Conservative Chic

Michael Mason

  • The Politics of Culture and Other Essays by Roger Scruton
    Carcanet, 245 pp, £8.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 85635 362 0

Should we use ‘disinterested’ to mean ‘uninterested’, or ‘infer’ to mean ‘imply’? What about ‘hopefully’, and ‘whom’, and the present subjunctive? This is the stuff of innumerable dinner-party arguments, vehemently conducted, and generally leaving in the mind a nasty sense of muddle. It often happens with controversies of the vehement, intractable sort that separate issues have become mixed up with one another. If we approach them piecemeal, it turns out that there are answers after all, but diverse answers to the diverse problems that have composed the muddle. The American journalist John Simon has for some years been writing a column in Esquire in which he takes a conservative view of linguistic change in true dinner-party fashion: opposing almost every innovation in contemporary usage, and mixing up several independent considerations in the process. Pieces from that column published between 1977 and 1979, together with a few other items, were put out as a book in America, and the collection recently appeared in Britain.[*]

In America the question of linguistic correctness has an additional strand that makes it even more confusing than it is in Britain. The tendency to change in American usage arises partly from the presence in American culture of large groups whose linguistic origins are not English, or at least are far removed from standard English. This is not, or not yet, as conspicuous an issue in Britain, and when it is noticed, the intrusive language is perhaps most likely to be American English. So British linguistic conservatives will probably find the American linguistic conservative, John Simon, barbaric in usages such as: ‘the listener is locked into a schema of two-way partitioning from which no one can escape.’ Simon dislikes change that comes from special linguistic groups as much as any other variety. His remarks about it are as violent as anything in the book (and he is one of the most aggressive journalists writing at the moment in America). Into the mix of arguments on this topic go social ones: Simon is confessedly inegalitarian. In Britain, too, the issue of correct usage is connected with social stratification, but generally, at the dinner parties, it would be unusual to hear as much reference made to élites as Simon makes, just as it would be unusual to hear expressed his kind of attitude to the influence of culturally-based varieties of English (American English apart). Over here the squabbles are more restricted: to the broad fact of linguistic change, the appearance of allegedly incorrect language generally, and the status of the usage enshrined in various dictionaries and grammars.

What sort of case does an out-and-out conservative like Simon manage to put up when it comes to such questions? He has two main arguments for the need to maintain the authority of the more prescriptive books on English usage, though he does not seem to realise that the two are independent of one another. Sometimes he tells us that English would deteriorate to a point of very serious inefficiency if we disregarded the books. On other occasions he urges that there are certain advantages in using a variety of English for which comprehensive rules happen to have been formed. The difference is between the necessity for the rules if language is to work, and the desirability of the rules on other grounds once they have been formulated. Only the second line of argument deserves to be taken seriously. Human language has for the most part – that is to say, all over the world, and in some quarters for perhaps a million years – done very well without formulated rules. ‘Very well’ is, indeed, far short of the truth. Languages developed from origins admittedly inscrutable, but certainly rudimentary, to essentially their modern forms without any assistance from grammarians and lexicographers. There is a kind of sacrilege, if Mr Simon’s light-minded bigotry deserves such a weighty term, in his failure to think about this achievement of human civilisation.

Language is efficient in the absence of explicit rules because it could not be otherwise. Simon writes constantly about the ‘chaos’ that will result if we neglect the grammars and dictionaries, ‘until all is error and confusion’. It is hard to know if this is an ill-judged hyperbole, or mere fatuousness. Languages are as they are because they work. A piece of usage that is ambiguous to a degree that matters will not survive. And how could a language be ‘all error’? An aspect of the efficacy of languages is that they are intensely rule-bound. Hence the activity of grammarians and lexicographers, which is the thinnest layer of icing on the enormous cake of rule-bound language use by millions of speakers over uncounted generations. And the contribution of prescriptive books to our contemporary practice is proportionately small. This is why the dinnerparty arguments, and Mr Simon’s book, keep returning to the same small body of threadbare examples: ‘disinterested’ versus ‘uninterested’ etc. The overwhelming mass of English sentences obey, unworriedly, the uncontroversial rules of English usage. Moreover, the explicit accounts of correctness in English, the dictionaries and grammars, are much fuller on some aspects of the language than on others. Traditionally they have concentrated on meaning, orthography and grammar. About punctuation and pronunciation they have much less to say. ‘Correct’ English punctuation, in particular, is an extremely fluid matter but chaos has not erupted in this area.

