Devils, Traitors, Landscapes

Whew. That’s better. The weather has changed. It’s been blisteringly hot for three days, the kind of hot where it’s still blistering after sunset, and still hot at midnight, and still very warm at dawn – in other words, the kind of hot where it never gets a chance to cool off. That’s rare around here. (I know, I’m spoiled.) Most of the time even in summer it cools off sharply around 8 p.m., and a breeze kicks up, and you can go for a nice sunset walk and cool off. Except for a few days here and there every summer. The statistical average here is, I once heard, to get three days per summer when the temperature is over 90 degrees. We’ve just had two of them, and very nasty they were. So it was very pleasant to wake up to clouds and nice cool air. Yesterday the air smelled foul, dry and hot and exhaust-laden; today it smells damp and faintly of trees. Offshore flow, it’s called. It blows from the west and the ocean, rather than the east and the desert. Offshore flow is a beautiful thing.

So. Now that I’m not all hot and cranky, a few items. There is this profile of Numero Uno atheist Richard Dawkins, for instance. Not a very good piece, actually; it looks as if someone cobbled it together in a hurry because of the Prospect poll. Well that’s all right, I guess, they were just providing some background; that’s a service. But the sub-head is really silly: ‘Now the scientist who calls himself the ‘devil’s chaplain’ has been voted Britain’s top intellectual …’ But he doesn’t call himself that, and if you know where the phrase comes from, that’s an absurd thing to say. It’s a quotation from Darwin, in a letter to a friend –

What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.

The point is that natural selection is hideously cruel. That’s not Dawkins’ self-description as a sort of anti-priest, it’s Darwin’s sardonic view of the idea that nature or its putative designer is kind and benevolent.

Jonathan Derbyshire has an interesting comment on the Observer piece, and a comment in it about Dawkins’ hatred of Bush.

The formulation is apposite: like many soi-disant “public intellectuals”, Dawkins doesn’t so much have a politics as a pathology – “hatred” of Bush and Blair. Those “streams of anti-war letters” are mostly lacking in the reasoned argument for which his scientific work is justly celebrated.

Hmmyes, I suppose. I’ve only seen one or two of those letters, but those were thin on argument. But I detest Bush so much myself, I may have a touch of the same pathology. Be that as it may, I was interested that Jonathan quoted from Julien Benda, La Trahison des clercs. I’ve thought of that book and phrase several times lately.

Les hommes dont la fonction est de défendre les valeurs éternelles et désintéressés, comme la justice et la raison, et que j’appelle les clercs, ont trahi cette fonction.

To bluntify it a bit: people whose job it is to defend eternal disinterested values like justice and reason, ‘intellectuals,’ have betrayed that job. He’s right you know. We keep running into it. People whose job it is to defend reason and critical thinking, arguing that we shouldn’t use them on other people’s cultures, for instance. I do keep finding myself thinking that intellectuals just aren’t doing their job. They’re doing some other job, instead. And it is a betrayal. It’s like all those Democrats who changed party after they’d been elected as Democrats after the Republicans took Congress in 1994. I simply couldn’t believe that when it happened – it’s an outrage! People vote for a Democrat who wins and they find themselves lumbered with a Republican anyway? It ought to be illegal. And it’s the same thing with intellectuals. Being woolly and sweet and understanding and nonjudgmental just is not their job.

And finally, for dessert, I liked this brief comment by Eve Garrard at Normblog. I’m a landscape junky myself. Always have been – I mean literally always, from the age of three if not earlier. I know that because when I was three we moved from a house in the country to one in town, and I spent the next five years driving my mother and brother and sister crazy, asking ‘when are we moving back to the country?’ I pined, I longed, I yearned. I still remember the day we moved back when I was eight – the bliss of it. One result is that I’ve always known exactly what Wordsworth and Emily Bronte and Thoreau, for example, were talking about – known it on my pulses, as Keats would say.

For this group, landscape is much more than a source of pleasing aesthetic or nostalgic experiences; it’s a haunting passion (as one of its most famous, and longwinded, representatives noted); it’s something which shapes a whole life. For these people, every natural scene, every fall of land or changing colour of the sea, speaks its own unique, intense, significant word – as they keep telling us, at frankly tedious length.

I suppose ‘haunting passion’ is Wordsworth? Tintern Abbey or the Immortality Ode perhaps? I ought to know but don’t. But I do like Wordsworth a hell of a lot more than I would if I didn’t know what he meant. I love the Prelude, and I wouldn’t if it weren’t for that. Twelve long books of what Keats called ‘egotistical sublime’ (though he didn’t mean the Prelude, since he hadn’t read that, since it wasn’t published until 1850) – yes, but if you’re a landsape junky – well, you get the idea.

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