Pondering yesterday Yeat’s dark view of the Second Coming brought some additional associations, most notably memories of reading for the second time Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet. I had a post on that here back a couple of years. Something, something was there, a memory. Well, it surfaced finally. I had written a note on the subject of cultural despair—the same kind I now first noted in Yeats. It was a private diary entry. I dug it out, and it follows here. Apologies to those who do not know the story—and haven’t seen the television series (The Jewel in the Crown).
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Nothing like entering a subject fully. One of the truly dark chapters in this opus, at least when read, is Sarah’s seduction by Major Jimmy Clark or, rather, the Major’s disquisition as they pause between two musical events in a fancy private Calcutta club. Now that harangue is mild, “lite,” almost inconsequential in comparison with, let us say, Hari Kumar’s interrogation by Nigel Rowan. But what Jimmy’s discourse shows is a despairing view of civilization even though it is presented with a cynical aggression by a young man from a very privileged position in society.
In this vignette as everywhere else Paul Scott is devastatingly honest. He is one of the very few twentieth century authors able to depict that time realistically yet without phony saving graces, thus without a gloss of idealism. That sheen is usually based, by others, on humanism or progressivism; in the first case, still-present traces of religious thought tend to be exploited with careful finesses—thus the emotional tonalities of it are borrowed without the cosmological structure on which they rest; in the second, collectivist idealism about “the people” provides a signal of hope, at least in novels; the people are seen as somehow embodying something greater than a person does. In Scott’s novel we never really penetrate the cloud bank above and the outcome,consequently, is an existentialist stance: there are those who know; but their knowledge cannot save them. The heroic figures are Aunt Mabel, Lady Manners, Sarah; but all three live without genuine light or hope.
I find this fascinating. This dark view of humanity is already present in Shakespeare, I would submit; but it is rarely put so honestly, exhaustively, so plainly as by Scott. His version at least is honest; but it doesn’t break the clouds. The taste, smell, texture of this culture explains why I’ve maintained a cultural distance from the Anglo-Saxon world, despite spending a lifetime living in its midst. The Celtic—and the culture that it has inspired—now that’s another matter. It has always had a transcending dimension. There is Paul Scott. And there is also Tolkien.