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Posts Tagged ‘T.S. Eliot’

John William Corrington on the Recovery of the Humanities

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 7, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington wrote two essays on the recovery of the humanities, both of which are collected in my edition of his work, The Southern Philosopher. 

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The first of these originated as a lecture for the Southern Humanities Conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1984. Corrington sets out in that piece to define the “humanities” and to explain why he believes they need recovering. He argues that symbolism is essential to the humanities and that symbolism has been under assault since the Enlightenment.

Corrington believes that the Enlightenment ushered in an era of scientism and materialism that led to the rise of Nazism, Marxist-Leninism, secular humanism, and logical positivism, all of which contributed to the “decerebration” of the humanities. The task of recovering the humanities, according to Corrington, involves “the need to re­examine the fundamental experiences and symbols upon which any serious notion of the Humanities must be grounded, and to question our present understanding and application of those symbols.”

Corrington undertakes this task through the paradigms of Eric Voegelin, who frames his analysis in terms of the mythopoetic thought of certain peoples and places, the role of the human psyche, and the nature of divinity and the infinite. Corrington examines the difference between psyche and physis; the former formulates mythopoetic meaning out of the data of the phenomenal world and provides the basis for our understanding of political order. By way of consciousness, the psyche comprehends and organizes logos and thereby structures our understanding of reality, including what it means to be human.

The second essay concerning the recovery of the humanities originated as a lecture at Kansas State University in 1986. It builds on the ideas in the previous essay / lecture regarding the derailment of the humanities in light of the gradual loss of noetic homonoia or sense of like-mindedness among disparate cultures with similar understandings of symbolic order.

Corrington seeks to substantiate the arguments from the previous essay / lecture by consulting T. S. Eliot’s notion of order as experienced through literary texts. Corrington suggests that Eliot’s notion of order “exists initially in the psyche of the poet-critic who represents his experience of truth by way of the symbolism of simultaneous order; it exists secondarily in the collective psyches of those who are capable of reenacting Eliot’s experience theoretically, and who find themselves, as if in Platonic dialogue with the poet, bound to admit the truth of what he says about the order—even as his work continues and extends the order.” Applying Eliot’s notion of order to classical texts, Corrington demonstrates that symbolized experience has a temporal element whereas the psyche, existing independently of any one person, is timeless.

Corrington references the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (otherwise known as the Nazi Party), various Marxist-Leninist operations, the French Academy, and the Index Libororum of the Holy Office as examples of practices and institutions that attempted to break down the ideal order that is represented in the continuity of certain canonical texts. Corrington challenges Eliot’s apparent assumption that art and literature are the proper lenses for examining symbolic order. He considers what qualities of a work make it literary as opposed to philosophical—or something else entirely. His point is not to discredit Eliot but to suggest that Eliot’s notion of order in literature is nuanced and complex.

Corrington argues that what drives human culture is “the human psyche in search of itself in the multiplicity of its forms, dimensions, and possibilities—and the loving and fearing tension within that psyche toward the divine ground.” Corrington returns to the idea that studying symbolic orders in different times and places reveals the commonalities between disparate peoples and cultures: “Whether we probe the roots of high civilizations or purportedly ‘primitive’ cultures, the result is the same: the foundations of human order are invariant: The society in question either represents itself as mirroring the order of the cosmos, the society of the gods, or expresses itself as that existential ground upon which gods and men interact with one another, the business of men and gods inextricably fused.” Understood this way, the political order of any given society can be explained as a reflection of metaxy, that state between the human and the divine whereby humans attempt to organize themselves in keeping with their beliefs about the nature of the divine and its order.

The understanding of human place in the world in relation to the divine is, according to Corrington, the humanities. Corrington critiques Eliot’s notion of an ideal order, but credits Eliot for what Eliot’s theory discloses, to wit, the organizing possibility of symbols to convey experiential realities: “Eliot’s earlier critical expression of an ideal order is thus discovered to be an inadequate but evocative symbolism which has, even as a poem might, invited us to probe the experience symbolized and rectify, through analysis of the symbolisms, the precise character of the experience.” Corrington again calls for the recovery of the humanities, not for the sake of any divisive telos or ideological goal, but instead for the unifying potential of an experiential and symbolic understanding of human purpose over time and in disparate places.

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John William Corrington’s Credo for Poets

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, The South, Writing on October 3, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington’s essay “A Poet’s Credo” appeared in the journal Midwest in 1961. In it, Corrington writes that over the course of the twentieth century, poetry gradually became less “intellectual,” a view he purports to share with Norman Mailer. Corrington decries as “love drivel” much of the poetry from the sixteenth to the twentieth century but considers the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century to have been a renaissance for poetry that is now in decline, with the notable exception of the poetry of Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Corrington writes against the mass proliferation of quarterly journals that, he says, has resulted in the publication of more and more bad poetry. Corrington expresses appreciation for poets like Auden, Eliot, and Pound, but wishes there were more room in anthologies for writers like Bukowski, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti, who, he says, represent “the new vision, the new lightning that is shaking on the west coast and in New Orleans, in New York and along the tidewater.”

Corrington is not against modernist poets like W. H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound; rather, he is against those who continue to imitate or copy these figures. What Corrington prizes in poetry is originality, which he considers to be lacking in the industry of literary periodicals in no small part because the editors of such periodicals publish only poems that copy the poetry of an earlier age rather than staking out new territory.

Corrington calls this essay a “credo,” perhaps because of the incantatory rhythms of the essay in addition to the statement of his belief that lasting poetry is, paradoxically, that which seems new.

This essay is remarkable for revealing Corrington’s early affiliation with Beat writers. Early in his career Corrington was known as a poet and interested mostly in poetry. Later in life he began to retreat from poetry as he grew more interested in philosophy, specifically in the thinking of Eric Voegelin and Gnosticism.

“A Poet’s Credo” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

The Circuitous Path of Papa and Ezra

In Arts & Letters, Essays, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Politics, Western Civilization, Writing on May 24, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The American Conservative.

Ernest Hemingway, fresh off his marriage to Hadley Richardson, his first wife, arrived in Paris in 1921. Paris was a playground for writers and artists, offering respite from the radical politics spreading across Europe. Sherwood Anderson supplied Hemingway with a letter of introduction to Ezra Pound. The two litterateurs met at Sylvia Beach’s bookshop and struck up a friendship that would shape the world of letters.

They frolicked the streets of Paris as bohemians, joined by rambunctious and disillusioned painters, aesthetes, druggies, and drinkers. They smoked opium, inhabited salons, and delighted in casual soirées, fine champagnes, expensive caviars, and robust conversations about art, literature, and the avant-garde. Pound was, through 1923, exuberant, having fallen for Olga Rudge, his soon-to-be mistress, a young concert violinist with firm breasts, shapely curves, midnight hair, and long eyebrows and eyelashes. She exuded a kind of mystical sensuality unique among eccentric highbrow musicians; Pound found her irresistible.

Pound was known for his loyalty to friends. Although he had many companions besides Hemingway—among them William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Robert McAlmon, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, Pablo Picasso, Wyndham Lewis, T.E. Hulme, William Carlos Williams, Walter Morse Rummel, Ford Madox Ford, Jean Cocteau, and Malcolm Cowley—Hemingway arguably did more than the others to reciprocate Pound’s favors, at least during the Paris years when he promoted Pound as Pound promoted others.

Pound was aware of Hemingway’s talent for publicity: he and Hemingway had combined their genius to promote Eliot’s The Waste Land. Hemingway introduced Pound to William Bird, an American reporter who arranged to publish an autobiographical piece about Pound’s childhood. Bird was instrumental to the eventual publication of Pound’s A Draft of XVI Cantos. Pound, for his part, secured for Hemingway a position as assistant editor of The Transatlantic Review. Their relationship matured into something symbiotic and mutually beneficial.

Pound edited Hemingway’s work, stripping his prose of excessive adjectives. Hemingway remarked that Pound had taught him “to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people in certain situations.” Unlike, say, Conrad Aiken or Robert Frost, who resisted Pound’s editing, Hemingway acquiesced to Pound’s revisions. In exchange, Hemingway taught Pound how to box. He acknowledged that the scraggly Pound had “developed a terrific wallop” and had “come along to beat the hell wit the gloves.” Hemingway worried that “I will get careless and [Pound] will knock me for a row of latrines.” He even treated Pound to a night at the prizefights to brighten Pound’s spirits as Pound battled various illnesses.

