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The most difficult books to review are those which delight the most. A critic burns bad books easily, and there is profitable pleasure to be had from scorching them. Fair-to-middling books require fair-to-middling effort and deserve as much attention. But the reviewer always struggles to describe the particular qualities that make a book distinctly good.
With a good book, the whole transcends the sum of its parts, and yet each part, each detail, each sentence, upon close inspection, appears to possess its own effervescent justification, so that each part has the peculiar ability to rival the whole. Roger Scruton’s On Hunting is a distinctly good book in precisely this way. It is described as a polemic on the subject of fox hunting, but it is furthermore an elegy for England’s vanishing countryside and a shrewd assessment of the politically correct stench emanating from such malodorous elements as the European Union, overweening corporations, and a maniacal variety of environmentalism popular among college-educated thugs who wouldn’t know a live oak from a lavatory. On Hunting also offers a touching sketch of the author’s life; page after page of first-rate prose; gripping accounts of hunts that include marvelous descriptions of the activities of the dogs, horses, foxes, and hunters; and, finally, balanced and rigorous argumentation concerning fox hunting, argumentation being something of Scruton’s specialty—he is a Cambridge-trained philosopher and author of such works as Modern Philosophy, The Aesthetics of Music, Art and Imagination, and A Dictionary of Political Thought.
“My life divides into three parts,” Scruton informs us early on. “In the first I was wretched; in the second ill at ease; in the third hunting.” The story of Scruton’s life is pertinent because Scruton’s argument in favor of hunting is best understood as an argument in favor of a certain way of life generally. And regarding himself, Scruton is insightful, self-effacing, and witty: a winning combination where autobiographical sketches are concerned.
Scruton’s father was a schoolteacher who nursed a lifelong resentment of the upper classes and a lifelong love of England’s woods and fields. “A man of principle who found his principles confirmed in the unremitting failure which they brought him,” Jack Scruton taught his son to revere nature and to appreciate the harmony that results when men work closely with it and are respectful participants in earthly cycles.
In those days “bodgers” lived in makeshift huts in the local woods, turning their chair-legs on foot-driven lathes from beech-wood they had hewn and seasoned themselves. The sight of these taciturn and contented old men, with their leather aprons and World War One moustaches, stayed with my father indelibly; they were like…a glimpse into some deep illumined recess in the collective soul of England.
But by the time Scruton was in his teens, the world his father loved was vanishing beneath the heavy-footed advance of urban sprawl. The younger Scruton explains that he went off to Cambridge to seek solace in an intellectual life largely because the “violation of [his] childhood landscape” had forced him to look elsewhere for happiness. With so much of old England gone, he tried the consolations of philosophy.
It didn’t work. Upon graduation, he “went to France, by way of punishing my country for having failed to notice my presence.” He embraced political conservatism and was published and despised for his views in his own country. Next he lived in Prague for a few years, writing and working with members of the underground press who fought against the Communist regime. Finally, he returned to England.
He had never lost faith in the truth of the ideals handed down to him by his father; he simply believed it would be impossible to adopt them in the modern world. How could anyone hope to convince people of the pleasures of country life and the value of preserving it when the local video store had just added another 200 cassettes to its arsenal?
But his time in Eastern Europe had marked him. He began to reflect on his Czech friends, “keeping the idea of their conquered country alive in dismal catacombs.” He came to realize, he writes, that “there is another kind of patriotism than the one extolled by Mrs Thatcher—a patriotism of the imagination, which enables you to live, even in the midst of hectic change, among the dead who entrusted their memory to you.” He concluded that “it is right and just and reasonable to live for vanished things.” And he also came to believe that an important component of the good life is living for just causes, whether or not they are ever to prevail.
Scruton moved to the countryside to seek out such a life. He moved in with an old friend and purchased a “lowly stubby neolithic mongrel” of a horse named Dumbo. In the beginning, Scruton admits, he was a ridiculous sight, a gangly professor atop a third-rate mount hoofing about the countryside, bringing to mind Marie Antoinette. The difference was that Scruton was committed to this environment; over time, he saw more clearly what made it valuable and what sorts of things threatened it.
He learned, for instance, that nostalgia and a detached desire to preserve one’s heritage in museum fashion accomplish little for the landscape and do nothing to advance the good life. Heritage movements, he asserts, contribute to the “process whereby rural life has been slowly emptied of its economic entrails and preserved as varnished skin.” In short, nature becomes a tourist trap—where it is nature that is trapped and visitors reveal themselves to be about as knowledgeable and caring as an exhausted family on a three-day Disney binge.
Ecotourist destinations—diabolically Disneyesque down to the last detail, because the creators’ design is disguised with a smile—are in some ways more pernicious than the more obvious evils perpetrated by developers and corporations, Scruton argues. To turn country landscapes into vast recreational parks is to separate such landscapes from people. The only way to ensure the continued protection of such places—and to ensure that people truly benefit from them—is to preserve them whole, maintaining the conditions that make life possible on a day-to-day basis. Taking nature walks and bird-watching are one thing; literally living off the land is another. Such living requires farming and, yes, hunting.
It was while Scruton was riding Dumbo down a country lane that he heard
the excited stammer of the huntsman’s horn—a repeated tonguing on one note which recalled the earth dance from the Rite of Spring. Stravinsky may have been an armchair anthropologist, but his music touches something deep in the species, the very dance of death and regeneration which was skirting the wet ditches of this lighted farm-land, and bringing it against the odds to life.
