I’d like to spend a little time on a book — the latest book of Roger Kimball, who is the editor of The New Criterion, and, less important, my friend. (Actually, I’m not sure whether that’s less important.) As usual in this space, I will not write a proper review. Rather, I will share some things about the book, and some things that occurred to me as I was reading it.
Roger titles his book “The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia.” That’s kind of a strange title, isn’t it? Does permanence have fortunes?
Our author addresses the question of his title in his very first sentences. “[T]his is a book about memory,” he says, and “a defense of permanent things at a time when they are conspicuously under siege.”
Absolutely. This book is about some of the things that matter most: to a culture, to a society, and to an individual. It is a brilliant book, too, and an edifying book. While reading it, I felt I was holding in my hands an important volume — one that I would keep, and return to, over the years.
I don’t know about you, but I just about never go back to a book. There are other things to read, and do. This book, I intend to go back to. It’ll make you eat your vegetables. It will also offer hot-fudge sundaes for the mind.
The preface is headed “Mostly About Relativism,” and it has an epigram from Walter T. Stace, the British philosopher: “As a rule, only very learned and clever men deny what is obviously true.” That seems to me obviously true — which may rule me out as a learned, clever man.
Impromptus readers are invited to keep their opinions to themselves . . .
In his discussion of relativism, Roger mentions the long-running ad campaign for HSBC. You will see these on airport gangways. I’ll provide an example here.
There are two photos: One is of a tent in the desert (I think); the other is of the deck of a cruise ship. For some, the one is a “holiday” and the other is “hell.” For other people, it’s the other way around.
Roger thinks this ad campaign is an abomination — which made me kind of nervous: because I’ve always liked these ads, and I fear Roger may know better than I. My view is: At least they’re giving me options, and not telling me my view is wrong!
In reading Roger on relativism, I thought of something I once heard Bill Buckley say: The purpose of an open mind is to close it on some things. This is a well-known aphorism, I think.
I believe someone had said to Bill, “There are no closed questions here at Yale.” “Oh?” said Bill. “Even the question of Nazism versus democracy?”
Roger writes, “It is often said that an anthropologist is someone who respects the distinctive values of every culture but his own.” As an old anthropology major, I smiled at this. So very true. To his credit, a professor in my department said, “Some people always think life is better among the Bongo Bongo.” He also referred to the “life-is-better-among-the-Bongo-Bongo syndrome.”
“What a relativist really believes,” writes Roger — “or believes he believes” — is that “1) there is no such thing as value (as distinct from mere preference) and 2) there is no such thing as truth.”
I thought of Rigoberta Menchú, the Guatemalan who won the Nobel Peace Prize for 1992. She was famous for a totemic memoir, I, Rigoberta Menchú. I write about her in my history of the Nobel Peace Prize — a book dedicated to Roger Kimball, and to Martha Apgar (another friend of mine, and of Roger’s).
When her book was exposed as untruthful in many respects, Menchú responded that she had spoken her own truth — “my truth,” she said. That is a very modern notion. Or perhaps this way of thinking has been around forever.
I seized on the below passage, for reasons I will tell you:
It’s a short step from Rousseau and his celebration of the emotion (as distinct from the reality) of virtue to Robespierre and his candid talk about “virtue and its emanation, terror.” Lenin was a utopian. Hitler was a utopian. Ditto Stalin, Pol Pot, and . . . you can extend the list. All were adept practitioners of what Johnson calls the twentieth century’s “most radical vice: social engineering — the notion that human beings can be shovelled around like bags of cement.”
The Johnson Kimball is quoting is Paul Johnson, the British historian.
A couple of weeks before reading this passage, I was in conversation with a well-known intellectual. I said to him, “Do you think it’s too much to say that you can draw a straight line from the French Revolution to Lenin and on to the Khmer Rouge?” He literally laughed in my face: “Yes, that’s saying too much.”
Frankly, I don’t think so. I recently revisited the story of the Khmer Rouge when I wrote a piece for National Review on the international tribunal in Cambodia — the tribunal trying, or not trying, the Khmer Rouge. A few hours ago, I attended a performance of Dialogues des Carmélites at the Metropolitan Opera.
This opera, by Poulenc, deals with the terror of French revolutionaries, and their murder of a group of nuns.
The leaders of the Khmer Rouge were educated in Paris, of course. They were educated by venerators of 1789, and heirs of those revolutionaries. Pol Pot studied in Paris. So did Ieng Sary, who just died (while still on trial). So did Ieng Thirith, Ieng Sary’s wife, the “social-affairs minister.” She has been excused from her trial on grounds of dementia.
She majored in Shakespeare at the Sorbonne! Fun, huh?
Anyway, I see clear similarities between revolutionary France and “Democratic Kampuchea.” It’s really not very hard.
Another swatch of Kimball:
Confusing national loyalty with nationalism, many utopians argue that the former is a threat to peace. After all, wasn’t it national loyalty that sparked two world wars? No, it was that perverted offspring, nationalism, which was defeated at great cost only by the successful mobilization of national loyalty.
Again, I thought of Bill Buckley — who said (something very close to), “I’m as patriotic as anyone from sea to shining sea, but there’s not a molecule of nationalism in me.”
Kimball remarks an “irony”: that “relativism and tyranny, far from being in opposition, are in fact regular collaborators. . . . This surprises many people, for it seems at first blush that relativism, by loosening the sway of dogma, should be the friend of liberty.”
“The essence of education,” said Allan Bloom, “is the experience of greatness.” This got Bloom branded an “elitist,” as Kimball notes. But “Bloom’s commitment to greatness was profoundly democratic,” Kimball continues. Not egalitarian but democratic.
As Kimball says, “The true democrat wishes to share the great works of culture with all who are able to appreciate them; the egalitarian, recognizing that genuine excellence is rare, declares greatness a fraud and sets about obliterating distinctions.”
Exactly. That’s why Menchú is served up with Matthew Arnold, if Arnold is served up at all.
Kimball serves up a passage from Chesterton, a passage that I cherish — for it is burningly, blazingly true: “Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. . . . It may be that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal, and that you are a paralytic.”
And just think: Chesterton said that fairly long ago. How about now? In any event, the desensitization of our society is one of our hallmarks.
We also get a passage from Brave New World: “Seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labour, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies. What more can they ask for?” Aldous Huxley was some seer: describing college as we know it.
Kimball writes that Brave New World “may be a second-rate novel — its characters wooden, its narrative overly didactic — but it has turned out to have been first-rate prognostication.”
I thought of my experience with 1984 — which I read relatively late, which is to say, in my late twenties, or perhaps early thirties. I can’t remember. I always assumed that 1984 wasn’t very good as a novel — invaluable as lesson and warning, but otherwise . . .
I was shocked to discover — this is just my opinion — that 1984 is a rip-roaring good read. A page-turner. Containing one of the most affecting love stories I have ever seen in print.
Is mine an eccentric opinion? I have others . . .
I think I have gone on long enough for one day, and will continue tomorrow. Thanks for joining me, Impromptusites (and Kimballites).
To order Jay Nordlinger’s book Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.