Clinton Rossiter once quipped that Russell Kirk “has the sound of a man born one hundred and fifty years too late and in the wrong country.” NRO contributor Gerald J. Russello nevertheless wants to update Kirk for 21st-century Americans — the University of Missouri Press has just published his book, The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk.
Russello is also editor of the University Bookman, a fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University, and the editor of Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson. He recently spoke to NRO’s John J. Miller about postmodernism, crunchy cons, and whether Kirk would have watched ESPN’s SportsCenter.
JOHN J. MILLER: To a modern-day conservative, what’s the importance of Russell Kirk?
GERALD RUSSELLO: Kirk provides a way for conservatives to talk and live as conservatives. From early on, he was convinced that liberalism had exhausted itself because of what he called its lack of imagination. He was looking beyond liberalism into what would come after, in a time that had discarded both liberal rationality and the pre-modern tradition represented, for example, by Burke. This new age, which Kirk identified with postmodernism in an early essay, was still too inchoate to define. In 1980, he wrote that “We seem to be entering upon the Post-Modern Age … and new thoughts and new sentiments and new modes of statecraft — or renewed thoughts, sentiments, modes — may take on flesh soon. The Post-Modern Age surely will be an epoch of big battalions and Napoleonic figures; possibly it may be also a time of renewed poetic imagination, and of the reflection of poetry in politics.” The way he did this — through narrative and imagination, primarily — provides I think a sharp contrast to most conservative controversialists, who are too focused on political controversies and electoral victory to take the long view that Kirk did.
MILLER: So is this a time of “renewed poetic imagination” or “poetry in politics”?
RUSSELLO: It may be, although I am a little less optimistic than perhaps Kirk was in 1980. A lot of younger conservatives are breaking with the established right wing and focusing more on individual cultural issues–Rod Dreher has called this a “crunchy con” phenomenon, but I think it is broader than that. That new flowering of younger conservative thinkers may yet bear fruit in politics, probably not in 2008 but at some point.
MILLER: Was Kirk the original “crunchy con”?
RUSSELLO: Yes, and no. Certainly Kirk was concerned with what he called the Permanent Things, such as truth and beauty, and found in much of modern life obstacles to realizing them, so in that sense he was a little crunchy. Being something of a bohemian himself, I think he would have appreciated some crunchy efforts to go off the grid, which was easier in his less-regulated time. But I think the terms of that debate are not his; Kirk spoke fondly of certain cities, for example — including old Detroit, and defended family farms and small neighborhoods on the basis of their historical continuity and naturalness, which only roughly corresponds with some of the crunchy arguments I have seen.
MILLER: When I hear the word “postmodern,” I think of graduate students who wear black turtlenecks, hang out in coffee bars, and wish they were French. How is Kirk’s imagination “postmodern,” as the title of your book has it?
RUSSELLO: That is what I thought as well, but I discovered two things while researching this book. First, historically, a conservative was one of the very first people even to use the word “postmodern.” The Episcopal cleric Bernard Iddings Bell, whom Kirk admired and whose book Crowd Culture is a must-read, was one of the first to use the term “postmodernism,” in a book published in 1926. Bell’s postmodernism is explicitly religious, the solution to a crisis of faith in an unbounded reason. In its place, Bell proposed a postmodernism comfortable with both modern science and miracles, and which placed the good of existence — sacralized through the Incarnation–at the center of its understanding of the world. Though I don’t know if Kirk ever read this book, parts of it are consistent with his outlook.
Secondly, I found that a number of other conservative scholars are exploring the new opportunities postmodernism opens for conservatives who reject core principles of modernity. Vigen Guroian and Peter Augustine Lawler have both written very insightfully on the postmodern condition and what it may mean, but they are only the most recent in a longer series of anti-modern writings that touch on themes we would now call postmodern.
Kirk’s conservatism is “postmodern” in the sense that it was never modern, and therefore is not burdened as liberalism is with the weaknesses of the Enlightenment worldview. Kirk’s emphasis on imagination, his concern for the imagery a society creates of what it admires or condemns, his treatment of tradition and history as not objective but one in which we participate and can change, and his devotion to what Burke called the “little platoons” of society all have parallels in postmodern thought. Moreover, Kirk himself saw this. In 1982, he wrote in National Review, that “the Post-Modern imagination stands ready to be captured. And the seemingly novel ideas and sentiments and modes may turn out, after all, to be received truths and institutions, well known to surviving conservatives.” With liberalism moribund, it “may be the conservative imagination which is to guide the Post-Modern Age.”
MILLER: Kirk always maintained that conservatism was not an ideology. What did he mean by that?
RUSSELLO: Kirk contended that ideology is a type of religious dogmatism in a political context, and one completely inconsistent with a conservative outlook. It eliminates the nuances and shades of gray that exist in actual political or social life. “For the ideologue, humankind may be defined into two classes: the comrades of Progress, and the foes attached to reactionary interests,” who are not only incorrect but who must be destroyed. The proponent of ideology “resorts to the anaesthetic of social utopianism, escaping the tragedy and grandeur of true human existence by giving his adherence to a perfect dream-world of the future. Reality [the ideologue] stretches or chops away to conform to [a] dream-pattern of human nature and society.” Because ideology is a replacement religion, when injected into the public sphere it makes politics, at least as Kirk defines it, impossible.