Despite such considerations – so platitudinous that they make dreary rehearsing – Simon believes that our powers of making clear statements in English will be impaired if we admit most new usages. It might just be, by an astonishingly remote chance, that contemporary English as defined by the books is the most efficient language that has ever existed. But we have no notion of what this idea of efficiency would really amount to, and hence neither Mr Simon nor anyone else could judge that one version of English is better than another in this respect, or that English is better than some other language. English makes certain distinctions in vocabulary and grammar which other languages don’t. But the latter make distinctions which we don’t. How are we to determine which is the better set of distinctions? Simon writes about the dangers to cleat thinking of certain changes in usage, but good logic can always find the right words, and bad logic can be perpetrated in correct English. In the first sentence of this passage by Simon himself there is a logical howler – something cannot be more distressing than it is funny – and the rest is also worth quoting:

The examples are mostly true horrors, very funny and even more distressing. That some of our leading politicians, educators, artists, scholars, clergymen, journalists, military men, and other assorted leaders and luminaries – as well as plainer folk – could write or utter the godawful gobbledygook here assembled is more than tragicomic. It is very nearly tragic. Worse than a nation of shopkeepers, we have become a nation of wordmongers or wordbutchers, and abuse of language, whether from ignorance or obfuscation, leads, as Newman persuasively argues, to a deterioration of moral values and standards of living.

If this infelicitous piece of prose is all that his spleen about the decay of English brings him to then let us have Norman Mailer any day.

The other line of defence for linguistic conservatism – that English is now ‘codified’ and that there are advantages in respecting the codification – is more interesting. There are various arguments one can think of that might support this view, all more or less articulated by Mr Simon. One is that a complex set of rules is hard to learn, and hence the acquisition of correct standard English, or, more properly, that restricted part of it which is not composed of the unconscious rules shared by all speakers, can be used as a kind of intelligence test for the citizens of an English-speaking country. Evidently, this argument only has force if every citizen’s unconscious rules are roughly the same. It is a mark of Mr Simon’s mixture of concerns that he wishes to urge it in relation to a country where there are such large discrepancies in people’s unreflecting usage. A test of intelligence based on the ability to acquire a highly correct form of English would yield very unfair results in America. In particular, because of the naturally rule-bound character of language, an individual brought up in an environment in which correct English was used would score well, although his or her correctness of usage might not be a token of peculiar mental competence at all. In Britain this argument for linguistic conservatism would only deserve to be persuasive if we could be certain that our social arrangements did not open it to the same objection. As I have mentioned, we do not discuss such questions very readily in Britain, but they would surely arise if we seriously pressed the idea of linguistic correctness as a test of mental ability.

A second kind of argument is that the learning of a complex set of linguistic rules is in some fashion a good mental exercise. This is again open to the objection that the consequences will be socially uneven; though in this instance Mr Simon would have to argue, which he does not, that it is the natural speakers of correct English who would be relatively deprived, since they have less learning to do. There is nothing, it seems, which makes correct contemporary English particularly good for this purpose of mental training: it just happens to be available, While other languages, dead, alive or artificial, are less so (and it should be noted that this is a weak feature of several of the arguments for acquaintance with codified English). Moreover, since Mr Simon argues for the merits of correct English as a mental exercise on the strength of analogies such as listening to music on the car-radio while at the same time driving safely (hearing the music = making utterances, driving safely = applying the language rules), we would seem to be equipped with the relevant capacities anyway (Blacks more than most perhaps).

