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Volume 43, Number 1 (Fall 2003)

Vile Bodies

USA Today: The Stunning Incoherence of American Civilization
by Reid Buckley.
P. E. N. Press (North Carolina), 442 pp. + index, $22.95 cloth, 2002.

John S. Reist, Jr.

How does one review a book that begins with a chapter entitled, “This Blessed Land,” in which the author declares, “I am obliged to  make a public declaration that I cannot love my country,” and which ends with the claim, “We are vile”? Is this a dark cynical tome of Swiftian barbs and Menckenian bitters? Or is it an unnecessary, stentorian alarm that trumpets the dangers and doom of a country without a culture, a community without a core, a nation whose pilgrims have lost their way, turning our four-century pilgrimage into the mere wanderlust of a people who have gone astray?

Mr. Buckley documents with forthright honesty that we are “vile” because we have lost our virtue; and, he contends, many Americans who still prize and attempt to follow and attain virtue do so without remembering the foundation of faith from which all virtue comes: the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman tradition. He asks frankly, “What is going on here?”; and he responds that “purse and power are king,” that “the bared breast leads to the flaunted pubis,” that, “Shorn of its mythic past, which can only be transmitted through language, the most technically advanced civilization is barbarian, as is ours.” However, his book is not just a negative diatribe against the deviance of our society; he asks, “What’s to be done?” And he probes, “What can we do? . . . It is insufficient to beat one’s breast and cry out, Lord, Lord . . . The greatest affront against the Holy Spirit and the sin most awful in magnitude is despair. . . [A]ccording to the understanding that is given to me, while yet I displace space in this world and am able to, I am obliged to give witness; as are we all.”

How, precisely, does Mr. Buckley bear witness? His thesis is “that we in America have become mortally corrupted; which is reflected not only in our morals and mores, but in the ethos that rules us.” His convictions, devotion, and rhetoric remind one of the lines of Matthew Arnold, the great critic of Victorian England:

Charge once more, then, and be dumb!
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall,
Find the body by the wall.

Just as Jacques Maritain lambasted Western culture two generations ago in The Peasant of the Garonne, so also Buckley bears witness. Maritain spoke against “kneeling before the world.” He warned, “Let us beware of those brotherly dialogues in which every one is in raptures while listening to heresies, stuff and nonsense of the other. They are not brotherly at all. It has never been recommended to confuse ‘loving’ with ‘seeking to please.’ . . . We must have a tough mind and a tender heart.” If one combines Swift, Mencken, Arnold, and Maritain, one brews, not milk, not malt, but a bracing brew that is “no downstream beer,” no mere defeatist diatribe against which Gustave Flaubert contended, “Our ignorance of history makes us libel our own times. People have always been like this.” Mr. Buckley candidly confesses, “My temperament works allusively and anecdotally, eclectically and personally. . . . I am a reader, not an historian. . . . I am no scholar, as I’m sure is evident, and this book does not purport to be a scholarly document.”

How, then, does Buckley proceed?

First, aphoristically: he provides terse, laconic, colorful, summary proverbs: “[W]hen our young can express themselves only through grunts or their gonads, it’s a high crime against civilization . . . We like pottage. We like licking those greasy fingers, the drippings off federal and state spoons, the greasy soup bowls. . .When one is a gadfly, one either gets swatted or brushed off . . . Bad taste, though socially a curse, is an affliction for which no one may be held morally culpable, because it can’t be helped. . . No-fault insurance has spilled over into no-fault morality; or maybe it’s the reverse . . . Let’s not forget, this is the society that can’t define the present tense of the verb ‘to be.’” At Christmas, “we no longer send pictures of the Madonna and Child; we send pictures of ourselves and our children.” Such morsels and jewels are generously sprinkled throughout the text.

Second, anecdotally: the first section, entitled “Perceptions of Honor,” is a nostalgic narrative of South Carolina ladies and gentlemen of previous generations struggling against dishonesty and hypocrisy through the code of chivalric Christianity. This story is filled with dramatic and challenging episodes, personal correspondences and honorable, if imperfect, characters. While acknowledging that, “No way can any one claim Christian sanction for dueling,” Buckley maintains that, “The Code Duello affirms that though life is precious, one’s life is not so precious that it can accommodate dishonor.” Thus, even with its roots in pagan morals, dueling is “the paramount duty to defend right order, a shorthand for honor.”

Third, allusively: Mr. Buckley’s book is filled with numerous classical references from Aquinas, Newman, Cicero, Jefferson, Aristotle, Franklin, Washington, Augustine, Plato, Blake, et al. These are employed over against many illustrative references to modern TV, computers, advertising, athletics, carnality, education, etc. in order to demonstrate what we have forgotten. Mr. Buckley may be no professional scholar or historian, but he is something equally (or more) valuable—a well-read, well-bred scholar-gentleman who will brook no moral or theological or intellectual laggards.

