Hope or Despair? Roger Kimball and the Future of Culture
For those who cherish the life of the mind, one of the saddest events of 2012 was the death of the great historian Jacques Barzun. If a loss can be said to be pregnant with meaning, this one surely was. It was not as if the event were unexpected or premature; the legendarily prolific Barzun was, after all, but a month shy of his 105th birthday. (Although his publication in 2000 of the masterly 900-page tome From Dawn to Decadence, at the age of 93, might have encouraged the thought that almost anything was possible for this extraordinary man.) But when it finally came, the departure from the American scene of a man who so brilliantly embodied all that is richest and best in the much-abused word “culture” seemed to mark the end of an era, a curtain-lowering that left us without the promise of any encore or sequel. Such gloomy presentiments seemed to hang heavy over the reflections of those writers who commented on the significance of his passing. They could not help but intimate that something else was also in danger of passing away.
In the New York Times’s surprisingly intelligent and sympathetic obituary of Barzun, Edward Rothstein (perhaps the only current Timesman capable of writing such a thing) deftly captured the essence of the matter with his description of From Dawn to Decadence. After tracing “periods of rise and fall in the Western saga,” Barzun had apparently concluded “that another fall was near—one that could cause ‘the liquidation of 500 years of civilization’.” The decline would result not from external threats but from “an internal crisis in the civilization itself,” brought on by a steady erosion of cultural self-confidence and by a consequent willingness “to celebrate nihilism and rebellion,” and condemn all previous sources of authority. And matters would persist in such a radically diminished and demoralized state, perhaps for many years, until such time as “some fresh wave, truly original, truly creative, breaks upon the shore” and brings about “a rediscovery of the West.”
Such melancholy expectations for the West’s future are nothing new. But they have, alas, never seemed more plausible than they do at the present moment. Our civilization has danced on the edge of the volcano for so many years now, recklessly testing its footing in ever more vulgar and precarious ways, defying the moral interdictions of the past and gradually losing a sense of its own fragility and vulnerability, that it is hard to imagine that we will survive our current path without paying a severe price for the folly and self-destruction that have been entailed in following it. But that said, it is also important not to forget the second, and more hopeful, part of Barzun’s formulation. He hedged his predictions with qualifiers, and refused to counsel despair or fatalism, or to regard the West—a uniquely "mongrel civilization" constructed out of dozens of national cultures and conflicting tendencies, and therefore much more resilient than any one of them—as an entity whose prospects were entirely finished. Instead he took comfort in the endless fertility and inventiveness of life itself. Although renewal was hardly inevitable, it was possible.
Such is the sober but undefeated spirit in which Barzun took his leave of us, a disposition he often labeled “cheerful pessimism”; and there is no one on the contemporary scene that has come to embody that spirit more fully and energetically than Roger Kimball. The appearance of The Fortunes of Permanence would seem to provide an apt occasion for assessing Kimball’s increasingly important place in our cultural life, or what is left of it. That importance has been growing steadily over the three decades since the young Kimball, fresh from graduate studies at Yale, signed on in 1982 to be first managing editor of The New Criterion.
The New Criterion has of course since become a familiar fixture of our intellectual life. But it was then a fledgling magazine of wide-ranging cultural criticism being started by art critic Hilton Kramer and pianist/critic Samuel Lipman as a strong antidote to the lax and lamentable norms of criticism prevailing at the time. Its ambitions were not small. As the magazine’s name was meant to imply, The New Criterion was designed to serve (as did T. S. Eliot’s Criterion) as an organ of rigorously high critical standards, one whose mission would be the reassertion of such high standards over against the ideological, philosophical, and demotic distortions that had debased intellectual and cultural life over the course of the twentieth century. Kramer was a stalwart defender of high modernism in the visual arts, and a vehement opponent of postmodernism, with its lazy and dissembling smirks, of populism, which he saw a sellout to the crass sensibilities of the crowd, and of openly politicized or “socially conscious” art, which he saw as nothing less than treason to the singular task of the artist, and against which he spoke with a refreshing and relentless vigor. All of these heresies, he insisted, fell short of the high and true calling of a free, honest, serious, and disinterested intellectual. Courageously, Kramer left his influential post as art critic of the New York Times to start this new journal, hoping it could serve as a “dissenting critical voice” that would stand against a pernicious cultural tide that had “condemned true seriousness to a fugitive existence."
