It’s a Knock-Out

Tom Nairn

  • The Spirit of the Age: An Account of Our Times by David Selbourne
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 388 pp, £20.00, February 1993, ISBN 1 85619 204 0

In his brilliant account of collapsing Yugoslavia, A Paper House, Mark Thompson meets a leader of the Vojvodina Ruthenes called Professor Julijan Tamas. Since 1989 this tiny people has been struggling back into political existence. In 1991 they managed to stage the first World Congress of Ruthenes and just before that the first Bible in Ruthenian had finally appeared. ‘“We want to create the conditions for an Epic of Gilgamesh for the Ruthenes,” said the Professor. I tried not to gape, while he eyed me shrewdly and sipped his whisky, sure of his effect.’

I felt a bit like Thompson on reading the startlingly terse note which presents The Spirit of the Age. There the reader is informed that this is ‘an alternative, Jewish history of our times’. ‘History’ is not quite accurate. A huge quantity of press-cuttings have been fed into its pages, but they are mere grist to Selbourne’s meditative mill. What he aims to do is tell us the meaning of our times by placing them in a self-consciously Hebraic perspective. The Christians and (more especially) the Muslims have taken over the post-1989 act. Time, therefore, for the Jews to fight their own corner. Whet it comes to prophecy they can still take on the rest of the world.

The result is a superbly pugilistic ‘account of our times’. Its 12 rounds start with demography (too many people, too many of them in motion), and proceeds via the Death of Socialism to Religion (resurgence inevitable, but not an answer). Then come the Environment (breeds plebeians), the Modern Media (encourage worst instincts of plebeians), the Body (Aids etc), Violence (plebeians at it again), and so on to Citizenship (more discipline required for taming of Plato’s ‘savage beast’ or the Selbournian equivalent – ‘the universal plebeian’).

The manifestly sombre tone of the contest is heightened by Selbourne’s technique. This is a man who comes out punching and never stops from one gong to the next. Virtually every page boasts its knock-out. Few are praised, and most of these are as dead as Plato or Tocqueville. Naturally, intellectuals guilty of false progressivism and romantic illusions about plebs are singled out for the direst punishment, myself among them, Jewish intellectuals who should have known better fare worst of the lot. Eric Hobsbawm, for instance: he ends up floored no less than nine times, for everything from Stalinism to ‘gratuitous vernacular’ and joking about Nietzsche.

Since the Zeitgeist business is so vigorous just now many may find Selbourne’s title and prophetic posture quite appealing. But I suspect even those with pronounced apocalyptic tastes will be liable to exhaustion en route to his particular revelation. There are no oases. Over 376 pages, every glimmer of emergent hope turns into a pleb-inspired mirage. It is no more than kindness, therefore, to tell would-be readers to start at the end – with the chapter bearing the same title as the book. They can then proceed backwards (as it were) from the heart of darkness to whichever station of the cross most appeals: the Rushdie affair or fast-food poisoning, for instance; health fascism, the death of the family, or Modernism (sins of): the true philosophy of the suburban front-door coach-lamp (‘a rejection of the plebeian’) or of pop music (‘Plebeianism matures quickly and is old by thirty, the damage done’).

True, a reader proceeding in that way might also be tempted to give up. For the heart of darkness is curiously grey. To write this tract Selbourne has turned self-consciously to his Jewish roots, notably those of the prophetic tradition. Yet the thunder, when finally delivered after grieving foreplay of incredible duration and intensity, amounts to little more than a modest cough. I doubt if Yahweh will be pleased, or shower blessings. It’s even possible that the whole exercise will serve to confirm sneaking doubts He must long have nurtured about the English branch of the Chosen. They have never had much to say for themselves and-if this is anything to go by-it may be too late to make up for it now.

The new Truth is that the Jewish-inspired Destiny of the World must henceforth be ... well, uhh ... not so extreme. We have just been saved from one noxious extremity, Communism. Capitalist liberty has its own perils, however, and there is no salvation in simply switching over to ‘Sir Keith Joseph’s utopia ... of free market, strong state, limited government and stable families’. This right-wing vision won’t keep down the plebs either – and it has cost too many Jewish lives in the past. So the way forward is not very Zarathustra-like: merely middle-of-the-road. Actually, that’s what these prophet fellows really amount to when you set off one against the other. Never trust anybody once he’s on his high horse.

Take England itself, uner attack from false prophets like Hobsbawm – or ‘the journalist Neal Ascherson’, known to be forever sneering about the ‘Druids’ of the Ancien Régime and its élite values. Dancing on the grave of Old England, retorts Selbourne, ‘is a serious matter’. It might summon up plebeian demons, and Jews as well as crusty old Tories should recoil. ‘It shows an intrusive and dangerous disrespect, in the name of the citizen, for the citizen-identities – such as they are – of others.’ So take it easy, Charter 88; shallow abstractions may carry us away from the concrete reality – such as it is – of ‘whatever remains of a civic culture’. After all, the old Druids at least kept the plebs in their place.

What the oracular Geist delivers, in fact, is a quite extraordinarily dyspeptic Englishman convinced he is the decisive reincarnation of the Wandering Jew. It’s as if Sir Kingsley Amis had been converted to Judaism, given up the pub, and decided to justify his rebirth with a fulminating sermon on what chaps should be doing about Our Times. The Ruthenes have nothing to worry about. As rewritten for John Major’s times, England’s epic is all regression. Gilgamesh is Lewis Carroll in disguise: the Queen of Hearts raves uninterruptedly through 11 sanguinary, doom-sodden chapters, then at the end Alice pops out and tells everybody to behave.