Fourth, argumentatively: Mr. Buckley declares his thesis near the beginning of the book. However, his presupposition, his assumption, his basic principle, appears near the end:

“human intelligence (with its inspired properties) may penetrate the last biological and astronomical riddles of the universe without rendering the essential stubborn and unanswerable last question, the that which of the Big Bang that believers ascribe to Him who . . . And if faith in God is necessary to our survival, as our guts tell us, and as historical experience tends, it seems to me, to teach us, then belief in a Supreme Being must be (1) that which distinguishes the human being from the rest of Creation, (2) in itself evidencing the existence of the Supreme Being. . . Since we are able to conceive of Him, He is; . . . Deny Him if you wish, but try to get along without Him.”

And he undertakes his argument from this principle by describing, analyzing and criticizing our corrupt culture in the following areas: honor; values; manners and morals; sex; law; religion. Space does not permit exposition and critique of all these concerns. Regarding education, he rightly states that bureaucrats and educationists cannot reform education because they do not know, or have forgotten, or do not care about, the primary purpose of education. He also remarks that the current generation of teachers is no source of renewal, either. Fed the pap and ablum of self-esteem and moral relativism, ignoring the distinction between wisdom, data and opinion, reducing the riches of education from the thirst and search for wisdom—perpetual, permanent and eternal—to the manual skills of computers, VCRs and birth control, dumbing down to the techne of “how” from the nous, the telos and the logos of life, such teachers become mere policemen in public schools, mere trainers of technicians and rug merchants in colleges and universities. “If the bureaucrats don’t truly want to reform education, and if the teachers can’t because they are themselves the product of an ignorance that was gestated pedagogically so many generations ago, who will?” The problem is that, “Most institutions of higher learning today, whether public or private (and I am speaking of the good ones, not the football factories), wouldn’t give Plato ten minutes of their time when it comes to his antique notion that the purpose of education is to produce good men.” Buckley is relentless (and right!): “the object of a liberal education remains to promote virtue.” Without such virtue, we avoid the purpose of education; and this leads ineluctably to the vise of our current culture, which is vice and the void.

Genuine education has been debased for five centuries by rationalism, materialism and relativism, the author claims. And such decline produces sensual perversions in a society where people “do not make love, but have sex,” where the magazines for men (Playboy, Penthouse and Club) and for women (Redbook, Cosmopolitan and Glamour) tell and show them how. The women’s magazines have been transmogrified from ladies’ magazines into sex manuals; and the men’s magazines are pubic publications of pseudo-sophisticated sensualism. Mr. Buckley does, indeed, admit that, “Any one who believes that he is immune to prurience is deceiving himself. We must nevertheless look our culture in the eye, in order fairly to assess it for what it is.” We have forgotten that, “Hunger rules other species; we are famished for the eternal bread of life.” We have, instead, chosen a spiritless fast-food diet; yet, “The most sensitive observers of the human condition know that beyond reward and punishment, nothing other than religion suffices to rule the human heart.” Nevertheless, “Christianity preaches an outrage . . . the Universe will never give conclusive testimony to God the Almighty Father, Creator of heaven and earth . . . God is the living unknowable; we human beings are the knowing un-knowing . . . faith by its nature defies reason, though it is supported by reason and is congenial to reason.” And thus, Mr. Buckley bears witness.

Yet, for all his catholic faith and courage, it is insufficient for Mr. Buckley to mention “the Supreme Being,” which he does frequently. That God is God, the Idea—and God is not an idea. Every one has a conception of ultimacy, but God is not a concept. The primum mobile, the summum bonum, and other ideas of God do indeed indicate that all of us are created in His image; but the god of the deists will not do, for the deists imprison God in His own deity, while the natural world goes on and on and on and the moral world of humanity inclines this way, declines that way. Buckley speaks of “the ennobling of mankind by Jesus Christ.” However, if our culture is vile, we need a redeemer, not a virtuist; a saviour, not a savant; a Lord, the Lord, and not just a liberal liberating education, which indeed may produce gentlemen, but not the catholic (as Newman contended). The desideratum is the dabhar, the Hebrew word for Word or Action; what is lacking is the logos, and not only the Heraclitan logos, or the stoic logos, or the Neoplatonic logos, but the living logos, the Lord who declared in John 13:13, 17: “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. . . . Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

Formally, the editing of this book is spotty: there are numerous misspellings; the semi-colon is frequently misused; the footnote form is inconsistent; and, although there is an excellent index, there is no bibliography. Nonetheless, the overwhelming judgment is: Reid is a good read! He describes; he proscribes; he prescribes. We need more such scribes, and not the scribblings of the deconstructionists, not the chattering of pundits, nor the coddling of the clergy.

John S. Reist Jr. is a professor of English at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.

Posted: March 29, 2007

A poor man, if he has dignity, honesty, the respect of his neighbors, a realization of his duties, a love of the wisdom of his ancestors, and possibly some taste for knowledge or beauty, is rich in the unbought grace of life.

Russell Kirk

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