Literature and the Contract of Eternal Society
by Russell Kirk
Some years ago, I walked across the braes from Old Cumnock, in Ayrshire, to the village of Ochiltree. Now Ochiltree is the “Barbie” of George Douglas Brown’s grim realistic novel The House with the Green Shutters. And the Scottish village of Ochiltree is dying.
Brown described the changes that began to descend upon little Barbie in the last century: trade drained away by the building of railroads in Ayrshire, cattle giving way to coal, the carter sinking to his ruin, and the shadow of the noose upon the House with the Green Shutters. The white-harled cottage in which George Douglas Brown was born still stands in Ochiltree, and its shutters are green still; but the rest of old Ochiltree is not long for this world.
Of the shops of a century ago, only two meagre little cubbyholes (like the shop kept by an old Sheep, as Tenniel draws it in Through the Looking Glass) survive; for the vans of the omnipresent Co-operative come from Cumnock to supply miners’ families at the doorstop. Ochiltree is a market-town no longer, having sunk to the estate of a mere dormitory-village to accommodate some of the miners at the pits near Auchinleck. The tidy stone cottages are sagging to their ruin, their rents being fixed at the levels of 1914, which means that their owners cannot afford to mend the roofs; and at the back of them, higher up the hill down which the single long street of Ochiltree runs, loom the hideous barrack-like rows of county council houses, built of state funds to serve the ends of the state—in this instance, to lodge the Coal Board’s miners.
The church, I think, is derelict; the hotel, the Black Bull, though there is a charm to its facade still, is become nothing more than a decayed ale-house; the only cheerful spot is another public-house, opposite, where the publican, one of the last men in the village to retain some affection for the place, told us how life has been drained out of Ochiltree. In the evening, the miners and their families queue for the buses to Ayr, fifteen miles away, where they can go to one of the cinemas; most of them wished they lived in Ayr, instead of here in this green countryside. Some coats of arms carved above doorways in the road that leads to Cumnock are the last traces of the old families of the place—these, and Ochiltree House, which (when last I was in Ochiltree) lay at the foot of the long street, set in a desolated garden, with a fine high dyke running around it.
But Ochiltree House—a long, severe, crow-step-gabled building of the seventeenth century, with some good interiors, once—has been swept away since I was in Ochiltree. It had stood empty most of the time for the past hundred years; troops had been quartered there in both wars, and had made kindling of the paneling and staircases; and to escape from taxes, the proprietor took the roof off not long ago, and sold the stone of the walls. The village is left forever without a focus, now, and whatever remained of a sense of community and a sense of continuity has vanished. In Ochiltree House, Graham of Claverhouse was married, long before he appealed to men beyond Stirling and lands beyond Forth. In the older Ochiltree House which stood on this spot during the sixteenth century, old John Knox was married to the heiress of Ochiltree, a girl of sixteen. These things will be forgotten wholly now, in Ochiltree, and the daily labor at the pit, and the evening cinema in Ayr, will be the whole of existence for the people in the village.
A mile and a half to the north of Ochiltree, across Lugar Water, is Auchinleck House. The Boswells hold Auchinleck still; the splendid square ashlar house which Lord Auchinleck, James Boswell’s father, built in the middle of the eighteenth century in grand style, and the lands of Auchinleck stretch green and prosperous round it, with the ruined old castle overlooking the den of the Lugar—that castle in which, said Dr. Johnson, he and Bozzy would lodge when they came to Auchinleck. This is one of the very few landed properties in all Scotland maintained in its old state; and, death duties being what they are, it is highly improbable that the beauty and tranquility of Auchinleck can last out this present generation. A year or two ago, the ancient townhouse of the Boswells, in Ayr, was demolished; the splendid country house must follow, unless it is an exception to the general rule in modern Britain.
The fountains of the great deep seem to be broken up in our time. Institutions that have endured for a millennium are awash, and the surly question before us is whether the fabric of civilization can survive the present rate of economic and social alteration. Material forces have had a large part in this transformation of life; but more and more, I think, we are coming to understand, in our decade, that certain powerful tendencies of the intellect have been quite as active in the destruction of what I like to call—with Cicero and with Burke—“the unbought grace of life.” It is time we began to examine the part that a general decay of interest in great literature has had in this corrosive process.
Even in a quiet corner like Ayrshire, the revolution of our times seems to have been as much a consequence of ideas as of material influences. It is quite true that the coming of rapid transportation, the need for coal, and the displacement of traditional popular interests by mass-amusement devices have altered the whole face of life in Ayrshire. It is also quite true that the decay of the old literary culture of Ayrshire and of Scotland generally has prepared the way for a disintegration of everything long established. Now the popular literary culture of rural Scotland used to consist of Bible-reading and of sermon-listening, which imparted a solemn and sometimes eloquent character to the Scottish people—dour, often enough, but strong and even heroic. And the literary culture of Auchinleck House and Ochiltree House used to consist of the lively rational curiosity and speculative interests of Hume and Boswell and Monboddo, persisting little altered down to 1914, though enriched, as the years passed, by the increasing influence of the English public schools and the universities.
The dwindling of religious influences has brought about the ruin of the popular literary culture; taxation and a sea of troubles virtually have put an end to the civilizing influence of the old-fashioned laird. Leisure is indeed the basis of culture; and it is one of the paradoxes of our age that while we boast of our time-saving machines, neither the villager nor the laird has half the time to think that he had once. Nowadays they do not read, and they do not write.
I have described Ochiltree as a microcosm of our civilization; I could give fifty other examples in Britain, I think we will pay increasing attention, during the rest of this decade and a great while after, to what is called the social significance of literature. I ask you not to be alarmed by this and as many in America. What I am endeavoring to touch upon is the tremendous importance to civilized life of an elevated and uninterrupted literary tradition. If we are wise, presumptuous and tawdry phrase: what I have in mind is not the superficial idea of the function of literature entertained by the positivist or the Marxist or the literary “social realist.” I am not referring to that school of social naturalists in fiction whose system, as defined by Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary, is “the art of depicting nature as seen by toads.”
I am thinking, rather, of the high language that Burke uses in describing the condition of a society which forsakes or forgets the principle of continuity: “No part of life,” he says, “would retain its acquisitions. Barbarism with regard to science and literature, unskillfulness with regard to arts and manufactures, would infallibly succeed to the want of a steady education and settled principle; and thus the commonwealth itself would, in a few generations, crumble away, be disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality, and at length dispersed to all the winds of heaven.”
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