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Worth reading

Your biog in What Good are the Arts?1 says of you: ‘[He] has been at various points in his life a soldier, a barman, a television critic, a beekeeper, a printmaker and a professor of literature.’ It’s a rather unexpected CV for a don, and I wondered what influence those different activities have had on the formation of your mind.

Well, the one that I should think was most formative was the Army, really. I did National Ser­vice, like every­one of my generation: I was commissioned in the East Surrey Regiment in ‘52–4, before I went up to Oxford, and went out to Egypt to guard the Suez Canal. It was peace­ful soldiering, of course, but it was very ed­ucative because I’d come from a small grammar school – jolly good school! – and I didn’t really know anything about the Army and thought of it, I suppose, with a sort of slight contempt. But I found that the people I met in the Army were ac­tually extraordinarily interesting and ad­mirable. I was lucky enough to have a company com­mander, a decorated officer who had served in North Africa and Normandy, who was a very gentle and considerate man.
I think the Army also gave me habits that have lasted, like punctuality. I can’t bear it if people are late for things. And also, you know, keeping fit.

And discipline?

Yeah, I think so. I think so. And that might not be so good… I mean, I think I was all right as a tutor at Ox­ford – I’m pretty sure I wasn’t a bully or anything.

Being a barman, of course, was just a holiday job, in Liverpool Street Station. I think I did it for a couple of vacations. Very fascinating, actually. Very good, again, for someone who’s sort of lived among books and had a rather sheltered life. People are very insulting to barmen, you know. It’s amazing how much rudeness you get. It taught me a bit of what it’s like to be not respected at all – you know, treated like a menial. What most people have all their lives, I suppose. That was good.

What had your upbringing been like?

I came from a very middle–class home, in Barnes. My father was an accountant. Very Christian family, actually. We went to the parish church every Sunday, and I belonged to the choir.

My father had been in the war and I imagine that influenced him in that respect, in that he was very religious – not in a demonstrative way, but he prayed on his knees by his bed every night. I sometimes heard him. I remember that on the wall facing my parents’ bed was a huge picture of the Crucifixion in a black frame. Not a very joyful decoration for a bedroom…

So, yeah, I grew up in a Chris­tian background – not, you know, fanatical, but Christian values, certainly.

Did they influence you as a child?

Yeah. I think that kind of background influences you forever afterwards, actually. All my values, really, are Christian, even if they’re wholly secularised.

I remember sort of losing my faith, as it were, when I was in the Sixth Form. I think I told my mother first that I didn’t believe any more and she said, ‘Talk to your father. He’s a good man.’ He was a wonderful man, very generous, very gentle. He said: ‘It’s a dark road you’re starting on.’ True, of course.

In what ways have you found the road dark?

Well, inevitably there is an emptiness…

What occasioned that loss of faith?

I couldn’t say there was any one, particular thing. The headmaster at my school was a very interesting man – I don’t know whether he was agnostic but he had been in the war and he was slightly sceptical. I remember him setting us an essay on ‘Of what can we be certain?’ – a very good essay to tackle at 16 – and I found there is nothing, of course (as he hoped we would). So, that was the kind of thing, I fancy. Read­ing and talking with other Sixth Formers, I suppose. It was a kind of drifting away. That’s quite common, don’t you think?

Did it feel like a loss at the time?

No. Partly because although I had changed inside, as it were, I went on going to church and I think I had the same values, only no longer quite with belief be­hind them. I went on with church music, which I liked a lot.

Religious music still moves me, in a way that I suppose it shouldn’t, if you like. It’s not something that a Chris­tian would think of as religion, but it’s a substit­ute. When my sons were choristers at New College, I would go and hear them sing – al­most every night, actually.

And another thing: when you study English literature, it seems to me that you are kept in touch with what it is like to believe. I mean, I was study­ing George Her­bert and so on, and when you read these poets you do imaginatively enter into what they’re writing about and it gives you a kind of nostalgic feeling that helps to fill the gap that is left by what you haven’t got.

Of course, it’s not the same as faith, but at the same time… I’m pretty cer­tain that then – and now – in ex­tremes I would pray – but then I think that’s very common, too. I think there is a kind of hinterland where you can go either way ac­cording to circumstance. Per­haps it has been common among the ordinary people for centuries, actually. It’s very hard to tell, because the testament we have is by people who often are committed anyway.

Who feel strongly enough one way or the other to write about it.

Yeah, that’s right, that’s right. Sure.

