Flights at Dusk

by David Wemyss (December 2014)

Hegel famously remarks that the owl of Minerva takes flight only as dusk is falling. The implication is that philosophy comes at the end of an age, too late in the day to tell us how the world ought to be. And Heidegger comes most belatedly of all. He witnesses the very last crepuscular gleam of the dying day and learns how the story truly ends . . . a figure in the twilight, at the end of a long journey through a large valley and into wooded hills, perhaps pausing on a low ridge that affords him a last narrow glimpse of the paths he has followed, watching the evening descending over the mountains and down toward darkening lakes and fields, trying to fix in memory the shape of a world soon to be lost in night.  –  David Bentley Hart, First Things, February 2011

How serious is the problem of cultural Marxism – the supposition that the right has won the economic argument but that the left has won the cultural one – and perhaps even that the economic one should be resumed? What kind of problem is it? Or – in an arcane twist on those questions – is it thinkable that there isn’t a problem here? Are we failing to see something hidden in the interstices of our pessimism – something that might eventually let us welcome ‘the last crepuscular gleam of the dying day’ as a necessary illusion?

But – first things first. In his new book How to be a Conservative, Roger Scruton says that 70% of academics in Britain and America identify themselves with the left, although one wonders if it would be more like 95% in the ‘soft’ humanities. Of course, were it not for this very thought, I might not have called the humanities soft. I’m a humanities man through and through.

Looking round my book-lined study, what do I see? My eye falls on the works of Nietzsche – the great proponent of autarkical lyricism, and the quintessential rejecter of any club that would have him as a member. Surely he couldn’t possibly be hijacked by the left? But I’m being disingenuous. I know better.

His experiential elitism and his contempt for pity are anti-egalitarian through and through – a long way away from socialism – but they can still be appropriated as a hyperbolic critique of bourgeois morality. Experiential elitism is the apotheosis of what a sublime collectivism would wish to share equally. Pity can be a cover for bourgeois individuality. And so on. I’ve read things that amount to little more than ‘Nietzsche was a bit of a card – a bit of a card can put a human face on socialism – Nietzsche can help socialism keep it real.’

In modern academic circles, a writer or thinker is never as important as what scholarship can make of him – so if a piece of secondary literature stakes a strong enough claim, even a Nietzsche can slip away from someone trying to read him in an unmediated way.

Apposite to all of this, there was an enlightening exchange in the Times Literary Supplement this September, culminating in a letter from one Sebastian Gardner of University College, London. The correspondence was about The Oxford Handbook to Nietzsche, which the TLS had reviewed two weeks earlier.

Concern had been expressed that Nietzsche’s ‘disorderly’ texts were being misrepresented by having twenty-first century frameworks lowered onto them to bring about any Nietzsche imaginable – as long as he was imagined by a professional philosopher rhetorically strong enough to get himself or herself published. Professor Gardner, however, was unconcerned. He seemed to think that the possibility that texts were being interpreted in congenial ways that were also historically inaccurate was simply an honest possibility in an honest situation.

This reminded me of how I used to say to people that Charles Dickens clearly sympathised with the poor but that that didn’t allow us to infer that he would be on the left if he were to be alive today. The fantasy is philosophically objectionable, of course, but, if we allow it as a harmless methodological experiment, it can only be a stimulus to speculation. Now, however, the same basic impulse (to recruit intellectual reinforcements from history) seems to have hardened into something truly objectionable.

The assumption now seems to be that all sensible and well-intentioned people are on the left – and that it’s more than reasonable to suppose that the great writers and thinkers of the past would be on the left too if they were to be resuscitated today. So although their words and attributes – and their whole lives – are in one sense bound to be understood against the backdrop of their own times, their world-historical achievements are nevertheless of utmost interest to the extent that they accommodate the dialectical probability that, in their different ways, they would be progressives in our time.

But, against this creepy twist on ‘history as inexorable,’ I still warm to the idea that there are insights that are more or less timeless – insights that remain unchanged even if the person having them is supposed to be coping with a new existence 150 years after his death!

Let me try an illustration. Kierkegaard was a confirmed monarchist and a virulent critic of the emergent democratic movements in Denmark in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, if resuscitated miraculously for a sojourn in our own time, I’m sure he would affirm democracy and be on the centre-left or centre-right.