Pound, however, grew disillusioned with Paris, where his friends were gravitating toward socialism and communism. Paris, he decided, was not good for his waning health. Hemingway himself had been in and out of Paris, settling for a short time in Toronto. In 1923, accompanied by their wives, Pound and Hemingway undertook a walking tour of Italy. The fond memories of this rejuvenating getaway inspired Pound to return to Italy with his wife Dorothy Shakespear in 1924. They relocated, in 1925, to a picturesque hotel in Rapallo, a beautiful sea town in the province of Genoa, on the bright blue Tigullio Gulf.

Pound found the weather in Rapallo to be soothing and agreeable. It was Hemingway who had first recommended this scenic spot, having visited Sir Max Beerbohm there years before. Hemingway’s tales of the sunshine, swimming, tennis, and other outdoor activity in Rapallo appealed to Pound, who fancied himself an athlete. The fact that his mistress Olga frequented Italy—where her father owned a house—made Rapallo all the more desirable, as did Dorothy’s seeming willingness to share her husband with his lover.

The friendship remained intact as Pound settled into Rapallo. About to vacate Europe for Key West, Hemingway dashed off a missive to Pound that began “Dear Duce” and then boasted about how Papa, as people had begun to call Hemingway, was “going to know everything about fucking and fighting and eating and drinking and begging and stealing and living and dying.” Gradually, though, the Pound-Papa gulf widened.

The move to Italy also effectively terminated Pound’s glory years in Paris, about which Hemingway wrote affectionately:

So far we have Pound the major poet devoting, say, one fifth of his time to poetry. With the rest of his time he tries to advance the fortunes, both material and artistic, of his friends. He defends them when they are attacked, he gets them into magazines and out of jail. He loans them money. He sells their pictures. He arranges concerts for them. He writes articles about them. He introduces them to wealthy women. He gets publishers to take their books. He sits up all night with them when they claim to be dying and he witnesses their wills. He advances them hospital expenses and persuades them from suicide. And in the end a few of them refrain from knifing him at the first opportunity.

This last line is both teasing and fitting because there was, in fact, at least one assailant in Paris who didn’t refrain: a man who attempted to stab Pound at a dinner party hosted by the surrealists.

Hemingway guessed that Pound might stay in Italy “sometime” even if he took “no interest in Italian politics.” Hemingway was right about Pound’s love for Rapallo but wrong about his political affinities. More than anything else, Italian politics—and the rise of fascism—damaged Hemingway’s regard for Pound, who became a zealous supporter of Mussolini and a reckless trafficker in conspiracy theories.

Hemingway grumbled that if Pound “actually and honest to God … admire[d] and respect[ed] … [Mussolini] and his works [then] all I can say is SHIT.” Hemingway, true to character, remained manfully playful, stating, “I will take practical steps by denouncing you here in Paris as a dangerous anti-fascist and we can amuse one another by counting the hours before you get beaten up in spite of your probity—which in such a fine country as it must be would undoubtedly save you.” Such slight criticisms may have been colored with a lighthearted tone, but the disapproval was plain.

When Hemingway and Guy Hickock visited Pound in northern Italy in 1927, Pound was living in self-imposed exile. Hemingway had recently converted to Catholicism and was enjoying renewed fame after the publication of The Sun Also Rises. He divorced and remarried that year, offering Hadley a portion of the profit from The Sun Also Rises as part of their divorce. Pound, meanwhile, was immersing himself in political theories that likely baffled Hemingway as much as they angered him.

Shortly after the stock-market crash in 1929 and the onset of a worldwide economic crisis, Pound took to writing in Italian. Mussolini’s March on Rome had occurred seven years earlier, and since then he had assumed dictatorial control of Italy, suppressed opposition parties, and built a police state. Pound was enthralled. He met Mussolini in 1933, peddling strange monetary schemes to the fascist leader.

In 1933 Pound and Hemingway exchanged letters that highlighted their diverging attitudes toward Mussolini, fascism, and government. Pound, who’d embraced wild and polemical speculations about the economic theories of the American Founders—Jefferson in particular—began to decry capitalism and taxation while celebrating fiat currency and a convoluted system of state central planning. “Since when are you an economist, pal?” Hemingway mocked. “The last I knew you you were a fuckin’ bassoon player.” Hemingway offered Pound some money, sensing that money was needed, but Pound declined it.

Pound was now enamored with Il Duce; Hemingway was furious. Hemingway hated government, he told Pound, and preferred organized anarchism and masculine sport to statist ideology. Hemingway saw through Pound’s charlatanic flourishes and economic fallacies and accused Pound, quite rightly, of lacking clarity. Yet Pound’s admiration for Hemingway’s work did not diminish, and Pound, ever devoted, included Hemingway in an anthology that he was then editing.

Possibly the last time Pound and Hemingway saw each other, they were having dinner with Joyce on a warm summer night in Paris. Pound allegedly bloviated about economics and the decline of art and European civilization, and Hemingway and Joyce feared that Pound had gone mad. The date and details of the dinner are a matter of debate, as is the veracity of any account of that evening. But one thing is certain: Hemingway was frustrated with Pound’s embrace of Italian fascism. By the time Pound voiced support for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, putting him once again at odds with Hemingway, their once thriving friendship had deteriorated beyond repair.

The falling out was no secret, and other writers took sides. William Carlos Williams wrote to Pound in 1938, saying, “It is you, not Hemingway, in this case who is playing directly into the hands of the International Bankers.” Hemingway conveyed his concerns about Pound to their friend Archibald MacLeish:

Thanks for sending the stats of Ezra’s rantings. He is obviously crazy. I think you might prove he was crazy as far back as the latter Cantos. He deserves punishment and disgrace but what he really deserves most is ridicule. He should not be hanged and he should not be made a martyr of. He has a long history of generosity and unselfish aid to other artists and he is one of the greatest living poets. It is impossible to believe that anyone in his right mind could utter the vile, absolutely idiotic drivel he has broadcast. His friends who knew him and who watched the warpeing [sic] and twisting and decay of his mind and his judgement [sic] should defend him and explain him on that basis. It will be a completely unpopular but an absolutely necessary thing to do. I have had no correspondence with him for ten years and the last time I saw him was in 1933 when Joyce asked me to come to make it easier haveing [sic] Ezra at his house. Ezra was moderately whacky then. The broadcasts are absolutely balmy. I wish we could talk the whole damned thing over. But you can count on me for anything an honest man should do.

Hemingway was referring to Pound’s notoriety as a propagandist for radio and newspaper during the Second World War.  When he received transcripts of Pound’s radio broadcasts, he surmised that Pound was “obviously crazy” for espousing such “vile, absolutely idiotic drivel.” Pound was a “crazy … and harmless traitor,” Hemingway concluded, and an “idiot” with a “distracted mind” who “ought to go to the loony bin.” And that’s precisely where Pound ended up: He was admitted to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, in 1945.

Pound’s friends put their reputations at stake to help him. MacLeish, expressing both love and admonition, dashed off these words in a missive to Pound:

… your information is all second-hand and distorted. You saw nothing with your own eyes. And what you did see—Fascism and Nazism—you didn’t understand: you thought Musso belonged in Jefferson’s tradition and God knows where you thought Hitler belonged. I think your views of the history of our time are just about as wrong as views can be. But I won’t sit by and see you held in confinement because of your views. Which is what is really happening now. I am doing what I am doing partly because I revere you as a poet and partly because I love this Republic and can’t be quiet when it violates its own convictions.

MacLeish helped to orchestrate Pound’s release from St. Elizabeth’s, drafting a letter to the government on Pound’s behalf that included Hemingway’s signature, along with those of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. A year later Hemingway provided a statement of support for Pound to be used in a court hearing regarding the dismissal of an indictment against Pound.

Hemingway, who was now living in Cuba, did little else to help Pound. More for practical reasons than personal conviction, Hemingway, who was himself targeted by the American government, refused to sign a petition of amnesty for Pound. The petition had been Olga’s idea, and Hemingway didn’t believe the American people would rally behind the desperate pleas of an adulterous lover. Hemingway never visited Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, but he did tell Pound, via Dorothy, that he had read and enjoyed The Pisan Cantos. And when he won the Nobel Prize in 1954, Hemingway announced that the year was good for releasing poets, a not-so-slight reference to his old friend.

Hemingway awoke on the morning of July 2, 1961, put a 12-gauge, double-barreled shotgun to his head, and, alone in the foyer of his home, blew his brains out. He was 61. Pound’s friends and family didn’t tell him about Hemingway’s death, but a careless nurse did, and Pound reacted hysterically. The older of the two, Pound, at 72, was free from St. Elizabeth’s, where he’d spent 12 solemn years. He had returned to his beloved Italy to finish out his long and full life. In the autumn of 1972, he died peacefully in his sleep in Venice, the day after his birthday, which he’d spent in the company of friends.

Part One: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Postmodernism, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 9, 2016 at 6:45 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.

