Saturday, 23 September 2017

Sir Geoffrey Hill's Modernist Project

It is notable that Modernism is often purveyed by the conservatively minded and there may be reasons for this. Intensely aware of the looming threats to western civilisation at the beginning of the twentieth century and of its decadence one of the early modernists, TS Eliot, invented a fragmented language rather similar to the fragmentation and chaos seen in Picasso’s ‘Guernica,’ to convey the sense of breakdown he felt culturally and personally. The fragmentation he felt so keenly was that of, in his mind, a benign and coherent western tradition. Thus, his conservatism expressed its dismay in the form adopted which seemed appropriate but which still, in its incoherence, pointed to an earlier assumed coherence. In a similar way Geoffrey Hill speaks, perhaps rightly, of the “chaotic plutocracy” in which we live. He adopts the tone and disposition of a vates or a Jeremiah, alludes to the coherent and organizing cultures of the past and uses modernist style to communicate a sense of loss, fragmentation and disintegration. Like Eliot too he alludes to a broad cultural inheritance as a way of stating his credentials almost daring his reader to register their ignorance.

In taking such stances Eliot and Hill, in a sense, denounce the present and display a lack of faith in human renewal, perhaps a sense of ending civilisations. To “enjoy” their poetry one cannot object to this stance because such objection will nullify the enjoyment. One has little choice but accept it on the terms on which it is offered. Having done this one can experience the pleasures which it offers. And those pleasures are considerable in the case of Hill. Putting doses of sheer incomprehensibility aside, one can take pleasure in his immense erudition, his allusiveness to a multiplicity of cultures spread out through time, his huge vocabulary and the precision with which he uses it, his ability to evoke and suggest poetically using the sensual textures of words and the tangibility of his imagery. One can even enjoy his profound fundamental seriousness – a seriousness one would expect from one whose writings, to an extent, amount to jeremiads. In sum what one is “enjoying” is the evocation of chaotic decline in content as well as in its mirroring in form. If one objects to the import of the content one has nowhere to go. Optimism will get you nowhere as it is fundamentally un-modernist, modernism implying as it does a whole way of looking at the progress of history.

What, however, if one believes that, though there is certainly a time for seriousness, in the words of Ecclesiastes, there is also a time for humour and hopefulness and that it is through these things that human renewal arise? Hill’s supporters will point to his ability to be self-deprecating and amusing at times but it is nearly always gallows humour deriving from an unremitting and unrelenting seriousness of the kind one might, perhaps, expect from someone with a modernist outlook. Behind all of the poems there is a towering solemnity such that one can feel a requirement to maintain a rictus expression as if present in the congregation at an ancient rite that will not let anyone relax. It is perhaps not entirely irrelevant or critically underhand here to point to the personal way in which their perceived disintegration of culture affected the mental health of both Eliot and Hill, the latter being diagnosed late on with lifelong depression and cheerfully resorting to Prozac and even Lithium (which, curiously, made him more prolific than he had been before). It is perhaps not surprising that he chose modernism as his medium rather than those chosen by contemporaries such as Larkin.

For me what this means is that, confronted with Hill’s oeuvre and very willing to tackle it, I nevertheless feel a constitutional inability to stay with it for long and this is not due, I hope, to idleness on my part. I would maintain that it is precisely the psychologically healthy parts of my demeanour which cause me to feel this way and to revolt against it. Humour and hopefulness in renewal cannot help but reassert themselves in order to find relief in the face of a wall to wall po-faced dourness together with a sense of lamentation which underpin the whole vision evoked.

