Tuesday, August 20, 2019

'Interesting People are Interested People'

One of my literary articles of faith is that a good writer can take any subject, no matter how unlikely, and make it interesting. The essays of William Hazlitt and A.J. Liebling on boxing are some of my favorite reading and I have no interest in, and some major reservations regarding the “sweet science.” I can love Gulliver’s Travels while hating most fantasy and Michael Oakeshott’s essays while remaining allergic to politics and betting on horse races. I’ve even enjoyed reading Neville Cardus on cricket.

So it is with Roger Scruton’s little book On Hunting (St. Augustine’s Press, 1998). The closet I’ve gotten to hunting was collecting butterflies as a kid. Guns make me itchy and I feel a tad guilty eating meatloaf. Truly, without turning it into an ethical stance, I have no killer instinct, or at least no more than any reasonably civilized carnivore. But Scruton, while defending the fox hunt, a ritual utterly alien to Americans, is always thoughtful and entertainingly discursive. For instance:

“Thousand-page accounts of minor politicians are the greatest offence against literature—especially when written by the politicians themselves. Worst of all are those instant hagiographies of pop stars, business moguls and dead princesses—works which pruriently research each detail, and which, by being true to the facts, are false through and through in sentiment. Were biographers to confine themselves, like Plutarch and Aubrey, to twenty pages a time, they would understand their victims more completely.”

No argument here.  Elsewhere, Scruton suggests why an American reader might find his defense of English fox hunting so compelling:

“Just as there is nothing more boring than boredom, nothing more exciting than excitement, nothing more lovable than love or hateful than hatred, so is there nothing that arouses interest so much as interest. Interesting people are interested people, and an enthusiasm—be it as thankless as birdwatching or as bizarre as philately—marks out the enthusiast as a source of curious learning and a person with a mind that glows.”

“Interesting people are interested people.” Like any good writer, Scruton makes our passing observations, quickly disregarded, seem self-evident. Bores have inert – or, at the other extreme, madly hyperactive -- minds.  In his epilogue Scruton writes:

“Nostalgia is an unhealthy state of mind. But the study, love and emulation of the past are necessary to our self-understanding. All that has gone most wrong in our century has proceeded from a morbid obsession with the future—a belief in `new dawns’, `revolutionary transformations’, and resurrected nations on the march. The past, unlike the future, can be known, understood and adapted to our current uses. When we cast ourselves free from it, we are swept away by outside forces, adrift on the oceanic tide of happening. The future, which we cannot describe, begins to seem inevitable. This surrender to the unknown persists, despite all the crime and destruction that have been wrought in its name.”

Nostalgia for a past that never existed is an inevitable accompaniment to aging. Every “now” must be worse, more depraved than every “then.” Sometimes, of course, that is the case, but abject faith in the future is even more foolish and dangerous. When I think of the future I remember that Philip Larkin once described Lightnin’ Hopkins’ guitar playing as “vividly pessimistic.”

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