This Is Important (Part V)

Roger Kimball


Editor’s Note: This week, Jay Nordlinger has been writing about Roger Kimball’s latest book, The Fortunes of Permanence. The previous installments are at the following links: I, II, III, and IV. Today concludes the series.

I am glad to be introduced, or reintroduced, to Oswald Spengler. I think I know him less as a man, or a writer, than as an adjective: “Spenglerian.” Quite possibly, people know Orwell mainly as an adjective.

At some point along the way, Roger calls himself a “cultural pathologist” — a superb description (and a sad calling, as Roger says).

I think this is the most brutal sentence in the whole book — brutal because true: “If your bank account is healthy . . . and young Heather or Dylan is ‘creative,’ i.e., not likely to get into a Harvard or Yale or Williams, then Bard is a place you can park them and still look your neighbor in the eye.”

Writing about some typically repulsive art exhibition, Kimball says, “[I]t has been a long time since shock value had the capacity to be aesthetically interesting — or even, truth be told, to shock.”

I thought of a discussion I had with Lorin Maazel once, about opera productions. Of “Euro-trash,” or “Euro-dreck,” to use his term, the maestro said, “It will gradually peter out, because audiences will have had enough.” He went on to say, “It’s boring. It’s not even vulgar. It’s just — dull.”

I wish you could have heard the way he said “dull.” It was a perfect combination of dismissiveness and contempt.

(Googling, I have found a version of my write-up of that discussion with Maazel: here.)

Why is the art world a disaster? In part, says Kimball, because of ordinariness: “because of the popularization and institutionalization of the antics and attitudes of Dada.” Yes.

The object of much art today, says Kimball, “is to assault the viewer, not please him.” Okay. But why does the viewer put up with it?

Roger says he won’t, indefinitely. “[T]his, too, will pass.” Good. When?!

I love Roger’s characterization of Derrida: “a French fog-making machine.”

In a chapter on architecture, Roger writes, “The issue is not modernism or anti-modernism but good architecture versus bad architecture.”

I cherish a remark made by an acquaintance of mine at the Salzburg Festival some summers ago. We were seated next to each other at a dinner. She is a well-known patroness of the arts — a patroness of modernism. She and her husband have paid for a great deal of modern art.

Given our environment, we were talking about opera productions. And she said, “The truth is, there are good and bad traditional productions, and good and bad modern productions.”

I could have kissed her.

Roger quotes an aphorism of Kingsley Amis: “Nice things are nicer than nasty ones.” True. But interesting from a man who often enjoyed the nasty more than the nice!

A funny Roger line: “Novelty architecture has a place . . . Only we need to keep it in its place: roadside refectories, amusement parks, universities, and other retreats from the serious business of life.”

(Sometimes we read fast — so note the inclusion of universities in the list.)

In a discussion of William Godwin — although he is irrelevant to my point, and Roger’s — Roger writes, “[S]udden intoxications have a way of turning crapulous without warning.” In the margin of my book, I wrote, “True dat.”

Here is Roger on socialism: “the gratifying emotion of unselfishness, experienced alternately as resentment against others and titillating satisfaction with oneself.”

More Kimball: “It is one of the great ironies of modern history that socialism, which promises a more humane, caring, and equitable society, has generally delivered a more oppressive and mismanaged one.”

More Kimball: “The socialist pretends to have glimpsed paradise on earth. Those who decline the invitation to embrace the vision are not just ungrateful: they are traitors to the cause of human perfection.”

More Kimball: “It is significant that the socialist mentality is usually also an atheistic mentality . . .”

Some Kolakowski: “Utopians, once they attempt to convert their visions into practical proposals, come up with the most malignant project ever devised: they want to institutionalize fraternity, which is the surest way to totalitarian despotism.”


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review