A hedonistic variant on this argument – which can only have weight in the absence of decisive ones on one side or the other – is that knowing and following rules gives satisfaction. According to Simon: ‘It gives us the pleasure of hearing or seeing our words – because they are abiding by the rules – snapping, sliding, falling precisely into place, expressing with perfect lucidity and symmetry just what we wanted them to express.’ This will remind many people (and not just correct speakers, it may be suggested) of a verbal experience which they have had – but only to the extent that pornography reminds us of sex. Using language well is never quite as good as this. Correct usage does not necessarily lead to satisfactory meaning, as Mr Simon’s own logical blunders show. And a perfect use of language is a will o’ the wisp, something that is for ever beyond the grasp of even the most competent speakers. The foreign pupils at English-language schools in London may feel that they are marching painfully towards a magic realm of educated usage, where everyone knows exactly what is right and wrong, but in the same city, in the editorial offices of every publisher of books or periodicals, questions of rightness of expression are the routine preoccupation – and not just in relation to such irrelevances as ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’. Mr Simon is not very good at pleasuring himself in these matters anyway. Among the plain semantic mistakes in this book (by Mr Simon’s own standard of correctness) are ‘entropy’ (to mean ‘disorder’), ‘plunk for’ (to mean ‘plump for’), ‘posit’ (to mean ‘propose’), ‘conversely’ (to mean ‘in contrast’) and ‘extrapolate’ (to mean ‘extract’).

To my mind, there is one respectable argument in favour of sticking to the present codification of English, now that we have it. This could be called the ‘long-term intelligibility argument’, and is expressed by Mr Simon as follows: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if half a millennium from now people could read today’s writers without elaborate footnotes and glossaries such as we require to read Shakespeare?’ This is an idea worth attending to, and weighing against the possible objections to an enforced standard of correctness: such as its socially unfair consequences, and the small amount of linguistic innovation that would ever flow into English again. Mr Simon’s way of putting the argument does, however, show what a peculiar kind of commitment is involved in his linguistic conservatism. The correct usage he wishes us to maintain, if our minds are not to go to mush and our society collapse into anarchy, is the English of the period of serious lexicography and grammatical analysis – the English, let us say, of the last 250 years. Elsewhere Mr Simon slightly fudges things, to make it sound as if the time-scale was rather grander: ‘Very good minds whose names are known to us spent centuries tracking down and codifying English speech.’ He sometimes even adds the suggestion that these long-lived heroes invented the language: ‘generations of educators have laboured to evolve and codify that English.’

So Mr Simon regrets Shakespeare’s English (sacrilege about human culture shrinking at this point to a mere philistinism), and regrets what is occurring nowadays, which does not give him very much of our language’s history to play with. It so happens that the first essay in a new collection by that British conservative, Roger Scruton, is about language, and he quotes as a specimen of superior antecedent English a passage from John Evelyn. Linguistic conservatives are obviously a church, not a sect: which is to say, that they, like their Parliamentary counterparts, are at loggerheads. Simon would detect a mass of errors in the Evelyn passage, and Scruton, though he mentions Simon in this essay as a kind of Honourable Friend, has no patience with the latter’s line on correctness. Mr Scruton is an academic philosopher and a barrister, and he very quickly explodes certain dinner-party inanities about usage: for example, that the use of ‘hopefully’ in its new sense knocks the old one out of our range of expressible concepts, and, generally, that distinctions at the level of single words have much to do with the conceptual distinctions we can command. Indeed, Mr Scruton acknowledges the difficulty for the conservative of advancing his case, however many examples he may adduce. So what is left, in the way of a defence of correctness? The answer is: a feeling. The logic of the conservative case may be weak, but the intuition of a loss of ‘ceremoniousness’ in our usage still counts: ‘what is obvious to feeling is also recalcitrant to argument.’

Readers who know Mr Scruton’s manner of thought will recognise this statement as characteristic. His intellectual interests commit him, in fact, to having feet in the realms of both ‘feeling’ and ‘argument’. He is a philosopher, but one who writes about contemporary politics, aesthetics and architecture (and he has published a novel). As a critic in the periodicals he discusses these things, and in addition, literature, music and psychiatry. There are essays on all these topics in the new collection, which is a selection of his recent reviews. The trouble with Scruton is that he moves too readily between the realms of heart and head. He does not play either game thoroughly, but observes a little of the rules of each at a time, as it suits his purposes. Reason cannot offer a support to linguistic conservatism, so ‘feeling’ must be invoked – but reason is the game that has been played hitherto in this particular essay. There is a very pure and quite serious example of this sort of tactic in Scruton’s book, The Meaning of Conservatism. A great deal of the argument of this extended essay is concerned with an attack on egalitarian ideas. As part of this attack, the ideal of social justice – of an even distribution of benefits in society – is argued by Scruton, in good philosophical vein, to be a fallacy due to the illicit extension of concepts of fairness that apply in personal relations into a context, that of a whole society, in which they cannot apply. The state is not a person in possession of benefits. But this rational severity about irrational feelings is inconsistent with the general tenor of The Meaning of Conservatism. The notion that we should import ideas acquired in the realm of personal relations (in the family, or in friendship, for example) into our thinking on politics is absolutely central to the book, and is perhaps the most idiosyncratic feature of its subtle, murky arguments.

