Confessions of a Heretic: Selected Essays
by Roger Scruton.
Devon: Notting Hill Editions, 2017.
Hardcover, 208 pages, $12.89.
In “Faking It,” Roger Scruton distinguishes between a liar and a fake; a most topical notion. The liar intends to deceive. The fake, on the other hand, is deceived himself and is shocked when he is exposed, having created “a community of trust” of which he is a member. Both he and his ideals are illusory. Molière’s Tartuffe is the archetype of the religious fake, falsely pious and hypocritical.
As religious belief and devotion began to wane in the nineteenth century, a new kind of fake came into existence with the rise of the Romantic movement—the artistic fake. Art was offered as the new path to salvation through the original creations of the artist. This emphasis on originality creates the temptation to cheat since it requires hard work and mastery of a craft. Originality can be merely simulated and in the artistic world, both artists and critics are involved in the fakery.
The deception can only work if artists and critics maintain a mutually beneficial united front to defend itself from outsiders. Hence, those who are inclined to point out that the emperor has no clothes must be vigorously silenced as philistines and as the uninitiated. The artists and critics are fakes and not simply liars because they may believe their own lies and are self-deceived.
When originality is prized and the price for being exposed as fake is high, the fear of fakes, of fake emotion, “comforting clichés,” and kitsch comes to drive modern fake art. Kitsch is indeed bad because it redirects the gaze to the subject—how nice I am to be moved by children running on the grass or by the death of Little Nell—rather than being engaged by the beauty of the artwork. To challenge complacency, it is imagined that art must offend. But offence itself becomes clichéd. These fears drove modernists away from figurative painting and tonal music. But rather than originality, the typical result is fake originality and fake significance and the creation of new clichés. Thus “preemptive kitsch” arises in things like the paintings of Andy Warhol, “a kind of sophisticated parody.” Artist, critic and the modernist establishment pretends to take this seriously.
False art is almost exclusively what is bought by arts councils. Art is considered original if the public hates it. If the public liked it, it would not require a subsidy. The art community confuses beauty with kitsch. But kitsch is about the viewer. Beauty takes the subject outside himself to contemplate the object and thus is not kitsch. Beauty is wrongly discredited. Beauty is a human need and makes us feel at home in the world. Art reassures us that the world is meaningful and suffering is not pointless.
In “Loving Animals,” Scruton argues that the love received from an animal is no substitute for human love. Love from animals provides an escape route from human affection in which we must do our best to deserve the gift of love. Human love involves moral evaluations and vulnerability to the loss of that love. The love of pets can therefore impair our humanity. It can also damage our humaneness to wild animals which do not love us in this way. Scruton gives examples of pet owners privileging the needs of their pets far above those of wild animals to the point that loving pets as individuals can threaten the existence of animals that cannot easily be loved in this way. Though animals have no rights, we still have duties towards them, and anything that undermines human virtue threatens animals.
“Governing Rightly” argues that conservatives need to remember not to malign all government just because the left-liberal view is about “the art of seizing and then redistributing the good things to which all citizens have a claim.” A desirable government, by contrast, represents a social order influenced by the free choices of its citizens and “our natural disposition to hold our neighbor to account.”
“Dancing Properly” criticizes the formless and noncooperative modern forms of dance in favor of dance where formal steps must be learned, a live band is involved, and there is a definite connection with dance partners. Dancing should be dancing “with,” not “at.”
“Building to Last” rails against the demonic and anti-human tendencies of modern architects and at Gropius and Corbusier in particular. A good indication of the hypocrisy of these types can be seen with “modernist vandals” like Richard Rogers and Norman Foster who live in “elegant old houses in charming locations” using traditional materials with humane scales, rather than repulsive “machines for living” they think the rest of us should be living in.
The top-down imposition of this new aesthetic involved steel and concrete frames and curtain walls. Architectural schools were taken over by the vandals and the skills necessary for older, classical styles of building were lost and forgotten. Housing estates, high rises surrounded by parklands, business parks and highways driven through old cities were to be the new way.
