One of Roger Scruton’s last works, an opera libretto set in Eastern Europe, contains some of his most revelatory thinking on the divine
Shortly before his death in January this year, the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton had completed an opera libretto, called An Angel Passes. It is now being set to music by the distinguished composer David Matthews, who has commented on its excellence as an operatic vehicle, perhaps in part because Scruton was himself the composer of two operas. To my mind, even as a bare libretto, An Angel Passes encapsulates some of Scruton’s most profound and revelatory thinking, nowhere more so than in the enigmatic words of our title.
Without going into detail or revealing its denouement, An Angel Passes is set in Eastern Europe (possibly Czechoslovakia) a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It deals with the dilemma faced by those who had stood out against Communism but are now largely disappointed by the materialistic capitalism which replaced it. The liberation itself, and the new cost-benefit mentality which accompanies it, turn out to be yet another way of denying the deepest yearnings of the soul; yearnings which, under communism, had often found expression in religious thought and practice.
It may surprise some to think of dissidence in communist Czechoslovakia in religious terms. Doubtless not all of the dissidents were religious—some were explicitly agnostic or even atheist. Nevertheless many of those who visited that country in the 1980s and who moved in anti-regime circles were surprised to see the extent of unofficial religious activity there. In a (necessarily) pseudonymous article from Czechoslovakia published by Scruton in the Salisbury Review in 1983, we read that “the most revealing feature of the Czech intellectual atmosphere of the eighties is the growing religious revival”, particularly among those young people who are looking for firm ground and a meaning for life, which will be “unpolluted by the disgusting material and ideological ‘needs’ propounded by the regime”. The author commented that in such circumstances “religion is inevitably enormously attractive”. Scruton himself, in introducing and commending this article, underlined the way that its author saw atheistical communism as simply the most complete expression of “a crisis in belief which threatens our entire civilisation”—our entire civilisation, note, and not just that of Eastern Europe.
When people suffer under dictatorial regimes, which deny them the material necessities of life at the same time as imposing on them clearly mendacious and dehumanising ideologies, it is only to be expected that they will look for perspectives and meanings, which have an intrinsic value, and which will often be recovered from a past, the memory of which has been officially suppressed. Pre-eminent among these perspectives and meanings will be those of religion, of traditional morality and of the type of art which intimates a value beyond that of the everyday. These things can, in a certain sense, thrive in circumstances of oppression, as a way of release from that oppression. But, and this is the paradox explored in An Angel Passes, when the explicit censorship and control is lifted, a vacuum arises in which more immediate, more noisy and more materialistic values can flourish unchecked, drowning out those intimations of something higher which had kept the spirit alive under communism. The situation is even more poignant when those who are profiting most in material terms from the new atmosphere of freedom include many who had belonged to the higher echelons of the old regime, together with westerners of a rapaciously exploitative bent.
In his 2014 novel Notes from Underground, Scruton explored precisely this phenomenon. Writing of the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jan Reichl, his narrator, says:
Prague awoke from its enforced slumber and became a modern city. Fast-food restaurants, porn shops, travel agents, and multi-national chain stores arose to stimulate the lust for new experience, while also ensuring that never again will experience be truly new . . . Pop music sounded in every bar, filling the corners where, not so long ago, we whispered of Kafka and Rilke, of Mahler and Schoenberg, of Musil and Roth and The World of Yesterday that Stefan Zweig so movingly lamented.
We can now begin to see why God might have disappeared from the liberated Prague, these days, of course, a destination of choice for hen and stag parties from England. Maybe there is something to be said for Reichl’s nostalgia for the 1980s, for the empty, dark and sinister streets of that time, for the decaying churches into which people crept furtively to find God and for the broken-down apartments where one could meet people with the works of Smetana and Janáček in their blood. In this context it is important to realise that, for all his own courageous work in this direction, Scruton was by no means oblivious to the impression some Western academic visitors of the 1980s made on their Czech audiences. A highly unpleasant figure in Notes from Underground is Martin Gunther, an American academic, with all the vanity of the breed and the usual baggage of left-liberal attitudes on human rights, sexual morality, patriarchy, minorities, contractual citizenship, the utilitarianism in which everything is negotiable, and the rest, including the supposed domination of the world by a spectral military-industrial complex (but not that of the Evil Empire). He is unable to grasp why his views leave his audience cold. He thinks he is sympathetic to the plight of the dissidents he is lecturing to (and he does lecture them), but his words are empty abstractions “recalled from common use and wrapped in elaborate theories”. He is, as Alžbeta Palková, the heroine of the book, says, a “man without a soul”.
