Fayette Durlin and Peter Jenkin
Fayette Durlin and Peter Jenkin write from Brownsville, Minnesota.
Book reviews in the conservative press (or any press, for that matter) are very uneven, largely because editors generally regard "the back of the book," as it is called, as less important than the articles and editorials up front. Exceptions are cultural magazines (New Criteron) and magazines devoted mainly to reviews, like Claremont Review of Books, but even in those precincts the careful reader must tread warily. We do not ask much of a review, only that it give an honest account of the book as well as a critical assessment.
We certainly get that in William Tucker's review of Charles Murray's Coming Apart in the April American Spectator. We have seen other reviews of this book, and Tucker's, one of the best, is clear and straightforward.
But, it's a big "but,'" sometimes reviewers transcend the usual limits and give us something extraordinary, a review that enlarges on its subject to expound in a short space more wisdom than the rest of the magazine. Such a review, by Yuval Levin of Murray's book, was published in the 3/19 The Weekly Standard. For the benefit of our readers who are not acquainted with the book, we summarize: the subject is the increasing gap between our elite and lower classes, the unraveling of our common "self-confident culture, defined by strong families, faith in God, untiring industriousness." The first part of the book describes how an elite is "forming an isolated and cohesive subculture of high achievement and bourgeois virtues," with little exposure to the lives of ordinary Americans. The virtues - marriage, religion, work, lawfulness - have declined somewhat since the early 1960s (Murray's benchmark), but not precipitately, whereas among the lower class there has been "cataclysmic cultural disintegration." Levin here criticizes Murray for implying that the problem is the gap between the classes, while Levin thinks the real problem is the lower-class mess.
As for the chances of a cultural revival, Levin points out renewal may be related to the "particular cultural high-point" Murray has chosen for his benchmark: the postwar era:
. . . [a] time of cultural cohesion, economic dynamism, and government activism all at once, and thus a time that both liberals and conservatives can look back to with approval.
But as Levin points out, post-war American was made possible by the war which had destroyed or maimed all other major economies, an "utterly unrepeatable set of circumstances." We were united as never before and we had a "series of economic booms" that created a broad middle class on an unprecedented scale. Levin thinks we have to find other ways "to achieve broadly shared prosperity and cultural vitality."
Then he goes on to make a point that impressed us most: not only was the postwar era unique, but it can't be projected back in time, as Murray seems to imply. Any acquaintance with our history tells us that Americans have endured agonizing times of social strain and economic upheaval - think of the 1850s and the bloody war in Kansas, or the 1870s and the huge labor strikes with troops firing on strikers, think of the election of 1896 when Williams Jennings Bryan's election would have been analogous to a second Obama term. As Levin says, renewing the American ethic is a "mighty challenge," but it's "of a type (and perhaps even a scale) that America has undertaken before."
We found this analysis exhilarating; it broke us out of our cocoon of presentism and made us see our problem in the long perspective of our history. Certainly those of us of a certain age see the post-war era as an Eden; our mistake was to think America had always been so before the dread 1960s. Candid examination of our history shows us times as desperate as our own. What Levin's perceptive review did was to free our minds to think, without the feeling of apocalyptic dread, constructively about our current problems.
The next review, of The Union War by Gary Gallagher, was written by the Lincoln scholar Michael Burlingame in the winter issue of Claremont Review of Books. The book demonstrates that Northerners (and loyal Southerners) regarded the Civil War as a struggle to "save the union and thereby to vindicate free government." Gallagher thus confounds the "regnant progressive school of American biography," as Burlingame puts it. The book isn't long, but the author has made deep researches into contemporary writings, letters, newspapers, diaries, and so on. As our own reading has shown, the idea of the union was almost a mystic idea for Americans of the time. It is a great pleasure to learn of a book on our history that condemns writing that looks "through analytical prisms of current social and cultural norms."
So much for books and their reviews. In the same issue of the Weekly Standard that contains Levin's review, Andrew Ferguson has an article, "Declaring War on Newborns" about a piece in the Journal of Medical Ethics called "After-birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?" that advocates killing newborns on this basis:
When circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.
When news of the article reached the public and there was an outraged response, this was the authors' apology:
The article was supposed to be read by other fellow ethicists who were already familiar with this topic and our arguments . . . this debate has been going on for 40 years.
