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.”
Something in these pages prompted a memory: of a conversation between Bill Buckley and Vernon Walters (the general, diplomat, CIA official, linguist, and so on). WFB asked his regular, weary question: How can you explain the attractiveness of socialism to the Third World? (The attractiveness of socialism elsewhere was a different though related question.)
Part of Walters’s answer was this, if I remember correctly: Socialism often lets mediocrity vault to power. The lowly sergeant or lieutenant gets to be boss of the whole army. The third-rate economics professor gets to run the finance ministry. And so on.
Oh, was Walters interesting, in addition to experienced.
Kimball discusses a French revolutionary, Sylvain Maréchal, who took to signing himself “l’HSD” — l’Homme sans Dieu, or, Man without God. And I thought of Solzhenitsyn. Do you remember this?
He was born in 1918. So he was a child during the first years of Bolshevik power. Some of the old people around him said, “This all happened because the people forgot God.” That’s the way superstitious, uneducated old people talk.
Solzhenitsyn was a great intellectual. He experienced the Soviet Union for many decades: in the Gulag and out. He devoted many, many hours of thought to the question of the Soviet Union: the whys and wherefores.
And he concluded that he really couldn’t improve on what those old people had said: This all happened because the people forgot God.
Kimball says, “I cannot help receiving the news of socialism’s death with a certain scepticism.” He is absolutely right (despite his British spelling!). Socialism is unkillable. It is always on the prowl, preying on the envious and delusional. The envious and delusional in turn prey on others — society as a whole.
You have to work against socialism, all the time: eternal vigilance. It won’t slink off, defeated. Freedom is more likely to slink off . . .
Roger quotes Adam Smith: “Be assured, my young friend, that there’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.” He then quotes an addition by John O’Sullivan: “especially this nation,” meaning the United States.
About five years ago, I interviewed George Shultz. (For the article, go here.) He said that his late friend and “hero,” Milton Friedman, used to say, “There’s a great deal of ruin in the United States.”
Good. May we lurch on, until we’re on our feet, securely.
Kimball’s final chapter is on “The Anglosphere & the Future of Liberty.” I love a quotation from Madhav Das Nalapat, an Indian scholar: We in the Anglosphere are united by “the blood of the mind” rather than “the blood of the body.”
That’s my kind of blood — the blood of the mind.
There is a link, says Roger — and say many others — between “the English language and the habit of liberty.” But he has “nothing by way of an explanation for this filiation.” I know what he means.
In this book are many words that I didn’t know or that I knew only vaguely — too vaguely to be confident about. I herewith provide a partial list: lucubration, quietism, pullulating, instinct (as an adjective), proleptic, apophasis, vatic, cynosure, metanoia, pleonasm, mythopoesis, refectory, allotrope, imbrication, apostrophize, apodosis.
Roger doesn’t use words such as these because they’re fancy; he uses them because they’re his mots justes, notes in his scale, items in his toolkit. He is at home with them. Anyone else can be too, with a modicum of effort.
Well, I’ve written five installments — and I should probably knock off. I could write five more. The Fortunes of Permanence is that stimulating, that welcome. After reading it, you sit or stand a little straighter. You feel lifted up (even though the book analyzes a lot that is low). You feel richer than before (no matter how much you spent on the book).
A reader of ours — a reader of NRO — wrote me not long ago. He said, “I think I know why those Great Courses tapes are so popular: We need to catch up on the things we missed in school. In elementary school, junior high, high school, and college. Maybe even in graduate school. We were fed so much pap: so much political correctness and multiculturalism and Marxism. We missed out on the good stuff. We need to be nourished.”
This latest book of Roger’s, like all his books, is nourishing. You eat your vegetables, yes. But, as I said before, you get glorious hot-fudge sundaes as well. And even the vegetables are good!
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.