seems to be one of her short life’s greatest sadnesses. (Article here.)

Turning to the article on queerness and children's literature and referring to the book, The Secret Language:

What I see in The Secret Language is a gesture toward relationships between young friends that can’t be easily categorized and that hint toward queerness. In some cases, the hint seems barely hidden at all.

Now, undoubtedly the writers of both articles views themselves as bringing out the silenced voices of LGBTQIA+ sensibilities from out of the background of smothering and dominant 'straight' narrative. Fair enough in principle. But we have now moved into a world where the dominant critical voice is a progressive one which turns the openness of writerly texts into the simplicity of readerly ones. By doing so, it obscures both the details of the texts and the complexities of the world they reproduce. For example, Eleven's character in Stranger Things does not remain frozen in the pursuit of prettiness: it is merely one element in a series of incidents most of which do not fit easily into a narrative of 'girl glams up and gets boy'. Even the 'prettying up' functions more as a practice of drag: the clumsiness of the wig and the shabbiness of the dress draw attention to its artificiality:


I'm not as great a fan of Stranger Things as many seem to be. (It strikes me as being in the grand tradition of X Files in suggesting a more coherent truth to be revealed which, after 5,000,001 episodes, will turn out to be rather more about stringing the viewers along than realizing a formed artistic vision.) But it is clearly more open a text than the quoted article suggests. The relationships between boys and girls are complex, and, in particular, involve some sorts of experimentation and faltering. Even if Eleven were destined to turn into a Diesel Dyke, ze is highly likely to face the pressures of  appealing to men and exploring 'pretty': to erase that exploration is to fail to justice to the series and to reality.

Likewise, the article on queerness in children's literature suppresses the complexity of all childhoods in favour of highlighting a very closed narrative about lesbians in the making. Same sex friendships, finding the other sex 'icky', and a sense of the mysterious possibilities of adult erotic pleasure are something we all go through, straight or gay. By imposing only one possible narrative on a writerly text, we lose the possibility of confronting an artistic space in which we can put aside our certainties and lust for control, and instead contemplate and allow ourselves to be re-made by the art rather than re-making it.






Friday, 26 August 2016

Culture in Scotland: the problem of substance rather than simply institutions


Nicola Sturgeon tames Scotland by Gerard Burns 


There has been a flurry of 'conservative' (I'm never quite sure how to describe this/my approach, but 'conservative' will do as a placeholder) comment on the stifling cultural and political hegemony of modern Scotland. Kenneth Roy's piece in the Scottish Review will do as an example:

This is the nature of the malaise: it seems that everyone has too much to lose by challenging an increasingly monolithic political establishment, particularly when the most influential voices in the arts and media have allowed themselves to become cheerleaders for that establishment. Is this really how a healthy democracy should function? Journalism works best when it is scrutinising and challenging the established order, not meekly acquiescing; the same is surely true of fiction, poetry and the performing arts. But in Scotland the normal rules of engagement have been turned on their head: if we know what is good for us, we sing from the same patriotic song-sheet, picking up our allotted crumb from the breadboard of Creative Scotland, hoping for a good review from Alan Taylor, hearing no evil, seeing no evil, until the last dissenter has been strangled with the last rolled-up copy of the Sunday Herald.

I've got considerable sympathy for this view, but more (and in more detail) needs to be said. First, one of the problems of devolution, let alone the push for more powers and ultimately independence, is that more powers now exist to exercise hegemony than did (say) fifty years ago. In my adult life, I have never noticed a particularly varied political or cultural debate in Scotland.  Anyone who encountered the Labour hegemony that existed until recently would not immediately have thought that they had encountered a Golden Age of intellectual curiosity. But it's undoubtedly true that 'blob' thinking now has more levers to operate in Scotland. So the first observation is that hegemony has always existed in modern Scotland but it now has more power to do damage.