Finally, I have to say that optimism in culture and society extends to an optimism in poetry. Poetry can be but does not have to be modernist poetry. Simple prosody can draw on its own primitive and eternal appeal to humans in more approachable and less rebarbative forms than those used by Hill. Philip Larkin, whom I have already mentioned, was by no means a cheery optimist and is, indeed, famous for his Eeyorish disposition. However he had faith (if not in organized religion) in the benefits and appeal of traditional prosody and the direct communication of sense. Just as, if one and one’s society are psychologically healthy, one should have faith in human societies and their ability to renew themselves so one should have faith in the power of the poetic art to provide possibilities for renewal. In the end I can’t spend too much time with Hill because for all of the past beauties evoked so successfully, he brings me down to a place where I have no wish to be. Even if civilization is about to end I’d prefer to go down laughing and being grateful for the joy of being alive.

PS Equivalent to the Modernist's gloomy vision and my suggestion that Hill lacks faith in the renewing power of poetry itself (although it has to be insisted he persisted with it!) is a frequent sense that, while seeing to believe in Christian doctrine, he constantly doubts the power of redemption and the joy it brings.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Taking Comfort from Blame

It is terrifying to us to think that Nature, in the form of hurricanes and earthquakes, can, at a stroke, disdainfully sweep away our perfect scientific grasp on reality and disabuse us of the idea of perfect human control. That's why our immediate reaction post-disaster is to find someone, anyone, usually government, to recriminate because recrimination maintains the illusion that everything is under our control or should have been. The prospect that Nature holds the cards and we don't is just too terrifying a prospect to contemplate. Added to this of course, in the case of the UK, is the means such events give to bash a hapless government even more.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Modern Liberal Education Contains the Seeds of its own Destruction

Does the modern Liberal Education which makes “the liberal elite” feel assured in their superiority contain the seeds of its own destruction?

One of the things that defines what has been variously branded the Liberal Elite, the comfortable Urban Metropolitans, the “Ins” or, as David Goodhart would have it, the “Anywheres” (supported and encouraged by a broadcast media also perceived to be liberal in its outlook) is their educational status. They are assured of being well-educated and when, for example, they point to what they consider political disasters such as Brexit or the election of Donald Trump it is difficult for them (as they find it embarrassing) to resist explaining such disasters as being the “fault” of the lack of understanding of those who are less well educated than them and who have, therefore, made very bad choices indeed. In such discussions the one thing that is assumed to be unchallengeable is the status and validity of the education of which they see themselves to be the beneficiaries. This is a given that no one in their right mind would challenge. The intellectual adjuncts to such education are the background radiation to our lives.

However, one does not have to scratch far beneath the surface of modern education and the intellectual ideas and assumptions on which it is based to find that much of it is suspect and that the vast ideological superstructure which rests on it less than stable. Indeed, when it is thus examined the bog standard common sense of the average “left Behind”, “Out,” “Somewhere” or non-liberal placed alongside it may scrub up rather well. The wit of the building site or the football ground may prove to be quicker-witted than the liberal’s wit and the latter’s assumption of superiority emerge, perhaps, to be no more than a form of scornful arrogance.

I have two grown-up children, in the final year of, or recently emerged from, University. Being a language teacher of long experience who can generally recognise a well-written sentence they have sometimes sent me their essays to be edited for grammar, punctuation etc. In helping them with this I have not been able to help reading the content of their essays. My son, training to be a nurse, writes an essay, supporting his assertions regularly with references to the appropriate studies, that it has been discovered by research that if nurses treat human patients as though they are both persons and diseased bodies at the same time the outcome for the patient may be better than that attained if they are treated merely as diseased bodies occupying beds. My daughter, studying Business, puts forward the proposition that “toxic” leaders in companies who exhibit high levels of narcissism, selfishness and disdain towards their staff tend to lead companies that do less well than those led by leaders exhibiting the opposite virtues to these vices. I don’t blame my children for writing such essays – they are simply doing what their tutors and the requirements of their degree assessment process ask of them. If they didn’t write them they would not obtain the qualifications for which they are paying a royal premium and which will enable them to gain good employment afterwards. However, were one to travel back a few decades before such academic research “discovered” the truth for us in this way, and were one to question a regular pre-degree times nurse or a regular company employee as to whether it was sensible and desirable to treat patients as human persons or to have unselfish and respectful leaders at the head of companies (they might have been perfectly capable of pronouncing on each other’s discipline) they would have certainly been well-equipped enough to answer unhesitatingly in the affirmative. They would have been equipped with bog standard common sense which precedes the formal scientific enquiry through whose mediation “truth” is deemed now to be solely attainable. These two ways of arriving at the truth set nicely alongside each other, for means of comparison, the nature of common sense and modern education.

