Music as an Art by Roger Scruton

Music as an ArtThis very interesting book consists of two parts. In the first, Scruton is trying to wrestle with what music is.

“And surely that is part of the point of art, that it offers conclusions in a world that is otherwise deprived of them. This is not an escapism but its opposite: taking some feeling, however bleak, to its conclusions, and showing thereby that it is in our nature to bear it.” (68)

“It is in this way that we are consoled by music . . . namely, that it provides order and completion to states of being that drift through our lives in fragmentary or inconclusive ways.” (69)

I think it a sensible conclusion. How do we deal with the partialities of this sublunary life? We hope for more, and one of the things that offers consolation is music that is so ordered as to develop its theme, progress through the stages of a thing, and reach a perceptible conclusion. We applaud it if only for that reason.

One of the options that Scruton raises in his quest to understand the nature of music is that “We are dealing with the aesthetic, rather than the metaphysical, idea of the transcendental.” (76) He of course discounts that we have contact with the transcendent as such. When C. S. Lewis concludes that it stands to reason that if we have longings that nothing in this world can satisfy then we must be made for another world, Scruton refuses the conclusion. I hope it isn’t an act of unbelief, but I am afraid that I see no other real alternative. That is the limitation of Scruton. He really accepts the Kantian conclusion. He once quipped that the Enlightenment was a form of light pollution which blocked our view of the stars. He must not have thought we can flip the switch off on the Enlightenment. (C. S. Lewis spent his life trying to deny that the Renaissance happened, let alone the Enlightenment . . . )

But I myself find the suggestion that music depicts metaphysical realities in the aesthetic realm compelling. As one who tries to function on premodern assumptions, I don’t see why not. What Scruton concludes is that the self is somehow a thing beyond the world. What he has said elsewhere, that we are incarnates subjects in a world of objects. It is just he allows for no consciousness other than that we have in the world of objects as perceiving subjects. So, what constitutes a subject is what is being dealt with in music. Music, then, is an address from subject to subject, achieving a harmony of empathy. It is a conclusion still brimming with possibilities.

The second part of the book contains various of Scruton’s reflections, mostly on composers and musical figures. You can expect something on Schubert and Wagner of course, but there is a lot on British composers, and the recovery of music after the dead end of serialism. A lot of Adorno in this book, an answer and refutation of Adorno, it may be considered. He is also very trenchant on Shostakovich, which made me grateful. When I think of consoling music, I actually think of Shostakovich.

Here is an unexpected tangential gem buried away toward the end of the book: “the longing for experiences outside the bounds of our Anglican upbringing, and at the same time the stunning message of Four Quartets, which told us that those experiences were not out of bounds at all but could be blended with the spiritual heritage of England—all these were shared by our generation . . . Four Quartets brought together the subterranean current of Anglican Christianity with the questioning search for a purified and modernist art that would seek redemption in the immediate moment, observed, internalized and expressed without lies. As the title declares, Eliot had before his mind the great example of Beethoven, whose late quartets show religious questions answered through aesthetic discipline, and redemption by the hard path of artistic truthfulness.” (157)

The penultimate chapter ponders the music of the future, a kind of ‘whither music?’ And the last chapter is on the culture of pop. That last is a most illuminating and engrossing essay indeed!

It is not a book that requires any special musical ability. I have absolutely none. Of course, I could be deluding myself since, after all, I find comfort in Shostakovich. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it.

Reflections of the Unexamined Life

I think the woke moment has peaked. I really think it has reached the point where its enormity is obvious and more importantly, understood, expected, no longer puzzling or novel; I think it is palpably tarnishing. I conclude, therefore, that its appeal begins to diminish.

And so . . . what’s the next thing?

* * *
Craig Carter fumbled his way into Twitter and soon mastered it. He’s not yet broken 1K followers, but he does the most interesting things. His book seeks to explain and to a certain extent popularize what you can get in an essay by Steinmetz from a while back. This last, has apparently been percolating through circles in which the procedure and method of the reformers exerts a gravitational pull.

He’s right on hermeneutics, you know. Premodern metaphysics calls for premodern approaches, and the issue of metaphysics is anterior to most other issues, as I was clearly taught at Central Seminary.

I’m, by the way, so glad I attended there. You come out with baggage anywhere you go, in the case of Central, curiously, dispensational. But I’d rather not be ignorant of issues anterior to others than otherwise. I’ve talked to people who can cross and recross Scripture and have mastered all the minutiae of Covenant Theology but are flaccid on their metaphysics and you can tell what is anterior. We either interpret with the tradition of the church through the ages, or we interpret with the tradition of our age.

You need to hammer out your epistemology.