In due course, Kimball succeeded Hilton Kramer as editor, and during his time at the helm has stoutly maintained the high standards Kramer set, while expanding the magazine’s reach into new areas, gradually turning The New Criterion into an organ dedicated to the recovery of the West’s longer cultural heritage. In the process, he has made The New Criterion a voice not only for the seriousness of high modernism but also for the necessity of the Permanent Things: a combination that, of course, T. S. Eliot would have understood perfectly, but still, one that represents a significant elaboration and development of the magazine’s mission. And the change may be far more natural than it would seem. The turn to embrace a more tradition-minded sensibility may represent, rather than a change of perspective, an acknowledgement of the extent to which the unraveling of the culture needed to support distinguished artistic achievement has picked up its pace. As Kimball writes in the pages here under review, “Art has its own aesthetic canons of legitimacy and achievement; but those canons are themselves nugatory unless grounded in a measure beyond art.” The restoration of that grounding is now very much a part of his more general project.
In addition to his work with The New Criterion, Kimball has since 2006 been the publisher of Encounter Books, having transformed that small enterprise into a powerful and innovative force in book publishing, one of the most lively and influential voices of intellectual and political conservatism in the English-speaking world. Culture is never transformed by individuals alone; there must be the infrastructure for communities of discourse: magazines, organizations, venues, organs, gathering places, editors, audiences, salons, and networks, outposts within which those individuals can operate, and flourish, and be heard, and good ideas can be shared, transmitted, propagated. If Kimball had done nothing else, his role in sustaining The New Criterion and Encounter Books, two crucial institutions of American cultural renewal, would make him a very important individual.
But he is probably known less for these roles than for his prolific writing, as the author of several elegant and fearlessly critical books and many articles on a variety of subjects, from the decadent state of American higher education to the ideological pillage of the art world; and more recently has emerged as a first-rate blogger on cultural and political subjects at the New Criterion’s “Arma Virumque” site and on his own weblog called “Roger’s Rules.” But the classic extended essay is his métier, and this latest of his books is an exceptionally winning collection of them, ranging from the penetrating cultural analysis in the essay supplying the book’s title, to insightful revisionist sketches of such writers and thinkers as Rudyard Kipling, Richard Weaver, and James Burnham, to appreciations of such surprising works as The Dangerous Book for Boys and the novels of John Buchan, to forceful takedowns, à la Kramer, of the various frauds and diseases afflicting academia and high culture, particularly the worlds of art and architecture. It is, among its other virtues, a very great pleasure to read, even when the subject matter being treated is dismal, as it frequently must be.
The book is no random collection, though. There are several powerful and recurrent themes undergirding and unifying it. Perhaps the deepest and most important of these is the imperative need to rescue and restore the prescriptive meaning of “culture,” the very meaning that Susan Sontag famously disparaged as “the Matthew Arnold idea of culture.” We have gotten entirely too used to the idea that “culture” is fundamentally an anthropological term, descriptive of our habituations rather than our aspirations—of what groups of people already do and believe, unreflectively, and not of human excellences and ideals to which they might legitimately strive, and indeed, toward which they should strive, if they wish to be all that their human endowment calls them to be.
But Kimball points out that the word itself offers testimony to its proper meaning; its very etymology, going back to the Latin colo and cultura, points to roots in the acts of selection and careful nurture, of shaping, refining, and evaluating. (Think of the words “agriculture” or “horticulture.”) It also points to the grounding of community life in shared religious convictions (cultus), as well as signifying a process that seeks to help fulfill the nature and highest ends of the thing being cultivated, rather than merely leaving it as one finds it, or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, transforming it into something entirely different from what it was made to be. (Think of the difference between the modest older term “physical culture” and the hubristic and mechanistic term “body building.”)
