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Is There a Cure for Dons?

The case of Alan Ryan

(Quadrant, December 1999)

Culture in our time

The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century contains a helpful chronology taking us year by year from 1900 to 1997, the year before its publication. When the reader opens this section at the back of the book he finds a spread of subject matter from the events on the left page listed as “Politics and International Relations”, to the first column on the right page headed “Science, Technology, and Medicine”, and this is followed by a final column containing titles and names and noteworthy events under the heading of “Culture”.

Horizontal lines divide the years, and one can see at a glance just how important particular dates were throughout the century—or at any rate what the editors thought were important by 1998. Much could no doubt be written about this chronology overall. But here we’re only interested in the entries in the final column about culture, and for only a short period at that. This is from 1900 to 1903, and from 1994 to 1997.

The year 1900 saw Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, Conrad’s Lord Jim, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Puccini’s Tosca, and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. The following year brought Kipling’s Kim, Mann’s Buddenbrooks, and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2. In 1902 Conrad, James, and Conan Doyle all produced new novels, Debussy’s Peléas and Mélisande was performed, and Frank Lloyd Wright was busy. Then in 1904 we moved into more serious intellectual territory with Bertrand Russell’s Principles of Mathematics, while James’ The Ambassadors, Shaw’s Man and Superman, Synge’s Riders to the Sea, and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard all made an appearance, and the musical world first heard Madame Butterfly.

Turning next to our own little fin de siècle, what does The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century find culturally noteworthy in 1994? Only a single item—Mr Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. And in 1995? Nothing. In 1996? Nothing. In 1997? Nothing again. On page 431, aside from the austere horizontal lines dividing each year from the next, the paper is entirely white, and this despite the fact that for the previous ninety-three years something or other fit to be included was always found.

Pause a minute to grasp what this means. The Oxford History’s selections are constrained neither by language nor nationality. They might come from anywhere. They are truly international. So what we are being asked to believe is that on planet earth for the years 1994 to 1997 only one new cultural item worthy of attention was produced: Pulp Fiction.

Whether or not this has anything to do with Alan Ryan, Warden of New College, Oxford, the don in question in my title and the author of several books, is something else again. I should say at once that it probably has nothing at all. Any number of things might explain the blank section on page 431, from the late delivery of copy to sheer absent-mindedness, and anyway the editors of the History were Michael Howard and William Roger Louis, while the cultural chronology was almost certainly not Ryan’s direct responsibility.

Nevertheless he is the author of a prominently placed essay on “The Growth of a Global Culture”, and since there are certain similarities about the subjects he discusses in this essay and the items in the chronology at the back, one feels it is at least likely that he was consulted. He has a good understanding of literary matters. He has looked at films. With both Dali and Dallas he seems at home. It is therefore a pity that in his own contribution he has nothing to say about the fact that although the century begins with work of high merit it ends in a cultural void.

What kind of culture does Ryan mean?

Of course it all depends what you mean by “culture”—or so people say. Fortunately Ryan has a firm grasp of the two contrasting meanings of the word. He even shows some sympathy for Arnold’s view that it implies an acquaintance with “the best that has been thought and written”, remarking at the outset that “In Matthew Arnold’s words, the purpose of culture is to bring ‘sweetness and light’ to our lives; this is what we often term ‘high’ culture, and, in this sense, we can all too easily imagine a society possessing no culture.”

Plainly, for Ryan no culture—no sweetness and light—would be a Bad Thing. Sweetness and light are valuable; he appears to believe that high culture is one of civilisation’s goods and not to be lightly dismissed in favour of heavy metal; and though he would be loath to argue strongly for such a position this is at least a start.

