Sunday, May 24, 2020

Fortnightly Book, May 24

Ever since Roger Scruton's death in January, I've been thinking about doing his novel, Notes from Underground, as a fortnightly book, and I think this is a good time, since I will be very busy these next two weeks moving into summer term, and the book is not a long one.

In 1978, Julius Tomin, a Czech philosopher who was quietly holding philosophy seminars in his apartment as part of the loose network of groups trying to maintain lines of education that were not held in the stranglehold of the Communist censors, wrote a number of letters to Western philosopher asking for their help. Due to the difficulty of correspondence across the Iron Curtain, only one of those letters got through, to the Oxford philosophy faculty; the Oxford faculty voted to send financial assistance and two volunteers, which happened to be Kathy Wilkes and Steven Lukes. Wilkes became convinced by her experience that there was a profound need for this, one that would require a much greater response, and so she began organizing it when she returned. This became the Jan Hus Educational Foundation, which started to have branches in France and Germany as well. Quite a few major philosophers were involved, and Scruton was one of them. One of the things Scruton did was to set up a system where Czech and Slovak students could study for the Cambridge Diploma and Certificate in Religious Studies, because Cambridge when setting up the program had done so in a way that made it possible for students to qualify remotely (he had tried a large number of avenues, but this was the one in which he could get a university to accept secret, remote examinations); as a result, there were a number of Czechs and Slovaks who were secretly working their way through the Cambridge program. And, of course, he like a number of others actually went to hold philosophy seminars and help build a means for university education in the underground movement. The Czechoslovakian police caught on fairly quickly that there was something going, and there is an honor roll of academic philosophers in the 1980s who were detained, interrogated, temporarily jailed, escorted out of the country: Wilkes, Newton-Smith, Kenny. The most famous case was that of Derrida, who was arrested on drug trafficking charges and only got out because the full diplomatic machinery of France went into motion to get him out. Scruton himself was detained briefly in 1985 and then permanently banned from the country.

Scruton was struck by the fact that the brave young men and women who were involved in these clandestine educational movements did not fit the common image put forward in the West of an underground dissident in a totalitarian regime. Dissidence, he later said, was a social status that required particular conditions that most students didn't meet; they were as excluded from that world as from the Communist one. He went on to say:

Long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the registration of our underground university as the first on the register of charities in post-communist Moravia, I remained obsessed by what I had known in those times of love, sorrow and fear. After many attempts – because there was so much to say – I hit on a simple story-line, and the novel wrote itself. I should emphasize that the characters are entirely imaginary, though one or two of them are based on people I knew.

Thus the novel is Scruton's attempt to capture, in fictional form, the state of life of those students who were being overlooked by the Western media.