209 Roger Kimball’s Cultural Critique

Few things matter more than our “culture.”  Few current writers better appreciate its power and explain its texture than Roger Kimball, the managing editor of the New Criterion and an art critic for the Spectator of London and National Review.  And, to speak personally, few writers have better enabled me to get a grasp on developments within education and art, ethics and philosophy.  (His Tenured Radicals:  How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, is as relevant today as when it was published in 1990.)  During the past decade he has published four volumes—all essay collections—that I recommend for anyone wondering about the formative currents of our culture.

First consider The Long March:  How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America (San Francisco:  Encounter Books c. 2000), wherein Kimball observes that “our culture seems to have suffered some ghastly accident that has left it afloat but rudderless:  physically intact, its ‘moral center’ a shambles” (p. 4).  The “ghastly accident” was the revolutionary ‘60s, whose “paroxysms” still create the cultural chaos best evident “in our educational and cultural institutions, and in the degraded pop culture that permeates our lives like a corrosive fog” (p. 5).  The result has been revolutionary, “not in toppled governments but in shattered values” (p. 7).  Symbolic of the era were the rock musicians of the, including such dissimilar groups as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, who effectively promoted a Dionysian philosophy of antinomian, hedonistic excess.  

  Their values—the ethos of the “counterculture”—quickly infiltrated our schools and colleges, our families and churches, our media and politics.  When they failed to orchestrate a political revolution, the radicals of the ‘60s moved from marching in the streets to launching a “long march through the institutions.”  So doing, they embraced the strategy of Antonio Gramsci (an Italian Marxist) and celebrated Mao Tse-tung’s “long march” and “cultural revolution.”  (Remember the voguish Mao jackets of those days!)  Urged on by Herbert Marcuse (perhaps “the philosopher” of the counterculture in the United States), young radicals like Tom Hayden and Bill Ayers determined to work within established institutions (universities, churches, media) while plotting their destruction.  

Ever attuned to historical developments, Kimball locates Jean-Jacques Rousseau as “an important intellectual and moral grandfather of so much that happened in the cultural revolution of the 1960s” (p. 18).  Rousseau, of course, provided a Romantic strain to the revolutionary turmoil that has blemished the world since the French Revolution.  He talked expansively about “freedom” and “virtue”—as have his devotees, beginning with Robespierre—but his version of virtue “had nothing to do with acting or behaving in a certain way toward others.  On the contrary, the criterion of virtue was his subjective feeling of goodness.  For Rousseau, as for the countercultural radicals who followed him, ‘feeling good about yourself’ was synonymous with moral rectitude.  Actually behaving well was irrelevant if not, indeed, a sign of ‘inauthenticity’ because it suggested a concern for conventional approval” (p. 17).    To understand the frenzy that overwhelmed the churches and schools in the ‘80s—sanctifying self-esteem as the noblest of human traits—one need only turn to Rousseau!  

  The turn to Rousseau was evident in the “beatniks” of the 1950s who provided a preview of the coming counterculture.  Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac et al. launched “one of the most toxic cultural movements in American history” (p. 38).  They personified  “The adolescent longing for liberation from conventional manners and intellectual standards; the polymorphous sexuality; the narcissism; the destructive absorption in drugs; the undercurrent of criminality; the irrationalism; the naïve political radicalism and reflexive anti-Americanism; the adulation of pop music as a kind of spiritual weapon; the Romantic elevation of art as an alternative to rather than as an illumination of normal reality; the pseudo-spirituality, especially the spurious infatuation with Eastern religions:  in all this and more the Beats provided a vivid glimpse of what was to come” (p. 46).  

Having established his premises, Kendall carefully analyzes a number of important representatives of the counterculture, including the novelist Norman Mailer, who “is an important figure in the story of America’s cultural revolution not because people found him ridiculous but, on the contrary, because many influential people took the ideas of this ridiculous man seriously” (p. 73).  Then there was Susan Sontag, an “archetypical New-Left writer” who celebrated the both exploits of Fidel Castro and “the pornographic imagination.”  She and other acolytes of Sigmund Freud espoused “sexual liberation,” using the spurious “research” of Alfred Kinsey to justify their liberation from traditional norms.  Giving a Marxist philosophical rationale to the movement, Herbert Marcuse published Eros and Civilization (“a book that became a bible of the counterculture”), and Charles Reich’s The Greening of America celebrated the counterculture as the wave of the future destined to radically improve the nation.  