 

AM:  Thank you for this interview, Mark.  Your recent edition is titled Literature and the Conservative Ideal.  What, in your view, is the conservative ideal?

MZ:  In my mind the conservative ideal reflects what Michael Oakeshott calls a “disposition” rather than something that can be expressed by a singular identifiable creed. Nevertheless, I would say that it is in many ways an intuitive and practical view of the world, one that privileges human freedom, acknowledges a common humanity, and maintains a healthy regard for the accumulated wisdom of ages.

In today’s context, it is also uniquely defined by what it is not, since the very idea of an intellectual conservatism is often met with condescension or, perhaps in some cases, preemptive disdain. This invariably reflects a reductive and fundamental – and often deliberate – misunderstanding. Contra its critics, the conservative ideal does not demand a blind allegiance to the status quo, nor does it entail uncritical nostalgia for some heroic past. Such willful obtuseness I think would have its present-day parallel in the relentless deconstruction of nearly everything that we as citizens in a liberal democracy have taken for granted.

It is too easy to characterize the conservative disposition as a product of an unenlightened past or, more nefariously, deep-rooted prejudices. The destruction of a civil order grown out of its past has become reflexive and impulsive, and there is seldom any careful reflection as to what, practically speaking, a society unmoored from its historical roots will look like. Thus, the conservative ideal is grounded in the enduring presence of civilizational standards that, while not immune to scrutiny or change, are nevertheless prerequisites for a stable and ordered society.

Of course, as an intellectual exercise, it is more difficult, or at least less exciting, to make a case against earthly utopias, particularly when they have been peddled as some moral zenith. In a word, the conservative ideal encompasses a respect for the past and a deep skepticism for any social innovations that might jeopardize its influence on what may rightly be called culture.

AM:  After the turf wars over canon and curriculum in the 1980s and 1990s, did any expositors of the conservative ideal come out alive? 

MZ:  There have indeed been some survivors, but the side was badly damaged. As English departments became wholly owned subsidiaries of the multicultural program, literature became simply one more vehicle through which victimization and oppression became the sole standard for assigning value.

The study of literature as an artistic endeavor, one subject to critical judgment and the recognition of a work’s place within literary history, was supplanted by the idea that value is situational and that any search for truth or beauty must necessarily be futile. The most significant casualties of the English turf wars have been works of the West, useful now only for their iteration of or complicity in historical cruelties.

Unfortunately, approaches to literature that privilege the text over the identity of its author or characters have become associated with political conservatism, itself a byproduct of the contemporary university’s tendency to hold politics as an individual’s highest calling. Thus, when it comes to literary criticism, a conservative ideal has less to do with promoting certain ideologies than with a dispassionate return to literature as a form of high art. Doubly unfortunate, and perhaps a bit ironic, is that as students of English literature continue to flock to other areas of study, we in the field have doubled-down on curricular approaches that are now not only stale but increasingly obsolete.

AM:  Can anything be done to save the field at this point, or is it doomed for failure? I realize these are strong words, and perhaps premature, but there do seem to be trends and data that suggest that at least English departments will face serious budgetary and enrollment problems in the years to come.

MZ:  Yes, I suppose we shouldn’t be too fatalistic at this point, even though in many cases the situation is nearing critical. I don’t much doubt that English departments will continue to exist, and perhaps even thrive, in the future. They just might have to take on a new identity, as it were. It might ultimately be fortuitous that as fewer people read, the less aptitude there seems to be for writing well. Thus, the rise of professional writing programs and the continuance of rudimentary instruction in composition may throw us a lifeline.

Departments have not, for the most part, adapted to the current climate. In some regard, there will always be a case for literature’s place within the educational landscape, and we should not stop making it. I completely sympathize with certain laments over the decline of literature and the humanities more broadly, indicated, as you suggest, by certain unpropitious trends. Many of them I will grant fall outside of our purview.

I think the liberal arts, even in their purest form, are threatened by the credentialist attitude currently infusing higher education. In addition, the heavy emphasis on STEM fields in primary and secondary education, combined with the turn toward “fact-based” texts, is both a capitulation to market demands and a nod to the reality that slow reading as an intrinsically rewarding enterprise can’t compete in the digital world.

So, despite our own malfeasance, there are certainly many other cultural trends causing our decline. Though I cannot help thinking how the complete dominance of Theory within literary criticism over the last number of decades has left would-be readers wondering how a text can possibly be relevant to their personal lives or how it might provide insights into the human condition. This is to say nothing of how that text might not be so predictably subservient to the social and cultural forces that informed it.

AM:  You mention this in your introduction, but for the sake of readers of the blog, I’ll ask how you chose the contributors to this edition.  

It wasn’t until well after graduate school that I encountered intellectual viewpoints from within my discipline that were congenial to both my own political predilections and my preferred approach to literature. The idea that these could coexist, or even work in concert, hadn’t really occurred to me. I remember feeling somewhat liberated by the presence of literary scholars in opinion and public affairs journals that I avidly read. I realized that while scholarship had its place, questions surrounding the study of literature and its implications for our culture deserved a place in a much wider realm of ideas. In a way, I found an intellectual home outside of the university, which, in my case, proved salutary.

The roster for Literature and the Conservative Ideal was assembled by individual cold calling. I had compiled a fairly short list of scholars whose work I had come across in these popular venues and who I thought might at least be able to consider conservatism’s role in literary study as well as its various formulations in selective literary works. The response to my initial proposal was very positive, and I remain infinitely grateful to the contributors for their generosity.

What I have come to understand over the years is that genuine concern over the state of literature today is not bounded by party affiliations or directed by a singular ideological framework. As I mention in the book, personal politics did not figure in discussions with contributors, nor did I harbor any assumptions about them. I think it is a testament to dispassionate scholarship and the contributors’ dedication to their craft that the volume came together the way that it did.

AM:  What critics do you consider representative of the conservative tradition?

MZ:  I think in this case it is once again useful to detach what might be considered a conservative approach to literature from the more freighted use of the term in a distinctly political context. In so doing, a critic such as Lionel Trilling, known for his oft-repeated equation of conservatism with “irritable mental gestures,” might be classified as an exemplar of a conservative literary tradition. His emphasis on literature as an embodiment of culture cut against the grain of scholarship that valued texts primarily for their reflection of bourgeois society. Close reading and moral judgment are at the center of Trilling’s critiques, and his skepticism of a literature that “pets and dandles its underprivileged characters” might be sustained as a rebuke to today’s critical environment.

Writing also in what might be called the conservative tradition is of course F.R. Leavis, whose concern for literature’s essential role within civilized life is discussed by Thomas Jeffers in the book. I would also include T.S. Eliot and other contributors to Scrutiny, a publication whose critical acumen and attention to literature’s artistic expression is in many ways lacking today. It is, however, still found in the pages of such eminent publications as Commentary, the Claremont Review of Books, The New Criterion, and others. So, as readers of The Literary Lawyer are keenly aware, the humanistic tradition, which stands athwart today’s prevailing postmodernist ethos, is very much alive. It just isn’t generally in vogue in those places where literature is taught.

 

Part Two coming soon….

The Conservative Mindset

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Emerson, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Politics, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on July 20, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

The following review first appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.  Some of the references, such as those to the presidential primary season, may be dated now, but they were timely on the date of original publication.

The presidential primaries are at last upon us. The leading Republican candidates, including frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, have resorted to showmanship and grandstanding to make their case for the party nomination. Their harsh, uncouth rhetoric stands in marked contrast to the writings of Russell Amos Kirk, a founding father of modern American conservatism.

Books on Kirk exist, but they’re few. Fellow conservatives, many of them friends or colleagues of Kirk’s — like T. S. Eliot, William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, F. A. Hayek, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss — have received more attention. In this regard, Kirk is the victim of his virtues: he was less polarizing, celebrated by followers and detractors alike for his measured temperament and learned judgments. He did earn numerous adversaries, including Hayek and Frank Meyer, who in retrospect appear more like ambivalent friends, but the staying power of Kirk’s congeniality seems to have softened objections to his most resolute opinions.

Bradley J. Birzer, a professor at Hillsdale College who holds a chair named for Kirk, fills a need with his lucid and ambitious biography. Birzer is the first researcher to have been granted full access to Kirk’s letters, diaries, and draft manuscripts. He has avoided — as others haven’t — defining Kirk by his list of accomplishments and has pieced together a comprehensive, complex account of Kirk’s personality, motivations, and influences.

Birzer offers five themes in Kirk’s work, and less so his private life, which Birzer only touches on: his intellectual heritage, his ideas of the transcendent, his Christian humanism, his fiction, and the reach and implications of his conservatism. Kirk isn’t a dull subject. One need not identify as a conservative to appreciate his polished charm and idiosyncrasies. A plump, bespectacled gentleman who feigned disdain for technology, Kirk was something of a spiritualist with a penchant for the weird. He considered himself a Stoic before he had converted to Catholicism, a regeneration that makes sense in light of the relation of Stoic to Pauline thought.