But I’m equally sure he would continue to insist (as he did in 1847 in ‘Works of Love’) that there could never be a temporal dissimilarity with which Christ would side in partiality. He would continue to see that it was fashionable to emphasise the equality of the lowest but that sometimes the really difficult thing was to remember the equality of the highest.

So Christian love is not impossibly difficult because of our natural hesitation over a smelly vagrant. Our routine partisanships are a good deal more telling. 

This isn’t a critique of bourgeois morality, though – it turns a searchlight on all human value-systems. However, a lot of Kierkegaard scholars are on the left in fairly straightforward ways, and the beam of light can pick out things that don’t sit well with their worldly solidarities. Are they left-wing before they’re Kierkegaardian? Not in my experience, actually, and that’s hopeful.

Interestingly, Freud and Kafka are also commonly understood in terms of their supposed ruffling of bourgeois feelings – even if I grew up imagining they ruffled a good deal more than that. Unlike Freud, though, Kafka did at least show genuine signs of being on the left – although, having said that, his actual stories look to me as if the only thing stopping him clinging onto the old certainties for dear life is a sense that he just can’t. It’s too late.

But I don’t think he had the quintessential progressive impulse that no one should want to go back rather than forward. In fact I’d say The Trial is about the infinite and terrifying breadth of intelligibility that just is the future – now that the old certainties have gone for good.

Dostoyevsky tells us that without God everything is permitted, but Kafka is saying that without God everything is intelligible. Only God can halt the endless flow of plausibility – things interpreted to be in accord with other things. To speak well, you have to trust in something that can put a stop to plausibility. But this in turn makes you really free.

Recognising that you can’t cling to the old certainties – even though, for those of us who appreciate their real gravity, they exert a much stronger pull than mere nostalgia – just means that you really have to resist the temptation to hold on to them.

Which is quite an appealing definition of nuanced leftism.

Whereas the idea that only God can halt the endless flow of plausibility – things interpreted to be in accord with other things – sounds a bit conservative.

But being a bit conservative won’t do if you’re Kafka – the ‘Jackdaw of Prague’ whom George Steiner said had claimed the letter K for all time.

And it won’t do if you’re the grand old man of the literary left in Britain either.

Writing in the London Review of Books recently, Alan Bennett was once again airing his familiar disapproval of private schools in the UK. This time, though, he was also talking about that dreary safari from left to right which generally comes with age, a trip writers in particular seem drawn to, Amis, Osborne, Larkin, Iris Murdoch all ending up at the spectrum’s crusty and clichéd end.’  

I found this a bit annoying – if there was one thing I ditched with the ditching of my formerly automatic leftward assumptions, it was cliché – but it seems as if people on the left sometimes can’t imagine what conservatism might actually be.

Bennett was wrong about Philip Larkin too. Larkin was on the right from early on. He was a fanatical despiser of trade unions, sociology, anti-war campaigners, communism, and indeed pretty well all the trappings of the left. He adored Margaret Thatcher at a time when it was de rigueur for intellectuals to hate her.

But – would you believe it? – he too has been getting a makeover this year. Mind you, even the Guardian found ‘an air of desperation’ in James Booth’s new biography, in which Larkin is excused his reactionary views on the grounds that he was probably just playing to the gallery of his reactionary friends.

I wonder. The first stanza of ‘How to Win the Next Election’ – a little ditty sent privately to friends in letters – goes like this –

Prison for strikers
Bring back the cat
Kick out the niggers
How about that?

Playing to the gallery? I doubt it. Why would you write something like that if you didn’t relish it? I don’t have any of these prejudices and I reject any suggestion that the unmediated force of ‘unprepared’ speech is an excuse for bad manners or unkindliness. I have completely different prejudices – quite zany ones, really – but I keep them to myself because they’re a bit unkind.

Larkin was also in the habit of ending phone calls to Kingsley Amis with the expression ‘Fuck Oxfam’ – presumably a shared pact between two men who weren’t entirely sure that they cared about their fellow men and women as much as social norms dictated they should.

But that could be healthy enough.

Joseph Conrad once wrote in a letter to a friend that there were ‘no converts to ideas of honour, justice, pity, freedom’ –

There are only people who drive themselves into a frenzy with words, repeat them, shout them out, imagine they believe in them . . . and words fly away; and nothing remains, do you understand?

Of course you can’t seriously hold to the view that your words are just a noise – but you can be reminded at every moment that no theoretical or critical model is ever going to be a sufficient explanation of the moments she would adduce as more than noise. 