* * *
As anybody who pays attention knows, my attitude toward the USA is that it is grand in its enormities, and I find that grand. I’m not particularly pious when it comes to patriotism, perhaps because I grew up in another country. So I have enjoyed the Trump candidacy and presidency. A lot. And I look forward to more.

I will say, if Tulsi prevails in the Democratic field, I’m going to feel a conflict. Not because I think our president should be presidential. I think the president of the United States of America should be American, and there are few that do American the way el Trump does. The puzzling thing about the whole show is how few of the candidates have any strong appeal. I think it will be sane and interesting if she makes it, and the way these things go, you never know. But then, if she makes it, a lot of people are going to be feeling conflicted, won’t they?

You know what I don’t understand? People who get so worked up about it they can’t listen to the other side, or hear about things they don’t like in politics. Perhaps that is something that has always been the case, but it puzzles and intrigues me. Is there more of it these days?

* * *
The whole thing with AI, space, China, the possibility of Interwebs . . . this decade is shaping up to be a good one. I enjoy Niall Ferguson on the present moment. All kinds of things are going to keep shaking out. Do we at last, for example, have a compelling reason to colonize the moon? That possibility grips me.

And just look at how the world has changed in past decades.

I got a smartphone for the first time last April, and then Google sent me an email showing me all the places I’d taken it to. I was actually told by someone that you can turn that off and if you do they won’t track you. Please! I’ve worked in a fraud department. The point of networking stuff is to have it available to you. The point of a cellphone is that it is always with you, with all its connections, both the ones you desire and the ones that are the price you pay for the things you desire. The way forward is not backward, it is not to treat cars like carriages or to ban the printing press.

* * *
Things are also left behind. All are lamenting the death of Roger Scruton, who shall not be alive for this decade. He was a bit of an enigma, but a good enigma and a very helpful person. I went to events with him twice, thanks to living near Princeton and Villanova. Had him in my sights at Princeton, but couldn’t think of anything to say, so I didn’t approach him. As a result I also have my own gentle regrets.

He has become, like the England for which he wrote an elegy, another of our ideals. And in that sense he will outlast many others.

Conversations with Roger Scruton by Mark Dooley

Conversations with Roger ScrutonAnybody who knows anything about Roger Scruton will find in this book a bit more. If you have read a lot because you can’t get enough, well here’s a substantial bit more. If you have read a little and are somewhat curious, here is a compendium: you’ll get something about everything he has done and quite a bit of biographical illumination. It is a book to enjoy and to think about, and that makes it one of the better books.

Biographically, it is an excellent work. An Irish admirer of Scruton interviewed him at home for three days, and then shaped those interviews into this book. I can’t imagine how anybody could do a better job of something like this than Mark Dooley has: good questions, thorough understanding, sympathy, the briefest of explanations and interjections, well-structured, completely interesting throughout because there is a clear and important focus of interest. There is a biographical feel also in that the structure is loosely chronological: we begin with Scruton’s childhood, his student years, and then work through the major changes and situations of his life, while reflecting on his books and thought. I found it illuminating in many ways, and thought-provoking. The hostility and setbacks that Scruton has faced in this world simply for pointing out bad arguments, for example, have not been inconsiderable. You gain a fuller understanding of what his work means, as a result. And that is the focus Dooley has: coming to terms with the thought of this thoughtful human being. Scruton has ranged widely, and what holds it all together is the man.

The most disappointing chapter was the one on religion. I had hoped for more. You should not think, however, that it is an uninteresting chapter. It does help you understand him and his work, and really it is foolish to expect more. Still, I had hoped for more.

The best chapter in the book is the one on living as a writer. That is principally what Scruton views as his vocation, and the book gives you a glimpse of all the elements that have gone into this. Two observations you may find alluring. “People are not interested in what you write if they do not sense the person behind it.” The oddest thing about this statement is that in its context, which I do not here provide, it is a statement of personal modesty. Whatever his faults, the humility of Roger Scruton is striking, and Dooley has figured out how to display this rare and elusive quality. “A great writer is someone . . . who can put himself completely into the mind of another person and find the language that will both express and vindicate a way of being that is not his own.”

The Disappeared, by Roger Scruton

The DisappearedThe Disappeared by Roger Scruton
You can read reams of Scruton’s non-fiction, and you will learn a lot by doing so. Sometimes his prose requires perseverance, often what he is saying is just very difficult. He is a man of immense learning, understanding, sympathy and insight. But if you can’t learn from Roger Scruton it is because something is wrong with you.

There is an easier way, also. The alternative is to pick up his fiction: Notes from Underground and The Disappeared, and may there be more. It is much easier to read, filled with beauty, difficult because often terrible, and nevertheless compelling and powerful. Much is illustrated in sketched life and illuminated through literary devices. Here, I think as I read it, is the unacknowledged literature of our age. Echoes, judgments, explanations, life, things that will astonish you. A woman who rescues a man-boy from his rock music in each book too.