As a young man Kirk spent four years in the military. His feelings about this experience were conflicted. He suffered from a blend of ennui and disenchantment but occupied his free time with reading, writing, and studying. He was horrified by the use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the United States had decimated the most flourishing Western cultural and religious centers in the Japanese Empire, just as he was by the internment of Japanese Americans.

The tremendous violence of the 20th century, occasioned by the rise of Nazism, communism, and fascism, impressed upon Kirk a sense of tragedy and fatalism. He came to despise totalitarianism, bureaucracy, radicalism, and “ideology” as leveling systems that stamped out the dignity and individuality of the human person. Hard to place along the left-right spectrum, he was as critical of big corporations and the military as he was of big government and labor.

When Kirk inserted himself into political debates he supported Republican politicians, becoming temporarily more interventionist in his foreign policy before returning to a form of Taftian isolationism, but he always remained more worried about reawakening the moral imagination than in having the right candidates elected to office. His was a long view of society, one without a fixed teleology or secular eschatology, and skeptical of utopian thought. Kirk advocated a “republic of letters,” a community of high-minded and profoundly sensitive thinkers devoted to rearticulating perennial truths (such as the need to pacify human violence, temper human urges for power, and cultivate human longing for the transcendent or divine) and preserving humanist institutions.

Kirk’s politics were shaped by imaginative literature and characterized by a rich poetic vision and vast cultural literacy. Fascinated by such disparate figures as Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T. S. Eliot, Sir Walter Scott, George Santayana, and most of the American Founders, Kirk was also versed in the libertarianism of Albert Jay Nock and Isabel Paterson, whose ideas he admired as a young man but vehemently rejected throughout his mature years. Burke and Babbitt, more than any other men, shaped his political philosophy. And his irreducible imagination made room for mysticism and a curious interest in ghosts.

Kirk’s debt to Burke cannot be overstated. “Like the nineteenth-century liberals,” Birzer says, “Kirk focused on the older Burke, but he countered their dismissal of Burke’s ideas as reactionary and exaggerated.” Kirk also downplayed Burke the Whig, who championed the cause of the American Revolution, which Kirk considered to be not a revolution but a conservative restoration of ancient English liberties. Kirk was wary about the Enlightenment, as was Burke, because the scientism of that period tended to oversimplify inherently complex human nature and behavior. Kirk also thought the Enlightenment philosophes had broken too readily from the tested traditions of the past that shaped human experience.

Kirk appealed to American patriotism — which he distinguished from reckless nationalism — in The American Cause (1957) (which he later renounced as a “child’s book”), The Roots of American Order (1974), and Americas British Culture (1993), drawing attention to what he saw as the enduring customs and mores that guard against utopian conjecture. Yet American patriotism was, in Kirk’s mind, heir to the patrimony of Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, and London. From the mistakes and successes of these symbolic cities Americans could learn to avoid “foreign aid” and “military violence,” as well as grandiose attempts to “struggle for the Americanization of the world.”

Disillusioned with academia after his graduate work at Duke, Kirk was offered a position, which he turned down, at the University of Chicago. Kirk fell in love with the University of St. Andrews, however, where he took his doctorate and wrote a lengthy dissertation on Edmund Burke that would later become his magnum opus, The Conservative Mind. Kirk revised The Conservative Mind throughout his life, adding new permutations and nuances in an attempt to ensure the continued resonance of his cultural mapping.

The almost instant success of The Conservative Mind made Kirk an unlikely celebrity. The book featured sharply etched portraits of men Kirk considered to be representatives of the conservative tradition. Regrettably, and perhaps tellingly, Kirk tended to ignore the contributions of women, passing over such apposite figures as Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe, with whom he, as a mystic Catholic anglophile, had much in common. Kirk shared more with these women, in fact, than he did with Coleridge or Thomas Babington Macaulay, who appear in The Conservative Mind.

Kirk was also woefully uneducated about American pragmatism. He overlooked Burke’s influence on, and compatibility with, pragmatism. (As Seth Vannatta ably demonstrates in Conservatism and Pragmatism (2014), Burke “is a model precursor of pragmatism because he chose to deal with circumstances rather than abstractions.”) Kirk failed to see the pragmatic elements of Santayana, whom he adored, and he seemed generally unaware of the work of C.S. Peirce. Kirk’s breezy dismissal of William James, Santayana’s teacher and later colleague, suggests he hadn’t read much of James’s oeuvre, for Kirk lumped the very different James and Dewey together in a manner that proved that Kirk himself was susceptible to the simplification and reduction he decried in others.

Conservatism, for Kirk, consisted of an attitude or mindset, not an explicit or detailed political program. Enumerating vague “canons” of conservatism that Kirk tweaked from edition to edition, The Conservative Mind was a “hagiographic litany,” a genealogy of the high-minded heroes of ordered liberty and convention. Kirk didn’t intend the book to be model scholarship. It was something more — an aestheticized bricolage cannibalized from Burke and Eliot and others, with inspirational and ritualistic value. It has never gone out of print.

Kirk is sometimes accused of being contradictory, holding simultaneously incompatible positions, in part because he lauded apparent antagonists such as John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln. “Kirk found something to like in each man,” Birzer says of Calhoun and Lincoln, “for each, from [Kirk’s] perspective, embodied some timeless truth made sacramentally incarnate.” Tension between rivaling conservative visions is reconciled in Kirk’s desire never “to create an ideology out of conservatism, a theology at the quick and the ready with which one could easily beat one’s opponents into submission.” Ideology, Kirk believed, was a symptom of totalitarianism, and as such was the common denominator of fascism and communism. Kirk believed his own philosophy was not an ideology, because he, like Burke, preferred “a principled defense of justice and prudence” to any specific faction or agenda. He recognized that change was necessary, but thought it should be guided by prudence and historical sensitivity.

For a history buff, Kirk could be positively ahistorical and uncritical, ignoring the nuances and particularities of events that shaped the lives of his heroes. He ignored Calhoun’s commitment to the peculiar institution, and with a quick wave of the hand erased slavery from Calhoun’s political calculus, adding without qualification that “Calhoun defended the rights of minorities.” Kirk made clumsy caricatures out of his assumed enemies, calling men like Emerson “the most influential of all American radicals.” Emerson had met Coleridge, whose Romanticism partially inspired Emerson’s transcendentalism. Yet Kirk loathed Emerson and praised Coleridge and saw no inconsistency in doing so.

Kirk was not alone during the 1950s. The decade witnessed a renaissance of conservatism, exemplified by the publication of not only Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, but also Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, Strauss’s Natural Right and History, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk, Voegelin’s New Science of Politics, Gabriel Marcel’s Man against Mass Society, Christopher Dawkins’s Understanding Europe, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, and Buckley’s God and Man at Yale. It was The Conservative Mind, however, that “gave one voice to a number of isolated and atomized voices.” It also lent intellectual substance and credibility to the activist groundswell surrounding such politicians as Goldwater a decade later.

When Kirk joined Buckley’s National Review, the manner of his writing changed. Previously he had contributed to literary and scholarly journals, but, as Birzer points out, his “contributions to the National Review slowly but surely crowded out his output to other periodicals.” Working for National Review also drew Kirk into personality conflicts that passed as theoretical disagreements. Kirk sided with Buckley, for instance, in banishing from the pages of National Review any writers associated with the John Birch Society. Kirk despised the egoism of Ayn Rand, scorned the label neoconservative, and did not take kindly to the doctrines of Irving Kristol. Yet Kirk held Leo Strauss in high regard, in no small part because of Strauss’s scholarship on Burke and natural rights.

Strauss is sometimes treated as the fount of neoconservativism, given that his students include, among others, Allan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, and Paul Wolfowitz. But Kirk never would have considered the esoteric and conscientious Strauss to be in a league with neoconservative provocateurs like Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz, who indicted Kirk for anti-Semitism after Kirk, in a speech before the Heritage Foundation, stated that some neoconservatives had mistaken Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States — a tactless comment that was blown out of proportion.

“Kirk never sought conformity with those around him,” Birzer argues, “because he never wanted to create a sect or a religion or a cult of personality.” Kirk labored for the sake of posterity, not self-promotion. “The idea of creating ‘Kirkians,’” as there are Straussians, Misesians, Randians, and Rothbardians, “would have horrified [Kirk] at every level of his being”; Birzer insists that Kirk “desired only to inspire and to leaven with the gifts given him,” adding that “[h]e did well.” “I hope,” Birzer concludes, “I have done at least half as well” in writing Kirk’s biography.

