Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Romance of Conservatism

(NOTE: This is an article I submitted, rather ambitiously, to First Things magazine last year. They said, "No, thank you"! They also passed on some of my poems a few years before, although the poetry editor did call one of them "Auden-esque"...)

G.K. Chesterton and the Romance of Conservatism

Can conservatives be more than just disillusioned liberals, or those who were never so gullible as to require disillusioning? Must conservatives concede ownership of the heart to liberals, reserving only a claim to the organ of intellect for ourselves? Must we take as our symbol the flaming sword which turned every which way, warning Adam and Eve against any return to the Garden of Eden?

There may be a touch of hyperbole in my questions; but only a touch. Having surveyed the landscape of conservative thought for the last ten years or so—ever since I realised that I was a conservative, in my late twenties—I have been dismayed at the forbidding exterior of that countryside.

I say ‘exterior’, because I realize that conservatives— though they present a dour face to the outside world— are the most romantic of folk by their own firesides. Sadly, they are embarrassed at their own romanticism, like yokels who fear the laughter of the city slicker. When asked to defend their social philosophy, they tend to cite the corruptibility of power, the dangers of utopianism, the frailty of a priori reasoning, the ‘crooked timber’ of humanity, and other counsels of prudence.

The poetry of conservatism has been confined, almost entirely, to literature. Names like Eliot, Larkin, Yeats, Lewis, Betjeman, and Tolkien spring to mind. Even here, however, the poetry is nearly always that of of loss and regret, rather than the enthusiastic expression of an ideal. I am indeed profoundly moved by poems such as Betjeman’s ‘The Plantster’s Vision’:

Cut down that timber! Bells, too many and strong,
Pouring their music through the branches bare,
From moon-white church towers down the windy air
Have pealed the centuries out with Evensong.
Remove those cottages, a huddled throng!
Too many babies have been born in there,
Too many coffins, bumping down the stair,
Carried the old their garden paths along.

But why should the poetry of conservatism always be expressed indirectly, in satire or jeremiad? I hungered for prose, for ideas clearly stated. I wanted something to cheer, rather than many things to weep over.

I found glimmerings of what I was looking for in some of my favourite conservative authors, especially those two great Englishmen, Peter Hitchens and Roger Scruton. Both evoke (in lyrical prose) the ideal of home and tradition, of tangible things. Both, however, are self-conscious mourners of things past, or passing. Hitchens describes his masterpiece, The Abolition of Britain, as an epitaph, while the title of Roger Scruton’s England: An Elegy speaks for itself.

In the American writer Russell Kirk, I also found lyricism—but once again, it was mostly a lyricism of lament. Kirk’s deep love of tradition leaped from the pages of The Conservative Mind, but the book mostly seemed a negative critique of modernity. Indeed, all of the conservative authors who most valued tradition seemed to view it as a kind of fossil fuel—doomed to gradual depletion, the rate of depletion being the only question at issue.

This didn’t satisfy me. I yearned for something less lachrymose, more affirmative.

Being Irish might have something to do with this. In the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, Ireland was gripped by a wave of cultural nationalism which sought, not only to arrest the decline of tradition, but (crucially) to reverse it. This was seldom considered to be a conservative cause. Yet it is hard to think of anything more conservative than the great mass of a nation united in a popular effort to revive a national language, national sports, national literature, and national traditions in general.

To some extent, this effort was triumphant—the Gaelic Athletic Association, which came into being in 1884, continues to be a massive popular success. To some extent, the effort failed—the dream that the Irish language might once again become a language of everyday life never materialized.

But, in the words of Yeats, “it was the dream itself enchanted me”. It is an inspiring fact that, for more than half a century, traditionalism was the dominant ideal in Ireland. Not was this the traditionalism of prudence, but rather a romantic traditionalism, a traditionalism that took the form of a quest rather than a siege.

Eamon De Valera’s St. Patrick’s Day speech of 1943, though much mocked, is probably the best expression of the national ideal during these decades:

The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.

If nationalism could inspire the masses with such an ideal—such an essentially ‘backwards-looking’ ideal— why couldn’t conservatism? Why was its poetry confined to the ironies and obliqueness of elite literature? Why did populist conservatism, on the other hand, have to focus so relentlessly on the evils of government and the wickedness of reforming elites?

Outside the tradition of Irish cultural nationalism, indeed, I found an accessible ‘conservative sublime’ expressed in only one writer; the great English journalist, novelist, poet, and Catholic apologist, G.K. Chesterton, who died in 1936.

Chesterton was remarkable for many things, but one of them was the manner in which he defended tradition; not with the melancholy of so many other writers, but with gusto. Though he was not a self-described conservative, he seems to me a nonpareil at evoking—in prose written for his beloved ‘common man’—the romance of conservatism.

Take his famous defence of the very idea of tradition from his masterpiece Orthodoxy:

I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record… Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.

Or take his defence of the family as a romantic institution in Heretics:

This is, indeed, the sublime and special romance of the family. It is romantic because it is a toss-up. It is romantic because it is everything that its enemies call it. It is romantic because it is arbitrary. It is romantic because it is there…When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.

Chesterton can even be wildly romantic about domestic economy, as in this passage from his volume of sociology What’s Wrong with the World:

God is that which can make something out of nothing. Man (it may truly be said) is that which can make something out of anything. In other words, while the joy of God be unlimited creation, the special joy of man is limited creation, the combination of creation with limits….For the mass of men the idea of artistic creation can only be expressed by an idea unpopular in present discussions—the idea of property. The average man cannot cut clay into the shape of a man; but he can cut earth into the shape of a garden; and though he arranges it with red geraniums and blue potatoes in alternate straight lines, he is still an artist; because he has chosen. The average man cannot paint the sunset whose colors he admires; but he can paint his own house with what color he chooses, and though he paints it pea green with pink spots, he is still an artist; because that is his choice. Property is merely the art of the democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven. But because he is not God, but only a graven image of God, his self-expression must deal with limits; properly with limits that are strict and even small.

In his essay ‘A Defence of Rash Vows’, he appeals to monogamy not as a sacrifice due to society, but the expression of man’s natural exuberance:

The revolt against vows has been carried in our day even to the extent of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. It is most amusing to listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words—'free-love'—as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-flavoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants.

This is the sort of stuff, one imagines, that might convert even the most resolute philanderer.

The irony that Chesterton—who sometimes described himself as a liberal—wrote more passionate paens to tradition than many a self-professed conservative, is strangely paralleled in these lines of his own, from his book Charles Dickens—perhaps my favourite Chestertonian passage of all:

But Dickens in his cheapest cockney utilitarianism was not only English, but unconsciously historic. Upon him descended the real tradition of "Merry England," and not upon the pallid mediævalists who thought they were reviving it. The Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothicists, the admirers of the Middle Ages, had in their subtlety and sadness the spirit of the present day. Dickens had in his buffoonery and bravery the spirit of the Middle Ages. He was much more mediæval in his attacks on mediævalism than they were in their defences of it. It was he who had the things of Chaucer, the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all the white roads of England.

Surely conservatives don’t have to confine themselves to the bullish cynicism of the talk radio host, or the rueful nostalgia of the cultured old fogey. We can be wild romantics, galloping idealists, twenty-first century Cavaliers.

Where to start? Well, steeping ourselves in the works of G.K. Chesterton is my suggestion.

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