Ecclefechan and the Stars

Robert Crawford

  • The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect by George Davie
    Polygon, 283 pp, £17.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 948275 18 9

The university discipline we now call ‘English Literature’ is a Scottish invention. Though he had already given his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belies Lettres in Edinburgh, it was at Glasgow University in 1751 that Adam Smith became the first person to give an official university course in English that dealt with the technique and appreciation of modern writers in that language as well as in the Classical tongues. Hugh Blair, a Church of Scotland minister who from 1762 became Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at Edinburgh University, was in effect the world’s first Professor of English Literature. He built his lectures on Smith’s work. Smith held that ‘we in this country are most of us very sensible that the perfection of language is very different from that we commonly speak in,’ and Blair’s ideal style was ‘without Scotticisms’. The enterprise of Smith and Blair was to enable the ‘provincial’ Scots to engage with the culture of England on that culture’s own ground. In their Glasgow and Edinburgh lecture rooms Smith and Blair were busy translating their audiences.

Andrew Hook has drawn attention to the widespread use of Blair’s Rhetoric in the United States. By the early 1760s, the Scotsman William Small was teaching Rhetoric and Belles Lettres to Jefferson at William and Mary. By 1768 John Witherspoon from the Laigh Kirk, Paisley, was basing his Princeton lectures on Blair’s Rhetoric. In 1781 Wither spoon coined the pejorative term ‘Americanism’, by analogy with ‘Scotticism’. Strong connections between Scottish and American cultures at this time included the development of English Studies because both countries were, in Bernard Bailyn’s terms, ‘England’s Cultural Provinces’ – full of provincials to be translated.

Yet something Scottish persisted. Smith’s interest in the collection and presentation of minute facts impressed one of his Glasgow auditors, James Boswell, whose marvellous accumulation. The Life of Samuel Johnson, is a major peak in the Scottish eclectic tradition. In Edinburgh, formulating the canon of the new university study of English Literature, Blair tried to inscribe a marked Scottish presence. But works such as the Ossianic poems, Home’s Douglas, Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd and Wilkie’s Epigoniad dropped away, and the emphasis that remained was almost exclusively on English (with Classical) texts and standards. Scottish literature, like all writing done outside England, was seen as an eccentric achievement, significant only when it could be assimilated to English cultural models. By the time we come to the mid-19th century and after, the period covered by Chris Baldick’s The Social Mission of English Criticism, university English Studies and London Oxbridge English cultural imperialism go blithely hand in hand.

This is a fruitful context in which to consider George Davie’s new book. Its pages contain in embryonic form a theory of Scottish culture which, when developed, has the power radically to reshape English Studies and to make sense of post-Enlightenment Scottish literature by tying it into the wider Scottish cultural tradition that produced thinkers like Hume and Smith, as well as later tech nological achievements such as the telephone and television. In Davie’s view, Scottish Studies becomes the study of a cultural tradition whose importance to the modern world is Periclean.

Davie’s book is hard to read. Its own dense eclecticism can be rebarbative, as if one were dealing with four books crammed into one. Davie is a professional philosopher, an ambitious Dundonian polymath who moves rapidly and sometimes too easily from interpretations of Hegel or Korzybski to the cultural politics of the Scottish Educational Journal in the 1920s, to the development of educational theory in Australia, to the poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid. Sometimes the argument seems thin or muzzy; sometimes the reader gasps for air. But of the book’s stimulating power there can be no doubt. In Scotland that stimulation is already becoming intense, particularly in the 25th issue of Cencrastus, which prints a number of review essays reacting to Davie’s book along with a new article by Davie ‘On Hugh MacDiarmid’. Philosophers, historians and literary critics have begun either to build on or to erode Davie’s theses. Right or wrong, The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect, like its 1961 predecessor The Democratic Intel led (recently reprinted by Edinburgh University Press), should have the virtue of being unignorable.