Bringing Kirk into renewed focus during a contentious election season, as the term conservatism is bandied about, contested, and abused by commentators as varied as David Brooks and Phyllis Schlafly, Megyn Kelly and Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove and Michael Savage, Birzer reminds us that conservatism, properly understood, is a “means, a mood, an attitude to conserve, to preserve, and to pass on to future generations the best of the humane tradition rather than to advocate a particular political philosophy, party, or agenda.”

One wonders, watching the campaign stops and debate spectacles, the ominous political advertisements and alarmist fundraising operations, what’s left of this humane tradition in our current political discourse. When our politicians lack a responsible and meaningful awareness of the residual wisdom of the ages, we get the leadership and politics we deserve. Would that we had more Russell Kirks around to remind us of the enduring things that, in times like these, are hard to find and difficult to believe in.

Harold Bloom’s American Sublime

In Academia, America, American Literature, Art, Artist, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creativity, Emerson, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Philosophy, Poetry, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Novel, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on August 12, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in the American Conservative.

What can be said about Harold Bloom that hasn’t been said already? The Yale professor is a controversial visionary, a polarizing seer who has been recycling and reformulating parallel theories of creativity and influence, with slightly different foci and inflections, for his entire career, never seeming tiresome or repetitive. He demonstrates what is manifestly true about the best literary critics: they are as much artists as the subjects they undertake.

Bloom’s criticism is characterized by sonorous, cadenced, almost haunting prose, by an exacting judgment and expansive imagination, and by a painful, sagacious sensitivity to the complexities of human behavior and psychology. He is a discerning Romantic in an age of banality and distraction, in a culture of proud illiteracy and historical unawareness. Bloom reminds us that to be faithful to tradition is to rework it, to keep it alive, and that tradition and innovation are yoked pairs, necessarily dependent on one another.

Bloom has been cultivating the image and reputation of a prophet or mystic for decades. His stalwart defense of the Western canon is well known but widely misunderstood. His descriptive account is that the canon is fluid, not fixed—open, not closed. It might be stable, but it’s not unchangeable. The literary canon is the product of evolution, a collection of the fittest works that have been selectively retained, surviving the onslaught of relentless competition.

Bloom’s prescriptive position is that, because human agency is a controllable factor in this agnostic filtering process, serious readers can and should ensure that masterpieces, those stirring products of original, even genius minds, are retained, and that the latest works are held to the highest aesthetic standards, which are themselves established and proven by revisionary struggle. The merit of a work is not found in the identity of its author—his or her race, gender, or sexuality—but in the text proper, in the forms and qualities of the work itself.

Bloom’s latest book, The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, examines ambitious and representative American authors, its chapters organized by curious pairings: Whitman with Melville (the “Giant Forms” of American literature), Emerson with Dickinson (the Sage of Concord is Dickinson’s “closest imaginative father”), Hawthorne with Henry James (a relation “of direct influence”), Twain with Frost (“our only great masters with popular audiences”), Stevens with Eliot (“an intricate interlocking” developed through antithetical competition), and Faulkner with Crane (“each forces the American language to its limits”). This mostly male cast, a dozen progenitors of the American sublime, is not meant to constitute a national canon. For that, Bloom avers in his introduction, he envisions alternative selections, including more women: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Marianne Moore, and Flannery O’Connor. Bloom’s chosen 12 represent, instead, “our incessant effort to transcend the human without forsaking humanism.” These writers have in common a “receptivity to daemonic influx.” “What lies beyond the human for nearly all of these writers,” Bloom explains, “is the daemon.”

What is this daemon, you ask. As always, Bloom is short on definition, embracing the constructive obscurity—the aesthetic vagueness—that Richard Poirier celebrated in Emerson and William James and Robert Frost, Bloom’s predecessors. Bloom implies that calling the “daemon” an idea is too limiting; the word defies ready explanation or summation.

The daemon, as I read it, is an amorphous and spiritual source of quasi-divine inspiration and influence, the spark of transitional creative powers; it’s akin to shamanism, and endeavors to transcend, move beyond, and surpass. Its opposite is stasis, repose. “Daemons divide up divine power and are in perpetual movement from their supernal heights to us,” Bloom remarks in one of his more superlative moments. “They bring down messages,” he intones, “each day’s news of the metamorphic meanings of the division between our mundane shell and the upper world.”

What, you might ask in follow up, is the American sublime that it should stand in marked contrast to the European tradition, rupturing the great chain of influence, revealing troublesome textual discontinuities and making gaps of influence that even two poets can pass abreast? “Simplistically,” Bloom submits, “the sublime in literature has been associated with peak experiences that render a secular version of a theophany: a sense of something interfused that transforms a natural moment, landscape, action, or countenance.” This isn’t quite Edmund Burke’s definition, but it does evoke the numinous, what Bloom calls, following Burke, “an excursion into the psychological origins of aesthetic magnificence.”

The Daemon Knows is part memoir, a recounting of a lifetime spent with books. There are accounts of Robert Penn Warren, Leslie Fiedler, and Cleanth Brooks. Bloom’s former students and mentors also make brief appearances: Kenneth Burke, for instance, and Camille Paglia. And Bloom doesn’t just analyze, say, Moby Dick—he narrates about his first encounter with that book back in the summer of 1940. He later asserts, “I began reading Hart Crane in the library on my tenth birthday.” That he remembers these experiences at all speaks volumes to Melville’s and Crane’s bewitching facility and to Bloom’s remarkable receptivity.

Bloom has not shied away from his signature and grandiose ahistorical pronouncements, perhaps because they’re right. Melville, for instance, is “the most Shakespearean of our authors,” an “American High Romantic, a Shelleyan divided between head and heart, who held against Emerson the sage’s supposed deficiency in the region of the heart.” Or, “Emersonian idealism was rejected by Whitman in favor of Lucretian materialism, itself not compatible with Indian speculations.” Or, “Stevens received from Whitman the Emersonian conviction that poetry imparts wisdom as well as pleasure.” These generalizations would seem to service hagiography, but even if they’re overstatement, are they wrong?

My professors in graduate school, many of them anyway, chastised Bloom and dubbed him variously a reactionary, a racist, a misogynist, a bigot, or a simpleton; they discouraged his presence in my essays and papers, laughing him out of classroom conversation and dismissing his theories out-of-hand. Or else, stubbornly refusing to assess his theories on their own terms, they judged the theories in the light of their results: the theories were bad because certain authors, the allegedly privileged ones, came out on top, as they always have. This left little room for newcomers, for egalitarian fads and fashions, and discredited (or at least undermined) the supposedly noble project of literary affirmative action.

They will be forgotten, these dismissive pedants of the academy, having contributed nothing of lasting value to the economy of letters, while Bloom will live on, continuing to shock and upset his readers, forcing them to second-guess their judgments and tastes, their criteria for aesthetic value, challenging their received assumptions and thumping them over the head with inconvenient facts and radical common sense. The school of resentment and amateurish cultural studies, appropriate targets of Bloom’s learned animus, will die an inglorious death, as dogmatic political hermeneutics cannot withstand the test of time.

Bloom, on the other hand, like his subjects, taps his inner daemon, invokes it and rides it where it travels, struggles against the anxiety of influence and displays all of the rhetorical power and play of the strong poets he worships. Dr. Samuel Johnson and Northrop Frye reverberate throughout his capacious tome, and for that matter his entire oeuvre. Bloom’s psychic brooding becomes our own, if we read him pensively, and we are better off for it.

Those who view literary study as a profession requiring specialized and technical training, who chase tenure and peer approval, publishing in academic journals and gaining no wider audience than groveling colleagues, do not possess the originality, the foresight, or the brute imagination necessary to achieve enduring appeal. Reading, done right, is a profoundly personal activity, an exercise in solitary contemplation and possible revelation; writing, done right, is transference: the redirection of complex states of consciousness and knowing from one person to another. A few sentences of Bloom’s contemplative questioning, such as the following, are worth the weight of whole academic articles: “At eighty-four I wonder why poems in particular obsessed me from childhood onward. Because I had an overemotional sensibility, I tended to need more affection from my parents and sisters than even they could sustain. From the age of ten on, I sought from Moyshe-Leyb Halpern and Hart Crane, from Shakespeare and Shelley, the strong affect I seemed to need from answering voices.” Here Bloom invites Freudian investigation of himself, summoning the psychoanalytic models he uses on others.

Bloom is now 85. He claims to have another book left in him, making this one his penultimate. His awesome and dedicated engagement with the best that has been thought and known in the world appears to have left him unafraid of the finish, of what comes next, as though literary intimacy and understanding have prepared him, equipped him, for the ultimate. It seems fitting, then, to quote him on this score and to end with a musing on the end: “We are at least bequeathed to an earthly shore and seek memorial inscriptions, fragments heaped against our ruins: an interval and then we are gone. High literature endeavors to augment that span: My twelve authors center, for me, that proliferation of consciousness by which we go on living and finding our own sense of being.”