In An Angel Passes, the line that “when freedom came, God disappeared” is answered with the thought that God lives with the forsaken and the oppressed. When they are not there he slips away. Further, “when the communists were in charge we fought them. Now in this freedom we fight with shadows.” And picking up on the links between the new and the old regime, “coming from behind them are the Party’s heirs, snatching our assets for no more than a song”. This matters to the main protagonists of the opera because in this snatch and in the apparent freedom of easy materialism, knowledge, culture, memory, justice and true freedom—the values that meant everything to them as dissidents—have been lost. These values are values that are not negotiable, not to be subjected to calculation in terms of costs and benefits. Their maintenance and upholding requires a sense of the sacred on the part of the community which upholds them, lines that may not be crossed, and, as part of that, a realisation that the members of that community are themselves, as individuals, to be treated and recognised as subjects. As Simone Weil put it in her essay on the Iliad, our presence as human beings exercises an indefinable influence which marks us out from mere objects. This presence imposes obligations on those we come into contact with and on ourselves in regard to those others. To treat other people as things should be a contradiction, but as the Iliad shows all too graphically, it is not. Nor is it a contradiction in the Prague of the 21st century, as seen by Jan Reichl or in the thinking of the likes of Professor Gunther, in whose philosophy everything is negotiable, all moral boundaries are crossable and no value sacred.
Scruton’s strong instinct is that religion provides the necessary framework for a life led with a sense of the sacred. In his Gifford lectures (published as The Face of God, 2012) he says that a disenchanted life is not a life for a human being. “By remaking human beings and their habitat as objects to consume rather than subjects to revere we invite the degradation of both.” The consumer culture, easy entertainment and the treatment of eros as no more than a matter of a pleasure to be enjoyed and, once enjoyed, forgotten and one’s partner disposed of, all contribute to the hollowing out of our lives.
Moments of sacred awe, at one time marked with becoming language and communal regularity in the liturgies of the Church, are now infrequent and mostly private. The way we live now has made them seem superfluous. As a result, our lives have become robbed of meaning and value. “We should not be surprised, therefore,” he says, “if God is so rarely encountered now.”
The question of God takes us to the heart of Scruton’s later thought. In words which seem close to Scruton’s own thinking, in Notes from Underground Pavel Havránek, a dissident priest, says: “God has withdrawn from the world; that we know and we Czechs perhaps know it more vividly than others. Our world contains an absence, and we must love that absence, for that is the way to love God.” As we are told in the novel, the thinking here is close to that of Simone Weil, but (we must insist) only if God’s absence does not amount to non-existence. Scruton’s position here remained tantalisingly unclear. In one of the last articles he published in his lifetime (“Things as They Seem” in the journal Philosophy, for the July 2019 issue, which was devoted to Scruton’s work), he confesses that his philosophy did not “as I had hoped” prove “an escape route to the divine”. The lack of an escape route does not necessarily imply that there is no God. But without an escape route it will be a God who is no more than a rumour of something beyond any horizon of our world or experience. And, perhaps to underline just where we, or at any rate Scruton, stand, Alžbeta Palková speaks of the sacred as something that brings with it a “sense of infinite freedom” (as opposed to the false freedom of the Western world). This freedom, to live in truth, one might say, opens up the here and now. And that, it seems, is all. She goes on: “Take away the Christian metaphysics, and the rest is truth. We live now or never. And God is another dimension in the here and now.”
Thus, in a striking reversal of the ontological argument, God’s necessity (for us, for our living in freedom) is compatible with his non-existence. In this audacious balancing act we might be reminded of Ezra Pound’s “Canto CXIII”: “The Gods have not returned. ‘They have never left us.’ They have not returned.” Maybe they never have left us because they were never here in the first place, but still we need them, more than ever now that we know they are not here and never were. In more prosaic terms, we have Wagner’s famous claim that “it is reserved to art to salvage the kernel of religion, inasmuch as the mythical images which religion would wish to be believed as true are apprehended in art for their symbolic value, and through ideal representation of those symbols art reveals the concealed deep truth within them”. This is especially pertinent to Scruton because he quotes the passage in each of his three books on Wagner. In The Ring of Truth (2016), discussing Wagner’s thought, he says that in religion truth “enters our consciousness through the back door”, to our advantage, but that consciousness always works against the religious doctrines, “sowing the seeds of doubt and undermining the divine authority”. This I believe to be not just Wagner’s position, but as close to Scruton’s own as we are likely to find.
