Modern Flaws and Lasting Norms
Russell Kirk remains consistently one of the most interesting American defenders of the conservative cause. His latest book, Enemies of the Permanent Things, is important, timely, gracefully expressed, and charitable toward its opponents—all in all, a superior example of haut vulgarisation, in which Mr. Kirk undertakes to convince and persuade a fairly wide, a cultivated though not specialist readership. Beyond these virtues, the book rises in some passages to an intensity of perception and feeling unusual in a confessedly intellectual exercise. One does not wish to praise too fulsomely, and to be sure Enemies of the Permanent Things in its particular field lacks the specialized learning that made Mr. Kirk’s study of John Randolph of Roanoke a contribution of permanent interest to students of our national history and our culture. Nor is Mr. Kirk’s latest production comparable in creative power and brilliance performance to his masterpiece, Old House of Fear; surely the outstanding novel of the past quarter of a century to fuse the Gothic, politics, and the feeling of place with a superbly plotted action
Yet Enemies of the Permanent Things has its viability as an adjunct to the author’s most widely influential work, The Conservative Mind, and explores afresh two major areas of that Burkean conservatism of which Mr. Kirk is perhaps the chief contemporary American exponent. It not only is integral with the body of Russell Kirk’s thought and expression, but constitutes a gloss on his John Randolph, Old House of Fear, and The Conservative Mind. Thus Enemies of the Permanent Things is a most interesting commentary on its author’s art as a writer of fiction and on his social and political notions.
Enemies of the Permanent Things is composed of three major divisions. The first and most general, “The Recovery of Norms,” defines the framework of the volume as a whole. Rather than a systematic treatise, the reader is informed, this book is a series of inquiries in which the basic endeavor is to help to refurbish what Edmund Burke called “the wardrobe of a moral imagination.” Russell Kirk sees men as not wholly subject to Fate and Fortune; for, he holds, the art of the man of letters and the art of the statist determine in large part whether men become normal human beings or are perverted into abnormal creatures. The “abnormity” of the book’s subtitle thus means “a monstrosity defying the norm, the nature of things.” A norm means an enduring standard. It is a law of nature, which one ignores at his peril. It is, further, a rule of human conduct and a measure of public virtue. Yet the norm does not signify the average, the median, the mean, the mediocre. One notes, in passing, that these four words of the author’s all derive from the science of statistics and comes to understand more fully the organic, humane preconceptions basic to his “series of inquiries.” Still, if Mr. Kirk assumes the superiority of the organic view, he insists also that there is law for men and law for things and that a norm exists independently of the individual observer, the person who may or may not apprehend it; thus this observer cannot create or destroy important norms. The moral and cultural conservative is moreover the guardian of these abiding norms; opposing him are the pragmatist, the “ritualistic liberal,” and the Marxist.
For the majority of Americans, writes Mr. Kirk, the prevailing norms are the Christian religion, the American theory and practice of ordered liberty, the American system of law and politics, and the English common law together with the “prudent, prescriptive politics” of the English people. The sources of these enduring norms are divine revelation as embodied in Holy Writ, traditions, the experience of the species, the ancient usages of humanity—common sense and custom, folk-wisdom, and, rarely, the astounding perceptions of the seer, the prophet, the inspired poet such as Dante and Homer. Normality is the goal of human striving; abnormity is the descent toward a condition less than human, surrender to vice. These, then, constitute the defining terms of Mr. Kirk’s argument.
The second major division of Enemies of the Permanent Things is entitled “The Norms of Literature.” “The Purpose of Humane Letters” reveals Mr. Kirk’s emphasis on literature as a moral revelation of man’s acts and ideas. Fascinating as these chapters on literature are, they are, in one respect (which merits comment), uneven. The difficulty that causes one to resist these pages relates to the author’s preoccupation with letters as a moral construct, to the relative neglect of letters as an aesthetic construct, I.e., the neglect of the aesthetic norms of art—specifically here the norms of literature—as themselves essentially abiding among the “permanent things.” As Mr. Kirk reminds his readers, morality is not opposed to art, but exists in the real world inseparable from art. Yet he does seem to show the problem as easier to solve than is the case. A work of art is not overtly a moral work insofar as it is “art,” method, craftsmanship, technique. At the same time, the fully achieved work of art is relevant to the milieu in which it came into being. The artist and his society ignore this complexity at their peril.
The 1940s and 1950s witnessed a full-scale attempt to create art that was divorced from “morality,” art that was disengaged and irrelevant, art that was neither “moral” nor “literary.” What now are more vieux jeux than most paintings by the abstract expressionists? Similarly, the “nonsense” verse of Gertrude Stein and her followers retains interest primarily for the student and the antiquary, as experiments not successful in themselves, for the most part, but still attractive as redolent of a period and thus in a very limited sense retaining a historical significance. In contrast to the inanity of “pure” forms is the inanity of the totally engaged work, Marxist or conservative. And at the emergence of this problem occurs my point of difference with Mr. Kirk’s argument. The overweening dominance of even the perennial philosophy in a novel, poem, or play is as destructive of its aesthetic integrity as is an equally insistent Marxist realism, or a fashionable pornography. Morality dominates ethics, the beautiful dominates art; yet both are indispensable to a fully achieved verbal expression of artifact.
