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Volume 46, Number 3 (Fall 2008)

Donald Davidson and the South’s Conservatism

book cover imageFrom The Politics of Prudence

Russell Kirk

Leviathan is a Hebrew word signifying “that which gathers itself in folds.” In the Old Testament, Leviathan is the great sea-beast: “Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?” In the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes—whom T.S. Eliot calls “that presumptuous little upstart”—made Leviathan the symbol of the state, or rather of mass-society, composed of innumerable little atomic individual human beings.

But here we are concerned with Donald Davidson’s Leviathan. In 1938, long before the administration of Lyndon Johnson popularized the slogan “The Great Society,” Davidson wrote that his Leviathan is “the idea of the Great Society, organized under a single, complex, but strong and highly centralized national government, motivated ultimately by men’s desire for economic welfare of a specific kind rather than their desire for personal liberty.” Six decades later, Leviathan looms larger than ever.

The Southern States that once formed the Confederacy have been the most conservative region of America, it is generally agreed. Once upon a time, Richard Weaver told me that Middle Tennessee is the most southern part of the South. There in Middle Tennessee, near the town of Pulaski, in 1893, Donald Davidson was born. Surely Davidson was the most redoubtably conservative of those able American men of letters who have been called the Southern Agrarians. As poet, as critic, as historian, and as political thinker, Davidson was a stalwart defender of America’s permanent things during an era of radical change.

Ever since the forming of the Union in 1787, the dominant political tendency in the southern states has been resistance to centralizing power. Far more than any other region, the South has set its face against Leviathan—that is, against the swelling omnipotent nation-state, what Tocqueville called democratic despotism, the political collectivity that reduces men and women to social atoms. Davidson scourged the centralizers—and that at a time when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was doing much as he liked with the United States of America.

Browsing in the library at Michigan State College, in 1938, an earnest sophomore, I happened upon a new book, published by the University of North Carolina Press, entitled The Attack on Leviathan, and subtitled Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States. It was written eloquently, and for me it made coherent the misgivings I had felt concerning the political notions popular in the 1930s. The book was so good that I assumed all intelligent Americans, or almost all, were reading it. Actually, as I learned years later, the University of North Carolina Press pulped the book’s sheets after only a few hundred copies had been sold: clearly an act of discrimination against conservative views. I had a hand in the reprinting of the book, by another firm, in 1963; and I am happy at having brought out in 1990 a third edition, for Leviathan is as meancing in 1992 as he was in 1938.

Professor Davidson rowed against the tide of opinion among America’s intellectuals in 1938. Centralizing nationalism, he argued, is of necessity tyrannical and enslaving. For a specimen of his method and style, take this passage from his chapter on American literature. He has been criticizing Emerson, and he finds that the opinion shapers of New York and Boston during the 1930s are Emerson’s heirs:

In our own time, the metropolitan critics are making national prescriptions that are equally partial, though somewhat more confused. In one sentence they assure us that the industrial unification of America is desirable and inevitable; but in the next sentence they declare that the civilization thus produced puts upon us an intolerable spiritual bondage from which the artist cannot escape save through the shibboleths of Marxism and Freudianism. Wearily, they proclaim that America is standardized; but angrily they scorn the rural backwardness of regions that prove to be, after all, less urban than New York. Confidently they announce that America must be industrialized; but they sneer at Mr. Babbitt of the Middle West, the creature of industrialism. They urge the provinces to adopt the intellectual sophistication of the Eastern metropolis; but among themselves they bewail the poverty of the modem temper, which in its sophistication has left them nothing to enjoy.

Now could one write, in this year of 1992, a better description of the mentality of such American intellectuals? One might substitute, of course, the phrase “the industrial unification of the world” for that of America; for nowadays the whole of the world must be subjected to those environmental mischiefs and social discontents that already have worked immense harm in the “developed countries.”

Davidson was bold enough to defend the agricultural economy against industrial aggrandizement. (Parenthetically, it seems worth remarking that in recent years the dollar volume of agricultural produce in the industrial state of Michigan has exceeded the dollar volume of manufactured products.) Bolder still, he took up the cause of his own region, the South, against the nationalizers of New York and Washington. He appreciated, too, other American regions: New England, the Great Plains, the Lake States, the Pacific coast. But it was the South which required the service of Davidson’s sword of imagination.

Can principles enunciated as Southern principles, of whatever cast, get a hearing?” he inquired in The Attack on Leviathan. “ . . . It seems to be a rule that the more special the program and the more remote it is from Southern principles, the greater the likelihood of its being discussed and promulgated. Southerners who wish to engage in public discussion in terms that do not happen to be of common report in the New York newspapers are likely to be met, at the levels where one would least expect it, with the tactics of distortion, abuse, polite tut-tutting, angry discrimination and so on down to the baser devices of journalistic lynching which compose the modern propagandist’s stock in trade. This is an easy and comparatively certain means of discrediting an opponent and of thus denying him a hearing. It is also a fatal means. For if such approaches to public questions are encouraged and condoned, then confusion has done its work well, the days of free and open discussion of ideas is over in the South, only matters of crass expediency can come into the public forum at all, and we face the miserable prospect of becoming the most inert and passive section of the United States, or else of falling into blind and violent divisions whose pent-up forces will hurl us at each other’s throats. Then will Jefferson’s prophetic vision come true. We shall take to eating one another, as they do in Europe.

Such matters have not much improved since Davidson wrote those sentences, half a century past: The South continues to be treated by Congress as if it were a subject province (in voter registration especially), and the New York newspapers remain ungenerous.