Secondly, it is hardly the fault of the SNP that every other party in Scotland has decided to become incompetent. Although this is (perhaps) slightly overstating the case, the collapse of Scottish Conservatism, UK Liberalism and the Scottish (and perhaps UK?) Labour Party is not the fault of the SNP although they have clearly benefited from it. It is possible that Scottish Conservatism is staging a revival. Personally, I doubt this, but in any case there seems little likelihood in the near future of its being able to mount the sort of serious opposition to the SNP that Labour once was capable of. The resulting hegemony is undoubtedly regrettable, but the fault (and solution) is more to do with the other parties than the SNP.

Thirdly, and remaining with 'conservatism' for a while, at the moment, most criticism of the existing hegemony is on the grounds of a) competence and b) Unionism. That's fine and necessary, but as a long term strategy, it's limited. Issues of competence are difficult to assess in real time and unless Unionism becomes more than a simple economic case ('independence is going to cost you') it's probably going to become increasingly ineffective as people get used to the message as a background noise and certainly is going to lack impact on the wider cultural field.

And it's this wider cultural field that I want to focus on. Modern Scottish Nationalism has, in a remarkably short period of time, managed to convince large numbers of people, perhaps even a majority, that Scotland is progressive. The details of what this means are essentially fuzzy, but as a civil religion it certainly contains a familiar kit of benedictions and comminations. Blessed are the multicultural. Cursed are the homophobic. Blessed are those exploring their own sexuality. Cursed are those who believe in tradition. Etc. Etc. When coupled with a general tendency in the West for cultural elites to be overwhelmingly progressive (the Heterodox Academy is a good source on this), the pre-existing tendency to blob thinking in Scotland, as well as the identification of Scottish Nationalism with the project of becoming (even) more progressive than England, we have a recipe for the sort of stifling cultural control that Roy identifies.

Certainly, I would like to see a more effective political opposition to the SNP, not because I am particularly hostile to the SNP, but because it is unhealthy for any party to feel it is invulnerable. [Let me note here that there is a key issue that rarely seems to be raised: the SNP used to be regarded by most Nationalists I know as a temporary coalition which would dissolve upon independence. The need now to exist as a (devolved) government before independence has put this coalition identity in the background while the sort of effective discipline and clear policies required for electable government are practised. The resulting dilemmas for supporters of independence who are opposed to SNP progressivism have been insufficiently explored.] But until one or more of the other parties manages to pull itself into shape and become presentable as a potential opposition, that's not going to happen. And it's foolish to blame the SNP for that. Part of the solution has to be the creation of a vision of Scotland that is substantially different from the progressive vision of the SNP. (And it's worth noting here that the much of the most effective criticism at the moment seems to be coming from those who think that the SNP is insufficiently progressive.) And more needs to be said here than simply a endorsement of the Union: what sort of society would be better, aside from the question of whether or not that society is better realized within or outwith the UK?

Back to Roy's essay. Imagine a situation ten years in the future when (say) complete independence is off the agenda. The SNP will still be campaigning for a different, more progressive Scotland to differentiate itself from the UK culturally. Other than on economic reforms, the Conservative Party will be as progressive in all essentials as the SNP, and the Corbynite Left and the Greens will be urging even more progressivism. What reason is there to think that cultural life in Scotland will not still be as stiflingly progressive as it is now?

In sum, cultural and political hegemony is a problem in modern Scotland, but breaking the SNP's monopoly of political power is only one (and I think a minor) aspect of that problem. I see no sign that, even without an assured political control over cultural institutions, the dominance of a a certain progressive viewpoint will be abandoned. As I have said many times before, the question of Independence is secondary to the question of what sort of society we should live in, and the sort of progressivism that the SNP promotes is dominant in Scotland far beyond that party.

Three final, concrete illustrations. The current stooshie over the Named Person scheme is certainly the fault of the SNP. But it is also the fault of a cultural and political climate that makes it very difficult to articulate the sort of truth about the central place of the biological family that the Supreme Court judges quoted from international law (section 72):

The Preamble to the UNCRC states:

“the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and wellbeing of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community.”
 
