The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia
St. Augustines Press, 2012
360 pp., 35.00
This review must begin with a big disclaimer, but one I consider deeply germane to the themes of this book and my take on them. Roger Kimball, the longtime editor of the conservative cultural review New Criterion, was the first literary patron to help me achieve anything solid. Noticing a piece of mine in Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews in 1994—it's characteristic of Kimball that he was alert even to what was going on in an online forum for academic Classicists—he emailed to ask me whether I did any journalism.
Well, now I did. He cheerfully published essays of mine on post-apartheid South Africa (where I lived for a long period), on the American university curriculum, on my own translating work, and even on Christian-Muslim relations. He made my poetry welcome too, giving it a national audience in defiance of the dogma I knew from responses to my submissions elsewhere: Traditional forms and religion? Disqualified on two counts!
As a pacifist Quaker Christian living in the developing world, I had only a wildly flapping overlap with Roger's politics, but he didn't seem to care, and in his pages I fulfilled the fantasy I had nurtured from childhood on of being allowed to "say stuff"—stuff that in a tolerant forum became less fierce and more exploratory, so that, ironically, publication in a conservative periodical helped lead me toward a greater eclecticism in my views outside religion.
My excuse for warning in so much personal detail about my potential for bias is that my own experience of New Criterion might give me some insight into the delights and limitations of this particular book of Kimball's, The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia.
Among the delights are the essays on G. K. Chesterton and Rudyard Kipling. These two, in my view, may resist the general best practice of getting to know important authors at length and in a variety of their works and judging for ourselves before turning even to trusted critics for anything other than the assurance that these are important authors, worth considering in the first place. There is too much to put new readers off in, for example, Chesterton's frantic ingenuity in the cause of orthodoxy and Kipling's nearly unqualified imperialism.
Don't try this at home! A good professional critic like Kimball needs to map out character and influences, forthrightly praise and deplore, and deliver the essence of joy and instruction. In Chesterton, this is found in passages like "Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked …. It may be that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal, and that you are a paralytic." In Kipling, a you-can-dance-to-it ditty says, at the same time, something quite questionable and something hard to deny about current U.S. foreign policy:
It is always a temptation to a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say:
"Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away."
And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we've proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.
Kimball's mission, displayed in the superficially paradoxical title of the book (how can what is permanent have varying "fortunes"?) is to rescue and share what is permanent by right (of both its creators and its inheritors), because of its excellence. Chesterton and Kipling are undying masters of rhetoric and challengers of trendiness and should be taught in public schools. To exclude them because of their ideology is as absurd as it would be to demand that students follow them in choosing a church and voting. Ditto Shakespeare and Mark Twain. Critics—and more critically, teachers, with whom all of us spend a good part of our youth—simply have to mediate.
But Kimball's passion for this mediation is evidently running up against the crisis in political conservatism. The Left-Right deadlock has given rise to Doublespeak dogma, decrees of anathema, and shunnings on the Right that are as harsh and immobilizing as any political correctness of the Left has been. Kimball did not feel free, in this book about transcendent durability, to omit complaints—such as one about judicial activism of the Left alone—that will likely not appear in the durability column during the next few hundred years; and he makes these complaints in a style very different from that of his essays on Kipling, Chesterton, John Buchan, and A Dangerous Book for Boys, essays where even-handedness and humor lend an attractive rhythm to his strictures and may allow Kimball's own prose, like that of his subjects, to survive on the sheer strength of its beauty and insight as a preferred record of its time.
No, the more strictly political passages are received opinion and table-pounding, with one comically heterogeneous list of evils after another. Martha Nussbaum's "politically correct causes," for example, are not only "poverty, the global AIDS crisis, and homosexual marriage" but also "public nudity." This item would surprise a lot of Germans, liberal and conservative alike, in their chaste, orderly buck-nakedness in appropriate public places. They claim to be enjoying (in defiance of Islamist threats) a distinct Western liberty introduced by the Greeks. (What would Pericles of Athens, for whom Kimball builds a large podium in his book, have said about efforts to get athletes out of their Classical nudity and back into their Archaic shorts?) Much more importantly, when did concern for the poor and sick come to be identified as a contemptible cause of the godless Left? I have another important book, as well as a great many Catholic, Mainline Protestant, and evangelical Christian aid workers in Africa, to show Roger.
The political narrowness of the book is very striking in contrast to Kimball's literary- and art-critical well-let's-see. In this latter arena, his tolerance limits his complete rejection to completely valueless "work" like another generation of awfully expensive photo and video exhibits of genitalia and sex acts; moreover, even this rejection is well-argued and engaging in tone. Kimball gives the impresarios more and better consideration than we might at first think they deserve, but in doing so he serves a substantive purpose: by confronting the "theories," the attempts to justify decadence, a critic really can make a case for what is wrong with a culture. With ours, it's the numbness, shallowness, and stupidity, which Kimball characterizes through objects billed as "disturbing" and "challenging" but in reality boring, empty, and interchangeable. Our nation cannot be in good intellectual or moral shape, to create posh homes for pure hype as if it were high culture.