The Crisis centres on what might too easily be dismissed as a minor squabble. It examines debate about the place of philosophy in the Scottish university curriculum during the early 20th century. The debaters include the St Andrews Classicist John Burnet (whose work on early Greek philosophy made an impact on Lawrence, Eliot, Pound and others); John Anderson, a Glasgow philosophy graduate of 1917 who emigrated to take up a Chair at Sydney University in 1927 and whose writings (fuelled, Davie argues, by the Scottish educational debate) are attracting increasing international attention; and Hugh MacDiarmid, whose reaction to the debate, Davie less convincingly contends, took the immediate form of the ‘Contemporary Scottish Studies’ published in the Scottish Educational Journal between 1925 and 1927, plus the more celebrated form of the poem A drunk man looks at the thistle (1926). He argues that between 1917 and 1927 forces spearheaded by the Scottish Education Department attacked the old Scottish university tradition of generalism founded on a compulsory training in philosophy, which fostered lateral thinking and interdisciplinary comparison. The SED and its allies attempted to bring in a new emphasis on vocational specialisation, which would have the effect of producing efficient schoolteachers implementing ideas formulated elsewhere. Defenders of the old privileged status of subjects such as philosophy, literature and pure mathematics saw their opponents as attempting ‘a provincialisation of Scotland which would leave a monopoly of the “useless” subjects … considered necessary to the training of an élite in the hands of Oxford and Cambridge and which would thus transform the Scottish universities into centres for the production of efficient under-labourers in the system’. Supporters of the vocationally-oriented scheme argued that reform of the Scottish system was bound to spread to England, and that in any case scientific specialists were what was needed for the future. As Davie makes clear, we are dealing with ‘a Scottish version of the argument about educational and cultural fundamentals’. Parallels with today’s debates about ‘useless’ subjects, funding, centres of research excellence versus ‘teaching universities’, and the pressure to move from university to speciality, are not hard to find.

Davie’s detailed and sometimes not-so-detailed arguments have been sharply questioned by the historian Robert Anderson. Davie’s emphasis on the importance of Scottish philosophical writings (among which he includes MacDiarmid’s verse) is designed to be controversial. It should be set beside the recent work of Alexander Broadie, to whose explorations of The Circle of John Mair: Logic and Logicians in Pre-Reformation Scotland Davie makes reference. The last section of The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect is entitled ‘Back to John Mair?’, Davie is trying to extend ideas about the Scottish philosophical tradition. His wide-angle lens not only takes in Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment figures: it also looks back to Mair, just as MacDiarmid so fruitfully went back to Dunbar.

In this examination of an early 20th century educational rumpus and the relation it has to broader, mainly philosophical concerns in Scottish culture, Davie lays out (though he does not fully assemble) the elements of a major cultural theory. This theory does not rest on points of detail about 1920s SED machinations, nor does it necessarily depend on the educational centrality of philosophy in Scottish universities.

Davie rightly sees that a strong attachment to the ‘comparative method’ is crucial to the Scottish generalist tradition, though it is not unique to that tradition. Knowledge develops not through the concentration of tunnel-vision so much as through contact with other people working in different fields. A breakthrough may depend on a scientist’s ‘accidental hearing from colleagues about facts in some quite different field outside his province and comparing the latter with the former’. On the level of individual perception, Davie reminds us, this principle is at the core of Scottish philosophy. Hume epitomises it when he writes that ‘the minds of men are mirrors to one another.’ Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments points out that the solitary, when brought into society, ‘is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted before’, and so aided in assessing his own nature. Elsewhere in the same work, Smith writes that ‘if we saw ourselves in the light in which others see us, or in which they would see us if they knew all, a reformation would generally be unavoidable.’ Given Smith’s stress on standard English, it is ironic that these words are most familiar in Burns’s Scots version of them in ‘To a Louse’:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!

Davie shows that the same stress on comparative perspectives – individual, educational, and cultural – survives in John Burnet, and in John Anderson, who writes of the pluralism of his philosophy, which means, as Davie summarises it, that ‘conditions for a group’s overcoming its habit-bred blind spots and clearing its eyes, so to speak, of motes are present only when it is aware of itself as surrounded by foreign groups of a comparable type, and would be absent if the group were alone in the world – e.g. in the form of a smoothly organised world state – and had nothing with which its members could compare it. The abolishing of the blind spot actually gets going when some gifted member of the group, as the result of travel etc, is able to compare the way his own group conducts its life with the way foreign groups go about their business.’