What attracted you to the (notably Christian) poets of the late 16th and 17th century, and how did they inform your understanding of Christianity? I’d have said that one of the surest ways to put anyone off religion would be to get them to study 17th–century European history.

Yeah. I was, I suppose, influenced greatly by the people who taught me, as usual. I was tutored by J B Leishman, who had written what was then the book on Donne.

I think what attracted me to Donne was that – well, although he had Christian faith, he also (so to speak) didn’t. I mean, the Holy Sonnets are all about the devil claiming him – perhaps he will ‘perish on the shore’,3 you know? They are expressive of doubt, and I suppose that matched my feelings, particularly when I was an undergraduate.

And Milton – well, what I love about him, I think, is really his Puritanism. I do find Puritanism actually very appealing. I’m not absolutely certain why, but one thing is that I was brought up during the war, obviously in frugal circumstances – not that we were poorer than most people – on the contrary – but there was rat­ioning, there were no luxuries, you know; and I came to feel that frugality was the right way to live. I still do, actually. The sort of influx of affluence in the last 20 years seems to me not normal, not the kind of way I want to live, really.

And, also, Milton’s application of reason and logic to religion, I think, was very at­tractive. At the beginning of the Sixties, I spent my evenings for nearly four years translating Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana, the huge, four–volume work of Latin exegesis in which he goes through the Bible working out what it really says. I was fascinated by that. I mean, it was the first time I’d really looked at someone applying their brain to the biblical evidence.

It led him in some very heterodox directions, didn’t it?

Oh, heretical, absolutely. Denial of the doctrine of the Trinity, denial of the divinity of Christ…

I learnt a lot about doctrine. I mean, it’s aston­ish­ing how little people know about Christian doctrine now, but I discovered reading De Doctrina that I didn’t know as much as I thought, either. He does virtually ransack the whole Bible for his proof texts.

In the introduction to The Faber Book of Science, you say: ‘Theology might, without any paradox, be regarded as a science, committed to persistently questioning and reinterpreting available evidence about God.’ That is a thoroughly orthodox medieval view of theology but not one you hear very often today, when it is fashionable to disparage theology.

That’s right. Yes, that’s right. And certainly my view of theology is partly coloured by what I’ve just said about Milton: if that’s theology, well, that’s an extremely in­teresting thing to do and it’s interesting to see how the mind works in that kind of enquiry. It doesn’t seem to be very different from the way the mind works in any enquiry, actually. Examine the evidence. Go back to the sources and then see how it works out.

But you’re right that I don’t take a hostile view of religion. I mean, that seems to me extraordinarily in­sensitive and inconsiderate and irrational. Why should you deprive someone of their religious faith? Again, a lot of my feelings and thoughts are derived from literature, having read it for so long and taught it for so long; and William Wordsworth, when he’s watching the pilgrims at some shrine in France, says:

If the sad grave of human ignorance bear
One flower of hope – oh, pass and leave it there!

You know, don’t quench or question these people’s faith: they’re happier with it. Well, surely that must be right, it seems to me. Obviously, Christian faith has been of enormous comfort through the centuries to people in tragic circumstances. I don’t see what you gain by trying to stamp it out, like Richard Dawkins – and what you lose is obvious: not just a huge resource for comfort spiritually but also, well, the moral dimension, which we seem to be much in need of.

I guess that the Dawkins camp would say that it is all a question of truth. Is it right to commend something you don’t believe is true on the grounds that it keeps people on the straight and narrow? And aren’t you yourself proof that one can live a moral life without it?

Yes, I take your point… Well, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t have been a more moral person myself if I had kept my religious faith. Not that I’m a criminal, of course… I’m sure that my father was a much better man because of his faith. I mean, the people I have known well who were religious – and quite a few of them I would think of as almost saintly – didn’t behave un­selfishly because they thought they would be punished if they didn’t but, I believe, out of love of God.

Fifty years ago or so, there was a widespread opinion that as societies became better educated and wealthier, religion would wither away; but patently that hasn’t happened. Does that influence your attitude to religion, and to Christianity specifically: that, whether or not it is true, it speaks to a deep and ineradicable human need?

Yes, it does. Furthermore, this business about truth is quite a complicated one, I think. It’s clear that the truth or untruth, say, of the existence of God isn’t something that is attainable by the human mind, so that the best position someone like Dawkins could honestly, it seems to me, attain to is agnosticism. I can’t see how you can be certain of the non–existence of something when there aren’t any means of finding out.
I also think that the notion that science, or logic, is capable of something you might say is truth is itself quite questionable. I mean, the human brain, the scientists tell us, is a piece of meat with electric impulses going through it. Now, why should that piece of meat have some connection with something called ‘truth’? You know? I don’t see why they’re so sure about it. It seems to me the whole business is so uncertain that their dogmatic certainty seems extraordinary.