Equally plainly Pulp Fiction is not about “sweetness and light”. But what is it about? Why does it make a claim on our attention? Here another meaning of “culture” must be brought in. As Ryan explains, this other meaning is “culture in the anthropologist’s sense: something that societies must possess almost by definition: the congeries of beliefs, values, and attachments that give those societies their character, and allow their members to make sense of their lives and aspirations. It is what one might call ‘adjectival’ culture, and it is in this sense that youth culture, drug culture, gang culture, or prison-culture are cultures” (enter please, Mr Tarantino, and take a bow) “however far their values may be from ‘sweetness and light’.”

Could anything be clearer? To his credit the Warden of New College has got this matter down pat. Yet for some reason he is unwilling to draw the logical conclusion to which it leads. Sweetness and light are normative terms, denoting good things both, and opposed to sourness and dark. Indeed, they are as opposed to the imagination of the dark and pathological as the imagination which inspired King Lear contrasts with the mind behind The Duchess ofMalfi.

As Matthew Arnold meant them to, they suggest both an emotional and moral order sympathetic to civil society and to the flourishing of humanity’s better side, the broad circumstances under which that better side flourishes being those of “civilisation” itself. Sweetness and light are not on the whole the sorts of things you find among thugs running a one-party state, or among cells of incarcerated felons. Nor is Matthew Arnold’s sense of culture what you find among the kapos in concentration camps or the meat-hook torturers of Timor.

But all these nasty things are entirely compatible with “culture in the anthropologist’s sense”. As Ryan suggests, gangs of felons or rioting incendiarists have “anthropological culture” in abundance—you might say they’ve got it to burn. Nor is this fact to be casually discounted. As any anthropologist worth his travel grant will tell you, anthropological culture is every bit as sociologically important as the other sort—perhaps far more important if you want to understand the conflicts going on in the modern world.

On every continent where men are slashing at each other with machetes or disembowelling their neighbours or chopping off hands or heads, laughing as they work, there’s a better than even chance that you will find each tribalistic group fighting under a common banderole—”My culture, right or wrong”. Their wars may be phrased in nationalistic, or religious, or libertarian idioms, but most of the time it’s plain old “culture versus culture” to the death.

Anthropological culture in this decidedly unsweet and unenlightened sense (to use Ryan’s helpful term) is nothing more than the “congeries” of beliefs and customs communities are stuck with as their social inheritance, and because most men want to be accepted by the group to which they belong, and because they dread even the thought of being ostracised, they won’t give them up no matter how destructive they are.

My point being that whereas culture as “sweetness and light” is usually a beneficial and is sometimes an ennobling pursuit, anthropological culture can be downright life-threatening, while as a guide to collective action in the modem world it is often fatal.

Ryan believes that idiosyncratic beliefs and values and attachments are what “give those societies their character” and allow their members “to make sense of their lives and aspirations”. Just as an aside we might note that the romantic imagination is over-inclined to see “character” as something valuable in itself, regardless of bent, regardless of moral inclination, and a whole essay could be written on whether art or life has gained much from this swollen notion.

But rather more important for assessing the Warden’s general point of view is the claim that any “life” or “aspiration” can be adequately “made sense of” by the parochial and sometimes pathological “beliefs, values, and attachments” of the social micro-cultures concerned. To be sure, each little culture has its code, the omerta of the Mafia along with the rest. Who would deny it? It follows logically from the definitional premises of the anthropological conception itself. But it must be also said that “making sense” of these codes requires a much loftier and more discriminating view of the rules men live by than Tarantinoland itself provides.

Having cultural standards is snobbish

It is however precisely this discrimination which Ryan opposes on principle, warning in his first sentence that “discussions of ‘culture’ often display a multitude of sins—most strikingly, snobbery, affectation, and ill-temper”. As a stern democrat he wants none of that, making it known that whoever tries to distinguish between cultural artefacts or systems of belief as good or bad, or rank them as better or worse, or define them as healthy or sick, is committing the worst of the solecisms of our age: and so there can be no mistake how seriously he views the matter, the Warden calls it a “sin”.

