Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Book Review: The Fortunes of Permanence

by Roger Kimball. 2012.

Dignity, tenacity, truthfulness, humor, confidence, freedom, joy, courage. The reader may follow with great pleasure and profit any of these threads (Roman virtues all, you say?) through Roger Kimball's new volume The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia. These "cultural instructions" more than any genealogy or anatomy of culture constitute Kimball's book and their embodiment and exile become the touchstones of Culture and Anarchy. We have not, though, some ivory tower classification, for Kimball does not study these virtues in the vacuum of a philosophical treatise but in the lives of men. In fact while he prefaces each chapter with some choice quotations I think the following from Cicero might suffice for the whole:

In the days beyond our memory the traditional ways attached themselves by their own appeal to the outstanding men of the time; and to the ancient ways and to the institutions of their ancestors men of moral superiority clung fast.

Yet ours is an age of amnesia and the doors to the institutions have been shuttered and the men dragged off, and through the mud. They have been branded nationalists, racists, moralists, and ethno-centrists. They weren't "open-minded." Well, neither Cicero nor Burke, for example, would have tolerated living amongst a variety of scoundrels in the name of diversity, nor praised courage for the purpose of undermining the nation, nor joy over its destruction. Virtues without fixed values are virtues in name only, and after decades of being weaned off the real thing Western civilization is pretty "open." The result has been not the widespread joy and liberty of utopian prognostication but mass ennui. The West is passive in response to challenges to its fundamental traditions, tacit to mockery of its principles, and stultified faced with Islamic fundamentalism. The quiet and ambitious goal of The Fortunes of Permanence is, then, the rehabilitation of the men who vivified traditional Western values. If rehabilitation is the goal, though, energy is the theme and the fire of the West begins with the Greeks.

The heart of The Fortunes of Permanence begins with Pericles' storied Funeral Oration, which the Greek general took up with reluctance at the start of a bloody and costly war, and not because of its elegy for the fallen or even its roots in tradition or praise of the Athenian forefathers, but for the zeal and energy witch which Pericles took up duties of democracy. Kimball sees in Pericles' ancient exhortation the joy of the agonistic spirit and the antipathy toward shame. Most of all he sees a leader confident enough in the justice and beauty of his land and the goodness of his fellow citizens to say without irony or doubt:
. . . as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian.
What is the alternative to such joyous undertaking of civil life and refusal to be lax "in the face of the perils of war?" Shuffling apologies, desultory policies, and dithering responses from politicians alongside the "words, words, words" of the intelligentsia? Kimball concludes Part I, "Does Pericles point the way? The alternative is suicide."

Part II, the heart of The Fortunes of Permanence, is a cheerful series of accounts of intellectuals long rusticated by the urban managerial elite. Now while rustication would have served most of them just fine, we would benefit from knowing a thing or two about, say, John Buchan. What can we learn from the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps? Well, apart from it being a gentlemanly thing to know a bit about a man who can write a good ripping yarn, he was an uncommon man of great energy, and by "great energy" I mean that he wrote Nelson's History of the War at the blistering pace of 5,000 words a day, a fact which when coupled with his simultaneous directorship of the British secret service would make anyone who ever put pen to paper put head in head.

What made Buchan so active? No coddled upbringing but a big old conk on the head when he was but five. He wasn't educated on politically correct pabulum but "schooled to toughness." The defense of his country probably put a fire in him too, although toward the end of his life a different concern gripped him. Barbarism was one threat, yes, but de-civilization, that is, "civilization gone rotten" is perhaps a more terrible sight. Too he feared the normalizing effects of science and the "extinction of eccentricity," a justified fear given how he himself would be ironed out of popular discourse.

Rudyard Kipling might not have been ironed out of the literary world but his didactic purposes have been. Today Kipling is permitted to play host to the exotic East and introduce us to Mowgli and friends but not to teach. I suppose his demotion is due not so much of the rejection of poetry's didactic imperative which dates from Hesiod, but a disagreement with him over his ideas. Kimball one-ups T. S. Eliot's observation that poetry, "is condemned as 'political' when we disagree with the politics" by adding that, "Kipling might have written good poetry, but it wasn't good for poetry to have been written by Kipling." Hence the ironing, sanitizing, et cetera. Kimball's discussion of the poetry is scholarly and his remarks about the oft-trotted criticism of refreshing. Yet more revealing than the obvious fact that "white" in the "white man's burden" refers not to the color of skin but the lawful citizens of civilization is Kipling's idea of civilization as something "laboriously achieved" and "precariously defended." It is this virile belief, in the value and identity of Western civilization, which has prevented Kipling passage into the literary Pantheon.