So perhaps ‘Fuck Oxfam’ is a (very) clumsy attempt to resist cliché and sanctimony. Larkin is just having a go at the inhospitability of the self-congratulating in-group.

‘We all have coffee together on Thursday mornings at the church. We all care about the poor and the planet and the third world, so we have a lot in common.’

‘In my world, there would be plenty money for welfare and health because none would be wasted on nuclear submarines.’

Which leads me back to Alan Bennett.                      

His piece about private schools also made the claim that he ‘had never been much concerned with politics until the 1980s when they became difficult to avoid.’ Now this was an unusual remark, coming as it was from a man who had written two very clever plays about the Cambridge spies and had said at the time that he found it difficult to get too worked up about their treason because ‘at least they were on the right side.’  

But saying that Soviet spies were somehow ‘on the right side’ fits with a persistent tendency in Western Europe towards the feeling that, with a little bit of luck, communism might have been benign – or that, at the very least, some form of cooperative economy is still to be hoped for.

In fact, my impression is that, over the last fifty years, the humanities on this side of the Atlantic have sent young people out into the world with their minds firmly attuned to the idea that a post-modern (or even transcendental) version of collectivism is always the single imperative of a sound human understanding.

It’s the sort of thinking you find in the writings of the well-known Slovenian philosopher Slajov Žižek – we await communism; we’ve never had it; it stirs in our nostalgia.

It waits to emerge. 

These are my words, of course – Žižek himself is unreadable. However, at the time of writing, the best bookshop in Aberdeen – one of the major provincial cities in the UK – has seven of his books in the philosophy section but nothing by Kant or Wittgenstein. And then there’s the French attempt to turn Heidegger around to face leftwards, led of course by Jacques Derrida.

Meanwhile, an editorial in Art Monthly – a long-established art journal over here – resists the teaching of drawing in art schools on the grounds that art is precisely the unpremeditated and the unteachable. The only training an artist needs is rudimentary joinery – in order to make the boxes to put conceptual art into. But a recent debate at the South Bank seemed premeditated enough – its conclusion was that all modern art was left wing!

And in the Daily Telegraph a few years ago Dominic Cavendish asked why so few of today’s plays challenged the leftward consensus. By way of reply, Lisa Goldman, artistic director of the Soho Theatre, asked dismissively what a right-wing play would have to offer. ‘Anti- democracy, misogyny, bigotry, nostalgia of all kinds? Let’s get back to a white Britain? That the slave trade had a civilising influence? That women should stay in the home?’ 

Well, I suppose I am prone to nostalgia. But the horrifying thing is that she has no idea what nuanced conservatism might look like. And she clearly doesn’t know anyone who might tell her. For example, she has no idea about Michael Oakeshott – the urbane, clubbable, quintessentially English figure who had a defining preoccupation with the idea of conversation as something relaxed and playful, not determinative at all costs.

In Oakeshott, an almost Ciceronian civility is imagined in the place of our all-too-familiar tendency to be irritated or even enraged when someone says something supposedly ‘incorrect.’ In the late classical Latin of Seneca, conversatio meant intimacy and companionship – but nowadays intimacy and companionship are often dependent upon the prior assumption that certain things will not be said.

So a ‘conservative’ play might explore all of that. There’s your answer Ms. Goldman. And here’s another suggestion. Virginia Woolf – whom I love – is assumed to be a great feminist icon and pacifist, but she was capable of vituperative snobbery and ended up admiring Churchill. There’s a ‘conservative’ play there too, I’d say.

How does such a narrow person get to be the artistic director of a theatre in London? You hear the same easy consensus throughout our cultural elites. Indignation sometimes appears to have replaced moral imagination.  

Of course, in a lot of people, indignation is just the flaring-up of cheap emotion – in which case you would hope that they would be disquieted and disillusioned when things turn nasty. I first wondered if I was really on the left as soon as the violence and intimidation started during the miners’ strike in Britain in 1984.

I thought back then – and I still think now – that the mining communities were to blame for their own devastation in much the same way as ordinary Germans were to blame for the bombing of Dresden. A lot of ordinary people knew they had been drawn into something wrong, but the situation quickly became much bigger than they were.

But if you have the imagination to see the existential dereliction of mass unemployment spreading across the north of England, and Wales and Scotland too, you see that Mrs Thatcher beat the bad guys by using excessive force, and you wonder what might have been done differently. Nevertheless I think you should concede that there were bad guys. Not enough people on the left do so – and that’s a disappointment.