The Disappeared is decidedly a book by none other than Roger Scruton. The way things develop, come together, resolve: amazing. You end one of his books with a feeling of having seen farther: into life, into meaning, into literature, into wisdom, into what it means to be human . . . everything.

England: An Elegy, by Roger Scruton

Here is a book for Anglophiles.

There are four things that make up what is England; Scruton uses Shakespeare to discern them. 1 – the common people; 2 – the individual; 3 – England, by which he means its living incarnation in a representative, the English crown which is the spirit of England; and 4 – enchantment.

Scruton of course reaches far and wide, synthesizes observations, finds peculiar and compelling insights in unexpected places and manages as always to put a clear argument before the reader. Those four bare points above he embellishes with whole paragraphs set in a chapter where those themes are reinforced. The book itself is an elaboration of what those four points mean.

Enchantment is the point which I become most interested. The English managed to cast an enchantment over their land in no small part by means of the Church of England. It gave us the shire, and I wonder if it is not what gives us the whole genre of fantasy. England was an ideal, but that ideal is no longer at work in the land of its manifestation.

When people are animated by an ideal, then, to whatever small degree, they endeavor to live up to it. It is not in the gross material thing that a national character is revealed, but in the superfluities, the places where people are at one with themselves and endeavor to be what they ought: the institutions of education, justice, religion and leisure.

The ideal no longer lives significantly in the people of England. I often wonder what will come about in the next centuries, should there be more centuries. Surely if there are, out of the ruins somewhere someone will revive the ideal that was England once, like the ideal of the Rome and the ideals of the Greeks, and the enchantment of Palestine, and in a new way put them all to good use.

How Do You Kill a Fairy?

You write a great long book building up to the moment, is what. Surely Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of the most curious books lately to have been written. Once one begins to understand how much she is attempting just in terms of the plot, one begins to suspect the possibilities for meaning are equally great. It is a new work, but one that works with a great deal of tradition incorporating it and animating it with a faux-history that is not only charming, but coherent, and because it is coherent, rooted in reality . . . curiously enough.

One may look on it as a whimsical and charming book, but the whimsy and charm are of a deliberate sort–not in violation of the nature of whimsy and charm, but in keeping with our desire that such things be more than oddities and decorations. There is a great deal whimsical and charming in what is England, and it is in celebration of the abiding good these things grow out of that I believe Susanna Clarke writes her book. Because the book is English, full of an English sense of identity . . . curiously enough.

That was developed over the ages, it goes back and it goes deep; that identity and what informs it is not just something conjured up but an invisible reality which they have and hold and can put to good use, as Susanna Clarke does. It is also, because it is a shared thing, something associated at some level with the spiritual bond that the religion that gave them the church of England represents in that land of peculiar and stubborn traditions.*

There is also an ambivalence in the book, as if Clarke’s ideas are at war with her heart; something at the surface is being warned and tempered by something deep down. Kind of like Ursula Le Guin who was keen on progressive ideology but never enough to let it ruin a story. There are rules for good stories, there are canons picked up by good readers and lovers of stories about how they are satisfied by them, how persuaded, what makes them good. And Clarke is careful about her story, careful about all the imagined things: they cohere; she has a sense (a sentiment? an aesthetic?) of how things should be even though she has progressive ideas; she does not let the ideas overcome the story–they do not inform it at the deepest level.

The setting and diction of the book are important: the age of reason. In the polite and intelligent diction of Jane Austen, Clarke narrates a tale of the revival of English magic–and the term ‘revival’ is her own. It is a curiously well-thought magic that is revived, and must be. It seems slight at first, dissatisfying: we wonder if it is all there is going to be. Then it deepens and broadens as the plot does too, and ends up being something quite satisfactory in the end.

Roger Scruton has spent a lot of time studying and thinking about the Enlightenment. He has a very interesting chapter about ‘Religion and Enlightenment’ in A Political Philosophy in which he describes two waves of secularization. The first one was from the Enlightenment and did not destroy as much as the second. The result of that first was the Victorian age–see Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach.’ The second has left us what we have now and has been more thorough and destructive to traditional ways and religion especially. He says it has affected even how we experience the human body, and the human body has lost the appearance of divinity to that of “a natural animal rooted in the natural world and obedient to its dark imperatives.”

