OIKOPHILIA: POLITICS AND POETICS
1st April, 2020
Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude. – Roger Scruton.
Prompted by the untimely death of Roger Scruton, on the eve of Britain’s protracted departure from the EU, I wish here to explore some analogies between poetry and politics that have suggested themselves to me, with increasing urgency, over the last few years and months.
Though, as a foreign national, I have benefited greatly from the conveniences of the European project, as a poet, I find the enthusiastic internationalism of many fellow writers and artists counter-intuitive. For me, the tug of English language and literature has always also been the tug of a particular place and history. My love of the language has grown hand-in-hand with my love of the place in which I’ve settled. Scruton’s conception of oikophilia, the love of home, has greatly enhanced, not only my sense of indebtedness to the place from which I come, but also my appreciation for the history and cultural landscape of Britain.
As much great art and literature attest, there are few things as universal as the love of home, of land and nation; a love itself deeply embedded in, and inspired by, a nation’s art and literature. In his own novel, Notes from Underground, Scruton was able convincingly to depict the power of oikophilia also in a Czech and central European context. He shows poignantly how the works of Janaček and others matter as much as they do, not simply because of their unquestionable aesthetic merits, but because they constitute the patrimony of an orphaned people; a people rendered homeless in their own country, where the cultural bequests that sustained them have been taken from them, and the intrinsic values of art replaced by crude calculations of ideology.
Perhaps it takes a non-native to recognise the obvious: that English is not from any- or nowhere, but from a particular, albeit historically sprawling, somewhere. It is too easy for native English-speakers to think of their language as a kind of transferable currency, partly as a result of the fact that a watered-down version of the language has become lingua franca among the cosmopolitan classes. Crucially, while this may result in insensitivity towards other cultures, it is also symptomatic of a disregard for their own. At the same time, cosmopolitanism is itself a kind of mono-cultural solipsism, the imposition of u-topian values through an equally rootless and a-historical language.
Whatever its benefits for business, it is truly perilous for poets to write as if a language bears no intrinsic relation to the history of a particular place and people. As Rahul Gupta has observed, in a previous issue of this journal, “a language is more meaningful, the more local it is.” While language can migrate and transcend national borders, it cannot weaken its links to its native soil without also losing much of its meaning-making, mind-and-matter-shaping, power. Something readily intelligible across languages may be laudable in the case of flat-pack furniture instructions, but such documents also give us some sense of how devoid of meaning and vitality a universal language would be. “A globalist great poetry”, Gupta therefore maintains, “is an impossibility.”
Poetry is practical wisdom, like carpentry or common law, laden with precedence. What works is dependent both on conventions of taste and usage and on the intrinsic properties of the material. Yet much contemporary poetry is written as if neither the language nor the artform has a history. As Timothy Steele has suggested, the fact that so many poets rely on translations for influence has probably also been instrumental in the neglect of the prosodic properties and potentials of their own language.
We know, of course, that language, like love, can at times make light of all manner of geographical and social boundaries, but we know too that any serious love is love of a particular thing, person or place. To borrow David Goodhart’s terms: poets as poets, whatever the contingencies of their personal lives, should be ‘somewheres’ rather than ‘anywheres’. Poetry liberates us from the ‘tyranny of information’, as Heidegger may call it, not by granting some pan-optic vantage from which all local differences are dissolved, but by returning us to the irreducible particulars of which a truly variegated and harmonious reality is composed.
Poets should seek to bring out the best in their medium and material. This entails looking for the best in the culture and history of that language. In recent decades, however, conditions have hardly been propitious for such an undertaking. How to embrace a culture at a time of wilful forgetfulness, when it is used by the most vocal and visible classes against itself?
Scruton has convincingly diagnosed this culture of repudiation, an entrenched hermeneutics of suspicion directed disproportionately at one’s own place and history, as oikophobia. As also Douglas Murray and others have shown, not only the English, but European people more generally have lost confidence in their vocation. Recent controversies at Yale and Oxford also alert us to the apparent disregard for past cultural achievements by those tenured to protect them.
Aspects of this pervasive pathology can be seen in poetry, in the more or less deliberate disregard for the time-tested practices which bring out the best in the English language and English imagination alike. The secrets and standards of the guild are no longer passed down through the official channels. It is telling that the more traditional poets are often self-taught, while the academy and the publishing industry have become patrons of entropy.
Scruton, though a philosopher of conservatism, was emphatically far less concerned with partisan conflict than with articulating the conditions of the first-person plural that makes political debate possible, let alone meaningful, in the first place. Crucially, Scruton argued that neither creed nor race, but a shared commitment to place, with its history and its language, is the bedrock of both culture and a political order. We also know, from Charles Taylor and other philosophers, that language is constitutive of human meanings, indeed of the very conditions of communal being and belonging in the world. These deeper realities of the human world should also be the chief concern, and constitute the chief matter, of the poet.
If the recent schisms in British society demand for their solutions the discovery of more communitarian modes of being, this may be welcomed by poets and artists. Poetry shouldn’t be narrowly political in content; couldn’t be, without ceasing to be poetry. But in being the kind of thing that it is, a well-made poem embodies certain extra-political values that, nevertheless, and not least in current conditions, suggest an alternative social vision.
Poets know that freedom means more than both self-assertion and boundlessness; that it exists within definite limits, a possibility of formal and practical constraints as well as of historical accomplishments. They know that if something ‘means whatever I want it to mean’, it amounts to meaningless nonsense. Precisely for drawing on, and re-articulating, the pre-political conditions of communal being, the poem also eclipses the ideals or illusions of individualism.
Crucially, good art and poetry do not have to be ‘about’ the home or homely things, for they constitute the home, the beautiful and meaningful habitat in which we flourish as social and imaginative creatures. This is most explicitly the case in architecture, which Scruton understood as a truly communal art, but the same is true of all the arts, and perhaps most indelibly in the case of poetry, whose medium is the very stuff of which our shared existence is made.
“Nations are destroyed or flourish”, wrote William Blake, “in proportion as their poetry, painting and music are destroyed or flourish.” Not, emphatically, because art is reducible to utility and judged by its ‘social impact’, but precisely because it raises our communal apprehensions and aspirations above this reductive materialism. I know of no more powerful vision of corporate and national being than Blake’s vision of the regenerate Albion, at once rooted in the incarnate particulars of these islands and reaching out to embrace a spiritual reality that is both intimately his own and transcendently other. As Scruton tirelessly argued, it is from the threshold of our hard-won earthly habitats that we may also intimate and invite the sacred, and so begin to receive life itself as a gift.
As society emerges, blinking, from the exhausted legacy of too much liberalism, will we similarly see poetry emerge from the dilapidations of free verse, groping towards the re-discovery of inherited forms? May we hope, however cautiously, for the re-emergence of gratitude as a political and poetic virtue?
Daniel Gustafsson is a bi-lingual poet and philosopher. As a poet, he made his double debut in 2016, with Alyosha (Augur Press) in English and Karve (Axplock) in Swedish. A new pamphlet, Fordings, is out now from Marble Poetry. Daniel received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of York in 2014. He has since contributed to numerous international conferences and publications, exploring the relationships between art, philosophy and theology. He lives in York, dividing his spare time between Yorkshire and his native county of Södermanland.