The last line of William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies famously refers to ‘the darkness of man’s heart’. Is that, fundamentally Christian idea something you would countersign: that there is something genuinely dark in human nature that is not erased by wealth or education or civilisation?

I’m rather inclined to that. Certainly, Gold­ing leads you in that direction. But I think also, from reading a bit of anthropology, it seems that two of the basic instincts we need to survive are aggression and (obviously) sex; but it happens that at the moment they are what’s des­troying the world. That is to say, we’ve got a huge population that is expanding all the time, and no one knows how we’re going to feed it, so you could do without sexual intercourse for a while, as it were. I did a Faber Book of Utopias and from the middle of the 19th century that has been the main worry of Utopians. H G Wells was always thinking how to get rid of people…

And aggression – well, obviously, aggression is, alas, what you don’t want.

There’s another thing about the human brain from that point of view – going back to Richard Dawkins. He often talks about awe, doesn’t he? About how you don’t need religion because science gives you awe and wonder – as if religion only gives you awe and won­der! But awe and wonder, it seems to me, are simply traceable to the deficiencies of the human brain as it has dev­eloped over the millennia. What it’s developed to do is to, well, solve simple physical problems – make stone axes and so on. And if you look at subatomic particles and think how awesome they are – well, they’re only awesome because we’re completely unable to deal with them. What Dawkins calls ‘awe’ is actually ignorance. I don’t see anything particularly wonderful about it.

It is often remarked that, irrespective of our religious faith, we lose something profound if we lose contact with the culturally formative narratives and mental landscapes that Christianity has given us.

Well, exactly, exactly. I mean, you can’t understand any literature before the 20th century without that. Even in Oxford, for heaven’s sake, where you’re supposed to get, you know, the most brilliant undergraduates and so on, you’d be surprised how little they know. You might say: ‘Well, they can’t un­der­stand pre–20th–century literature. So what? A lot of people don’t need to understand pre–20th–century literature.’ But what it ac­tually means is, there isn’t a common culture any more. There used to be a whole set of references that would be understood by everyone, and we don’t seem to have that any more.

What we have now is pop culture, and it’s interesting – I mean, I find myself now beginning to appreciate what it must have been like when I was growing up for people who had no knowledge of, say, literature, classical music and so on. I’m in that position now with pop culture. Only yesterday I was reading in the New Yorker a piece by its editor, David Remnick, about Keith Richards – I mean, pages and pages. I couldn’t tell you anything about Keith Richards…

I guess the question is: Does all this matter?

Well, I think that’s a very good question. At the lev­el of not having a common culture, a common set of references, I think it probably does. Intellectual life be­comes disintegrated.

Is it more important to learn about English literature than pop music? Now, that is a very important question and in What Good are the Arts? I say: Well, you can’t show that it does. I wrote that ag­ainst the grain, obviously, but also, I suppose, because I’ve studied Mil­ton and I thought you should ex­amine the evidence and find out, whatever you’d like to believe, what actually seems to be the case.

And if you ask, ‘Are there objective, absolute standards in art and literature?’, I don’t see that there are – and I don’t see what they would be like supposing you could imagine there were. If you believe in God and believe that he’s got aesthetic taste, then that’s that – I mean, I’ve heard Anne Atkins on the radio talking ab­out Shakespeare as if God likes Shakespeare, you know? But I don’t believe that – and what other kind of criterion could there be? If it’s objective and it’s absolute, it would also have to be transcultural – the same for the Japanese and Chin­ese and Indians as for us. And it must be through time – and if you look at the reputations of artists and poets through time, they change a lot.

So, I find it very hard to believe that you can say that Milton is better than Keith Richards.

Nonetheless, the book cites several powerful instances of how art can be beneficial – how, for example, poetry–and–literature workshops in prisons foster self–esteem and creativity, which make us more fully human; and you seem to regard that as an objective good and not just a subjective one.

I do, I do, and I was very impressed by what people who have worked in prisons on art and literature have written. It was a straw to cling to, I felt – which goes counter to the purely negative and relativistic argument.