The new style pays no attention to the preferences of actual people who prefer to live in houses but instead favors what Thomas Sowell calls “the vision of anointed”; “experts” who know better than poor benighted fools. Fortunately, there exists a resistance to modernism with a recognition of the value of traditional solutions exemplified by Léon Krier, whom Scruton praises. The new town of Poundbury, promoted by the Prince of Wales, gave Krier the greatest scope to put his traditionalist ideas into practice, attracting enthusiastic occupants. Traditional buildings sit properly under their own names—houses, factories, churches—while the new seem dropped from the sky and look like objects. College buildings that look like parking lots, other buildings that get nicknames like “radiator,” “madhouse”, or “pregnant oyster.” Krier claims the big modernist mistake was to separate load-bearing functions of a building from outward-facing elements. A curtain wall hangs on an interior frame and creates a fake façade, often of glass or concrete. The reality of what is supporting the building is hidden and invisible. Such buildings are expensive to maintain and not durable. Their joints loosen quickly and must be demolished in a few decades. They require constant energy and create the sick-building syndrome when windows cannot be opened.
Modern buildings cannot be “read.” Classical train stations point travelers where they need to go. Modern airports, by contrast, need signs that compete for attention.
Krier rejects the modern zoning idea with a giant high rise-dominated downtown, surrounded by dangerous areas and then sprawling suburbs, in favor of a “polypolis” where people can walk within ten minutes to the places where they “work, shop, relax, and worship.” Cities where this is possible include Paris, Rome, Florence, Madrid, London, and Edinburgh. Visible details should be architectural and be subordinated to the overall aesthetic, rather than seeking to stand out in the usual manner of modernist architects.
In “Mourning our Losses,” Scruton discusses the problem of how to celebrate the achievements of German culture after World War II. Subsequent German self-hatred has caused problems ever since. Unfortunately, Scruton writes, “Hitler was not just a madman: he was an aesthete and intellectual” who expressly celebrated German musical, literary, artistic, and philosophical achievements. These had all been poisoned by association with Hitler and the destruction unleashed in Europe.
What he describes is not merely a German phenomenon. The widespread rejection of the West and its cultural, moral, and artistic achievements by Western political and intellectual elites means the eulogy should be extended far beyond merely German parameters. Liberal cultural hegemony means that Antigone will be forbidden to bury her dead. Elsewhere Scruton has referred to “the culture of repudiation.” There was no Hitler in other Western countries, yet Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes are condemned by many as part of the horrible Western patriarchy, often without regard to the actual content of what they wrote.
“Conserving Nature” points out that concern for nature, though commandeered by the left, is not about progress, equality, and liberating victims, but is fundamentally conservative. Private ownership motivates conservation while statist communism created environmental disasters and inflexible top-down comprehensive plans. The wind turbines blighting the Netherlands and Denmark are the result of governmental schemes. Despite the intended feel-good associations, wind’s drawbacks and limitations are well-documented.
State-subsidized roads, zoning laws, and enormous state-funded housing projects mean the expansion of the suburbs, the devastation of inner cities, and the inability to walk to bars, churches, shops, schools, and one’s nearest friend. All are largely an American phenomenon—Italian cities do not have crime-ridden centers and people want to live in Paris, not on the outskirts. Aesthetics and conservation go together; people want to conserve what is beautiful.
The final essay covers material similar to Scruton’s book The West and the Rest. Jesus’s saying, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s,” marks a distinction between civil society and its laws, and religious commitments. The modern notion of a state or nation relies on these differences, governed by laws agreed upon by its citizens. Islam contains no such distinction, considering true law to be theological and God-given and has no notion of civil society or of a citizen. As such, for orthodox Muslims, real law cannot properly be modified by man and its legitimacy does not depend on people’s consent. Muslims tend not to identify with a territory and cannot be relied upon to defend it or the non-Muslims residing there. Scruton argues that unlike Christianity, there is no room for self-criticism, a sense of humor about itself, or a sense of irony. Muslim groups cannot even be effectively negotiated with since imams are simply people who put themselves forward and are not chosen or necessarily recognized by other Muslims in the group. Therefore, members may not consider themselves bound by any agreements reached.
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” contains a sense of irony, implicit self-criticism, and an injunction against misguidedly self-righteous violence. Similarly, “if God is for us, who can ever be against us” is conditionally expressed. It does not tell people if and when God is for us. The precepts of Christianity made civil society possible by distinguishing between religious duties and civic responsibilities and provided intellectual tools for self-correction and modification. The general lack of these factors in the Koran and contemporary Islam mean that Islamic terrorism is just one reason for being alarmed about Muslim mass immigration into Western countries.
Richard Cocks teaches philosophy at SUNY Oswego. He writes about ethics, metaphysics, consciousness, religion, politics, and culture.