While Scruton, a church-goer, clearly accepted the importance of religious rituals, he also agreed with Wagner that works of art of a certain sort could reveal and reinforce the deep truths concealed in the myths of religion(s), and do so without being vulnerable to the religiously destructive light of enlightened rational consciousness. His books on Tristan and the Ring should certainly be seen in this way, and so should Wagner’s Parsifal—The Music of Redemption in which, as he put it in “Things As They Seem”, he hoped to show “the real place of forgiveness in a world where persecution is the norm”.
Parsifal is ostensibly about the celebration of a Eucharistic rite in a community of Christian knights devoted to the Grail. It is replete with Christian symbolism and reference. As such it presents a good testing ground for the claim that a work of art can convey deep truths prised away from the religious dogma and meaning in which they have been traditionally clothed, for, according to Scruton, despite its setting, Parsifal is not really religious at all. What Parsifal and the other characters learn and enact should not be seen in terms of redemption from above. The Eucharist which the wounded knight Amfortas fails to celebrate and which Parsifal eventually offers is not the sacrifice of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. The redemption is a redemption worked by human hands, and the redeemer who is redeemed in the opera is Parsifal himself. Through his trials and wanderings, and particularly through his repulsion of the seductress Kundry’s advances in the sorcerer Klingsor’s castle, Parsifal learns that we become fully human through suffering and through turning suffering into compassion. The Christ of the Gospels is, of course, a model here even in purely human terms, as one who showed in his passion and crucifixion that violence could be turned into suffering and forgiveness, rather than, as is normal in human life, suffering channelling the victim into a campaign of revengeful violence on the oppressor. Kundry’s initial sin is that in an earlier life, far from finding God in this most forsaken and the oppressed of men, she had mocked Christ in his passion. Her attempted seduction of Parsifal is corrupt, because, for all the sympathetic insight she shows into Parsifal’s psyche, it is possessive. Despite this, Parsifal is set on the road to redemption by Kundry. It is through her that he learns true sympathy and compassion, both for his mother and for Amfortas, and ultimately for Kundry herself.
In Scruton’s interpretation there is no eternity or afterlife in Parsifal. What we are offered, and what is celebrated in the Grail rite, is a transforming vision of life in this world. What we do, we have to do by and for ourselves. Through compassion and forgiveness we can make a gift of ourselves. We can gain knowledge of the other as free and the inviolable presence of which Simone Weil spoke. We acknowledge the gift of our own existence and we recognise our debt to the community in which we live. We come to see pain and even death as gifts, that can be offered, and our sympathy extends beyond the human to nature itself (in the Good Friday music). Symbolically, the Spear, which is the Spear with which Christ was pierced at his crucifixion, and which Klingsor has seized from Amfortas and hurled at Parsifal, in Parsifal’s hands is no longer a weapon. It has become the instrument by which he expresses compassion and which in the Grail rite he then uses to heal Amfortas’s wound and to teach us all how to live. Violence is turned into compassion and forgiveness.
In introducing the opera Scruton makes a distinction between two types of time, chronos and kairos. Chronos is time as normally conceived, one moment after another, endlessly and successively; kairos by contrast is when the normal run of time is interrupted as from above by something timeless, a hint of the eternal and what is always there, could we but see it. Christians see the Eucharist in such terms, an eternal reality which is made present whenever it is celebrated. No doubt we are to see the Grail rite in Parsifal in such terms, even when shorn of any transcendent dimension. It is a way of communicating and expressing a reality, a truth, that transcends the normal run of day-to-day life, and which has a claim to be regarded as timelessly true.
But so can a work like Parsifal itself be seen. At least that seems to be what Wagner was suggesting when he wrote about art salvaging the kernel of religion. Further, Scruton is insistent that its full meaning is available only in and through the music. In Wagner’s Parsifal he analyses the music with compelling sensitivity, showing that like all great works of art, it speaks convincingly to our whole being, sense, reason and heart. It takes us beyond the level of discursive discourse, uncovering realities and connections and depths that would otherwise escape us. The truth thus enters through the back door, not of religion, but of art.
This is not the place to question Scruton’s interpretation of Parsifal. Rather, I offer it as an illustration of his supremely philosophical attempt to preserve a sense of what God and the divine mean when one is no longer confident of the metaphysical framework in which these notions have been traditionally embedded. As we see forcefully in his reflections on Eastern Europe, Scruton was as aware as any contemporary thinker of the need for a sacred dimension to our existence, of what would be lost in its absence and of the forces which conspire to make it absent today, even in a non-totalitarian dispensation. He faced up to the difficulty of preserving a remnant of what has been lost in a way that is honest, suggestive and creative. Scruton is no longer with us, but the task he set himself and the terms in which he articulated it remain as challenging and vital as ever.
This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.