The achievement of the good, the beautiful, and the true means their concrete realization in a world of transient things, a world of change in which stasis is death. Here one observes another paradox. The artist must express his awareness of the permanent in a world where change and transience are the rule. He must embody his vision in images and structures and devices that shock and startle his readers or viewers to a new and intense awareness of the abiding things. Thus does art cooperate with morality, albeit to a limited and restricted degree. Surely, as the contemporary example of Mr. Kirk’s literary paragon shows, renovation, refurbishing, experiment, change best accord with a reverence for the permanent things. T. S. Eliot announced himself in 1924 as an “old Tory,” and this a little more than two years after publication of The Waste Land and a little before publication of “The Hollow Men,” two of Eliot’s most daringly modern poems. The thought of the two poems was not and is not innovative. In fact precisely the opposite is true; moreover, for all the uproar caused by Eliot’s supposedly revolutionary technical innovations, his craftsmanship is solidly based on traditional canons. Eliot did not abolish artistic forms and norms, but adapted them to the necessities of change and invented forms to express his poet’s vision. “Make it new,” said Ezra Pound, who was for Eliot il miglior fabbro; the “it” is the entire constellation of tradition—ideas as well as aesthetic techniques, social as well as political forms, ethics as well as theology. The seamless garment of reality has been tragically rent in our century not by men like Eliot but by the undiscriminating who yet would be pickers and choosers—the “revolutionaries” who would separate form from content like wine from a bottle, as though act could be separated from consequence.
By far the liveliest chapters in this division of Enemies of the Permanent Things are “Rediscovering Norms through Fantasy” and “The Fiction of Politics and Poverty.” Here Russell Kirk takes fire; the subjects engage him and he writes with considerable authority, with the first-hand knowledge of the writer of fantasy and of social and political commentary. The extended passage on Ray Bradbury is the most original contribution in the whole book, enlivened by the author’s special affection for and insight into the genre of fantasy and science fiction and also by his personal acquaintance with Bradbury. In the chapter on the social novel, one finds a fresh and expertly informed point of view. The pages on George Orwell, so sympathetic and comprehending, are a relief to read after the socialist-liberal claptrap written about this idiosyncratic political novelist. And one responds especially to the brief appreciation of Ralph Ellison and to the elegiac pages lamenting the passing of second-hand bookshops.
“The Norms of Politics” forms the third major division of the book and perhaps the most substantial as regards both quantity and performance. Although the substance itself of Mr. Kirk’s observations may not be novel to his more constant admirers and readers, the application of his long-held attitudes is striking in its aptness to the situation of the later 1960s. Indeed, this portion of the volume is a kind of summation by a conservative of political trends and purposes of the decade 1960–69. By 1961, the mood of the decade was indicated: classic Liberalism had bankrupted itself, its major tenets being the abolition of the British monarchy and the hereditary element in the House of Lords and the extension of the welfare state. “Having denied the very existence of sound and just authority, having scoffed at the wisdom of our ancestors, liberalism . . . cut loose from such moorings as it once had.” Together with the Marxists, the liberals would treat all human beings as identical units and would enforce compulsory equality of condition, overriding differences of tradition and milieu
Thus in reality, despite all the cheap advertising of London as “the swinging capital of Europe,” Great Britain in the 1960s emerged as the sick man of Europe and, except for a few enclaves, was and remains utterly bankrupt economically and socially. The heroes of contemporary Britain are the ineffable Beatles, the “with-it” boys, and the brainless exemplification of a scurrying, beetlelike mass society abandoned and hopeless and parasitic on the more gullible of the two great powers. Russia, the other power, is another mass-produced state admired by mass-produced robots, for as Russell Kirk remarks, good government is no mass-produced article. Nor is America exempt from Mr. Kirk’s strictures; intent upon forcing upon the “underdeveloped countries” the American Way abstractly, we ignore history, “and it is we, not the ‘underdeveloped,’ who are fools in this matter.”
Yet Enemies of the Permanent Things is neither dour nor pessimistic. Rather it is instinct with the Christian hope. If the grim retributive deities take vengeance for the degradation of literature and the corruption of politics, still normality has its champions in arms. It is their expression of hope that helps to make endurable to many Americans the prospect of the next few years.
Nicholas T. Joost (1916–1980) was an editor, author, and educator, who served more than thirty years as professor of English at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. Dr. Joost was also a member of the editorial staff for several prestigious literary journals including Poetry magazine and Papers on English Language and Literature, (editor, 1965–1973).
Posted: April 3, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.
Did you see this one?
On the Fixing of Our Gaze
James V. Schall, S.J.
Volume 46, Number 3 (Fall 2008)