Paul H. Fry on “Influence”

In Academia, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy on March 25, 2015 at 8:45 am

Below is the next installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry.  The previous lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Outposts of Culture: Gerald Russello Reviews Jason Harding’s The Criterion

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Britain, British Literature, Communication, Essays, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Scholarship, Writing on April 2, 2014 at 8:45 am
Gerald Russello
 
Gerald Russello practices law in New York and edits The University Bookman. He is the author of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk (University of Missouri Press, 2007).  His articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in The National Review, The New CriterionCrisis Magazine, The American Conservative, Chronicles, The Imaginative Conservative, The American Spectator, City Journal, The Intercollegiate Review, Modern Age, First Things, and many other publications.
 
This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman in 2003.  It is republished here with the express permission of The University Bookman.  The book under review is Jason Harding’s The Criterion: Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Inter-War Britain (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

 

In the final issue of the Criterion, which appeared in January 1939, T. S. Eliot wrote that “continuity of culture” was the primary responsibility of “the small and obscure papers and reviews.” It was they that would “keep critical thought alive” amidst troubled times. And so it has been, for a century and more. The vitality of the “little magazines” is one of the strongest indicators of a culture’s intellectual level. These journals, typically of small circulation and little revenue, serve a crucial function as the medium for the transmission of ideas among scholars, elites, and the larger population. it is perhaps a sign of our times that so many of our Masters of the Universe choose to endow business schools or fund independent films rather than to support the written word. Many of the journals themselves, unfortunately, have become so obscure and inward-minded that they may no longer be worth the trouble.

The British aptitude for starting small associations of like-minded folk was well expressed by the profusion of little magazines, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This proclivity was to bear further fruit across the Atlantic, where Americans followed the British model. Up until the Second World War, America had a thriving culture of little magazines that tradition survives, in a somewhat anemic form, in the independent so-called “zines” that clutter the bookshops of progressive enclaves like Manhattan or Berkeley. There have been two recent examples of the differing fates of such journals here in the United States. Lingua Franca was an energetic journal devoted to academic life, which it chronicled in a sharp, intelligent style. After less than four years of publication it went bankrupt and ceased publication, only to be partially revived in an Internet incarnation after being acquired by the Chronicle of Higher Education. On the other end of the scale is Poetry, which recently received a gift of $100 million from a philanthropist whose own poems it had rejected. The gift instantly made the small journal one of the best-endowed cultural institutions in the country.

The Criterion was perhaps the most important of the journals of the last century. The first issue, which appeared in October 1922 and contained (without epigraph or notes) Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, changed Western intellectual life, and it continues to define what an intellectual journal should be. However, study of the Criterion has been subsumed by the focus on Eliot’s development as a poet and thinker. The larger cultural importance of the journal has received insufficient attention. That has now changed. From such an improbable place as the department of foreign languages and literature in Feng Chia University in Taiwan, where Jason Harding is assistant director, comes The Criterion: Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Inter-War Britain. It is a work of polished scholarship on the role of the Criterion in British intellectual life.

Harding divides his analysis into three parts. Part I, “Cultural Networks,” deals with the Criterion as one of a number of small intellectual periodicals, such as the Adelphi and New Verse, which appeared in this period. The second section, titled “The Politics of Book Reviewing,” focuses on a number of regular Criterion contributors, and their relationship with, and treatment by, Eliot as their editor. The chapters include studies of almost forgotten figures like Bonamy Dobrée and Montgomery Belgion as well as more well-known figures such as John Maynard Keynes and the difficult but brilliant Ezra Pound. Harding shows that, while Eliot directed and organized every aspect of the journal, each of the contributors played their own part in establishing the Criterion’s preeminent position.

The final section, “Cultural Politics,” focuses on the purpose of the Criterion as Eliot came to see it in the dark days of the 1930s. As the influence of the journal increased, it became known not only as a showcase of modernism but also as a conduit for what Eliot called “the mind of all Europe” and a defense of the West. The author discusses Eliot’s attempts to persuade major Continental intellectual figures such as Ernst Robert Curtius to contribute to the journal, and his efforts consistently to review foreign periodicals for his British readership.

Harding presents a complex cultural picture in service of his goal of establishing the Criterion as part of “an ongoing cultural conversation, most immediately a dialogue with a shifting set of interlocking periodical structures and networks.” Eliot, as an editor, had to deal not only with his rival journals, but also with his sensitive patron, Lady Rothermere. There were also those occasionally truculent contributors, such as Wyndham Lewis or D. H. Lawrence, who sometimes abandoned the Criterion for other, better-paying reviews.

Among a number of fascinating episodes, Harding recounts here the controversy over classicism and romanticism between Eliot and John Middleton Murry, founder of the Adelphi. Murry launched the first salvo in 1923, claiming that there was no tradition of classicism in England. Although not the subject of the attack, Eliot felt obliged to respond and published in the Criterion the following month his famous defense of classicism, “The Function of Criticism.” Murry and Eliot were to have a limited rematch at the end of the decade over the humanism of Irving Babbitt. Other scholars have examined the substantive merits of their respective positions. Harding’s purpose is rather to show that the literary rivalries among serious journals spurred Eliot, as a writer and editor, to set out his critical and literary vision. They necessarily shaped the kind of journal Eliot was creating.

In his final sections, Harding examines the evidence for Eliot’s supposed anti-Semitic or fascist sympathies and finds them wanting. Under Eliot’s editorship, several writers documented the rise of Nazism in Germany, and the final issue contained a condemnation of Nazi racial theories. Harding concludes that: “Given the Criterion’s record on these matters, it is remarkable that recent critics have stigmatized the journal by suggesting that Eliot was sympathetic to the aims and methods of Nazism.” Harding realizes that Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism and his efforts to “stitch together into some kind of unity the Latin-Christian elements of the otherwise diverse cultures of Western Europe” meant his rejection of the Nazi regime. And even though Eliot was somewhat sympathetic to fascism, that sympathy, as Harding demonstrates, was attenuated and did not cause him to suppress other viewpoints in the Criterion.

Drawing on a wealth of previously unexamined materials and private collections, Harding expands upon our knowledge of Eliot as a major twentieth-century figure. His careful research adds a new dimension not only to Eliot as a thinker and editor, but also to the entire period of British literary journalism.

Pragmatists Versus Agrarians?

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Emerson, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Southern History, Southern Literature, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on June 19, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here at The University Bookman.

John J. Langdale’s Superfluous Southerners paints a magnificent portrait of Southern conservatism and the Southern Agrarians, and it will become recognized as an outstanding contribution to the field of Southern Studies. It charts an accurate and compelling narrative regarding Southern, Agrarian conservatism during the twentieth century, but it erroneously conflates Northern liberalism with pragmatism, muddying an otherwise immaculate study.

Langdale sets up a false dichotomy as his foundational premise: progressive, Northern pragmatists versus traditionalist, Southern conservatives. From this premise, he draws several conclusions: that Southern conservatism offers a revealing context for examining the gradual demise of traditional humanism in America; that Northern pragmatism, which ushered in modernity in America, was an impediment to traditional humanism; that “pragmatic liberalism” (his term) was Gnostic insofar as it viewed humanity as perfectible; that the man of letters archetype finds support in Southern conservatism; that Southern conservatives eschewed ideology while Northern liberals used it to present society as constantly ameliorating; that Southern conservatives celebrated “superfluity” in order to preserve canons and traditions; that allegedly superfluous ways of living were, in the minds of Southern conservatives, essential to cultural stability; that Agrarianism arose as a response to the New Humanism; and that superfluous Southerners, so deemed, refined and revised established values for new generations.

In short, his argument is that Southern conservatives believed their errand was to defend and reanimate a disintegrating past. This belief is expressed in discussion of the work of six prominent Southern men of letters spanning two generations: John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, Richard Weaver, and M. E. Bradford.

Langdale ably demonstrates how the Southern Agrarians mounted an effective and tireless rhetorical battle against organized counterforces, worried that scientific and industrial progress would replace traditional faith in the unknown and mysterious, and fused poetry and politics to summon forth an ethos of Romanticism and chivalry. He sketches the lines of thought connecting the earliest Agrarians to such later Southerners as Weaver and Bradford. He is so meticulous in his treatment of Southern conservatives that it is surprising the degree to which he neglects the constructive and decent aspects of pragmatism.

Careful to show that “Agrarianism, far from a monolithic movement, had always been as varied as the men who devised it,” he does not exercise the same fastidiousness and impartiality towards the pragmatists, who are branded with derogatory labels throughout the book even though their ideas are never explained in detail. The result is a series of avoidable errors.