Even as I write, a local cinema is showing a film – Pride – that romanticises the strike. Clearly, so many people carelessly admire this ‘struggle against oppression’ that popular movies can be made about it. Separately, the same cinema is also showing a documentary about the Labour politician Tony Benn, who refused to condemn the violence in 1984 and remains a darling of the left in Britain to this day.

It’s interesting.

What, in the end, does it mean to be on the left, or on the right? And why is it so heart-easing when someone doesn’t want to leap in to proclaim one or the other of the two positions? 

Very crudely, I suppose cultural elites tend towards progressive thought and cooperative economies, whereas the majority of people outside those elites just want to spend their money and not have it taken off them by the state.

The elites insist that an alternative (cooperative) economy is to be hoped for at all costs, while ordinary people are suspicious of cooperation if it’s going to be imposed by egalitarian politicians.

But the tendency of the elites to want to redesign society outperforms the impulses of ordinary people. Even if both sides can be imagined to be calculative and rationalisticgiven over to what we might call instrumentality – one of them does better in shaping culture. The elites may lose some elections, but they continue to draw us imperceptibly towards their presuppositions. And maybe it’s just as well. 

How does this come about? Well, the non-instrumental character of rightward assumption is essentially passive, so resisting the instrumental drift to the left will fall back on the instrumental character of the right – and this is a battle the left can usually win.

Instrumentality in the guise of socialism is likely to prevail against instrumentality in the guise of (say) monetarism. It sees existence as a kind of investment – and needs to work out the best return. The elites will say the best return is to be obtained from humanism, progress, science, and democracy – and of course things like literature and music, and the arts in general. And, compared with prosaic money-making and bread and circuses, they’re right.

The conversation of people who are actively enthusiastic about capitalism is often very boring. In fact, why would you be actively enthusiastic about capitalism – as opposed to rejecting out of hand the glib criticisms of it that are all too familiar?

I suppose you could say that, if the instrumentality of the left is engaged by the instrumental wing of the right, it’s no contest – and the real contest doesn’t get to happen. The non-instrumental character of nuanced conservatism can’t show its mettle because no one knows what it is.

But maybe I should stop talking about ‘nuanced conservatism.’ Maybe the real point is that – from a UK perspective – I have very little complaint about soft-left policies. The thing is that I’m not so keen on the people who formulate them. I don’t mind moderate socialist policies, but, to obtain them, you need socialists.

Of course I say I’m not so keen on the people who actively formulate progressive policies, but the people I love most in the world are either on the soft-left or the soft middle-ground – or else they’re fairly unreconstructed socialists. Yet even they seem a bit, well, automatic in their political judgements – just as I used to be. But they’re not the type to have chips on their shoulders, and that’s good.

So – am I a nuanced conservative or a very eccentric soft-left figure?  

Well, for Michael Oakeshott, planning everything was a dismal way of looking at the world but a plan to have no plans was still a plan. And to be a conservative was ‘to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.’

So an Oakeshottian conservative could quite conceivably support plans to bring about a cooperative economy, or a welfare state.

As long as the intended interventions were going to be understated – not ungainly – and sensitive to the differences between people.  

Not everyone should be assumed to be ‘one of us.’

It’s a big ask.

Because the bedrock implication is that our political categories are no longer ‘fit for purpose’ – and that the new categories we need are barely able to be accommodated within public language.  

But, the more we try to think it through, the more we may indeed be searching ‘the interstices of our pessimism’ for new hope.

I must be a progressive at heart after all!

But you wouldn’t know it sometimes.



David Wemyss graduated in law from the University of Aberdeen in 1977 and worked in local government in that city until he retired in 2011 at the age of 56. He continues to live there with his wife and son. Having been published in a number of journals and magazines over the years, his essays are usually drawn from a mix of middlebrow and highbrow literary interests.


To comment on this essay, please click here.

To help New English Review continue to publish interesting essays such as this one, please click here.

If you have enjoyed this essay and want to read more by David Wemyss, please click here.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New English Review Press is a priceless cultural institution.
                              — Bruce Bawer

Order here or wherever books are sold.

The perfect gift for the history lover in your life. Order on Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon or Amazon UK or wherever books are sold

Order at Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold. 

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Send this to a friend