Books in Little
The Australian philosopher David Stove, who died in 1994, was largely unknown in the United States until Roger Kimball, of the New Criterion, began writing about him and publishing his essays. Stove has all the qualities of a first-class essayist: pellucid style, an acute mind, and a hatred of cant of any kind. His conservatism was of a Humean, rather than a Burkean, bent, and he wielded his philosophical skepticism across a range of issues. In his native land, Stove has long been controversial for his writings on aboriginal issues, feminism, political correctness, and other subjects.
This collection treats a similarly sensitive topic, one of much greater concern for Americans: Darwinism. Darwinian Fairytales is a sharp polemic against those who would seek to make Darwin and his propositions bear a weight they cannot sustain. Stover is no defender of intelligent design, and does not seek to advocate for any position save common sense; like the best debaters, he ranges freely across the Darwinians’ own ground, taking their work seriously and showing how some of their conclusions cannot possibly be true. Darwin’s conclusions about evolution and adaptation make the most sense, in the main and as a starting point. But reality is more complex and present-day Darwinists’ advocacy of “altruistic” genes and the like ultimately fail. Stove, like the British philosopher Mary Midgley, treats the subject seriously and with a deep knowledge of the literature, and he delivers deadly blows on the likes of E. O. Wilson and Daniel Dennett. Anyone interested in the current debates over evolution should read this book.
This book is a must read for everyone seeking a deeper understanding of the American tradition, but especially for conservatives. Bill Kauffman has traveled along most of the familiar twentieth-century intellectual paths, from aide to Senator Moynihan to the libertarian Reason magazine, from a paleoconservative fellow-traveler to the generally neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. But he has at last found his home, among the various American misfits, radicals, visionaries, and reactionaries he discusses in Look Homeward, America.
Kauffman describes his vision as “Jeffersonian decentralist” and describes himself as a “fanatic localist.” It is all that, and more. It is a rebuke alike to contemporary American mass consumerism, angry paleoconservatism, and “movement” conservatism too much in love with its own ideas to see how America really lives.
Kauffman, in a sense, is continuing a project begun by Russell Kirk. As with Kauffman, Kirk was always more at home with the oddball than the straight-laced, and tended to take delight in the eccentricities of real Americans. But Kirk was often criticized, not always justly, for not specifying the “tradition” he wanted preserved. Through these studies of such “holy fools and backyard radicals” as Dorothy Day, Gene McMcarthy, and Grant Wood, Kauffman opens our eyes to a tradition that is all around us, but which has been obscured by strip-malls and diversity training.
To the chagrin of intellectuals both on the left and the right, in Kauffman’s America, there are no grand “isms” that serve to justify taking children away from parents and to destroy communities in the name of democracy or progress. There are no great causes other than raising families, developing your individual talents and souls (if so inclined), being kind to your neighbors, and having work that is both fulfilling and not all consuming, in surroundings that are scaled for real men and women. This is America, in a real sense, how it used to be, with its warts, problems, and its occasional nightmares. Sometimes perhaps Kauffman sees history with intellectual-colored glasses, and elevates a certain type of community living that, as the restless history of Americans’ movement shows, has not been for everyone. As Look Homeward America shows, though, in compelling argument and artful prose, such a place is far more deserving of loyalty than the global state designed for us by the ideologues.
This short study is a comparison on the themes and art of Flannery O’Connor (for more about whom see Michael Jordan’s review in this issue) and Edward Lewis Wallant (1926–1962), a writer who remains relatively unknown, despite critical praise during his lifetime and since.
McDermott, a professor of English at Suffolk County Community College who has written on writers ranging from Ionesco to Hawthorne, identifies three themes he finds common to the work of Wallant and O’Connor, aside from their equally small bodies of work (Wallant wrote only four novels, and O’Connor two, with a clutch of short stories). They were both concerned, he writes, with “man’s quest for satisfaction of the soul, the mystery of man’s being and reason for his existence, and the necessity of suffering.” Although O’Connor was Catholic and Wallant Jewish, through studies of the latter’s novel Wise Blood and Wallant’s 1963 novel The Tenants of Moonbloom (recently republished, with an introduction by David Eggers), among other works, McDermott shows that each shared a vision that was oriented to uncover what was universally true about human existence, though in O’Connor’s case this was more tied to a particular religious tradition than McDermott indicates for Wallant.
These themes are buttressed by a series of brief chapters analyzing the common techniques O’Connor and Wallant used in their work. For example, McDermott notes that both authors used elements of the grotesque and humor to illustrate their beliefs about redemption and suffering. Two of a Kind is an interesting attempt to join two important American writers.
When the Founding fathers pledged their “sacred Honor” to the success of the Revolution, they were invoking a familiar concept, and one readily understood by their eighteenth-century contemporaries, who themselves were steeped in a culture of honor with roots in antiquity. But no longer; honor cannot now be discussed without ironic, postmodern quotation marks, as if the very idea cannot be discussed without a smirk. But honor—the old-fashioned, brutal, and quite clearly premodern kind—still rules much of the earth.
James Bowman, former American editor of the Times Literary Supplement and a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has written an important and timely study of the idea of honor, both in the West and abroad. As he notes in the opening chapters, many cultures are still mired in horrific cycles of honor killings, ritual rape, and lawless violence. For those in the West, it is important to understand honor and the role it plays in many societies, including our own. Indeed, for those conservatives uneasy with the Bush administration’s justifications on attacking Iraq, Bowman here makes a persuasive case based on notions of national honor that can usefully be contrasted with the views of antiwar conservatives.
While the West too has an honor culture, inherited from Greek epic, Roman social relationships, and Germanic self-regard, it is unique in that its honor culture has contained within it a critique of honor, rooted in part in Christianity’s rejection of violence and its central message of individual salvation centered in a suffering God. This dual heritage created, by the early Middle Ages and then again in a different way in the Victorian era, a culture of honor that expressed a concern for one’s good name not in martial deeds or public display of aggression, but individual sincerity and the preservation of conscience.
But, as Bowman shows in clear prose style and an impressive range of referents, that culture has been destroyed through a misplaced ideological devotion to equality, the rise of celebrity culture. He is particularly good at dissecting the mass media’s all-consuming need, since Watergate, for “scandals” to destroy the good name of anyone who thinks himself better. Bowman concludes the book with a call to rescue honor from its detractors, both for the sake of sanity and, given the threats that face the West, perhaps the survival of our very civilization.
Posted: March 20, 2007
Rediscovering a Neglected Conservative Mind
W. Wesley McDonald
Volume 34, Number 2 (Fall 1994)