To Scruton’s deep surprise, Dumbo seemed to feel the same way, and in seconds he had taken off to join the hunt, in a jaunt that Scruton barely survived.
But having survived it, he determined to become a hunter.
Like most sheltered intellectuals, I knew hunting only from literature: from Fielding’s portrait of Squire Western, from cross-country scrambles in Trollope, and from Macauley’s icy dismissal of the gentry in his History of England. Insofar as hunting survived, I assumed it was the province of rich Londoners whose city-nurtured need for whipping and killing brought them out into the countryside with rage in their faces and death in their hearts.
Scruton learned otherwise. He came to see in the fox hunt “the moving image of eternity” and that hunting was, “like God, too shy and true for marketing, as inward and secret and comfortable as soul is, and as durable.”
In the chapters that deal directly with hunting and its participants, Scruton serves up brilliant prose of the kind that would satisfy the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Here we are treated to what Geertz called “thick description,” narrative that not only gives us the relevant facts of a situation but also provides a rich context for them.
We learn about the uniforms: “In ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’, Yeats asks a rhetorical question: ‘How but in custom and in ceremony/Are innocence and beauty born?’ I don’t know. But I do know that innocence and beauty are present in the hunt, and that custom and ceremony are part of their cause.” About the horses: Like us, horses, “began as prey….And our success in both hunting and battle was brought about, first by our ability to co-operate with each other, secondly by our ability to co-operate with horses. The extraordinary accident of nature, which enabled man and horse to meld into a centaur, may even be responsible for the survival of both our species.” About the hounds, the foxes, the fields. About how the kind of music generated by the pop bands such as Oasis or the Verve, with their syncopated beats, is mechanized and unnatural: “People often criticize pop as animal noises; but that’s because they don’t know much about animals, or much about noise. There is nothing animal in Oasis.” (Thus does Scruton provide a welcome smack in the face to fawning pseudo-rebellious rock ‘n’ roll writers the world over, not to mention a salutary rap on the knuckles to stodgy, citified followers of the late Allan Bloom.)
And there is more: About women who hunt—the most aggressive kind of hunter, we are informed. About followers of the hunt:
day laborers, apprentice electricians, mechanics, and sturdy girls in gumboots…retired farmhands and shepherds in tattered gaberdines…fierce farming widows in tweed and string; and strange gnomes risen inexplicably from the bowels of the earth, like the ancient, brittle-haired enthusiast in a tattered coat of black worsted who, supporting himself on knobby sticks and with a red face scoured like a joint of pork by his journeys through the hedgerows, emerges now behind and now in front of the horses, his ratty eyes darting from side to side, his white knickles shaking in vulpicidal rage….
About know-nothing youthful hunt haters:
As we stood by the covert at Allengrove, a black army advanced from the wood to surround us, a seething throng of beetles, featureless and sinister in their balaclava helmets, their sticks waving like antennae….The heroic army now converged on the terrier man…pulled him to the ground….While the crowd kicked at the motionless form of their victim, the leader gleefully wielded the spade, uttering idiot war cries and egged on by screaming girls….
According to Scruton, the anti-hunting and anti-gun crowd in England has become as fanatical and dangerous as Robespierre’s mobs. Its members have concluded that there is no room for reasoned debated on the subject of hunting and decided that the proper response to the subject is to bash people in the head with clubs. Most, if not all, of these warriors are from cities and have little if any knowledge of country living. Given voting demographics, Scruton demonstrates that these urban thugs are given a pass by the current pro-urban government as it pursues a “Cool Brittania.”
Of course, not all of those opposed to hunting are of this sort. For those with more informed objections, Scruton offers first-rate sections of applied philosophy. Many of the arguments will be familiar to American readers: The ecosystem has been tipped off-kilter by urbanization, the balance of nature upset. The hard fact is that, in America, were it not for deer hunters, the deer population would explode; the predators that in earlier times kept a check on the deer no longer exist in sufficient numbers to do so. The same is true with England’s foxes. It is also true that deer and foxes destroy crops, especially when there are too many of them. The choice is either to adopt a program of extermination or to allow the time-honored tradition of the hunt to continue.
The latter has several benefits. For one thing, hunters are as assiduous about preserving the existence of the game they hunt as they are about hunting itself—and therefore preserving the landscape that allows the game to flourish. For another, Scruton points out that hunting—as opposed to, say, some government program of extermination—directly involves human beings in the natural cycle of life and death. Lessons learned from such involvement are profound: We learn something about where our meals come from—and the true cost of those meals. We learn gratitude. We more properly appreciate that we are not separate from nature, but a part of it.
Not everyone will want to hear such things. Not everyone will care. But in any case, it is entirely possible to dislike hunting extremely and still enjoy this book enormously. Although Scruton’s reasoning would, I believe, convince a surprising number of those who are skeptical about fox hunting—Scruton is, for example, friends with Jim Barrington, former president of Britain’s League Against Cruel Sports, and the two have come to agree on several points—it would be a mistake to think of this book as simply an argument in favor of hunting.
On Hunting deserves more than a yes or no answer on the question of hunting. It deserves discerning readers. It is, as hunting narratives so often are, a coming-of-age and initiation story—a remarkable and erudite one. As Scruton himself put it:
Once it was I who contained the world—a private, bookish world, improvised from ruined dreams. I was the hero of a drama scripted by myself. I contain the world no longer—I am contained by it. And it is a public, objective, concrete world, whose rules were established without my help and with no knowledge of my existence. I have lost my pride, and gained my composure. CP