I will list a number of such questionable assumptions and even fallacies which underpin modern education of the sort that is disseminated as the default position in most schools and universities. In this list I will include those described in the paragraph above.

• A setting above common sense and human subjectivity of a scientific rationalism which, nevertheless, depends on the pre-existence of human presence and common sense for its own existence. Areas which do not easily lend themselves to proper objective scientific scrutiny such as human subjectivity, emotion, morality and aesthetic experience (some of the most important things in human life) are wrongly assumed to be studiable by and subjected to Social Sciences and Psychology. Such “Humanities” are wrongly “scientised.”
• The consequent sense that nothing aspires to the status of truth unless it has been mediated through a scientific study. There are no moral or aesthetic truths that cannot be subjected to this method.
• A lack of interest in the moral as it does not conveniently fit into any scientific category.
• The myth of progress to a Promised Land that will be afforded by more and more science. A sense that the present is a privileged platform along this way from which we can look down on the past.
• French Marxist post-modernism fuelling grievance narratives, identity politics and political correctness which assumes that everything is just a social construct serving the ends of oppressive ruling classes and conspiracies. The replacement of nature and beginning givens and essentials in the human condition with the idea of a self-creating and God-like existentialism.
• An excessive emphasis on purely monetary value in education as a measure of effectiveness other values which used to prevail in educational establishments having left the field open. Education as commodity.

All of the above are points of view but they are not the background radiation of incontestable Gospel truth which they have become and can certainly be challenged by very respectable alternative points of view. They do not have the force or solidity of unassailable tablets of stone.

If I am correct in my assumption that many or all of the above stanchions on which modern education is built are faulty then, under test, the edifice may well fall down and throw us back on the common sense and gut feeling on which the non-liberals depend. This may explain why there has been a move against expertise. One only has to look at how well Economic or Political “Science,” both operating in the field of human social studies, did in predicting the economic crash of 2008 or countless political events that have taken place in the last few years to see why such skepticism might prevail.

It is also instructive to witness the limitations of the liberal mindset for such limitations certainly exist. If the commonly held articles of faith, such as the predominance of scientific rationalism, are contested the liberal is swiftly brought to the borders of their imagination and intellect. At this point that mindset will enter into a kind of meltdown where things do not compute and an algorithmical process will begin which ends with any opponent foolhardy enough to challenge such central tenets being designated or even denounced as either insane or morally corrupt and dangerous. This, in itself, to use a term taken from Psychology, is a form of cognitive dissonance and suggests a lack of intellectual confidence in the overall project of liberalism. A failure to compute boils over into anger and denunciation and, ironically, rationality is abandoned.

This intellectual edifice, that scorns the sense of the Common Man and Woman, is visibly embodied in our modern universities where too may young people pursue useless and suspect subjects largely because they are considered to be bums on seats in an enterprise that is largely commercial. Much of it could easily and profitably (to the students not the universities) be swept away as redundant in terms of its intellectual substance, usefulness and relevance and of the employability it affords. It has become a choreographed dance which resembles what universities used to be from the outside (in ways which science can measure) but in no way resembles them from the inside (in the more important and vital ways which science cannot measure).

If the whole edifice were to topple so that we were thrown back on the sense of the Common Man and Woman would it be such a loss and what does this mean for the assessments made by the Common Man in recent political choices he or she has made?

