“The final truth is there is no truth.” — Boomtown Rats
I often tell my students that we live in an age of irony, and to make my point, I ask them when they last made it through a day without saying something that was the opposite of what they really meant. But what makes irony work is the idea that there is something real that we can expect and play against. At the same time, our radically skeptical culture argues for the position of the Boomtown Rats quote up at the top.
When we lose the sense of that underlying realness, irony itself becomes unmoored, becoming nothing but snark, masturbatory white noise. We’re left in an intellectual, emotional and spiritual desert, and the only manna the shapers of our culture are willing to offer is made of plastic. We know we’re starving, but too often, we can’t determine where the nourishment used to be. As Milton observed:
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoll’n with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
That’s why we should be thankful for Roger Scruton. He’s a philosopher, a professor, and what a public intellectual should be. Over at Sam Karnick’s place, Daniel Crandall links to an American Spectator article by Scruton, where he discusses the ugliness that comes with the abandonment of transcendence, of what’s Real.
The official ethos, which prevails in schools and universities, […] is one of scorn and repudiation toward the old ideals. […]It is a culture of emotional chaos and random affections, in which traditional loyalties play no part.
And as Scruton notes, it’s ugly. He pointed that out recently in a BBC program (or programme, it being the BBC and all) about beauty, contending that contemporary art has become so alienated even from the idea of beauty that it has fallen into an abyss of nihilism. For this, and for similar statements, he has been excoriated by the bien-pensant crowd… and roundly thanked by his countrymen:
[I]t produced overwhelming proof that its vision of art and the aesthetic is shared by many ordinary British viewers, and that the official culture is not just detached from such people but profoundly hostile to what they believe, what they feel, and what they hope for. The nihilistic art of our time is delivered to the British people as a rebuke, which they are to accept in all humility, and in a spirit of apology for having wanted something “higher.” There is nothing higher — that is the lesson to be gleaned from Young British Art, and from the heaps of nonsensical garbage that it has delivered to our museums and galleries. We can understand the human condition, it tells us, only if we adopt a posture of rudeness and confrontation, and if we let those tongues stick out.
This is what I feel like I have to fight against as well, although I’m much less graceful than Scruton. I want my students to know that there’s more, that there’s something Real, and that good writing helps us get a glimpse of that, by giving us a glimpse of the Beautiful, even when it speaks of ugly things. And I benefit from it as well, in the satisfaction of the knowledge that in my way, I’m doing what that itinerant woodworker asked when he told us to feed his sheep.
My students are used to the nihilism of snark. But there’s a part of them that knows they have to get into something real as well. If I can help them find it, then I’m doing my job.