As Ferguson points out, the article performed a useful service by revealing the sinister farce of medical ethics as well as the logical path of the pro-abortion position.
It seems we can't get away from Andrew Ferguson. He has a first-rate essay in the 2/27 issue of The Weekly Standard called "The Big Creep" about the attempt to rehabilitate Bill Clinton. We hope we do not need to review Clinton's career for our readers, but if anyone wants to refresh his memory, we recommend this relentless essay.
Finally, we have three articles about different aspects of cultural decadence, illuminating essays about a neglected subject. In the April American Spectator Roger Scruton writes a thorough condemnation of the celebrated architects of the day in "Monumental Egos," pointing out that celebrity architects like Frank Gehry are interested only in glorifying themselves as they design "transgressive" public structures.
We must begin to look for those more modest architects and sculptors, and to reject the celebrity culture on which the great egos rely for their commissions.
Written in Scruton's usual clear, unpretentious style.
Fred Siegel's "How Highbrows Killed Culture" (April Commentary) tells how the cultural elite, beginning after World War I, full of contempt for what they regarded as "mass culture produced by democracy and capitalism" (when you see "mass" or "masses" you are in trouble), scorned ordinary Americans as they aspired to better themselves, not only materially, but also intellectually and culturally, especially in the 1940s and 1950s. Siegel relentlessly traces this poisonous condescension through the decades, quoting savants like H. L. Mencken, Aldous Huxley, Jos Ortega y Gasset, Herbert Marcuse, and Dwight MacDonald. His theory, that the middle class drive for cultural uplift was undercut in the 1960s by Susan Sontag's theory of "camp," is silly, I think, but what is important about the article is that conservatives, belatedly recognizing cultural decadence, are now identifying the figures responsible, once highly regarded as modernist champions.
The most significant essay of the three, in the 2/27 issue of The Weekly Standard, "The Great American Novel - Will There Ever Be Another?" is by Roger Kimball and therein lies its significance, because he is the editor of The New Criterion, a staunch defender of modernism, the movement that killed art and literature and culture. A statement like that, of course, is much too simple, because while modernism, a movement that began in the late 19th century and lasted into the early 1960s, was both a movement in itself of destruction, and was also a consequence thrown up by the deeper forces of decadence. Although Roger Kimball never uses the word, it was the belief, the force driving the savants of the cultural elite, animating their contempt for those not swinging with the zeitgeist.
As an essay, it's rambling, confused, and inconsequential, partly because it obviously began life as a speech and was poorly adapted, partly because Kimball's modernist allegiance prevents clarity of vision. He begins by expressing disgust at contemporary fiction, spending four paragraphs on it without ever defining what disgusts him. Instinctively, however, he gropes in the right direction, citing Matthew Arnold, who
. . . looked to literature, to culture generally, to provide the civilizing and spiritually invigorating function that religion had provided for earlier ages.
That belief, pathetic as we now know it to be, was one of the impulses behind the high art celebrated by modernism - first Henry James and Joseph Conrad, later T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. Kimball has vague intimations of this, but the latter part of the essay is thoroughly confused and inconclusive. A sure sign of his bafflement is his resort to quotations from Henry James, T. S. Eliot, and Lionel Trilling, like the octopus with his ink cloud, an indication of intellectual obfuscation.
If we may quote a colleague, Jigs Gardner has something to say about this in his essay on Joseph Conrad, 7 in the series "Writers for Conservatives":
. . . As a creative phenomenon High Art lasted from the 1890s into the 1920s, and as a critical conception it was still the reigning orthodoxy as late as the early 1960s, but it must have been swept away in the general wave of destruction we know as "the 60s."I see no trace of it now, but of course there is no literature and no criticism of the sort we associate with the heyday of that practice. It seems strange that literature should reach an apogee of self-consciousness and then quickly dwindle to nothing, but after all, literature is not separate from its culture. Perhaps when an activity like literature becomes fully self-conscious it has reached the end of its present incarnation and then must descend into decadence and nullity so long as destructive social forces remain dominant, arising in new forms only when society itself is reborn. . . . I cannot say why, and of course my observations may be quite wrong, but it seems to me that when art is seen in almost a religious light, and when the artist becomes self-consciously an instrument of Truth, it's a sign that the lights are about to be dimmed.
Nevertheless, it is a significant event when a modernist like Roger Kimball sees the decadence of its product. *