Concluding his treatise, in a chapter titled “What the Sixties Wrought,” Kimball asserts that the ideology of the ‘60s has “triumphed so thoroughly that its imperatives became indistinguishable from everyday life:  they became everyday life” (pp. 247-248).  If we look clearly, comparing where we are with where we were, we recognize that much in our schools and churches, our music and TV, bears the imprint of an enormous cultural revolution which succeeded through infiltration and subversion, not by challenging and openly defeating traditional ways.  What few of us could have imagined in 1960 has transpired and we now live in a cultural world shaped by the ‘60s.  And to Kimball, at least, this is unmitigated bad news!  

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Roger Kimball’s Experiments Against Reality:  The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age (Chicago:  Ivan R. Dee, c. 2000) amplifies a phrase of Hannah Arendt, who described “totalitarianism as a sort of ‘experiment against reality’—one that, among other things, encouraged people to believe that ‘everything was possible and that nothing was true’” (p. vii).   Her words prophetically delineated today’s  Postmodernists, wherein creating one’s “own reality” and denying “objective truth” are normative; such thinkers follow the injunctions of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose thought “is an indispensable background to almost every destructive intellectual movement this century has witnessed” (p. 6).  It was Nietzsche who “boldly demanded that ‘the value of truth must for once be experimentally called into question’” and declared “‘that there are no facts, only interpretations’” (p. 6).  

Sensing the drift of Western culture a century ago, contemporaries of Nietzsche, including T.E. Hulme and T.S. Eliot sought to shore up traditional religion and classical thought.  Thus Hulme scorned some of the popular fantasies of his day, including pacifism and socialism, caustically noting:  “It is a widespread but entirely mistaken idea to suppose that you amend for the advantages of wealth by asserting verbally that you are a Socialist’” (p. 55).  Eliot shared Hulme’s “craving for reality” and reached a larger audience with basically the same message.  “‘Man is man,’” he said, “‘because he can recognize supernatural realities, not because he can invent them’” (p. 81).  

But the classical approach, with its craving for reality, largely lost the battle for men’s minds.  Take, for instance, the poetry of Wallace Stevens, whom Kendall calls a “metaphysical claims adjuster.”  Influenced by William James, under whom he studied at Harvard, he “devoted his entire life to” working out James’ philosophy.  “‘The final belief,’ he wrote in one typical reflection, ‘is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else.  The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and you believe in it willingly’” (p. 90).  Believe it because you know it’s not true!  The relativism and skepticism now pervading Postmodernism are evident in this assertion, yet both ultimately failed Stevens, who in a final poem asked:  “’I wonder, have I lived a skeleton’s life, / As a disbeliever in reality’” (p. 93).  

The turn-of-the-century Pragmatism of William James, which so shaped 20th century American thought, strongly resembles the Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, the main architect of the “liberalism” that fundamentally altered politics and religion, economics and education.  Though some readers of Mill’s  On Liberty assume he championed individual liberty, he actually sought, Maurice Cowling insists, to ensure “‘that Christianity would be superseded by that form of liberal, rationalizing utilitarianism which went by the name of the Religion of Humanity.  Mill’s liberalism was a dogmatic, religious one, not the soothing night-comforter for which it is sometimes mistaken.  Mill’s object was not to free men, but to convert them, and convert them to a peculiarly exclusive, peculiarly insinuating moral doctrine.  Mill wished to moralize all social activity. . . .  Mill, no less than Marx, Nietzsche, or Comte, claimed to replace Christianity by ‘something better’” ((p. 166).  

One of the most discerning of Mill’s critics, James Fitzjames Stephen, published Liberty, Equality, Fraternity in 1873 and effectively challenged Mill’s liberalism by insisting it mirrored the objectives of the French Revolution and offered a substitute to Christianity—a “Religion of Humanity.”  To Stephen, liberty (like fire) is per se neither good nor bad, and the liberty Mill espoused “boils down to the exhortation:  Let everyone please himself in any way he likes so long as he does not hurt his neighbor” (p. 174).  Assuming the basic goodness of man, he naively declared “that if men are all freed from restraints and put . . . on an equal footing, they will naturally treat each other as brothers, and work together harmoniously for their common good” (p. 177).  To believe that now, in the light of gulags and death camps, demonstrates the sheer irrationality of the liberalism that still reigns in the hearts of our school teachers and social planners.  