This is a philosophy of (inter)nationalism evolved out of the Scottish tradition, and one which presents the best argument, not only for the development of distinctive cultural patterns, but also for the maintaining of communion between them. Equally, this philosophical position supports the study of a wide variety of subjects in a university, and within an individual’s education. Anderson’s philosphy emphasises both difference and relation. In Studies in Empirical Philosophy he writes that ‘there will always be connections to be found between any object and any other object.’ Poets and physicists would agree. In a Scottish Australian context it is interesting to set him beside the most Scottish-influenced of Australian poets, the ‘generalist’ Sydney graduate Les Murray, who has such a strong ‘sense of the simultaneous interconnectedness of all things’.

Davie writes splendidly about the importance of this ‘comparative method’ to MacDiarmid’s Scots poetry, particularly to A drunk man. What Davie does not do, though he makes demonstration possible, is show how this comparative perspective is at the core of the post-Enlightenment Scottish tradition in areas far beyond the philosophical. The divided nature of 18th-century Scotland, split between the cultures of ‘barbarian’ Gaelic-speaking Highlanders, Scots-speaking Low-landers and English-speakers, may have encouraged the strong interest in cultural and linguistic comparativism found in numerous writers including Adam Ferguson, Karnes, Smith, Monboddo. The same multicultural identity fuelled the urge to collect and tabulate cultural materials which is central to the Scottish tradition, whether in the anthologism of Burns, the encyclopedia-makers, the lexicographers, or Scott. Scott’s finest novels exemplify Davie’s ‘comparative method’. Waverley passes its protagonist through a succession of cultures and languages – England, English-speaking Scotland, Scots-speaking Scotland, Gaelic-speaking Scotland – inviting the reader to compare and evaluate them. It is as a great multicultural novelist (as well as one fascinated with crossing language barriers) that Scott was most important to Fenimore Cooper, ‘the American Scott’, and so to the tradition of cultural comparativism so strong in the American novel to Henry James and beyond. It is the comparative, multicultural nature of Don Juan that gives point to the un-English Byron’s statement in the poem:

  I am half a Scot by birth, and bred
A whole one.

Sartor Resartus, whose Ecclefechan author began by writing for an Edinburgh encyclopedia, involves a fascination with assembling cultural fragments and with multiple perspectives. It uses the comparative method in its satirical and illuminating alignment of cultures. The comparative method descends through the collector-novelist Scott not just to Stevenson but also to a remarkable line of Scottish 19th-century anthropologists including McLennan, Lang, Robertson Smith, Frazer – from whom it feeds directly into the cultural and linguistic comparativism of the Modernists, including MacDiarmid. It is odd that, for all his use of the term ‘comparative method’, Davie never mentions the author of The Golden Bough.

Davie gives us some of the best MacDiarmid criticism to date. He shows how the interdisciplinary and philosphical emphases of the Scottish tradition fuelled MacDiarmid’s work and his responses to outside stimuli. Davie is good on the poet’s response to Korzybski and the antisyzygical view of reality made possible by ‘the many-valued logic of Lukasiewitz and Tarski’. Davie emphasises the stress in A drunk man and in MacDiarmid’s Scots lyrics on learning ‘the possibilities and limitations of [one’s] culture only by comparing it with the culture of other countries’. He writes of MacDiarrnid’s love of strange outsider’s perspectives – that miraculous outer-spaciousness of the imagination which asks:

Wha kens on whatna Bethlehems
Earth twinkles like a star the nicht,
An’ whatna shepherds lift their heids
  In its unearthly licht?

The strength of modern Scottish culture has been the ease with which it is able to make the transition, in Edwin Morgan’s terms, from Glasgow to Saturn. What MacDiarmid wrote is the poetry of Very Large Array.

Acutely, Davie relates the Drunk Man’s intellectual and sexual relationship with Jean to the comparative method of moving beyond the limitations of one’s own self-observation.

E’en as the munelicht’s borrowed frae the sun
I ha’e my knowledge o’ mysel’ frae thee,
And much that nane but thee can e’er mak clear,
Save my licht’s frae the source, is dark to me.

Where Davie is surprisingly weak is on MacDiarrnid’s language. Illuminating philosophical elements of A drunk man, Davie writes that it ‘is not to be regarded as a mere literary exercise in synthetic Scots’. Davie seems not to see that MacDiarmid’s language – his ‘Ecclefechan Gongorism’ in synthetic Scots and later synthetic English – complements exactly the philosophical position Davie outlines, it provides a point of view that is valuably outside the English cultural standard.