New York City was to Donald Davidson the abomination of desolation. He and his wife spent their summers at Bread Loaf, in Vermont; and Davidson took extraordinary pains to avoid passing through New York City en route. For that matter, he detested sprawling modern cities generally, Nashville included, though he found it necessary to reside most of his life in the neighborhood of Vanderbilt University. To his volume of poems The Tall Men (published in 1927) Davidson had a prologue, “The Long Street,” the antithesis of the rural Tennessee of yesteryear, that land of heroes. That Long Street—I think of devastated Woodward Avenue in Detroit—is the symbol of a dehumanized urban industrial culture:

The grass cannot remember; trees cannot
Remember what once was here. But even so,
They too are here no longer. Where is the grass?
Only the blind stone roots of the dull street
And the steel thews of houses flourish here
And the baked curve of asphalt, smooth, trodden
Covers dead earth that once was quick with grass,
Snuffing the ground with acrid breath the motors
Fret the long street. Steel answers steel. Dust whirls.
Skulls hurry past with the pale flesh yet clinging.
And a little hair.

Davidson was a guardian of those permanent thing which perish upon the pavements of the Long Street; and an inveterate adversary of the enormous welfare state, which devours the spirit. Those themes run through his verse as through his prose.

Politics, we are told truly is the art of the possible—and the preoccupation of the quarter-educated. That is, politics ranks low in order of precedence of the works of the mind, if one refers simply to defecated political theory and practice. But Professor Davidson never divorced politics from religion or imaginative literature or tradition. He knew that the greatest works of politics are poetic, from Plato onward. In his later collection of essays entitled Still Rebels, Still Yankees (1957), he writes about the dissociation of the poet from society, now

. . . painfully apparent as society has accepted the dominance of science and consequently has become indisposed to accept poetry as truth. . . . In this phase of operations the poet may well become an outright traditionalist in religion, politics, and economics. He examines the defects of modern civilization. He develops a sense of catastrophe. With an insight far more accurate than the forecasts of professional social philosophers, he begins to plot the lines of stress and strain along which disaster will erupt. He predicts the ruin of modern secularized society and makes offers of salvation. These are unheard of or unheeded. Then upon the deaf ears and faceless bodies of modern society he invokes the poet’s curse.

Eliot’s poetic curse was that famous fatal dismissal, “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” Davidson, fiercely though he reproached a sensate age, was not quite ready to pronounce a curse upon his time. Tradition still might reassert its old power. Take this passage from his essay “Futurism and Archaism in Toynbee and Hardy” contained in Still Rebels, Still Yankees:

‘You cannot turn the clock back!’ is the commonest taunt of our day. It always emerges as the clinching argument that any modernist offers any traditionalist when the question is: ‘What shall we do now?’ But it is not really an argument. It is a taunt intended to discredit the traditionalist by stigmatizing him a traitor to an idea of progress that is assumed as utterly valid and generally accepted. The aim is, furthermore, to poison the traditionalist’s own mind and disturb his self-confidence by the insinuation that he is a laggard in the world’s great procession. His faith in an established good is made to seem nostalgic devotion to a mere phantom of the buried past. His opposition to the new—no matter how ill-advised, inartistic, destructive, or immoral that new may be—is defined as a quixotic defiance of the Inevitable. To use a term invented by Arnold J. Toynbee, he is an Archaist. By definition, he is therefore doomed.

To abide by Tradition is not to fall into archaism, Davidson told the rising generation. As for turning back the clock—why, as Davidson puts it, “Neither can you turn the clock forward, for Time is beyond human control.” When a Futurist uses this clock metaphor, we perceive

. . . an unconscious revelation of his weakness. He wishes to imply that his design, and his only, is perfectly in step with some scientific master cloak of cause and effect that determines the progress of human events. This implication has no basis in reality, since the Futurist actually means to break off all connection with the historical process of cause and effect and to substitute for it an imagined, ideal process of quasi-scientific future development which is nothing more than a sociological version of Darwinism.”

Such was the conservative mind of Donald Davidson. If I have made him seem somewhat abstract—why, that has been my blunder. He was remarkably versatile: a collector of folk ballads, a gifted lecturer, a writer of librettos, an historian, even from time to time active in the troubled politics of Tennessee. He was all too well aware of the huge blunders in public policy during the twentieth century: If one turns to the second volume of his history of the Tennessee River, one finds three chapters accurately exposing the failures of that enormous undertaking, so warmly commended by the liberal press and most Tennessee politicians—yet so founded upon economic and social fallacies.

* * *

Southern Agrarians proclaimed when I was a child that the southern culture is worth defending; that society is something more than the Gross National Product; that the country lane is healthier than the Long Street; that more wisdom lies in Tradition than in Scientism; that Leviathan is a devourer, not a savior. Study what the Twelve Southerners have written [in I’ll Take My Stand] and you may discover that they are no mere Archaists.

“Worn out with abstraction and novelty, plagued with divided counsels, some Americans have said: I will believe the old folks at home, who have kept alive through many treacherous outmodings some good secret of life.” So Donald Davidson wrote in his chapter [of I’ll Take My Stand]. He continued:

Such moderns prefer to grasp the particular. They want something to engage both their reason and their love. They distrust the advice of John Dewey to ‘use foresight of the future to refine and expand present activities.’ The future is not yet; it is unknowable, intangible. But the past was, the present is; of that they can be sure. So they attach themselves—or reattach themselves—to a home-section, one of the sections, great or small, defined in the long conquest of our continental area. They seek spiritual and cultural autonomy. . . . They are learning how to meet the subtlest and most danggerous foe of humanity—the tyranny that wears the mask of humanitarianism and benevolence. They are attacking Leviathan.

Posted: November 30, 2008 in From Russell Kirk.

A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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