Markedly different from Mill (though sharing his disdain for Christianity) Friedrich Nietzsche conducted his own experiment against reality.  He especially wanted to destroy the foundation of Western morality, and without question he cast a long shadow over 20th century developments.  “Nietzsche’s glorification of power and his contention that ‘there are altogether no moral facts’ are grim signatures of the age.  So too, is his enthusiasm for violence, cruelty and the irrational” (pp. 189-190).  Declaring “God is dead,” he “foresaw the rise of anomie, the spreading sense of angst and meaninglessness, what the Czech novelist Milan Kundera called ‘the unbearable lightness of being’:  the whole existentialist panoply of despair and spiritual torpor.  All this Nietzsche diagnosed under the heading of nihilism:  the situation, he wrote, in which ‘the highest values devalue themselves’ and the question ‘Why?’ finds no answer” (p. 192).  

Such nihilism now figures prominently in academia, where cadres of professors “parrot his ideas and attitudes.  Nietzsche’s contention that truth is merely ‘a moveable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms,’ for example, have become a veritable mantra in comparative literature departments across the country” (p. 193).  And his nihilism marks modern times, Kimball believes.  “He defines the good as that which enhances the feeling of life.  If ‘to see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more,’ then violence and cruelty may have to be granted the patent of morality and enlisted in the aesthete’s palette of diversions.  In more or less concentrated form, Nietzsche’s ideal is also modernity’s ideal.  It is an ideal that subordinates morality to power in order to transform life into an aesthetic spectacle.  It promises freedom and exaltation.  But as Novalis points out, it is really the ultimate attainment of the barbarian” (p. 213).  Since WWII, the toxic ideas of Nietzsche have been popularized by Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault (“Nietzsche’s ape”).  Despite the fact that Foucault’s scholarship is riddled with errors and deliberate obfuscations” (p. 256) and “his arguments rest on shoddy scholarship, distorted history and untenable generalizations” (p. 257), he became a guiding light for many “postmodern” thinkers.  

In fact, there is a radical difference between Foucault and the makers of Western Civilization who generally join John Henry Newman in declaring that “to think correctly is to think like Aristotle,” humbly exploring and knowing Reality rather than conducting “experiments against” it.  Newman, of course, was a philosophical realist who took the very traditional notion of philosophy as “an attitude of openness,” a commitment to contemplative thought, a “patient receptiveness to reality” (p. 342).  To this task Kimball directs us if we want to effectively respond to the barbarism and cultural chaos of modernity.  

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In The Lives of the Mind:  The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehaouse (Chicago:  Ivan R. Dee, c. 2002), Roger Kimball probes the positions of a variety of influential thinkers.  To introduce this collection of essays he refers us to Raymond Aron’s masterpiece, The Opium of the Intellectuals, which excoriated those utopian ideologies (chiefly Marxism) that have proved so alluring and destructive—the intellectuals’ “drug of choice.”  Aron recognized the power of ideas, however deranged and dangerous.  So did Irving Kristol, who said (in a 1973 essay entitled “Utopianism, Ancient and Modern”):   “‘The truth is that ideas are all-important.  The massive and seemingly solid institutions of any society—the economic institutions, the political institutions, the religious institutions—are always at the mercy of the ideas in the heads of the people who populate these institutions.  The leverage of ideas is so immense that a s light change in the intellectual climate can and will—perhaps slowly but nevertheless inexorably—twist a familiar institution into an unrecognizable shape” (p. 17).  

Consider the fact that Plutarch’s Lives are no longer read in the schools.  Once a staple of the liberal arts (Plutarch was widely revered as “Europe’s schoolmaster”), his masterpiece constantly stressed  the “issue of character.” Following good ideas made good men; bad ideas, such as those espoused by the traitorous Alcibiades, led to disaster and destruction, both for himself and Athens.  History, for Plutarch, was “a moral theater whose performances it was his task to recapitulate for the edification of himself and his readers” (p. 31).  That he is today almost totally neglected illustrates the poverty of our culture.  Sadly enough we now feed our young an ideological diet shaped by the notions of Schiller and Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Kant, Hegel and Marx, Russell and Wittgenstein—all of whom receive both biographical and analytical treatment in Kendall’s essays.