What I think appeals about Clarke is that her book is reaching for something secularization has obliterated. She reaches for something hidden deeper away and uncrushed because it is too deep in the consciousness of what England has been. Her story about the revival of English magic is a false history, but it has a true core: English folklore and English behavior. It is interesting that the Raven King, that figure which in the book is both historical and legendary, finally makes his single appearance at the end of the book and is described as looking like a Methodist minister. The suggestion is that he is the presiding benevolence restoring the strange, peculiar and the comfortable, the traditional ways a more-or-less medieval golden age bestowed on that isle. And while Clarke is not about to say Christianity (magic can be read as supernaturalism, the fundamental wonder which makes all interesting and gives life significance therefore making it bearable = interesting and comfortable), I think she is saying something very like what Scruton does.
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*Part of what is going on here is informed by reading in Roger Scruton and I probably ought to wait to get England: An Elegy before I finish this, but I’m not going to wait.

On the Present Redefinition of Marriage

Heterosexual union is imbued with the sense that your partner’s sexual nature is strange to you, a territory into which you intrude without prior knowledge and in which the other and not the self is the only reliable guide. This experience has profound repercussions for our sense of the danger and the mystery of sexual union, and these repercussions are surely part of what people have had in mind in clothing marriage as a sacrament, and the ceremony of marriage as a rite of passage from one form of safety to another. . . . To regard gay marriage as simply another option within the institution is to ignore the fact that an institution shapes the motive for joining it. Marriage has grown around the idea of sexual differences and all that sexual difference means. To make this feature accidental rather than essential is to change marriage beyond recognition. Gays want marriage because they want the social endorsement that it signifies; but by admitting gay marriage we deprive marriage of its social meaning, as the blessing conferred by the unborn on the living.

-Roger Scruton

We need carefully thought and penetrating arguments. We need courage, of course, and clarity of conviction, but we also need careful thinking and the penetration of insight. And for that last, who you gonna call?

The Uses of Pessimism by Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton has some odd notions about the Bible. He seems not to realize that the believer’s hope is in God and as a consequence is a bit down on Jeremiah; Jeremiah is a pessimist in ways Scruton does not want to be. But still Scruton wants to use pessimism. He uses pessimism to show how it helps to avoid seven fallacies that are in the world today. While Scruton is a bit screwy on his use of Scripture, the good news is that he uses Scripture very little in this book—mostly near the end.

What is good about this book is how he deploys pessimism to expose the fallacies.

#1 – The Best Case fallacy is a common one. You know how you are told to expect the best and plan for the worst? Well this is the fallacy where you expect the best and plan for the best and don’t think about the worst at all. What makes this one interesting is where Scruton finds it occurring.

#2 – The Born Free fallacy is the notion that freedom is about being without constraints. Natural is better; follow your heart. But we need customs, tradition, the gradual accretion of ways and means we call culture. Inhibitions allow us to live together in a civilized way. A certain pessimism, you see, about human abilities, human reason and human nature is in order.

#3 – The Utopian fallacy is easy to guess. What Scruton also delves into here a bit is why people can believe and proceed on the basis of such errors. How can people think things are perfectible? And yet they are still with us . . . after all the failed revolutions. Pessimism tells you this world is not going to be perfected and attempting final solutions only makes it worse.

#4 – The Zero Sum fallacy is the one in which people assume that if somebody gets ahead, they did it at the expense of somebody else. The Republicans jumped all over a statement betraying this fallacy during their recent convention. How does pessimism help here? Read the book.

#5 – The Planning fallacy is a harder one to get, but goes hand in hand with all the ones before it. It’s the idea that top-down management is the only way to make things work. Competing ideas only lead to confusion, people are led to believe. It favors oligarchy, you see. A bit of pessimism about anybody on a crusade is what is needed.

#6 The Moving Spirit fallacy is the idea that things are as they are now out of some inexpressible necessity to which all must bow. Get with the times, recognize the consensus, don’t object to what people think everybody is doing because such must be. Take this one to the Evangelicals—as well as the previous.

#7 The Aggregation fallacy he puts nicely when he explains that these people will tell you, if you like chocolate, ketchup and cherries that the best thing then is to combine all three. Or the old: what’s better than the sound of one accordion? The sound of two (which happens to be true, but think of it in terms of the chap who bought a fuel-efficient heater and cut his fuel consumption in half; the next day he went to the store to buy a second and save himself on fuel altogether). Scruton makes an accurate and snide remark about American palates and the combinations perpetrated by people here, but also about the French notion of combining liberty and equality, something even Americans may be persuaded to think about.

None of these fallacies have passed an expiration date, and having them explained and illustrated by Roger Scruton, it seems to me, will give you a certain clarity of perception which in the present condition is no small thing. It isn’t as cheerless as it sounds, actually: it is kind of an exposition of the underlying philosophy of Puddleglum, and can anybody who knows the arc of Puddleglum’s story fail to see the value of that? Next time I read The Silver Chair I’ll have to see how many of these fallacies are there exposed.