We realise that snobbery and affectation and ill-temper amongst culture-scribes are not unknown. But we also understand that Ryan is using this complaint about snobbery disingenuously—it is his way of denying the value of any traditional criteria of judgment, or for trying to understand the blank boxes on page 431.

With faint derision he writes that the eighteenth and twentieth centuries have been haunted by fears, anxieties, feelings of doom—all of them, alas, symptoms of the conservative mind. Some conservative writers have doubted that democracies can sustain high culture. Others fear that modern societies are doomed to be multicultural. And then there is the fear that “as democratic politics and a high level of material well-being spread over the globe, a uniform culture (in the anthropologist’s sense) that is wholly hostile to culture (in Matthew Arnold’s sense) will infect the entire world: the world will become one vast suburb, filled with indistinguishable shopping malls supplying designer jeans and fast food. Many others fear that far from becoming uniformly suburban, the world will erupt in endless wars between competing religious and ethnic groups. The American political scientist Benjamin Barber has memorably described these two visions as ‘Jihad vs. McWorld’.”

So which of these fears is the worse? Which threat the more dangerous? That kids will eat more Big Macs? Or that another million or so will die in Rwanda, or a Middle Eastern jihad will explode the world? To any intellectual who has deeply considered questions of good and evil the answer is plain—the real menace is the Golden Arches Cafe.

This is broadly Ryan’s line. It is a “bleak truth”, he tells us, that the glorious multicoloured confusion of cultures around the world have been “imposed on” by the West—they suffer the impact of its technology; they wince at its financial power; they are victimised and alienated and unhappy.

But does this really help us understand what is happening? Is it even true? That a Philippine peasant might actually want a more efficient water pump in his fields, or a better bus, or a more modern education, and might actively seek Western technology; that the government of Thailand or wherever might actually have its farmers as well as its businessmen in mind when it applies for finance for infrastructural projects; that Sydney children might be very happy eating Big Macs since their idea of amenity differs radically from an Oxford Don’s … such things never enter the Warden’s mind. He knows his market. He writes regularly for magazines like The New York Review. What the readers of such journals want to hear about are the sufferings of the East and the cultural imperialism of the USA, and the Warden is much too set in his ways to change.

Remarks follow about secularisation, about the “paradox” that in developing countries religion not only survives but thrives, about the Iranian revolution and its consequences, and this leads on to a section which brings in Weber, “disenchantment”, Michels and Sorel and Freud and Sartre and Heidegger … By which time it is all too obvious that the author has left the evils of Big Mackery far behind, has launched into a self-indulgent ramble over familiar academic ground, and appears to have entirely lost sight of his topic—”the growth of a global culture”.

The real cause of cultural decline today

Yet even this stuff could have beep serendipitously put to use. For if you want to write seriously about the intellectual history of the West—or chronicle Western intellectual decline—then Heidegger presents the very springboard you need. So how about it? What does the Warden of New College, Oxford, think of the state of the universities today? Who better to comment after spending ten years at Princeton, where he must have witnessed at first hand the weakening of the humanities in a leading citadel of learning?

Yet he raises the subject of postmodernism only to drop it again. About Heidegger he writes that “in spite of his notorious readiness to ingratiate himself with the Nazis, few could resist the appeal of Heidegger’s vision”, adding that “Heidegger’s influence on modem theology as well as on what has come to be labelled postmodernism has been incalculable”. (Incalculable is a favourite word.) But why not at least try to calculate that influence, try to figure the consequences for small but busy minds of being unable to “resist the appeal of Heidegger’s vision”, and tell’ us what those consequences have led to in the universities? He obviously knows. Instead he changes the topic and walks away.