It should be stressed that Kirk opposed even conservative efforts at ideology creation, thinking that it enshrined an objectionable and false abstractness to historically contingent beliefs. Conservatism, because it is based on a realistic assessment of human nature and a rejection of utopia, could never be ideological. He wrote that while “some Americans, conservatively inclined ones among them, might embrace an ideology of Democratic Capitalism or New World Order,” such an embrace was fraught with difficulty. Even if done with innocent motives, the imposition of such a construct would, Kirk thought, have disastrous results.
MILLER: Does that mean he was a paleocon?
RUSSELLO: Not really, though he certainly had an affinity with some of what are called paleocon positions. He wrote for Chronicles, for example, and supported Pat Buchanan. However, Kirk parted company with the positions of some paleocons, which I touch on in the book. He went his own way, as Adam Wolfson noted in an article in the Public Interest.
MILLER: It’s amazing to think that Kirk had any influence at all, living in tiny Mecosta, Mich., rather than in Manhattan or Washington. This was before the Internet, after all. How did he pull it off?
RUSSELLO: I’m not sure, but would like to know! In large part, of course, it was that what he had to say people found appealing and persuasive. But at a more practical level, Kirk’s influence was a result of his work ethic: Kirk wrote consistently throughout his career, and in a remarkable variety of venues, even places like Cosmopolitan. The sustained, substantive output caught a lot of people’s attention.
MILLER: That doesn’t seem to impress Alan Wolfe. In Wolfe’s recent attack on Kirk in The New Republic, he called Kirk “prolific without being profound” and described Kirk’s brand of conservatism as “provincial, resentful, bigoted.”
RUSSELLO: The funny thing is that The New Republic, which published Wolfe’s nasty and uninformed piece, published some very favorable pieces on Kirk after his death in 1994. Wolfe just recycles old canards about Kirk and conservatives that were dated even in the 1960s, and merely uses scare words to motivate his liberal readers, without analyzing the substance much. As a man who traveled all over the world, and who took into his home refugees from any nation on Earth, to call Kirk provincial or bigoted is simply ridiculous. As with his writings on American religion, Wolfe entirely misses the point of Kirk’s work.
MILLER: How did you first learn about Russell Kirk? Did you ever meet him?
RUSSELLO: I first heard of Russell Kirk in the summer of 1990, when some friends and I were selecting a reading list for the summer in preparation for launching a conservative newspaper at our college. Someone suggested The Conservative Mind. I spent the summer reading and rereading that book, and quickly got my hands on as many other Kirk books as I could find. They were a revelation. I met him briefly a couple of times in Washington, D.C., when he was giving lectures, and he signed my edition of his book John Randolph of Roanoke. He was also kind enough to answer some of my letters.
MILLER: Why hasn’t anybody written a definitive biography of Kirk–a book that tells his life story, as opposed to a book that mainly grapples with his ideas?
RUSSELLO: I am not sure, though books by Jim Person and Wes McDonald are great places to start. Perhaps because until recently Kirk’s letters and other papers at his home in Mecosta had not been catalogued, and they would be the natural first step for any scholar. Any foundation willing to support that work, feel free to call me!
MILLER: If you could have interviewed Kirk during your research, what’s the one question you would have asked him?
RUSSELLO: I would have asked him why he never wrote more specifically about traditions as he knew them. There are glimpses of what he would have said in some of his work, especially his early essays on Scotland, but for the most part he seemed content to defend tradition without delving into details about specific American customs or folkways. I would have loved to hear him on sports, for example, which conservatives like George Will have written about.
MILLER: Sorry, but I just can’t picture Russell Kirk watching SportsCenter.
RUSSELLO: Me either! But he had a great sense of play, and I think would have had interesting things to say on the role sport and games play in human society.
MILLER: Have you read Kirk’s ghost stories?
RUSSELLO: Yes, most of them. They are fun to read, of course, and also an important way in which Kirk expressed his conservatism. They also give a flavor for the variety of his character. Kirk was not a stuffy antiquarian character. In 1987, for example, Kirk published both The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky, a collection of lectures given at the Heritage Foundation, and he also appeared in The Color of Evil, a collection of horror stories that also featured Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, and Shirley Jackson.
MILLER: Do you have a problem with stuffy antiquarians? Now I’m worried that they’re going to flood NRO with e-mailed complaints. Except that they probably don’t use e-mail.
RUSSELLO: Not really, as I am something of one myself. Indeed, part of the argument I make in the book is that Kirk’s pose as a figure of “antique grandeur,” a phrase he used, was in part to sharpen the contrast between the fullness of conservatism and what he found to be desiccated modernity.
MILLER: You’re the editor of the University Bookman, a publication that Kirk founded years ago. What is it?
RUSSELLO: The University Bookman is a quarterly review of books that Kirk founded in 1960. I took over as editor a couple of years ago and it is essentially a forum for the discussion of serious books that may have escaped the attention of the mainstream press, and even of some conservatives. In recent issues, for example, we have covered books of interest to conservatives that were published in Italy, France, and elsewhere, as well as review essays on science fiction, the “pulps,” and a host of other topics. We also republish classic Kirk essays in each issue.
MILLER: If somebody who has never read anything by Kirk asks for advice on where to start, what do you suggest?
RUSSELLO: That’s a tough one. I think his book Eliot and His Age is one of his best, but for someone who just wants to browse and find out what Kirk is about, ISI has just published a collection called The Essential Russell Kirk, which certainly covers the major themes of his thought.