Many articles in the UNCRC acknowledge that it is the right and responsibility of parents to bring up their children. Thus article 3(2) requires States Parties, in their actions to protect a child’s wellbeing, to take into account the rights and duties of his or her parents or other individuals legally responsible for him or her; article 5 requires States Parties to respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, other family or community members or others legally responsible for the child to provide appropriate direction and guidance to the child in the exercise of his or her rights under the Convention; article 14(2) makes similar provision in relation to the child’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; article 27(2) emphasises that the parents have the primary responsibility to secure, within their abilities and financial capabilities, the conditions of living necessary for the child’s development; article 18(1) provides that:

     “States Parties shall use their best efforts to ensure recognition of the principle that both     parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child. Parents or, as the case may  be, legal guardians, have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child. The best interests of the child will be their basic concern.” (Emphasis supplied)

(When the judgment came out, I remember some Twitter comment describing that commonsense attitude as 'medieval'...)

Unless that sort of 'conservative' viewpoint has access to cultural institutions such as Roy refers to, in sufficient numbers and with sufficient internal variety to give it intellectual heft (another problem just now),  whether inside or outside the UK we are sunk.

Secondly, Roy allows himself a sideswipe at Neal Ascherson. In particular, he mentions Andrew O'Hagan's difficulties with Nationalists after criticizing him. I assume in particular he is thinking of the LRB review by O'Hagan of Ascherson's Stone Voices. (Here.) Now you can think what you like of Ascherson and indeed of Stone Voices. (For what it's worth, I think neither beyond criticism, but am profoundly grateful to Ascherson for over the years of his Observer columns showing something to a younger me of what intellectual life might be like, and to Stone Voices for a stimulating piece of psychogeography, particularly when read (as I did) in Kilmartin Glen.) Of course, Ascherson should be argued with. But note from what perspective O'Hagan does so:

There is, as Nairn puts it, a ‘tantalising sense of redemption which always informs nostalgia’, but the Scottish people cannot afford to get stuck there any longer, and Scotland must go on now to establish its role in bringing about a new United Kingdom within a new Europe. In the manner of Stephen Dedalus, we might do better to see Scotland’s conscience as ‘uncreated’; for while we must admit that Ascherson’s stones are interesting, they are not as interesting as people. Nationalism in Scotland is a place where good men and women busy themselves shaking the dead hand of the past, but the naming of a tradition is not the same as the forging of a nation, and modern Scotland, now more than ever, needs a new way of thinking, a new kind of relation to the old, a way to live, a way to make itself better than the badness that’s been and the badness to come. The question of what the past amounted to can lie about the grass.
 
So Ascherson, the paradigm of a progressive intellectual, complete with endorsements from Hobsbawm and an Eton education, is criticized by being insufficiently progressive, too interested in the past, too conservative. The usual Scottish substantive hegemonic game: you are wrong because I am more progressive than you. Am I really, as a social conservative, supposed to celebrate this iteration of the progressive mindset as an unproblematic example of well placed criticism suppressed by evil Nats? (Just imagine reading the above O'Hagan paragraph to Roger Scruton. With whom do you think his sympathies might lie?)

Thirdly and finally, Roy raises the question of the enforced reading of Scottish texts in Scottish schools. Quite why this should be objectionable is beyond me. (If it were a matter of only reading Scottish texts, that would be different.) From those of my children who had to study English at Higher, I can recall only two Scottish texts: Jekyll and Hyde and Robin Jenkins' The Cone Gatherers. Neither strike me as unreasonable (whatever else I'd like to say about the thinness of the Higher curriculum). Stevenson's text surely earns its place as a world classic. Jenkins', whilst not my favourite of his works (Fergus Lamont, if you want to know), is a Christian parable about suffering and innocence. Again, why should a conservative object a) to some awareness of one's local culture and b) in particular, these books?

Overall, I think the problem lies more in the absence of lively conservative cultural institutions within Scotland capable of articulating and even disagreeing on what is wrong with progressivism. (Alistair Darling makes the point in his introduction to Tom Gallagher's Scotland Now about the absence of " 'think tank' capacity", a lack particularly evident in the reasoned expression of conservative views beyond Unionism.) Too much rests on the sort of campaigning talk along the lines of  'my friend's enemy is my enemy'. The mere fact that a given commentator opposes the SNP  is not enough to endorse their views uncritically; the mere fact that a given view is held by supporters of the SNP is not enough to dismiss them.