First, what Langdale treats as a monolithic antithesis to Southern conservatism is actually a multifaceted philosophy marked by only occasional agreement among its practitioners. C. S. Peirce was the founder of pragmatism, followed by William James, yet Peirce considered James’s pragmatism so distinct from his own that he renamed his philosophy “pragmaticism.” John Dewey reworked James’s pragmatism until his own version retained few similarities with James’s or Peirce’s. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. never identified himself as a pragmatist, and his jurisprudence is readily distinguishable from the philosophy of Peirce, James, and Dewey. Each of these men had nuanced interpretations of pragmatism that are difficult to harmonize with each other, let alone view as a bloc against Southern, traditionalist conservatism.

Second, the Southern Agrarians espoused ideas that were generally widespread among Southerners, embedded in Southern culture, and reflective of Southern attitudes. By contrast, pragmatism was an academic enterprise rejected by most Northern intellectuals and completely out of the purview of the average Northern citizen. Pragmatism was nowhere near representative of Northern thinking, especially not in the political or economic realm, and it is hyperbolic to suggest, as Langdale does, that pragmatism influenced the intellectual climate in the North to the extent that traditionalist conservatism influenced the intellectual climate in the South.

Third, the pragmatism of Peirce and James is not about sociopolitical or socioeconomic advancement. It is a methodology, a process of scientific inquiry. It does not address conservatism per se or liberalism per se. It can lead one to either conservative or liberal outcomes, although the earliest pragmatists rarely applied it to politics as such. It is, accordingly, a vehicle to an end, not an end itself. Peirce and James viewed it as a technique to ferret out the truth of an idea by subjecting concrete data to rigorous analysis based on statistical probability, sustained experimentation, and trial and error. Although James occasionally undertook to discuss political subjects, he did not treat pragmatism as the realization of political fantasy. Pragmatism, properly understood, can be used to validate a political idea, but does not comprise one.

The Southern Agrarians may have privileged poetic supernaturalism over scientific inquiry; it does not follow, however, that pragmatists like Peirce and James evinced theories with overt or intended political consequences aimed at Southerners or traditionalists or, for that matter, Northern liberals. Rather than regional conflict or identity, the pragmatists were concerned with fine-tuning what they believed to be loose methods of science and epistemology and metaphysics. They identified with epistemic traditions of Western philosophy but wanted to distill them to their core, knowing full well that humans could not perfect philosophy, only tweak it to become comprehensible and meaningful for a given moment. On the other hand, the Southern Agrarians were also concerned with epistemology and metaphysics, but their concern was invariably colored by regional associations, their rhetoric inflected with political overtones. Both Southern Agrarians and pragmatists attempted to conserve the most profitable and essential elements of Western philosophy; opinions about what those elements were differed from thinker to thinker.

Fourth, Langdale’s caricature (for that is what it is) of pragmatism at times resembles a mode of thought that is alien to pragmatism. For instance, he claims that “pragmatism is a distinctly American incarnation of the historical compulsion to the utopian and of what philosopher Eric Voegelin described as the ancient tradition of ‘gnosticism.’” Nothing, however, is more fundamental to pragmatism than the rejection of utopianism or Gnosticism. That rejection is so widely recognized that even Merriam-Webster lists “pragmatism” as an antonym for “utopian.”

Pragmatism is against teleology and dogma; it takes as its starting point observable realities rather than intangible, impractical abstractions and ideals. What Langdale describes is more like Marxism: a messianic ideology with a sprawling, utopian teleology regarding the supposedly inevitable progress of humankind.

Given that pragmatism is central to his thesis, it is telling that Langdale never takes the time to define it, explain the numerous differences between leading pragmatists, or analyze any landmark pragmatist texts. The effect is disappointing.

Landgale’s approach to “superfluity” makes Superfluous Southerners the inverse of Richard Poirier’s 1992 Poetry and Pragmatism: whereas Langdale relates “superfluity” to Southern men of letters who conserve what the modern era has ticketed as superfluous, Poirier relates “superfluity” to Emerson and his literary posterity in Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. Both notions of superfluity contemplate the preservation of perennial virtues and literary forms; one, however, condemns pragmatism while the other applauds it.

For both Langdale and Poirier, “superfluity” is good. It is not a term of denunciation as it is usually taken to be. Langdale cites Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim to link “superfluity” to traditionalists who transform and adapt ideas to “the new stage of social and mental development,” thus keeping “alive a ‘strand’ of social development which would otherwise have become extinct.”

Poirier also links superfluity to an effort to maintain past ideas. His notion of “superfluity,” though, refers to the rhetorical excesses and exaggerated style that Emerson flaunted to draw attention to precedents that have proven wise and important. By reenergizing old ideas with creative and exhilarating language, Emerson secured their significance for a new era. In this respect, Emerson is, in Poirier’s words, “radically conservative.”

Who is right? Langdale or Poirier? Langdale seeks to reserve superfluity for the province of Southern, traditionalist conservatives. Does this mean that Poirier is wrong? And if Poirier is right, does not Langdale’s binary opposition collapse into itself?

These questions notwithstanding, it is strange that Langdale would accuse the Emersonian pragmatic tradition of opposing that which, according to Poirier, it represents. Although it would be wrong to call Emerson a political conservative, he cannot be said to lack a reverence for history. A better, more conservative criticism of Emerson—which Langdale mentions in his introduction—would involve Emerson’s transcendentalism that promoted a belief in innate human goodness. Such idealism flies in the face of Southern traditionalism, which generally abides by the Augustinian doctrine of innate human depravity and the political postures appertaining thereto.

What Langdale attributes to pragmatism is in fact a bane to most pragmatists. A basic tenet of pragmatism, for instance, is human fallibilism, which is in keeping with the doctrine of innate human depravity and which Peirce numbers as among his reasons for supporting the scientific method. Peirce’s position is that one human mind is imperfect and cannot by itself reach trustworthy conclusions; therefore, all ideas must be filtered through the logic and experimentation of a community of thinkers; a lasting and uniform consensus is necessary to verify the validity of any given hypothesis. This is, of course, anathema to the transcendentalist’s conviction that society corrupts the inherent power and goodness of the individual genius.

Langdale’s restricted view of pragmatism might have to do with unreliable secondary sources. He cites, of all people, Herbert Croly for the proposition that, in Croly’s words, “democracy cannot be disentangled from an aspiration toward human perfectibility.” The connection between Croly and pragmatism seems to be that Croly was a student of James, but so was the politically and methodologically conservative C. I. Lewis. And let us not forget that the inimitable Jacques Barzun, who excoriated James’s disciples for exploiting and misreading pragmatism, wrote an entire book—A Stroll with William James—which he tagged as “the record of an intellectual debt.”

Pragmatism is a chronic target for conservatives who haven’t read much pragmatism. Frank Purcell has written in Taki’s Magazine about “conservatives who break into hives at the mere mention of pragmatism.” Classical pragmatists are denominated as forerunners of progressivism despite having little in common with progressives. The chief reason for this is the legacy of John Dewey and Richard Rorty, both proud progressives and, nominally at least, pragmatists.

Dewey, behind James, is arguably the most recognizable pragmatist, and it is his reputation, as championed by Rorty, that has done the most to generate negative stereotypes and misplaced generalizations about pragmatism. Conservatives are right to disapprove of Dewey’s theories of educational reform and social democracy, yet he is just one pragmatist among many, and there are important differences between his ideas and the ideas of other pragmatists.

In fact, the classical pragmatists have much to offer conservatives, and conservatives—even the Southern Agrarians—have supported ideas that are compatible with pragmatism, if not outright pragmatic. Burkean instrumentalism, committed to gradualism and wary of ideological extremes, is itself a precursor to social forms of pragmatism, although it bears repeating that social theories do not necessarily entail political action.

Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind traces philosophical continuities and thus provides clarifying substance to the pragmatist notion that ideas evolve over time and in response to changing technologies and social circumstances, while always retaining what is focal or fundamental to their composition. The original subtitle of that book was “From Burke to Santayana,” and it is remarkable, is it not, that both Burke and Santayana are pragmatists in their own way? Santayana was plugged into the pragmatist network, having worked alongside James and Josiah Royce, and he authored one of the liveliest expressions of pragmatism ever written: The Life of Reason. Although Santayana snubbed the label, general consensus maintains that he was a pragmatist. It is also striking that Kirk places John Randolph of Roanoke and John C. Calhoun, both Southern conservatives, between these pragmatists on his map of conservative thought. There is, in that respect, an implication that pragmatism complements traditionalism.