Kimball labors most lovingly on G. K. Chesterton, "Master of Rejuvenation" who perhaps most embodies the vigorous citizen whom this book is meant to praise and inspire. Vital energy abounds in Kimball's descriptions of this man of letters, arguments, and apologetics, of his ruddy health and strenuous genius. How much more joyful Chesterton's "mere excitement of existence" rooted in orthodoxy than the postmodern, post-structuralist, deconstructed, tedium rooted in. . .

If modernity's cultural guardians banish Buchan for his eccentricity, Kipling for his defense of the West, and Chesterton's orthodoxy, what palpitations must they suffer from someone who defended the culture of the Old South! Richard Weaver took up the strenuous, romantic, and perhaps futile challenge of defending the Old South and its virtues of hierarchy, chivalry, gentility, and religion from the North's centralizing mechanical and political machines.

The concluding chapters of Part II on modern art might seem a dour turn from the preceding eclectic stands against the 20th century's encroaching progressivism, relativism, and socialism, but they couldn't provide a finer contrast. Never have the progressive credos seemed like so many bromides. "Art for art's sake" seems more an excuse for not learning your craft and refusing to live up to creative heights of your predecessors than any grand philosophical pronouncement. If art is not subject to strictures of form and purpose, then it devolves, as it has, into esoterica meaningful only to its creator, so who cares about it?

Kimball deftly brings this observation around to architecture in his lively discussion of an exhibition of the architecture of Peter Eisenman and Leon Krier. Why would you want, as Eisenman does, your space to "disrupt" and "intrude?" It is made for man, no? The space may be logical and highly ordered but, to be frank, so what? If a man is to live in a space it must meet his needs and seldom among those needs are being disrupted and intruded upon. Quite simply, nobody wants to live in an ugly building and, to quote Roger Scruton, "Nobody wants to live in it because it's so damn ugly." Yet beauty is a value, and we moderns can't have that can we?

Ugly buildings lack what Kimball, continuing his theme of vitality, calls "the animating leaven of taste." Ugly architecture is dead to us because it is unpleasant and we avoid it as we avoid all unpleasant things. Post-human architecture is anti-human architecture and it will limp along in "sterility and exhaustion" until its purpose turns back to man.

The final branch of The Fortunes of Permanence might be subtitled, "Unmasking the Friends of Humanity." Oh you know the Friends of Humanity: the managerial progressives, the distributers of "social justice," and their many brothers and cousins. All they want is to remake society; is that so much to ask? The reward is universal brotherhood and abundance. Not sold? Well, that was my best pitch. I apologize if I failed to sell you utopia but it is a rather touch sell, is it not? To fall for it I suppose one needs to think human nature infinitely malleable, that one may be educated or trained out of any behavior. Too you would need to thing society and its infinite parts equally pliable. Nothing immovable, nothing permanent stands in the way of progress. Just as modern theories of art pushed God, man's nature, and tradition from the center so have modern political theories, and just as modern art is enervated and listless so is modern politics. Stand up for what?

Marxism and its offshoots, hybrids, and bastards have everywhere degenerated into vacuousness. In politics it has devolved into lawlessness, in academics into relativism, and in art into banality. Who would have thought that the widespread loss of valid intellectual criteria and the politicization and celebration of that loss as "social (fill-in-the-blank)" would lead to degeneration? Just Pericles, Cicero, Burke. . . and if those voices are too distant, Burnham, Kolakowski, and Hayek.

Again I have mentioned the great men. Perhaps now their presence will seem less conspicuous here and more necessary in the world.
In the days beyond our memory the traditional ways attached themselves by their own appeal to the outstanding men of the time; and to the ancient ways and to the institutions of their ancestors men of moral superiority clung fast.
As Kimball has shown us, the rejection of these men had to follow the rejection of their values. Their disappearance is no coincidence for the Marxian intelligentsia knew too, as Alan Bloom wrote, that, "The essence of education is the experience of greatness." The Fortunes of Permanence is such an experience.

The Fortunes of Permanence is also an important book, not just remedy but tocsin. How close to the brink of de-civilization must the West creep before it pulls back?

Alarms aside, but not far, The Fortunes of Permanence is a vigorous book of joyful praise and serrated criticism. Kimball's knowledge and love of the classics are not so much apparent in as infused into the pages. If it contains an abundance of quotations from the greats, from Aristotle to Orwell, well so much the better for a book about culture and permanence. If it is Kimball's great achievement that Classical values and the men who lived them shine so, his portrait of the left is equally admirable. Never has the left, traced finely from the French Revolution through today, seemed so dull: it's politics so many utopian schemes ending in tears, its art so much "outrage by the yard." Yawn.

In contrast, the virile and adventurous spirit of the West, from Pericles to Burke, in Homer and Kipling and yes, even in the Dangerous Book for Boys, endures.

If you enjoyed this review, you would probably like our blog in general. Still, a few choice bits:

No comments:

Post a Comment