But Kimball's movement in the other direction, from ideology to art, is a failure. For one thing, his politics clearly pressure him to distort his canon of critics. He includes a chapter on the Austrian Hans Sedlmayr, whose treatise Art in Crisis is supposed to contain "the ultimate, indispensable" lesson in that its judgments are "grounded in a measure beyond art." Well, the measure was enthusiastic National Socialism combined with "Augustinian Catholic[ism]." After World War II, Sedlmayr, as a Nazi collaborator, lost his academic post.
In line with his politics, Sedlmayr's criticism was very much mistaken on the point of durability. He excoriated an incredible variety of indispensable thinkers and creators, including Goya and Kant, and his "expertise" no doubt sanctioned the hounding of Germany's contemporary art heroes, the Expressionists. (Harvard has a group of the paintings picked up on the cheap in the 1930s. It seems inconceivable that any intelligent person—or any whose intelligence was not rendered worse than useless by totalitarian privilege—could miss their verve, originality, and eloquence.) Why, on this fair and fertile earth, would you feature Sedlmayer in a book about permanence? For nothing, apparently, but an extremely strained conservative solidarity, Kimball is willing to assault his own thesis that principle counts in the long run.
I concur with this thesis, but as Sedlmayr's story illustrates, it matters which principle it is, and if a critic or creator is considering headlining one, careful, independent reflection beforehand is a good idea in this age of ideological confusion and upheaval. But the politics in this book are so unreflective that the author does not understand their leading role as murderer of his dearest project. Moral and cultural example and exhortation are certainly not going to renew our society through the likes of The New Criterion alone. Its adherents are right that schools could do something, but when they cite flaky curricula and lack of discipline—well, I'm a survivor of rural public schools in the 1960s and '70s (as well as of Harvard and Johns Hopkins later), and I have to protest that these people don't know the half of it, as to the extent of the problem and their own contribution to it.
In the schools whose graduates normally go under (in several senses), it isn't a matter of the right to read Shakespeare being taken away by an arrogant radical élite. It's a matter of very little schooling of any kind. The "study groups" exiled to hallways (the reason I still can't spell all that handily), the filmstrips and films (two long ads for Hawaiian getaways were shown over and over), and the "discussions" and "projects" (concerning our opinions on what we knew nothing about) did me the most good, because the teacher was paying little or no attention and I could read unchallenged a book I'd brought from home (where my grandmother had taught me to read, and where my parents shared their passion for Thurber and natural history). Beyond arithmetic, teaching wasn't the teaching of anything, and that was monstrously frustrating.
By high school I was quietly growing into a fact that horrified me, because I'd been trained to respect teachers, this being the Midwest: some of them weren't (for some reason) refraining from telling me interesting things and showing me how to do useful ones; they themselves didn't know them and couldn't do them. It wasn't unheard-of that a German teacher in our county was one chapter ahead of her class in the elementary textbook, by her own report; no wonder that she stressed the value of "appreciating" German culture over the value of speaking German, which none of her students ever did, of course. I recognized this type of phenomenon much later, in the new South Africa: public administration failed most often not because of complex socioeconomic and political conditions but because the employees were avoiding what they couldn't do: read, write, figure, and file alphabetically. Their rationales for avoiding it were all that was complicated.
The regimen of student testing—started by conservatives, pursued by liberals—meant to reform American education hardly seems a yee-ha success, and this administration is in fact starting to back away from it. The obvious solution, one that has blessed nearly every other advanced country, is a tough national qualifying exam for teachers. But this is unthinkable in a polarized America, where federalism is an idolatry of the Right, instead of a mere useful, flexible tool, as elsewhere. On the Left it is idolatry of trade-unionism that immobilizes the schools: nothing the American Federation of Teachers resists, including serious tests for licensing, is admitted to be in the public interest.
Pace Roger Kimball, my patron, my host, my colleague in literature: political stand-off, not some conspiracy against civilization, was and is depriving almost all the pupils at Liberty and Milton Elementary Schools of the most distant chance at Kipling, leaving the author a rather puny permanence in the company of people like me.
If we want a strong, uniting culture, we have to build it on functional politics. The best thing Kimball could do for the traditions he loves is to withdraw any support for his partisans' intransigence. The same thing has to happen on the Left, but it is fitting that someone on the Right should lead, since the "Christian nation" rhetoric is over there. Talk about ideology: it's much more fundamentally part of the West's principles and its genius to reconcile with opponents than to be "righteous overmuch."
Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in classics at Wesleyan University, where she has been translating the Oresteia of Aeschylus for the Modern Library series with funding from the Guggenheim Foundation. The Music Inside the Whale, and Other Marvels: A Translator on the Beauty of the Bible is forthcoming from Knopf in 2014.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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