Scruton on Disordered and Ordered Places

In his lecture “The Face of the Earth,” Roger Scruton compares the following two photographs:

What is it that makes the picture of the canal so different from the one of urban sprawl? The canal is, as Scruton says, “just as jumbled up,” with “just as many things competing for our attention.” Scruton’s explanation for why the canal is beautiful and the urban sprawl is not, is that if one looks at the details of the canal one sees what Wallace Stevens called the “blessed rage for order.” But Scruton doesn’t explain exactly what he means. How does the “jumbled” canal manifest rage for order? I think the key is Scruton’s statement that there are “just as many things competing for our attention.” That’s not quite right. In the picture of the automobile wasteland things are competing for attention—especially the commercial signs, each one seems to be saying “look at me!” But the details of the canal are not competing for attention. Newman once said “the very idea of order implies the idea of the subordinate,” and that is what one sees in the canal; each detail subordinates itself, it does not try to pull attention away from the whole, and therefore the jumble is ordered and beautiful. So it really isn’t what Wallace Stevens was talking about. It’s not a rage for order, it’s a love of order; it’s not the imposition of meaning on meaningless jumble, but the courteous subordination of each detail which allows the whole to emerge.

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