The roots of our present ills

English Pasts

July 2, 1999

"One can speak of the characteristic 'cadence' of Berlin's prose in a way that would seem inappropriate or merely inflated in the case of most academic writing. It is in some sense the cadence of the speaking voice, but not obviously that of conversation, since there is something more high-toned and even oratorical about it than that. There is great warmth and vivacity ... but not exactly intimacy ... The most consistently admirable and distinctive thing about his writing has been its engaging and resourceful campaign to prevent intellectuality from conquering and laying waste lands that are properly the territory of emotional or aesthetic or other human needs."

That from Stefan Collini, on Isaiah Berlin, is an example of the merits of his own style: of a firm grasp on the way tone illustrates the mind at work behind it, and an understanding of the power and limits of intellectuality as against other imaginative demands.

An unchauvinistic scholarship is well illustrated in his detailed recognition of the achievements of American literary scholarship. Perhaps even more exceptionally, he has absorbed and integrated French intellectual life to the point at which readers feel that we are, and should recognise ourselves as, indissolubly Europeans.

I have to count myself among the "non-specialist" readers Collini explicitly wants to address. This aim, one supposes, informs another of his recurrent tones. He is then demotic, quirky, witty, slightly waspish.

He is quite clear on the demands of this double aim: "on the one hand, the professionally validated command of a specialised discipline: ... on the other, the capacity and willingness to speak accessibly to non-specialists on matters which can never be settled by expertise alone". He makes a good stab at defining today's common readers. My experience suggests throwing the net even wider; well below the London Review of Books and even below what we so comfortingly and so often hail - the Waterstone's level.

In a letter, Collini said he thought I might not agree with some of his treatment of R. H. Tawney of whom I have been an admirer since reading Religion and the Rise of Capitalism at 17. His doubt was unnecessary. Tawney's call to the church "to resume its historic place" as the main guide to the moral life of society was very much of his time, and does not speak to most readers today. Tawney's appeal to us, as Collini also recognises, was as a moral beacon, a force for good; whatever time, place or class background had cultivated that voice.

A minor quarrel here. Many of us, "inoculated" by Tawney, will not have shares and dividends. Collini notes that the elements of finance in a capitalist society are so interdependent that "there looks to be something slightly foolish in deliberately avoiding share-ownership while happily accepting the benefits of a pension fund". Yes, but "happily" or not, one does what one can, as always, before moral dilemmas. One can hardly, if only for the sake of wife and children, forgo paying into a pension scheme; one may try to influence the way those pension funds are deployed. One may make certain simple, spitting-against-the-prevailing-wind, gestures of principle (sometimes costly). Even a minute gesture may have dignity.

On the "evils" (Tawney's unblinking word) of capitalism, Collini is up there with Tawney. His ear for tone, and the moral evasions it can indicate in any society, he uses accurately. He sees through: "But you have to recognise that we live in the real world" - which means the easy acceptance of the status quo's shifty exculpations. Add: "But I owe it to my shareholders" and "We pay the rate for the job." With that last, Tawney might have agreed until he realised its use to justify fat cats' salaries, not those of social workers. At this point one remembers Emerson on the virtue of the man - clearly a budding honest capitalist - who was sought because he made a better mousetrap (today, his competitor might sell a worse mousetrap and trust to the ad-people to lie about it).

Such things, Collini sees clearly, are among the roots of our present ills; they are not the deepest roots, though; and towards the examination of those he does seem slightly hesitant. Half-apologetically he admits at one point to being "polemical". Of course, what else? Much in modern society calls upon our lowest instincts, extends and degrades them. Who can watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire? without feeling soiled? Contempt for much of what is accepted and excused today need do no harm to scholarship.

This is not accepted in many universities; there, whatever is, is right, and may ensure that the contracts roll in. Most academics do not want to know this; or make sillysmart comments about the witty stylistic tricks of advertisers. Or ignore their excesses when aimed at the most vulnerable. In this area, Collini seems more generous to the universities generally than they deserve. But on at least one occasion he does come out fighting bare-knuckled, when he observes that the more sober public voices of earlier decades are now "supplanted by the gutter-individualism of the 1980s and 1990s".

On Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Demoralisation of Society Collini is, as a scholar, firmly critical. She is historically wobbly in her distinction between "virtues" and "values". One can accept that, but detach the contrast from its shaky chronological connections and find it useful as a straightforward distinction, between the way we may each at any time find our ways of living, our moral compasses.

For some of us, Collini's qualifiedly hospitable attention to the rise of cultural studies will be among his most salutary pages. He is excellent on the ramifications and limitations of that field - not "discipline" - today. He is right about the addiction to playing chess with theories, to the neglect of the search for direct observed insights; about the predilection for fashionable semantic props rather than for language discovered for oneself; about group or gang thinking; most of all, about the need for an initial discipline before we embark on the cultural studies sea (without which, we easily go native - and that can mean falling into uncritical love with soap operas; without an anchor).

Much of the attention to cultural studies has suffered a bad double-bind; on the one hand, the rancid rightwingers who are determined to see no point or good in them; on the other the uncritically defensive leftwingers, who see any criticism of some of today's favoured ways of working as a form of neo-fascist conspiracy.

This is an admirable book from one of our most catholic, fair-minded but firm and intellectually well-grounded cultural historians, who is now coming to his prime. We should hope that, after issuing these revised separate essays, he will now set about that comprehensive, all-of-a-piece study of British culture over the last 150 years of which he has shown himself thoroughly capable.

Richard Hoggart's next book First and Last Things is due in September.

English Pasts: Essays in History and Culture

Author - Stefan Collini
ISBN - 0 19 820779 4 and 820780 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £40.00 and £13.99
Pages - 348

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