the guardian Fri 20 April 2012
The Face of God by Roger Scruton (Continuum, £18.99)
According to Roger Scruton, a dolphin doesn't have a face, but a house does. This is a series of face-based meditations on the self, love, religion and art, and a critique of scientific reductionism. Scruton laments the various ways in which we can "deface" each other and the world, through "pornographic culture", environmental degradation, and modern "gadget architecture". Rembrandt, Wagner, Kant and Hegel are the good guys; the bad guys are Dawkinsite new atheists, Quentin Tarantino, and "postmodern people".
Of interest to long-term Scruton-fanciers will be the passing revelation that he now believes anthropogenic global warming is real, and the sympathetic use he makes of Sartre, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, while promising to rescue their proto-thoughts from swampy continental darkness and bring them into the light of "philosophy as argument, whose goal is truth". What follows doesn't exactly match that grand description, being more in the way of calm hieratic pronouncements about the presence of God, conversing with trees, and the structure of the ineffable. But his sequence on the structure of the effable (buildings) is good, and the book contains many interesting and prettily phrased thoughts. Best read to the mental accompaniment of Billy Idol's haunting classic "Eyes Without a Face".
Wolf by Garry Marvin (Reaktion, £9.99)
If you can read Alfred de Vigny's poem "La Mort du Loup" without a lump in your throat, you're made of sterner stuff than I. This beautifully illustrated book is not an epochal triumph of prose style, but it is educationally lupophile. In "inter-pack howling", we learn, wolves of one pack will deliberately howl at different and varying pitches, giving the defensive impression to another pack that they might be more numerous than they are. In some North American national parks you can now even attend pseudomusical concerts of wolf-howling.
The author chases the wolf, sheepily disguised or not, through classical literature, religious text and fable, political allegory, painting and (as werewolves) in horror lore. Thanks to a modern "rewilding" movement, we may be living in an age where "wolf love" for once greatly outweighs "wolf hatred". The book's index, sadly, is a skimpy two-page effort that is not much more useful than a single entry reading "Wolf, passim".
The Accidental Feminist by MG Lord (Bloosmbury £16.99)
The politics of the face, part two: "How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice". The critic author gives long plot summaries of Taylor's films and short explanations of why they are feminist. (National Velvet is "a sly critique of gender discrimination in sports"; Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? shows that "Patriarchy crushes men and women alike".) She complains that biographies of Taylor fail to be "nuanced", and writes that, in the years 1945-50, "Elizabeth blossomed, to a degree that few beings ever blossom". (What about actual flowers?)
For a celebration, the book is weirdly patronising: Taylor inspired women to resist the patriarchy whether she was "aware of it or not"; she is pictured mainly as just a walking storm of animal magnetism, who "spoke directly to our ancient aft-brain". Lord is also concerned to parade her writerly empathy: Taylor used to retreat from the world, she says, by going to hospital, and Lord knows how that is: "When I needed a break from this manuscript, I stayed at a hotel." When I needed a break from this book, I went to Nando's and wolfed down a chicken.