Friday, 8 September 2017

Does Modern "Liberalism" have the right to be Known by the Name?

Against a background of the perceived oppression of absolutist monarchy and high church (often suspected to be Catholic) religion Oliver Cromwell and his supporters rebelled. They were religious free-thinkers who struck out for political freedom and religious freedom and, thus, began a tradition. It was at this moment that the term “Whig” was coined. The battle against absolutism and religious obscurantism was taken up later in France with the aid of the new born scientific rationalism of the Encyclopedistes and Voltaire. This culminated in the freeing itself from the Imperial shackles of the mother country in the United States and the ultimate collision between anciens régimes and the new appetite for freedom encapsulated in the French Revolution whose watchwords became Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. The following century saw the continuation of the battle in the casting off of the absolutist chains of the conservative Austro-Hungarian Empire by the newly emerging Swiss and Italian Nations. These were great “liberal” victories and expressions of freedom by certain brotherhoods of man.

The tradition contained much room for disillusion though. Cromwell’s Commonwealth was short-lived and was replaced by a restored (though curtailed and less powerful) monarchy. In France the rule by the people was soon replaced (not just by a King though these followed too) but by an Emperor. The trajectory of great supporters of the new-found freedom like Beethoven and Wordsworth was often one of disappointment. Necessary political compromises had been made possible such as the Reform Laws in the UK but the much vaunted and awaited Golden Age had not come about. In the heady days before he crowned himself emperor when Napoleon was routing the conservative rulers across Europe, it had seemed as if that Golden Age was possible and as if mankind would finally fulfill itself. This speaks to another idea strongly associated with liberalism – that of progressivism; the idea that mankind is headed somewhere and that somewhere is always better. That idea is now known as meliorism – things can only get better (not worse). It is well encapsulated in what is known as “The Whig Version of History.”

Most of these ideas seem worthy, if a little starry-eyed, so how did they transform themselves into the much reviled (by the right) Liberal mindset of today? Some would say that old-fashioned liberalism and what we call liberalism today are entirely unrelated and that it is unfortunate that the term is used so frequently and pejoratively today. I’m not so sure about this as I sense that a clear path from one form of liberalism to the other can be made out.

The modern liberal mindset certainly maintains the sense of progressivism and meliorism which it shares with other creeds such as socialism and communism. Much of this derives from an outlook heavily based on the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment, which was the chief plank of the opposition to religious obscurantism. Science was seen to be on a course to gradually conquering all areas of darkness. What is interesting about this ‘creed’ is precisely that it has become a creed. Instead of displacing religion for good with sense it has become a kind of replacing religion in its own right such that it is now felt that Gospel “truth” is available in libraries of scientific studies even in unscientific areas like social “sciences” and human psychology. God has been dethroned not in order to demolish the throne but, instead, to place human reason and science on that same throne. We now feel that we can look with a God-like perspective.

Liberalism naturally, given its origins, sets great store by education. The unfortunate thing is that, in recent half-century or so, education itself has been hijacked by Post-Modernist thinking (with all its gobbledygook and sophistry - rather than sophistication), which derived from post-war French existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote and spoke a great deal about “Freedom” and oppression (in spite of, or perhaps because of, having not performed that well himself in the French Resistance to the Nazis) and was a full-on Marxist apologist for the Soviet Union. Thus existentialist ideas displaced essentialist ones and the whole raft of identity politics and political correctness was born. Society was seen, in very Marxist terms, as a series of oppressive constructions imposed upon their victims and the idea of a new age sweeping all of this away and bringing about perfect social justice was engendered. Liberalism, unblinkingly and, perhaps, unthinkingly seeing this as the fruits of progressive education, has adopted its products wholesale. And thus we are where we are today. A new progressive narrative has sprung up based on victimhood and grievance and a new promised land is perceived to be just over the horizon to be reached by the judicious application of science and righteous rebellion.