Both Steven Weinberg and John Maddox contribute pieces on science to the Oxford History, and it is nice to see Ryan finding a place for science in his own survey—he didn’t really have to. He describes the twentieth century as “one in which modernizers and traditionalists, rationalists and mystics, have battled one another; both globally and within particular societies”, using these remarks to introduce the Lysenko affair in Soviet genetics. We are told that “Stalin all but wrecked Soviet biology by insisting that it must be consistent with Marxist dialectic”, and that “the damage this nonsense did to Soviet agriculture is incalculable”. (That word again.)

But the damage done by Marxist dialectic was a whole lot more serious than anything that happened to Russian crops. Ryan’s topic is culture, not agriculture—high culture as well as low—and if you’re going to bring Sovietism into what is supposedly a discussion of globalisation how about the subject of communism and the arts?

It is surely a singular fact about the twentieth century that hardly a work of art worth the name came out of all the totalitarian countries in all the decades totalitarianism reigned. Hard to believe, but true. And with China added we are talking about more than a billion people over a period of fifty years. Ryan is a. philosopher, and here is food for thought. Too many facile parallels have been drawn between religious faith and totalitarian doctrine. But while in every civilisation in every age religion produced the greatest art we know, the art of totalitarianism is merely a tragic footnote to history—the sort of thing which belongs in a holocaust museum.

The Warden of New College says nothing whatever about this. Indeed, so far is he from recognising it as an issue that he actually pays anachronistic respects to “the Suprematist movement of the early Soviet Revolution” (the “early revolution” being something you may refer to safely) as a major development in painting. Kazimir Malevitch was the founder of Suprematism. His dates are 1878 to 1935. His work evolved from 1908 and Suprematism was already past its prime by 1918. All that happened to it in the “early Soviet Revolution” is that it was gradually suffocated and destroyed. Of this Ryan seems blissfully unaware.

No fool

Although he is a professor Alan Ryan is no fool. He has written a number of well-regarded books. He has taught politics and philosophy in distinguished places. And I for one have sometimes enjoyed his pieces in the New York Review. Yet here is a man who in 1984, in a scholarly book about property and everything that property entails, gave to his last chapter the title “Why are There so Few Socialists?” Where had he been during the hundred years the editors of the Oxford History asked him to write about? It was one thing for Sombart to ask this question about America at the turn of the century. At that time the great power game was only beginning. But in 1984, as the long struggle reached its anti-climactic end and the collapse of the socialist “experiment” was in sight, how could he still not know the score? Mrs Thatcher did—but of course we know about Oxford and Mrs Thatcher.

In the last chapter of Property and Political Theory Ryan reports what he has discovered in the way of answers to his own sad question about the paucity of bright-eyed socialists in modem times. He says that both Mill’s reformism and Marx’s revolutionism, though “plausible in their day”, nevertheless turned out to be “inadequate predictions of what the working classes in developed countries would actually demand”.

This might suggest that the “class analysis” on which their predictions drew was itself grievously at fault, arid a few pages later he admits as much. “The belief in the homogeneity of working-class life has turned out to be false. The proletariat in the nineteenth-century sense has vanished; unskilled manual workers make up bare­ly one sixth of the workforce …” On top of which there is the. huge and perplexing problem of men and women who think for themselves, with the result that “one cause of the lack of demand for socialism is, obviously, the plain man’s disbelief that it can produce the goods”.

Plain men: a perennial problem

“Obviously” indeed: plain men are always a problem. As for the goods themselves and the nonsense intelligentsias have spouted, it seems to Ryan that the purchase of television sets can no longer be satisfactorily explained as “a desperate attempt to shelter from the emptiness of civilized life which Rousseau diagnosed”, and that when a housewife buys a washing machine this is not to be seen as symbolising “the politically narcotic effect of consumer durables” so much as a way of taking the drudgery out of washing clothes.

When the Warden’s answers to his own question about socialism are obscure they appear to reflect little but his own confusion. When they are longwinded they reflect the even greater longwindedness of the university men on whom he draws. When they are clear they are little better than what the man in the street would say. And the man in the street will give you his opinion free.

Is there a cure for dons?

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