Tag Archives: Roger Scruton

Verba Vinumque

The intoxication of Mallarmé’s abolit bibelot d’inanité sonore lies there on the page, not here in my nervous system.

Roger Scruton in this particular essay is mostly concerned with drink.  He wants to praise intoxication as opposed to drunkenness and draws a parallel with poetry to help make his point.  Drunkenness is an effect (“a state of unconsciousness” he says) – the result of too much or bad wine.  Intoxication, however, is a “state of [elevated] consciousness.”  It is the thing itself (the wine, the words), alive in us.  When we consume it “the wine lives in [our] intoxication,” heightening our senses in the way that poetry does when we read it.

That’s the idea, or something like it.  I find the distinction helpful but a little precious.  More interesting to me is the simple fact that Scruton chose words and wine as parallel cases.  Later in the article he discusses wine’s familiar role in sacred traditions through the centuries.  Scruton doesn’t go there, but of course poetry – and the idea of the “word” – has played its own role in religion.  The composition and recitation of poetry may seem to us secular activities (Hopkins thought writing a dangerous distraction from his religious obligations), but this wasn’t always so. 

I think it’s fair to suggest that poetry has for most of its history been understood as a sacred endeavor, a transaction with the supernatural.  Most of what falls under the heading of prophecy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is, in fact, poetry.  And prior to, say, the Renaissance, much of western poetry was at least tangentially religious in nature.  To a degree this was true for the Greeks too, though there is clearly a secular poetry in the Roman era (Horace, Catullus, etc.), and there are other exceptions.  But for a great many of our ancestors, poetry was in its lowest forms magical (binding spells, curses) and in its highest forms synonymous with prophecy.  It was either a tool to harness the spirits, or the inspired product of divine possession.  Survivals of poetry’s magical and sibylline heritage are found, of course, in Blake, but also, I think, in Whitman and Dickinson and others.  And even when the subject matter is explicitly secular many of the poetic forms still common today resemble nothing so much as prayers, charms or incantations.

Prior to poetry is the Word itself.  In the Pentateuch God literally speaks the universe into being; all things are the offspring of his words.  In Talmudic tradition the names which Adam gave the animals in Eden contained and defined their essences in a way no confused post-Babel tongue could recapture.  Early Christians wed these Jewish elements to the Greek notion of a divine Logos, the God-Word that is the originating, unifying and animating principle of the cosmos – identifying that Logos with Jesus Christ.  (“In the beginning was the Logos,” etc.)  Later, Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysus and Maximus the Confessor expounded a Christian Neoplatonism asserting that the inward animating principles of created things, their individual lower-case “words” (logoi), could be known again in their original clarity when the soul is illumined by the Logos that originally spoke them into being.  Furthermore, these logoi serve as pledge of an eschatological reconciliation of all things with the divine Logos.  The cosmos, then, is text within text: a universe composed of words spoken by the Word, an opened codex in which all the words had been shuffled but are in process of being recomposed into proper poetry by the God-Word.

Which is all very fascinating, but somewhere along the line (no more than five hundred years ago)  everything changed.  To be sure, there’s still enough innate power in the word today – enough intoxication, to use Scruton’s term – to enchant and influence us.  And the secularization of the word has opened unexpected and seemingly inexhaustible channels for literature and poetry.  But at the same time the metaphysical scope of the word’s operation has been restricted.  Whether it was the rediscovery of classical learning, the invention of the printing press, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Reason, or something else, the way in which we understand and handle words is different.  When Mircea Eliade’s “de-sacralization of the cosmos” began, the word was the first of its victims.

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Cities of Men

I think it was Hemingway who said that a good fiction writer always creates on the iceberg plan: nine tenths of what he writes or knows about a character never makes it to the page for the benefit of the reader.   And yet there is a benefit: the invisible mass below the waves is sensed unconsciously in the stability and cool assurance of what rises above.

If I may repurpose the metaphor, this roughly describes how I feel about cities and neighborhoods.  A good neighborhood is one with a sense of the submerged, of the continuity of space and human community in a single locale over time.  It needn’t be immediately apparent – new growth is necessary – but it needs to be there just the same, under the surface.  The best places to live have been lived in before with pleasure.  The second best places to live must at least have the promise of being lived in again with pleasure.

In the spring issue of City Journal, Roger Scruton writes about Léon Krier and his battle against the long hegemony of modernism in architecture and urban planning.  I think that Scruton, or at least Krier, gets at this same idea.  

According to Scruton, the trouble with architectural modernism is its lack of a universally intelligible vocabulary:

Traditional architecture produced forms expressive of human interests—palaces, houses, factories, churches, temples—and these sit easily under their names. The forms of modern architecture… are nameless—denoting not familiar objects and their uses but “so-called objects,” known best by nicknames, and never by real names of their own. Thus the Berlin Congress Hall is the “pregnant oyster,” Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles the “madhouse,” the new building at Queen’s College, Oxford, the “parking lot,” and the UN building in New York the “radiator.” The nickname, in Krier’s view, is the correct term for a kitsch object—for a faked object that sits in its surroundings like a masked stranger at a family party.

But Krier, like the New Urbanists he influenced, is not only interested in making war on the monumental expressions of architectural modernism.  He also targets the barren utilitarianism (a la strip malls and condo blocks) that threatens to slowly murder our everyday lived spaces.  Both threaten to smother the soul by way of the eyes.

It’s a mixed bag here in California (as it is throughout the United States).  In many of our major cities, it’s possible to find old neighborhoods where the extremes of dereliction and demolition have been kept at bay.   San Francisco, for example, has been fairly successful.  And there are other places (like Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Mendocino, St Helena, Sonora, etc.) where at least the core of the city has retained a sense of vitality and identity.  But too many of our citizens are atomized under curtain-walled glass towers or cooped up in soulless tract-home ghettoes where a pleasant stroll is out of the question and you have to drive twenty minutes to find a grocer, a coffee shop, or a decent park.  

With regard to the latter scenario, the tragedy is not so much that population trends have required us to build outward into the countryside, the marshlands, or the desert, but that we have done so in an essentially unsustainable way, a way that does not foster a continuity of space and human community to make it pleasurably livable for future generations.  By Krier’s lights, the human spirit requires a human architecture in which to flourish; we grow or shrink to fit the spaces we build for ourselves.  It’s both a promise and a threat:

By creating cities, we create ourselves. When we despoil our cities, we despoil ourselves…  A beautiful village, a beautiful house, a beautiful city can become a home for all, a universal home. But if we lose this aim we build our own exile here on earth.

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