One further interesting idea is that, given that the first liberals rebelled against an oppressive authority and religion and defined themselves by such actions the mistake is often made by some immature modern liberals that all authority and religion are oppressive and need to be swept away. There is no distinction made between good and bad authority and religion or the sense that all societies need some form of authority or that religion is just something that humans always do left to their own devices (as is well demonstrated in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” where the boys begin to propitiate Gods in very short order).

Old-fashioned liberalism is certainly different from the modern version but one should not be surprised that such a transformation into the new version has taken place given the ingredients that made up that older dispensation and events in the world of ideas that have taken place in the interim. The two creeds have much in common as well as much which differentiates them. Many paths run from one to the other. The chief link-road is the idea of moral progress contained in the Whig Version of History.

Redditch Pietà

Then musings, involving the Muse coyly,
tergiversations that Dagon decreed.
Such “clandestinities”
in yellowed, sallow mud
and yew berries plucked
with trembling hands.
Does this mean anything?
Does meaning entail
existence after Clothus?
The declivities at Rorke’s Drift
and Bromhead’s prayerbook
discovered in a putrid scuttle.

A cluster of ice crystals
assembling in Euclid’s
perpendicular felicity.
When Orpheus returned
for pert Eurydice was the lute
declavinated by the jilts he saw?
Dryden and Bonhoeffer
dancing in the spring twilight.
Is the weight of sin to be alleviated,
levity, levitation, Leviathan and Lithium?

Can I buttonhole you
without the momentum of
the Resurrection and the choirs
of rain sweeping the relief
of the Malvern hills?
Flagitious amusements sped by Tryphon.
Only allow it to happen -
Cavilling will result in disaster
and the face upturned
to salvation.

Follow the perorations of
my mind and set down
the snow-field transected by
crows spilling in the wind
amid the crumbed earth.
The soundless howl
Of a disconsolate mythopeia.
Carillons of agape
Thwarted, stifled by
Arrested motion.
In Bacon’s agonia.
Eureka in the woods!

Callisthenics from a grumbling old fart.
Mithering peradvanture.
Laughing contrast between
the Council of Nicea
and an affidavit served
on the clouded Meuse in spring!
Nel mezzo……
Tradition and the Individual talons
or E.M.F and his battalions?

Borgne et manchot in Gaza,
Ch – Ch- Charbovari.
Terre and terroir misconfigured.
Jean Moulin spatchcocked on the tree
before he pulled down the columns
by dying.
Charisma coelis.
A city transfigured by
The chrism of doodlebugs and zeppelins.
Herniated hallelujiahs.


Wednesday, 30 August 2017


When I’m detritus, as my father lain,
A stiffened rodent on a bedroom floor -
Poor carcass; man I knew, but then no more –
Coarse-furred mouse, nudged beside a storm-sluiced drain;
When I’ve absconded, seeming to disdain
To quicken friends and this sloughed shape I wore,
My warmth and animation to withdraw,
Leaving untenanted this fled demesne,
Deserting to the an-aesthetic night,
Will words and thoughts, that thronged my waking mind
And showed on monitors as cheering light,
Ideas housed there that sprang so unconfined,
Be seen to be some proof of life that might
Mean mark of change or cause was left behind?

Thursday, 24 August 2017

History-Scrubbing, an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

If, foolishly and unaccountably, you begin with a notion of an antiseptic moral perfection and purity such as pertained before the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden you are bound to judge history as nothing more than evidence of failure and wickedness. You will find it impossible not to react to the history of your own nation with loathing and disgust and demand that it be “rectified” in some manner.
The question here is not how did my nation ever reach this pass but how did you ever dream these notions and expectations of perfection and purity in yourself and others – not just in your own age? When does the furious scrubbing of history cease? When you will be satisfied that the world and, indeed, the past, have been rendered acceptable to you? And are you sure that your own soul is equally shining and new? Your puritanism sets a fearsomely high standard.