The glory of the West is that life is an open bookROGER SCRUTON
One of the strangest of recent movements in the world of education has been that promoting “multiculturalism” and attacking the traditional humanities for their “ethnocentricity”.
The thesis, argued with exemplary carelessness by Edward Said in his bestselling book Orientalism, has had an impact not only in European and American academies but also on intellectuals in those incendiary areas like the Middle East where grievances against the “West” gain an easy hearing.
To someone educated in Britain during the postwar period, at a time when the old curriculum was assumed as the norm, the thesis is not only astonishing but also a vivid testimony to our cultural decline. Like others of my generation I was brought up on the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament, on the Thousand and One Nights, Kim and The Last of the Mohicans; at school I was taught to love Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad; I was encouraged by my teachers to read Confucius in Pound’s translation and the Vedas in the edition by Max Müller, and I encountered through LP records and the concert hall amazing vistas of other worlds, from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas, to Ravi Shankar playing evening ragas to packed halls of the young.
Our school choral society enjoyed Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s setting of Hiawatha and Constant Lambert’s Rio Grande as much as Handel’s Messiah, and we did what we could with the Negro spirituals. For me and my contemporaries, “culture” was simply another name for the movement of sympathy whereby we set out to internalise “the best that has been thought and said” (and “sung and imagined”, as Matthew Arnold might have added) throughout the world.
In a sense, however, Said was right: western culture is distinctive and deeply opposed to those “others”. But the reason is the opposite of the one that he assumes. Unlike Islamic culture, western culture has gone out to the stranger, has tried to understand, to sympathise, to learn, in every arena where learning is available.
It is a remarkable fact that fewer books have been translated into Arabic over the past 1,000 years than are translated in Spain in any one year, while the works of the poet Hafiz, imitated by Goethe, evoked in music by Szymanowski and known in translation by most of my friends at school, are available in his native Iran only in bowdlerised editions.
Those facts illustrate a pattern: at the moment in the 18th century when ’Abd al-Wahhab was founding his particularly obnoxious form of Islam in the Arabian peninsula, burning books and beheading “heretics”, Sir William Jones was collecting and translating all that he could find of Persian and Arabic poetry and preparing to sail to Calcutta, where he was to serve as a judge and to pioneer the study of Indian languages and culture.
Wahhabism arrived in India at the same time as Jones and began at once to radicalise the Muslims, initiating the cultural suicide that the good judge was doing his best to prevent.
Only cultural decline can explain the eagerness with which Said’s argument has been accepted in our universities. Yet Said was born of Christian parents in Jerusalem before the war; he was educated in English-language private schools in Egypt and America and at Harvard University; he was brought up to love western music, western literature and western art. He was a cosmopolitan in the mould of Conrad, Turgenev and Lawrence Durrell, and his attack on the culture that formed him was an act of repudiation towards a legacy that he nevertheless gladly inherited and manifestly enjoyed.
We who enjoy the fruits of western culture ought to be rallying to its defence, now that it is under attack both from internal critics and from external enemies. It is time to ask what we learn from this culture and why it matters. We lament the decline of university science, since it presages a widespread loss of knowledge. We would lament it less if this loss of scientific knowledge were offset by a gain in knowledge of other kinds. But if students of the humanities learn only to repudiate their culture while putting nothing in its place, then it cannot be said that they acquire any real knowledge from their studies.
Although it was probably no part of Said’s intention, the combined effect of his attack on western “orientalism”, Foucault’s attack on bourgeois “discourse”, Derrida’s “deconstruction” and the general crushing of the old curriculum under a weight of inquisitorial “theory” has led to an orthodoxy of nihilism in the western academy. The effects of this nihilism are widespread, as in the addictive drumbeats and soundbites that form the background of popular culture.
To counter this culture of nothingness, I suggest that we begin from the very certainties that Said put in question: the certainties contained in the art, literature and music that we were once encouraged to regard as precious personal possessions. Such works are not empty ciphers on which to try out our analytical skills. They show us what we are and what we are capable of. They also teach us how to judge. From culture we acquire a sense of what is intrinsically worthwhile in the human condition and a recognition that our lives are not consumed in the pursuit of power and profit, but devoted to intrinsic values.
Readers of Wordsworth’s The Prelude learn how to animate the natural world with hopes of their own; the spectator of Rembrandt’s Night Watch learns of the pride of corporations and the benign sadness of civic life; the listener to Mozart’s Jupiter symphony is presented with the open floodgates of human joy and creativity; the reader of Proust is led through the enchanted world of childhood and made to understand the uncanny prophecy of our later griefs which those days of joy contain.
Such experiences are intrinsically valuable to us and convey real knowledge of life and its meaning. And if you ask whether this knowledge is really useful, then my answer is—yes, it is useful, for it teaches the value of things like love, joy, grief and tenderness, which are the point of being alive.
Culture inherits this “knowledge of the heart” from a religious tradition. And one reason for the prevailing scepticism is that our religious tradition is in decline. But a culture can be passed on and enhanced, even when the religion that first engendered it has died. Art has an added importance, since it has become the sole communicable testimony to the higher life.
That was why my schoolteachers—who had lived through the second world war and doubted that a benign God was still in charge—were so intent on introducing their pupils to the art and literature that they loved. They agreed with Arnold that such things exemplify “the best that has been thought and said” and what else, in uncertain times, can humanity depend upon?
Roger Scruton. "The glory of the West is that life is an open book." Sunday Times (May 27, 2007).
Reprinted with permission of the author, Roger Scruton.
Copyright © 2007 Roger Scruton
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