Cultural conservatives are always at a rhetorical disadvantage to utopians and ideologues: they do not have a theory of everything. This means that they are unable to appeal to the paranoid mode of explanation that rarely lies far beneath the surface of political discourse (it is a singular, though little remarked, fact of our existence that the failing human brain often, if not always, turns to paranoia). The conservative appeals to reality, the utopian to fantasy: and to the disgruntled, that is to say the majority of the human race, fantasy is more real than reality.
The lack of a theory of everything does not mean that conservatives are entirely without beliefs, however, but their beliefs give a tenor to their thoughts rather than determine what they should be on any given subject. Conservatives tend to acknowledge that the world did not begin and will not end with them, and that those who came before them were neither less intelligent nor worse intentioned than they; that man is a fallen creature, susceptible to improvement sometimes, but open always to the temptation of evil; that politics does not encompass the whole of human life; that not all desiderata are compatible (for example, those of safety and risk-taking) and therefore there can be no final resolution of all human conflict; that to criticize existing institutions from first principles or from the standpoint of an ideal normal is ultimately to leave no institutions intact; and that order, tradition, and continuity are as important as change.
These ideas, one might have thought, are obvious to anyone of mature reflection and minimal experience of life, but they are not. On the contrary, the conservatives lack of settled doctrine by which to judge all questions is generally taken by intellectuals as a sign of conservatisms intellectual nullity. Conservatives lack the holy or magical bo tree under which to achieve final enlightenment.
Robert Grant is a member of that endangered species, rarer now than the spotted owl, and facing the inexorable fate of the dodo, the conservative university teacher of English, a literature don who does not examine all he reads through the distorting lens of gender, racial, or class resentment. As a conservative, resentment is not his cup of tea. This collection of his essays, which shows him to be a man of wide learning and sympathy, ranges from political philosophy to art criticism and commentary upon aspects of popular culture. He never writes less than clearly, he often crystallizes complex thoughts in happy formulations, and he is sometimes very funny. For example, remarking upon the title of a fashionable designers coffee-table book, Living with Design, he writes [it] suggests that interior decoration is a kind of crippling disease. Which, of course, it is.
There are essays, inter alia, on the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott and Edmund Burke, on conceptual productions in opera and the theater, on the meaning of death, on Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the House Beautiful, and on Shakespeares political thought. The title essayno doubt chosen to mislead unwary feminists into purchasing the bookdeals with human sexuality and the modern attempt to empty it of all but raw biological significance.
If Mr. Grants essays have an underlying thesis, it is that human conduct cannot be understood except by reference to intentionality, meaning, and consciousness. Man does not live by lust alone. Mr. Grant strongly disagrees with those who try (usually with a considerable dose of dishonesty) to reduce human behavior to mere mechanism. For example, conceptual productions of classical operas and plays are usually premised upon the idea that their composers and authorswhose death has long ago been announced by critical theoristsdid not really know what they were doing and were merely registering the Geist of their Zeit, as a barometer registers the atmospheric pressure. It therefore requires preening producers and literary critics to give real meaningthat is to say, their own meaningto Mozart and Shakespeare. It is hardly surprising in the circumstances that cheap theatrical gimmickry should prevail; it is evidence of immodesty and egotism, the besetting sins of liberalism itself.
The essay on Charles Rennie Mackintosh is one of the best on such a subject that I have ever read. It is far from easy to write intelligibly and profoundly, without preciousness, on questions of taste: for taste is said by some to be so subjective that nothing worthwhile can be said about it. Mr. Grant demonstrates (by example, the best demonstration that we can have) that this is not so. His comparison of a Mackintosh chair with the unselfconscious elegance and functionality of an eighteenth-century chair is brilliant and illuminating. It illustrates to perfection why the cultural conservative is neither against innovation (after all, the eighteenth-century chair was itself an innovation) nor in favor of it for its own sake. And his strictures on the Mackintosh style are devastating in their acuity and accuracy: whatever its point, it is trying too hard to make it. It is like being cornered by a bore: you are expected to be interested in him, but he could not care less about you. No one could actually live in a Mackintosh house, for it
simply demands more attention than any mere house has a right to expect. Such an interior cannot express decent, unaffected ease. It is the negation of hospitality. In fact, it is barbarism posing as hyper-sophistication. Worse still, it makes stylistic innocence impossible for those who come after. Once the dyke of self-consciousness has been breached, we are all carried along in the ensuing flood.Until, he might have added, we are washed up on the worthless shores of Cool Britannia.
As I read Mr. Grants book, two questions passed through my mind constantly, like a threnody: how do we give practical political expression to a civilized and sophisticated conservatism such as his? And does the fact that we feel the need to do so mean that it is already too late?