Addressing “the difficulty with Hegel,” who so powerfully influenced many 19th century intellectual developments, Kimball says:  “I am perfectly happy to acknowledge that Hegel was a genius.  But so what?  That doesn’t mean he was right.  It doesn’t even mean that he was intelligible.  As the English essayist Walter Bagehot observed in another context, ‘in the faculty of writing nonsense, stupidity is no match for genius’” (p. 126).  And, indeed, “Hegel wrote a great deal of nonsense” (p. 126), primarily because (as George Santayana noted) he engaged in “the preposterous effort of ‘making things conform to words, not words to thing’” (p. 131).  To Hegel, and other absolute idealists, things are so because I think they are—“the real is rational and the rational is real.”  Declaiming such nonsense amidst an effusion of erudition, Hegel and his confreres departed from the knowable world to the quicksand of imagination.  

Though Kendall faults most of his subjects, he finds a few intellectuals who merit serious attention.   The great French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, for instance, rightly discerned the fatal flaws in much that paraded as “progress” and “wisdom” in 19th century political and intellectual circles.  Anthony Trollope, the English novelist, wrote with a distinctive moral purpose, extolling in his characters the virtues that lead to the truly good life.  Both P.G. Wodehouse and Charles Peguy receive high praise, as does the Australian David Stove, one of the few contemporary philosophers who provided lucid corrections to much that has been written in the past 200 years.  In his works (including Darwinian Fairytales) Stove’s sharply argued positions “flew in the face of just about every intellectual cliché going, from relativism and irrationalism to doctrinaire Darwinism to the whole smorgasbord of established liberal orthodoxy about (e.g.) art, race, sex, nationalism, J.S. Mill, tobacco, education, and foreign policy” (p. 249).  Unfortunately, Kimball argues, the best thinkers have received the least attention, and our culture therefore suffers.

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Roger Kimball’s concern for the state of our fine arts is evident in The Rape of the Masters:  How Political Correctness Sabotages Art (San Francisco:  Encounter Books, c. 2004).   As he does in most all of his criticism, he laments both the tawdry quality and highly subjective, unrealistic nature of most modern art.  Witness, for example, Marcel Duchamp adding a moustache to a reprint of the Mona Lisa’s face and signing his name to a urinal that was solemnly placed in an exhibit!  Yet art historians and critics have fallen, lock-step, into a celebration of “artists” such as Duchamp.  Amazingly, the very folks who should be elevating and ennobling our lives actually endeavor “to transform art into an ally in the campaign of decivilization” (p. 11).  So Kimball wrote this book “to provide an antidote—or at least an alternative—to the poison that has infiltrated the study of art history” (p. 27).  

Arguing his case, Kimball pillories recent treatments given seven great artists:  Gustave Courbet, Mark Rothko, John Sargent, Peter Paul Rubens, Winslow Homer, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh.  Courbet, for example, was “the leader of the [French] Realist school of painting in the 1850s” (p. 33) and “produced art that was accessible, generally unproblematic, easily understood” (p. 36).  In the fevered  mind of a contemporary art historian, however, his “realist paintings provide ‘an archetype of the perfect reciprocity between production and consumption that Karl Marx in the “General Introduction” to the Grundrusse posited’” (p. 42).  Even better, he was a harbinger of radical feminism, illustrating the “trendy academic criticism” that relishes endless “talk about sex, the more outlandish the better” (p. 49).  In short, there is little actual correlation between the gifted work of Corbet and his modern interpreters!  

Mark Rothko, born in Russia, emigrated to the United States and “produced some of the most ineffably fetching abstract pictures ever painted” (p. 58).  He defined himself as a “realist” and sought to embody in his paintings “the philosophical and moral gravitas of his favorite authors” such as Shakespeare (p. 61).  Needless to say, art critics saw much more in his work, including subtle manifestations of pietas or Hegelian dialectics!  Rather than simply taking pleasure in the beauty of what’s there, they find in his painting whatever pleases them.  Similarly there are eminent academics who project their own fantasies upon John Singer Sargent, a 19th century American whose “dazzling career” brought him fame and fortune.  Approaching him, however, an art “historian” teaching at Wake Forest University, Professor David Lubin, “regards the past less as a window than a mirror.  He gazes steadily at his subject and he sees—himself” (p. 80).  After all, he argues, the past is unknowable, so all he can say, studying the paintings of Sargent, is what he finds in his own mind.  

Such outrages characterize the academic discussions of the other artists Kendall covers.  Influencing them all are Heidegger and Derrida and Foucault and a choir of “postmodernists.” And they all illustrate Roger Scruton’s observation that “‘There is no greater error in the study of human things than to believe that the search for what is essential must lead us too what is hidden.’  This is the deep truth behind Oscar Wilde’s quip that only a very shallow person does not judge by appearances” (p. 161).  

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