Monday, April 21, 2014

Spencer Case Reviews Roger Scruton's Notes From Underground at National Review Online

Spencer Case, in "Polemics and Philosophy from a British Contrarian" (National Review Online April 19, 2014), reviews two works by Roger Scruton, but I will comment only on Case's words about Notes From Underground. Early in his review, Case makes the general observation that Scruton's novel deals "with the dualities of beauty and ugliness, love and betrayal, freedom and tyranny, piety and sacrilege," and Case is correct, but he neglects the greatest duality in Scruton's thought as expressed in this novel, that between truth and falsehood.

Indeed, Scruton informs the reader of precisely this theme, for in his "Author's Note," he states, "This is a story about truth." Even more precisely, Scruton's fictional account of Prague in 1985 is about "living in the truth," as Vaclav Havel expressed it, or rather, the great difficulty of living in the truth within a system that demands, at the very least, compromises.

This problematic of truth comes to a head in a section of the novel that Case finds weak:
Chapter 22, which details the visit of a liberal American philosophy professor, is fine polemic, but it is largely irrelevant to the plot, dropped in to advance the author's point of view.
I think Case means chapter 21. Anyway, I disagree that the chapter is not relevant to the novel's plot. The "liberal American philosophy professor" is integral in two ways. First, he is central to the opportunity for emigration to the West sought by the protagonist's lover. Second, he is integral to the confrontation between living within truth and living with relativism:
He mentioned Richard Rorty, whose name we were hearing for the first time, and who had changed American scholarship with a new theory of truth. The true belief, we learned, is the useful belief, the one that enables you to affirm the rights of your group, and to gain the illuminated plateau of liberation. Truth means power, just as Nietzsche and Foucault had said.
Interestingly, this new theory of truth leads to a 'true' discussion, for as the protagonist notes:
What struck me in this was not the vigorous nature of the argument, unusual though that was, but the fact that it really was an argument, about a concrete matter concerning which modern people ought surely to make up their minds.
The American professor thus plays a role crucial to the plot on two levels -- it moves the plot forward, and it raises the novel's central theme of truth. But I can't entirely set myself at odds with Case's critique:
Ironically, Scruton has written a novel whose content makes the argument for spontaneous order and liberty, but the book overall suffers from authorial central planning. The result is a worthwhile read that doesn't sustain its best moments.
I partly agree that Scruton maintains control, but such is necessary in a novel of ideas, as I know from experience! Anyway, I find Scruton's novel more of a success than Case does . . .

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At 4:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi thanks for the plug and the review. You're right about it being chapter 21 not 22. You ought to agree, though, that the chapter was an opportunity for Scruton to satirize the left. Moving the storyline forward efficiently did not require an entire chapter on this guy's ill-received speech.

And I'm not sure that a novel of ideas requires "control" if control means micromanaging. Brothers Karamazov was definitely a novel ideas, and occasionally the characters say things that I suspect were coming from Dostoyevsky himself, but they didn't seem like mouthpieces.


At 4:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Got that chapter mistake fixed on the site. Thanks for bringing that to my attention!

At 8:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the response. I do agree that Scruton used that chapter to satirize the left, but I think it worked on the level of plot, too.

I also agree that Scruton keeps his characters on a shorter leash than Dostoevsky does, but I don't think he micromanaged them.

Some control is necessary, depending upon the precision of the ideas being conveyed in a novel of ideas.

I like to think that my novella was more successful in the right balance between control and vitality.

Jeffery Hodges

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