I shall quote a passage from one of the items in this anthology – a piece on Alberti that appeared in the TLS in 1977:

No modern architectural writer has succeeded, as Alberti succeeded, in conveying a full sense of the visual and, so to speak, moral reality of architecture, and of the deep and elusive connection that exists between the questions of how to build and how to live. It is regrettable that his treatise is now read mainly by historians, and that students of architecture are encouraged to derive what little aesthetic education is required of them not from these mature and circumspect reflections but from the naive and hysterical propaganda of Le Corbusier and the Modern Movement. In fact there seems to be no translation of Alberti’s text at present available in English. Until recently it was possible to obtain a Tiranti reprint (sketchily annotated by Joseph Rykwert) of Leoni’s translation of 1726, itself no more than a rendering of the 16th-century Italian translation by Bartoli. Leoni’s version is elegant and learned; but it shows no system in its translation of Alberti’s philosophical terms, and misrepresents many of the central concepts.

Here is the libration between heart and head, cunningly used. The connection between how to build and how to live is ‘elusive’, but it surely cannot be illusive, we feel, because this author is so judicious (‘the ... so to speak, moral reality of architecture’), and so stunningly well versed in bibliography and language. The great stroke in this passage, however, is when the tone coarsens, a piece of spittle appears at the corner of the mouth, and Le Corbusier is abused as ‘hysterical’. By a clever use of a dignified context Scruton has managed to make a vulgar remark acceptable, and it is a considerable rhetorical achievement.

Raw conservative aggression is more Mr Simon’s speciality, however. The emotional tone of Scruton’s writing, the general apprehension of the state of things which he records, usually has less spunk than this. The mood is sorrowful rather than angry, and not, as might be thought, out of sorrow for a past that is greater than the present. It is not clear, for example, that Mr Scruton really enjoys Alberti, even if he prefers him to Le Corbusier. Nowhere in this anthology, voluntary though the pieces must have been, and in consonance with Mr Scruton’s interests, is there a note of unabashed affirmation. All is dour, only rising above the dyspeptic, where it rises at all, to a note of grim approval. That this is the tendency of his vision is admitted by Scruton in at least one place: the strange ending to The Meaning of Conservatism. At that point the title of the book acquires an unforeseen weight. Conservatism indeed has for Scruton a normally unacknowledged ‘meaning’, a state of mind that cannot be endured: ‘we emerge from the sea of politics on to a strange desert shore of pure opinion, a place of doubt, bluff and subterfuge. The wisest course is to turn back and re-immerse oneself.’ John Simon would not know what on earth this was all about. He relishes his conservatism, and his writings are consequently much more fun to read than Scruton’s, though intellectually not in the same class. He tells some good jokes in this new collection, such as W.S. Gilbert’s comment on Beerbohm Tree’s Hamlet (‘Funny without being vulgar’), or the definition of a fart as ‘the cry of an imprisoned turd’. One reason, it may be suspected, why something as simply entertaining as this could not appear in Scruton’s journalism is that he is ambitious for lasting fame. He writes, in all situations, like a man who is inscribing something with a chisel on European cultural history. These would-be inscriptions are unlikely to endure for very long, but their author is an interesting phenomenon. Conservatism is chic at the moment, and Scruton is a rare manifestation of its new fashionability who deserves some notice. A Hazlitt of today, writing another Spirit of the Age, should give him a chapter, commemorating his wide assortment of specialisations, his candidly repugnant interpretation of conservatism (which is argued to have more in common with totalitarian Marxism than with liberalism), and his pertinacious severity of manner.

[*] John Simon’s Paradigms Lost was reviewed by Randolph Quirk (LRB, Vol.3, No 20).