“Everything builds on something that existed before you, and without the concrete that is beneath your feet, you’re lost, aimless, and atomised.” – Jonathan Bowden
A decade after his untimely demise, Jonathan Bowden continues to be a cult figure on the dissident right famous for both his political oratory and the incisive nature of his cultural analysis. An artist, filmmaker, writer, tour de force speaker, as well as an irreverent surrealist, his fans and detractors contend he was a one of a kind. Yet as a figure ardently committed to the genealogy of ideas, Jonathan Bowden would undoubtedly have viewed himself in the wider context of a long intellectual tradition. His subject matter often involved the dissection of figures from recent history, delineating their influences and disciples and in so doing creating taxonomies of thought. Yet Jonathan himself belonged to a distinct ideational school, that of the English public intellectual. To better understand Bowden and his unique contribution to the movement, it is worth contextualising him by examining one of his peers.
Jonathan Meades, born fifteen years prior to Bowden is also a filmmaker, writer, and supreme master of the spoken word. Unlike Bowden however, he enjoyed establishment success, being a regular face on BBC. On the surface it would seem the two couldn’t be more diametrically opposed: Meades is an avowed liberal and militant atheist, while Bowden was a fixture of the most radical elements of the right. Yet both are marked by a series of identifiable characteristics that go beyond their sartorial choices and mostly autodidactic nature. They are characterised by their willingness to engage, and their ability to not let their respective political ideologies delimit their critical faculties. Too often on the dissident right attempts at cultural critique and analysis fall flat because those attempting to engage in them do not ask “is this good?” but instead, “does this support us?”
Even among the contrarian milieu of the right-wing fringes Bowden was heterodox in his views. Most on the right define themselves by their radical opposition to modernity, but Bowden remained ambivalent towards it. In his view, it was not that technology and progress in themselves were an evil, but rather the forms and applications they have taken in the modern world are wrong. Evola criticised fascism as ultimately a modernist ideology, whereas Bowden viewed its modernism as its essential dynamo. Fascism is kinetic energy, Faustian spirit unleashed. While the paleoconservatives and traditionalists want to return to the past, Bowden wanted to remake the present. Both Jonathans’ are subscribers to the doctrine endemic in the 1960s that the white heat of technology could improve humanity through mechanical and architectural means.
The proof of this is the choice of their medium. Bowden and Meades were both made for television, they are the inheritors of the short-lived belief that TV could provide a platform by which the mass public consciousness could be raised. They are the wayward stylistic progeny of Sir Kenneth Clark, the British art historian whose 1969 ‘Civilisation’ documentary set the gold standard for high brow cultural engagement in a visual format. Yet of course, Jonathan Bowden never was to enjoy any mainstream airtime which he would have richly deserved in a fair world. Instead, he lives on through grainy footage and crackling audio belonging to the dark ages of a nascent internet-savvy dissident movement. This failure of technology ironically adds to his mystique. We value our heroes that never lived to make hot takes in the Twitter age all the more dearly.
In part, he was undoubtedly kept off the air by sneering liberals like Jonathan Meades who were libertarian in their approach to culture, but authoritarian in their suppression of political opponents. Yet despite their outward ideological disagreements, the two were more similar than they would perhaps like to admit. They both draw from and are steeped in a coherent and unmolested Western canon. Their subjects are overwhelmingly white and male, a fact rendering neither of them fit for modern TV. They are both also defined by their Englishness, which lazy pundits would describe as quintessential. The opposite is in fact true, they are both atypical as they are Englishmen who possess an incredible power of introspection and detachment that has enabled them to dissemble Englishness as an outsider looking in would.
They are also both elitists not only in thought, but in practice by the inherent inaccessibility and patrician nature of their output. Neither cared for mass engagement, but instead made a virtue of the hefty implied pre-reading required to understand their works. In the drive to dumb down all media, neither would be welcome now in any cultural forum now. It is perhaps edifying then to see Jonathan Meades in one of his recent columns decrying Islamism, transgenderism, and the attack on white males. Along with Monty Python star John Cleese, those who spent their lives satirising and attacking the defenders of British culture now see the writing on the wall.
Just as Bowden straddling conservatism and modernism may at first seem a paradox, so is there an inherent tension in being a liberal elitist. The dilution of Western societies by dysgenics, affirmative action, and mass migration which liberals promote can only inevitably lead to their own disenfranchisement as they become unintelligible to the new congregation they would preach to. Ultimately this proves Bowden’s view of the world more correct: whatever else the duo may have been, they were both first and foremost Englishmen, who may disagree but can never truly negate their cultural and ethnic heritage.
Ultimately, I respect both Jonathan Meades and Jonathan Bowden as two of the last great public orators and uncowed cultural commentators in the Anglosphere. The idea that learned speakers utilising the mass media could elevate the population has crashed and burned. The promise that the democratisation of the media through the proliferation of private podcasts and social media channels has also failed to produce figures of comparable stature. It is thus up to us to heed their example and strive to broaden the cultural horizons of our movement. While often for our inspiration we look to the venerated writers of the past, it is hard to ignore the reality that we largely live in the era of the podcast, video, and spoken word. We would thus be wise to learn all we can from two masters of modern rhetoric.