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An erudite look into the cultural wars

bookSome years ago, a local artist mounted a painting in a local art show in which he painted Christ with pink paws and Easter bunny ears. “This is going to upset some people around here,” the painter told me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, having heard of the statue of the Virgin Mary covered with cattle dung at a New York show and of Andres Serrano‘s “Piss Christ” – this piece of art entailed putting a crucifix in a jar of urine – most Americans would find a Jesus Easter bunny about as controversial as a piece of broccoli quiche. Had he wanted to ignite a real firestorm, he should have depicted the founder of Islam with a nine-year-old girl in his lap wearing a wedding dress.

In The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in An Age of Amnesia (ISBN 978-1-58731-256-4, $35), writer, editor, and online blogger Roger Kimball issues an erudite but very readable reminder of the importance of culture and its effects on institutions along with an examination of why and how so many of our own painters, musicians, writers, and architects have followed a path of self-indulgence and innovation for innovation’s sake. (Considering much of what we have produced in the last 50 years, your reviewer hesitates to write “art for art’s sake”).

Kimball, who as editor and publisher of The New Criterion, a journal largely devoted to critiquing the arts, begins The Fortunes of Permanence by calling for a return to what one American philosopher called “the permanent things.” By sounding this trumpet, Kimball is not directing us to walk back into the past but rather to rediscover and apply the techniques, the artistry, and the knowledge of human beings that older artists and writers possessed. He points out the superficiality of so much of what passes for art today, the stress on innovation, the constant need of stimulation, the preference for the new rather than for the true.

In the chapters following this analysis, Kimball introduces us to a variety of topics and artists. He discusses the effect of multiculturalism on the West – he finds this idea largely negative, finding a dark stain of anti-Americanism embedded in its philosophy – and makes the point that “we face a choice between a multicultural future and an American future.”

Although Kimball’s arguments will sound familiar to anyone who has read widely in the literature of the “culture wars” – he does, by the way, write better than most of the other combatants – it is in the second part of the book, a collection of essays about different authors, that he breaks new ground and offers readers some valuable insights into authors little read today. His chapter on John Buchan made me want to want to read Buchan’s autobiography, Pilgrim’s Way, a book much loved by, among others, President Kennedy; his short but spicy review of The Dangerous Book for Boys reminded me to buy a copy for my grandson; his examination of Richard M. Weaver, whose family was associated with Weaverville here in the mountains, created a desire to reread Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences.

His assessment of Weaver offers a typical example of Kimball’s approach to these subjects. Weaver was a professor of rhetoric, a transplanted Southerner at the University of Chicago from 1943 until 1963, who was concerned with the damage done to politics and philosophy by the misuse of language, and with the changes wrought by the modern world on rural America. Kimball applauds Weaver for being “eloquent in warning about the disastrous results of Prometheanism, of attempting to subjugate the world to our will.” Yet he is not so dazzled by Weaver’s insights as to agree with him fully, criticizing with severity his ideas about living strenuously and romantically.

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The final third of The Fortunes of Permanence offers weaker essays, a smorgasbord of topics ranging the death of socialism to the life of Malcom Muggeridge, from an attack on benevolence, which is cited as “the heroin of the Enlightened,” to a look at Leszek Kolakowski and his writings on totalitarianism. These essays all follow the theme of the book and its grim dismay over our sagging culture, but many readers will arrive at this final hundred pages without the necessary background to understand their significance.

Faced by what he believes is cultural catastrophe, Kimball nevertheless ends his book with two notes of hope. He first reminds us that we may regain our cultural bearings by remembering some of what we have abandoned, in “the depth and strength of the Anglosphere’s traditional commitment to individual freedom and local initiative against the meddlesome intrusion of any central authority.” (By Anglosphere, Kimball refers not to race but to those countries – American, England, India, and others – in which the English language is commonly spoken).

His second reason for hope lies in his belief of American individualism. Paraphrasing pollster Scott Rasmussen, Kimball writes that “Americans do not want to be governed by Democrats or by Republicans: they want to govern themselves.”

The Fortunes of Permanence has, as mentioned above, flaws, particularly in regard to some of the essays and subjects chosen. Nevertheless, Kimball’s fine writing, his passion for his subjects, and his refined intelligence should attract a wide variety of those readers interested in the changing American culture and its massive impact on our institutions. His arguments may arouse our ire, but they also compel us to think and to consider what lies before us.

The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in An Age of Amnesia by Roger Kimball. St. Augustines Press, 2012. 360 pages.

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