On the other hand, it’s not clear to me that authors and artists who can lead people towards self–esteem and so on cannot come from pop culture – I’m thinking of Chris­­topher Ricks’s book on Bob Dylan particularly.5 I mean, Dylan means nothing to me but Ricks believes he is as good as Shakespeare and Keats, you know? I didn’t agree with anything he said in the book, but I ad­mire Ricks enormously – I think he’s the greatest critic writing, actually – astoundingly intelligent man.

Another man I admire a lot is Sarfraz Manzoor – he’s often on The Review Show and so on – and he once told me that his life had been changed by Bruce Spring­steen – he was, so to speak, his Shakespeare. Well, ag­ain, I mean, fine: that’s good if these writers and artists are very important, it gives you something to cling to; but it also slightly weakens the sense that there is a kind of canon of admissible people who will give you that feeling of self–esteem. And maybe you can also get it from – I’m not trivialising this, but – learning a language, say, or playing a musical instrument.

As for creativity, I see your point but I’m troubled by it. I’m not sure that creativity is a good thing necessarily, you know? It seems as if the ability to imagine something that is not the now and here is specifically hu­man – animals haven’t got it, it seems to be agreed – I don’t know if that’s true – but that imagining can be the im­agination of a serial killer as well as a Milton or Shake­speare, you know?

Nonetheless, doesn’t the fact that there is a canon in literature – albeit that Shakespeare was not much admired for a good 50 years after his death (or ever by Tolstoy) – suggest that there is something of objective value that is greater in some works than in others?

Yeah, I don’t at all disagree with you. In fact, I would advise someone starting out to start with the canon. It seems to me that what Dr Johnson said is right, that what mankind has thought about and valued, you’re likely – unless you’re very unusual – to find value in, too. That doesn’t seem to me to amount to a claim for (so to speak) absolute values, because it’s over a very short time–span within a single culture, you know? If you think of a larger time–span and ask which of the cave paintings in Lascaux are better than the others, you can’t answer, because you have no idea what the criteria are. You just don’t know.

It’s trying to think in big time–spans that starts, for me, to erode the absolute notions. I was impressed by reading about how perplexed they are at the moment about what danger sign to put on nuclear waste which is going to take, you know, thousands and thousands of years to disintegrate and stop being dangerous. The as­sumption is that all the known languages will be ex­tinct long before then. Once you start thinking about that, you realise – and it’s quite a chilly feeling – that we live in a tiny, tiny little cultural space.

You make a very strong case for the importance of reading literature. In Pure Pleasure,6 you say: ‘Reading and civilisation have grown up together … A democracy composed largely of television–watchers is mindless compared to a democracy composed largely of readers.’ It’s often said that we’re moving from a print culture to one that is both much more visual and more instant. Do you agree? And if so, what do you think are the implications for us as a society?

Well, one has got to be careful here because it’s easy to talk in a way that assumes absolutes and, you know, I don’t believe in them.

I’m worried that the basic, sort of physical differences between reading and watching film or television might be things that, if lost, are a deprivation – for ex­ample, the ability to be alone with yourself and a book, alone with another mind and thinking. If you don’t do that at all, well, you’re a different person from someone who does, you know? (I obviously prefer the first kind of person, being one.)

Also, if you read you’re constantly visualising the things you’re reading about. If you watch a film, that process is, so to speak, stilled. And I’m inclined to think that the thinking and imagin­ing creature is one I would rather see making decisions than the non–thinking, non–imagining creature. But this is a subjective view, of course, and I’m sure that ad­herents of music and the visual arts would be able to make out a case against it – which I’d be interested to hear.

It strikes me that a lot of what you say in your writing is informed by antipathy to those who write in order to obfuscate rather than elucidate. Is that fair?

Yeah, absolutely. This again goes back to my education, I think, which valued clarity. Also, because I’d been to a grammar school and so didn’t feel at ease with the kind of elitism that a public school almost inevit­ably instils, you know, the use of language or ideas to exclude some people was antipathetic to me from quite early on.

And the more I read the people I admired – mainly [George] Or­well, actually… I remember reading the col­lected let­ters and journalism and thinking: That’s mind–changing, really. Such a brilliant writer! And, yeah, that helped me to see why I felt as I did about unclear thinking and writing – particularly when it is deliberately unclear, as in quite a lot of the kind of literary theory that was fashionable about 10 years ago, and quite a lot of modernist poetry…

On a desert island, which book out of all the thousands on your shelves would you want to have with you, apart from the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare?

I’d take The Complete Works of George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison. It’s got wonderful notes.

This interview was first published in Third Way.

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Posted 26 January 2012


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