For the word “culture” to regain its Arnoldian force, something else must be restored along with it: the very idea of permanence itself, the belief that some human achievements have enduring meaning and value that transcend the particulars of their creation and their immediate context, and that these monuments of insight and expressive power provide a steady and enduring standard (or criterion) by which all else may be reckoned. Indeed, one might say that, instead of judging the adequacy of such works from the standpoint of the present, the concept of culture at its fullest should lead us to judge the adequacy of the present by reference to our gallery of monumental cultural achievements.
To do so means fighting tooth and nail against the enemies of permanence, of which there are many. Among them, argues Kimball, is the cult of “instantaneity,” which endorses the idea of living only for the present, and renders “anything lasting, anything inherited, suspicious by definition.” In such a dispensation, fluidity is all. This is not only a matter of the endless parade of new things to buy to satisfy new desires ever being engendered by our consumer economy. It is equally visible in the obsession with novelty and revisionism permeating our intellectual culture. When literary scholars insist that texts have no fixed meaning, they are not only making work for their own generation of critics, they are “denying permanent values that transcend the prerogatives of their lucubrations.” They object to tradition because tradition is bad for business.
Any belief in greatness offends against the cult of equality, the morass of indiscriminateness into which any democratic culture is always prone to degenerate if it is not careful to value excellence and protect liberty. But the cult of equality demands that all opinions should be equal, all expression legitimate, and all objects fungible: “the substitution of anything for anything,” Kimball writes, “is the ideal” behind the attack on permanence. A belief in permanent monuments of cultural greatness is, moreover, a threat to the primacy of political power for many of the same reasons that religion presents an equivalent obstacle. Both supply a point of reference and a measure of value that transcend the prerogatives of those who happen to be in power at any given time. Their very existence, and their ability to call forth the unforced admiration and loyalty of men and women of all stations, tempers and relativizes the claims of the present, grounds the sense of right and wrong in sources beyond the reach of the present, and thereby makes it less likely that the leaders of the present day—any present day—can claim the souls of those they lead.
Some of Kimball’s most discerning remarks touch upon the “information explosion” wrought by the Internet and the digital revolution we have been living through. He is no Luddite on these matters—indeed, as I’ve pointed out, he is a very fine blogger—but he is insistent that we take the full measure of what is being gained and what is being lost by this revolution, and finds much to be concerned about. Every technology, even the technology of writing itself, has its drawbacks, and we must be alert to the distinction between information, knowledge, and wisdom. The relentless pursuit of the first may cause us to forget the other two. “The problem with computers,” he writes, “is not the worlds they give us instant access to, but the world they encourage us to neglect.” The problem, he further elaborates, “is not with computers or indeed any particular technology but rather our disposition toward the common world that culture defines.” This common world is defined by prescriptive norms, by shared moral imagination, by the gentle habituations of conversation and community life.
As this discussion will suggest, and as his fine book makes clear, Kimball is a conservative in the Burkean mold and an exponent of the great Anglo-American tradition of concrete, anti-ideological, unsystematic, decentralized, and organic forms of organization—the technique of “muddling through,” as it is unglamorously but affectionately known to many of us. He is also clearly an advocate for the idea of the Anglosphere, the notion, popularized by James Bennett but implicit in the writings of Winston Churchill, among others, that the English-speaking peoples have been granted, through the incomparable tools of the English language and culture, a special gift for understanding and upholding “the commitment to individual freedom and local initiative against the meddlesome intrusion of any central authority.”
That idea is under siege at the moment, but it is by no means vanquished, nor is it likely to be so long as it has vigorous and articulate advocates. “An Englishman’s mind,” he writes in conclusion, quoting Lord D’Abernon, “works best when it is almost too late.” Let us hope that the expression is equally applicable to Americans, and that the “almost” is still accurate. And that the general gloom expressed in Jacques Barzun’s final book, and felt in his passing, is not yet entirely warranted.
Wilfred M. McClay is SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities and Professor of History at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Posted: January 27, 2013