Where does Selbourne’s stance fit in relation to ongoing international debates about post-1989? These have been regularly discussed in the London Review’s pages: in articles about Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism (1989), Fukuyama’s The End of History (1991) and Perry Anderson’s essays in A Zone of Engagement, for example. I know the spectrum of positions there is a wide one, which should not be tidied up to make it look more coherent than it is. It ranges from what Geoffrey Hawthorn, reviewing Anderson’s book, has described as a classically Enlightened ‘post-nationalism’ to the more romantic (or anarchist) position deriving from thinkers like Jane Jacobs (Cities and the Wealth of Nations, 1985) and Roman Szporluk (Communism and Nationalism, 1988). The LRB of 25 February published this reviewer’s variation on the second theme as ‘Forward to the Past’.

The point of this list is not advertisement but to point to a continuing and disparate polemic around the Spirit of the Age: the wide, somewhat inchoate dispute out of which whatever comes (one day) to be seen as the truth may gradually or partially emerge. As far as I can see, Selbourne’s self-conscious prophesying has no place in it. This is not just because he fails to mention Fukuyama. Anderson, Roberto Unger, Ernest Gellner, or other significant contributors. More serious is the fact that he believes himself dispensed from doing so in virtue of a special insight bestowed by the Judaic inheritance. A Jew, he writes, naturally ‘reflects the deepest eddies of the spirit of the age’: ‘Whether disowning socialism’s lies and violence or doubling the very notion of progress ... whether expressing a fearful distaste for the “universal plebeian” or searching anew for a lost sense of identity and Messianic purpose, the wandering Jew helps lay bare, in a period of turmoil, the lineaments of wider preoccupation.’ Structured argument is not required of ‘mankind’s weather-vane’. He already knows which way the wind is blowing. It is sufficient to pile up evidence of outrages and bellow denunciations.

The actual inheritances to be perceived at work in this theoretical dispute include (a very approximate list): Japanese-American, Anglo-Irish, Austro-Jewish English, Jewish-Canadian. Ukrainian-American, Brazilian, lapsed-Calvinist-British and Jewish-Czech-English. The proliferation of hyphens is not accidental. Benedict Anderson (also unacknowledged) has recently shown how the spirit of our times is increasingly modelled by great and relatively permanent population-movements – and not of plebeians alone. Nor does this turmoil produce merely the rootlessness and anomie Selbourne deplores. The Jewish grandeur which he strives so hard to replicate (mainly by lung-power) was always in part a product of displacement and extraniation. To the extent to which other cultures also turn out ‘wandering Jews’ one would, surely, expect the talent for prophecy and divination of the Zeitgeist also to become more widely diffused.

There is also the question of Israel. Though Selbourne admits at one point that ‘the centre of gravity of the “Jewish problem” has shifted from the diaspora to Israel,’ he later denies that this makes any real difference. That natural Hebraic centrality to the deeper issues of the time ‘is not different now, even if a principal focus of Jewish concern, and of concern with Jews, has moved ... to the narrower battlefield of their nation-state’. But it is different, of course – not just as a result of the partial ‘nationalisation’ of Jewishness, but because of the internationalisation of diasporic consciousness in a world of emigrants, itinerants and (as they were once labelled) ‘cosmopolitans’.

Discussing Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, an important Palestinian-American contribution to the Zeitgeist controversy, Ernest Gellner recently made what seems to me the crucial point. Understanding the post-imperial world, he emphasised, now demands a theoretical reconstruction of how we got here at all – of the entire trajectory of ‘development’ or modernisation. What vanished in 1989 was not Communism alone, but the rusting 19th-century conceptual framework which had so long supported it. It has to be accepted that there is a wider and deeper historical process at work, one not yet understood. Many (naturally) will have partial or fragmentary insight into that process from their diverse cultural or ethnic standpoints – both Ruthenian and Jewish. But it is folly to imagine that anyone has a privileged or intuitive access to its secrets derived from special experience – not even from special suffering like that of the Palestinians or the Jews.

And worse folly still to believe that such Nietszchean revelations can be simply poured out in a tirade like this, ignoring the contemporary reconstruction of grand theory in favour of a seer-like moral sensibility. The outstanding features of Selbourne’s tract are its indifference to theory and its malignant hostility to the deluded agents of abstraction; a relentless and fulminating castigation of the mob and its coarse appetites. At one point H.G Wells gets knocked right out of the ring: ‘Not being Jewish, he was both too bland and over-optimistic’ – just not equipped for the prophecy business, poor sap. Actually, The Time Machine told the same tale as this book but a lot more entertainingly: a future-world where the plebs (the Morlocks) burst out from their caverns and devour Civilisation.

One can’t prophesy just by deciding to do so. Nor can a particular tradition be made to utter through one’s own tongue simply by saying: ‘I belong to you.’ Other idioms may break in and have their say. As well as all the above reservations – and without having much idea of what a genuine Jewish post-’89 Weltanschauung would be like – I find myself reluctant to believe that Selboune makes much of a contribution to it. In The Spirit of the Age it is the ethnos of Druidic England which gives voice rather than that of Hebraism