Like the synthesised language of Burns’s finest poems, and like the Modernist language of Ulysses, The Waste Land or the Cantos, MacDiarmid’s language is un-English and serves as a challenge to ‘standard English’ and the attitudes of cultural imperialism associated with the centres of standard English culture. The MacDiarmid who began to write in Scots had found himself in the position of Stephen Dedalus, who thinks about the English Jesuit dean: ‘My soul frets in the shadow of his language.’ Modernism gains its characteristic effects by wide cultural comparisons frequently involving a language that draws on materials from beyond the peripheries of ‘standard English’ – dialect, slang, technical terms, Chinese, Sanskrit – to make what MacDiarmid called admiringly in In Memoriam James Joyce ‘the Pound-Eliot olla podrida of tongues’. Modernism’s challenge to ‘standard English’ cultural orthodoxy yoked the highbrow to the demotic, and had its crucial origins in ‘provincial’ places like St Louis, Dublin and Langholm. The language of Modernism is a sophisticated barbarism, and Modernism’s heirs are the self-styled barbarian poets, such as Tony Harrison, Douglas Dunn, Les Murray or Seamus Heaney. They are the poets who more and more expose what Davie would call the ‘blind spots’ of crumbling English cultural imperialism.

In the Scottish tradition, Davie is good on the links between Scottish arts and Scottish science and technology. He sees this in Burnet’s attraction to the classical unity of poetry, philosophy and science. He sees it when he points out the way in which modern Edinburgh philosophers have distinguished them selves in the areas of artificial intelligence and the School of Epistemics. In Glasgow vast computerised knowledge programmes are being developed in the Departments of English and Scottish Literature, and English Language. Davie might have pointed out how, further back, the Scottish fascination with language underlay the Elgin ideas of a young physiologist and phonetician called Alexander Graham Bell, or how John Logic Baird’s early photographing himself while asleep in Helensburgh seems curiously like one of those attempts to get round the limitations of self-observation which preoccupied Scottish philosophers. Of all Scottish inventions, it is Baird’s television that most clearly develops Hume’s contention that ‘the minds of men are mirrors to one another.’

What is surprising is Davie’s ‘blind spot’ in failing to appreciate that MacDiarmid’s later scientific poetry of fact doesn’t simply grow out of the earlier Scottish scientific poetry of John Davidson and feed into the work of Edwin Morgan. Rather, it draws on the whole Scottish eclectic tradition and remains concerned with the maintaining of cultural perspectives radically and rewardingly outside those of received standard English culture, as in that ‘Vision of World Language’, In Memoriam James Joyce, which opens:

I remember how you laughed like Hell
When I read you from Pape’s ‘Politics of the Aryan Road’:
‘English is destined to become the Universal Language!’

MacDiarmid goes on to celebrate the continual value of perspectives outwith dominant cultural norms, whether scientific or artistic, and the way that these perspectives are the stuff of artistic and scientific discoveries, which MacDiarmid sees in terms of each other. To the obfuscating imperialism of Eng Lit which has so hampered the perception of the Scottish tradition, MacDiarrnid’s work makes little sense. Davie lays a key in our hands. Into the comparative, fact-loving, eclectic and interdisciplinary Scottish tradition at the heart of Davie’s work In Memoriam James Joyce fits snugly. MacDiarmid’s ‘funny’ outsider’s status becomes the potent posit ion of the Modernists, and, most importantly, of the Scottish tradition itself. Read in terms of this tradition, the Scottish In Memoriam can be seen as one of its most stunning achievements, a peak to set beside Burns’s lyrics, Waverley, Sartor Resartus, or MacDiarmid’s own early work in Scots.

After celebrating a delight in the ‘unpoetic’ and in dialect and neologism, In Memoriam James Joyce places its author in precisely the Daviean position of the outsider whose perceptions alter a culture. MacDiarmid’s voice, as eccentric and invaluable as the speech of a St Kilda’s Parliament, is the voice of one who speaks as what Burns called ‘the man of independent mind’. He uses a 20th-century version of that comparative method which Davie’s book shows has been particularly important to Scottish culture. The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect is a substantial achievement in the chronically underdeveloped area of post-Enlightenment Scottish studies. I suspect Davie would be the first to appreciate that two hundred years after Adam Smith invented the university discipline of English Literature, it was poetic justice that MacDiarmid should have used the Smithian comparative method to make Smith’s 1751 invention in need of urgent, radical modification.