Langdale relies on Menand’s outline of pragmatism and appears to mimic Menand’s approach to intellectual history. It is as though Langdale had hoped to write the conservative, Southern companion to The Metaphysical Club. He does not succeed because his representation of pragmatism is indelibly stamped by the ideas of Rorty, who repackaged pragmatism in postmodern lexica. Moreover, Langdale’s failure or refusal to describe standing differences between the classical pragmatists and neo-pragmatists means that his book is subject to the same critique that Susan Haack brought against Menand.

Haack lambasted Menand for sullying the reputation of the classical pragmatists by associating pragmatism with nascent Rortyianism—“vulgar Rortyianism,” in her words. Langdale seems guilty of this same supposition. By pitting pragmatism against Southern conservatism, he implies that Southern conservatism rejects, among other features, the application of mathematics to the scientific method, the analysis of probabilities derived from data sampling and experimentation, and the prediction of outcomes in light of statistical inferences. The problem is that the Agrarians did not oppose these things, although their focus on preserving the literary and cultural traditions of the South led them to express their views through poetry and story rather than as philosophy. But there is nothing in these methods of pragmatism (as opposed to the uses some later pragmatists may have put to them) that is antithetical to Southern Agrarianism.

Superfluous Southerners is at its best when it sticks to its Southern subjects and does not undertake comparative analyses of intellectual schools. It is at its worst when it resorts to incorrect and provocative phrases about “the gnostic hubris of pragmatists” or “the gnostic spirit of American pragmatic liberalism.” Most of its chapters do a remarkable job teasing out distinctions between its Southern conservative subjects and narrating history about the Southern Agrarians’ relationship to modernity, commitment to language and literature, and role as custodians of a fading heritage. Unfortunately, his book confounds the already ramified philosophy known as pragmatism, and at the expense of the Southern traditionalism that he and I admire.

To Educate in the Permanent Things

In Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Politics, Walt Whitman, Western Philosophy, Writing on March 20, 2013 at 8:18 am

Allen Mendenhall

This article originally appeared here in The American Spectator.

In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama proposed changes to preschool, high school, and college education, respectively. His proposals generated praise and condemnation from the predictable cheerleaders and naysayers. Some celebrated his efforts to expand early childhood education; others suggested that he should have focused more on the student loan crisis; still others, not to be outdone, pointed to school funding, teacher salaries, grading, standardized testing, technology, and foreign study as the pressing issues that he neglected to address with sufficient detail.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about how to improve American education from the top down. But positive change rarely happens through centralized design; it arises spontaneously through the interaction of human agents operating within and among social groups. The State cannot plan and then promulgate a proper education, and legislative enactments cannot reflect the mores and traditions of local groups with differing standards and expectations. The most prudent and humble proposals for improving education are not couched in statist, Platonic terms about civic education and human perfection; instead, they approach learning modestly, on the individual level. They entail the everyday interactions between teachers and students. They are not stamped with the approval of politicians, unions, think tanks, or interest groups.  They take place in the classroom, not the public square. A teacher anywhere, whatever his station, school, or background, can implement them in his course without disrupting the pace or provoking the ire of the educational establishment. The best of these, because it is so easily executed, is simply to teach what T.S. Eliot, and Russell Kirk after him, called “permanent things.”

The permanent things are the inherited principles, mores, customs, and traditions that sustain humane thinking and preserve civilized existence for future generations; their canonization in literary, philosophical, religious, and historical texts happened and is happening in slow degrees. We can trace the permanent things through curricula that emphasize the ultimate values of prosperous societies. An informed, laborious study of the perennial themes and archetypal patterns in what are variously denominated as the Great Works, the Western Canon, or the Classics can help us to organize and make sense of the permanent things. There are those who would object that this approach seems too hopeful and ideal. But no one has suggested it as a panacea, of which there are none, and anyway, is there a proposal that could be simpler, more straightforward, and more workable than assigning and discussing the Great Works?

As early as 1948, Eliot remarked that “there is no doubt that in our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards, and more and more abandoning the study of those subjects by which the essentials of our culture—of that part of it which is transmittable by education—are transmitted; destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.” It might be asked just who these barbarian nomads are and why we ought not to welcome their cultural practices and assumptions. The barbarian nomads could be, I think, any group lacking in historical perspective and mostly ignorant of the illuminating continuities that have guided our weightiest and most imaginative thinkers. The practices and assumptions of these nomads are not grounded in lived experience but aimed at utopian projects such as ensuring equality, creating fundamental rights, or eliminating poverty, and, to the extent that these practices and assumptions deviate from enduring norms, they cannot be said to have flourished ever.

To study the permanent things, on the other hand, is to consider the prevailing and profound ideas from certain times and schools in relation to other such ideas from various times and schools throughout successive eras. It is to map the course of perennial ideas to examine how they apply to different settings and generations. It is both sequential and diachronic in its approach. Its chief benefit is to put ideas into context, which is to say that it is to make us aware of our own presuppositions and perspectives that necessarily arise from our social, cultural, and historical situation.  Each thinker lives in his own specific era and place and cannot gain knowledge in a vacuum outside of time; our era and place shape the manner in which we think and restrict our ability to imagine conditions beyond our immediate and tangible experience.

This is not to submit that our ideas are determined for us, only that we enter into experience with certain perceptions that we have no control over. They are there because of the conditions present at the time and space in which we exist.  A sustained study of the permanent things will show us that our perceptions are not totally alien from those of our predecessors, although the respective perceptions are different. It also teaches us to compensate for our prejudices and to avoid thinking that our necessarily limited perspectives are unconditionally true and universally acceptable, even if they have verifiable antecedents. It reveals, as well, that schools of thought cannot simply be deemed later versions of earlier schools just because the two are in agreement about certain points. Finally, although we cannot escape those presuppositions that are embedded in our thought and culture, being alert to their probable existence can counteract their possible effect.

A rigorous study of the permanent things provides a lodestar for evaluating particular ideas against that which has been tested and tried before. Ideas that seem new always have traceable antecedents, and individuals equipped with a fundamental knowledge of the permanent things are able to situate purportedly novel ideas alongside their forerunners. These individuals recognize that change is not always progress; sometimes it is decline, deterioration, or decay. Only a sense of the continuities of history and thought can demonstrate the difference. Our political pedants in general and President Obama in particular insist on recognizing and implementing new institutions as if a radical departure from historic standards and established customs is itself the mark of good and lasting policy. Yet the permanent things show that even the most exceptional thinkers, those who represent the spirit of their age, whatever that might have been or might be, are part of a greater tradition.

It may be true that to study a particular thinker’s cultural milieu and biography is requisite to placing his ideas into their proper context and to highlighting the unacceptable premises of his philosophy; nevertheless, cautious interpreters ought to consider whether his thoughts necessarily lead to certain consequences, or whether the events that seem related to his thoughts arose accidentally, apart from his philosophy. Put another way, the cautious interpreter must carefully consider causation: whether theories actually generate particular circumstances, or whether those circumstances would have come to pass regardless of what the thinker spoke or wrote. Mussolini, for instance, praised William James, but it does not follow that anything James said or wrote endorses or enables fascism. He who would suggest otherwise betrays an ignorance of James’s work. The permanent things can help us to distinguish the true forms and implications of an individual’s thought from their appropriations by hostile forces.

By studying the permanent things, moreover, we learn that we cannot achieve the proper education through mere funding; nor does the solution to schooling gridlock and setbacks come from student aid, dress codes, student evaluations, tuition, or whatever. These issues begin to seem fleeting and trivial to one with an historical sense. They are at most temporary struggles, and although they are important, as all struggles are important, we are not to subordinate liberal learning to them. The best way to achieve the liberal learning necessary to make important and meaningful distinctions about our complex world is, as I have suggested and as it bears repeating, through a holistic, painstaking exploration of the permanent things. This means not only reading the Great Works for their content, but analyzing them in light of their place in history.

The beauty of this approach is that anyone can carry it out; the wisdom of it lies in its civilizing effects. Whether one is a homeschooling parent, a public school teacher, the leader of a local book club, or simply a curious-minded autodidact, the permanent things are available to him in texts, waiting to be sifted through and analyzed. It is true that there is disagreement as to what constitutes a Great Work and by what criteria, but it does not take more than research and commonsense empiricism to discern which pre-twentieth century texts have withstood the test of time. Teaching the permanent things does not require a large-scale, bureaucratic, administrative overhaul. It does not demand central planning or the implementation of mass, curricular programs; it can be accomplished through decentralized networks of concerned individuals. If parents would teach their children, friends their friends, colleagues their colleagues, and so on, we would in the aggregate become a more literate, astute, and informed society. And as our politicians lecture us about our duties even as they demand our money, we can take comfort in the proverb that these things too shall pass.

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