Quite possibly, the most politically incorrect thing in Roger’s book is a quote from George Santayana. About the British Empire, Santayana wrote, “Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master.” He went on, “It will be a black day for the human race when scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls, and fanatics manage to supplant him.”
Writes Kimball, “What’s happened in Africa in the period of de-colonization — better call it ‘rebarbarization,’ a much more accurate name — is stark evidence that Santayana was right.”
The human mind is a tricky thing — and a bizarre thing. Some years ago, I was talking with an Arab-American acquaintance of mine. I said, “Sometimes I get the impression that Arabs would rather be brutalized by fellow Arabs than freed and well treated by foreigners.” He said, “Of some of them, that is certainly true.”
In Roger’s book is a chapter praising The Dangerous Book for Boys. It so happens — just a personal note — I bought this book for my nephew (then ten) last Christmas. Roger describes the book as a “healing zephyr” blowing through “the swamp-like miasma of contemporary life.”
You’ll like this, I think:
The first chapter, “Essential Gear” . . ., lists a Swiss Army knife, for God’s sake, not to mention matches and a magnifying glass, “For general interest. Can also be used to start fires.” Probably, the book would have to be checked with the rest of your luggage at the airport . . .
But The Dangerous Book is not just for wreaking havoc. It has more than puppy-dog tails in it. For example, you’ll find “Latin Phrases Every Boy Should Know.”
And speaking of “boys,” have you noticed how unprogressive the word sounds in today’s English? It is almost as retrograde as “girls,” a word that I knew was on the way out when an academic couple I know proudly announced that they had just presented the world with a “baby woman.”
I’ve told this story in Impromptus before, but let me tell it again. The episode occurred about 20 years ago now. I was in a bookstore on Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. Two young men — a clerk and a customer — were discussing a mutual friend: a woman. The clerk said, “Did you hear [So-and-so] had a baby?” The customer said, “No, that’s great! Boy or girl?” The clerk gulped and replied, somewhat rebukefully, “She had a woman.”
That is exactly the way it happened. Swear.
Kimball has a chapter on Rudyard Kipling. And I want to mention here that I read Kim relatively late in life — just five or six years ago, I think. I was headed off to India. And my friend Jonathan Foreman, the journalist and a veteran South Asia hand, gave me a reading list. At the end he said, “And, above all, of course, Kim.”
I was a little surprised: I always assumed that Kim was a little hokey, embarrassing, and dated. That’s the prejudice I grew up with. Little did I know — I knew when I started reading — it’s a fricking masterpiece.
The man’s ear — to take that alone — was superb.
Here is Kimball on T. S. Eliot on Kipling: “Eliot notes that one is usually called upon to defend modern poetry from the charge of excessive obscurity: with Kipling the culprit is ‘excessive lucidity.’”
As Kimball tells us, Henry James once complained that there was one thing missing in Kipling: “the civilized man.”
“It’s a frequent refrain,” writes Kimball. “But in a deeper sense, Kipling was about almost nothing else — not the civilization of elegant drawing rooms, but something more primeval and without which those drawing rooms would soon be smashed and occupied by weeds.”
He then quotes Evelyn Waugh on Kipling — a man, said Waugh, who “believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defenses fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms.”
The line between us and outright barbarism seems like a Kleenex. The line between ordered liberty and barbarism — so thin, you can hardly blame the barbarians, or would-be barbarians, for being tempted.
(I feel I should note that the barbarism can come from cultured Europeans. See Germany and Austria, short decades ago. And remember those professeurs at the Sorbonne who taught and inspired the Khmer Rouge . . .)
Want to hear Chesterton on criticism? “I need not say that, having entirely failed to learn how to draw or paint, I tossed off easily enough some criticisms of the weaker points of Rubens or the misdirected talents of Tintoretto. I had discovered the easiest of all professions; which I have pursued ever since.”
I have said it many times: One of the most important qualities a critic can have is humility.
Think Chesterton had talent? “In later life,” says Kimball, “after he had acquired a secretary, [Chesterton] would sometimes dictate one article while simultaneously writing another in his own hand.”
One of Chesterton’s great gifts — forgetting his literary ambidextrousness, or whatever we should call it — was a delight in the world as it is. “It is one thing,” he wrote, “to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn’t.”
Check out an exchange between him and Shaw (bearing in mind that Chesterton was portly and Shaw thin):
Chesterton: To look at you, anyone would think a famine had struck England.
Shaw: To look at you, anyone would think you have caused it.
Kimball quotes a biographer of Chesterton, writing about Chesterton and Shaw:
From the start, they were jovially opposed to each other in debate, and warmly attached in friendship. Each attacked the other in public and valued him in private. They influenced each other’s opinions not at all; unless it be influence to strengthen by opposition.
You know? That is a perfect description of the relationship between William F. Buckley Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith. You wouldn’t have to change a syllable.
Wrote Chesterton, “A man does not grow old without being bothered; but I have grown old without being bored.” Speaking of WFB, that was probably his greatest fear: to be bored. He said words to that effect (more than once, I believe).
A chapter or two after Chesterton, Kimball turns to Richard Weaver — who said, “The past shows unvaryingly that when a people’s freedom disappears, it goes not with a bang, but in silence amid the comfort of being cared for. That is the dire peril in the present trend toward statism.”
Weaver was writing in 1962. He also talked about the willingness to “reject favors.” That was vital to the maintenance of freedom, he said: a willingness to “reject favors.”
I believe that was one of the themes of the 2012 presidential campaign, however messily addressed.
Kimball has a wonderful line: “Weaver the man was — or became — almost as eccentric as his work.”
In 1958, Weaver published his essay “Up from Liberalism.” The next year, WFB published a book by the same title. Earlier in these notes, I talked about his relationship with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (not a good one). It was he, Schlesinger, who reviewed Up from Liberalism in the New York Times — here. The review begins, “The spirited editor of The National Review . . .”
Ever since we were founded in 1955, we have tried to get people to leave a “The” out of our name. That has proven impossible. Absolutely impossible.
I’ve told this story before: Some years ago, we had a junior editor at NR — a really lovely guy — who said “The National Review” on his voicemail greeting. I suggested he change it. Virtually commanded it. Nothing doing. He refused.
What can you do? (I didn’t insist.)
Reflecting on his earlier life, Weaver said, “I did not have to go on professing the clichés of liberalism, which were becoming meaningless to me.” You know, something like that happened to me, early on.
Here is another wonderful line from Kimball, on Weaver: “He had a knack for telling people what they didn’t want to hear in such a way that they craved to hear it.”
Weaver published his classic book, Ideas Have Consequences, in 1948. The first words of his introduction are, “This is another book about the dissolution of the West.” Is Roger Kimball’s another one? Yes, but Kimball injects hope: It’s not too late to save ourselves, if we want to. Volition: That plays a greater role than people think.
Willmoore Kendall called Weaver “captain of the anti-liberal team.” For decades, WFB was that. Today? We have several: Roger Kimball and other bold and capable men (and women). I enjoy that term “anti-liberal,” by the way — because conservatism, or rather conservatives, can get hopelessly bogged down in factionalism.
Anyway — see you tomorrow for our fifth and final installment. Fifth column. Get it? Sorry. Thanks.
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.