Satan in the modern world — that’s why Michael Walsh wrote The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West. Is Critical Theory that bad? Hear him out in an interview with National Review Online. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: “When reason sleeps, monsters follow.” How best to keep the lights on?
Michael Walsh: By reading further into what Goya meant by his famous work of art: “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: United with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.” Human beings are attracted to both the dark and the light; the trick is not to lose yourself in darkness.
Lopez: “It is the thesis of this book that the heroic narrative is not simply our way of telling ourselves comforting fairy tales about the ultimate triumph of Good over Evil, but an implanted moral compass that guides even the least religious among us.” How can that be so? How can that be reclaimed/renewed/reestablished?
Walsh: Art, as I argue in these pages, is the gift from God, the sole true medium of truth. The 19th-century German biologist Ernst Haeckel famously declared that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” meaning that in growing from embryo to adult, the individual organism goes through stages that mimic the evolutionary stages of the species. But perhaps it is, in an artistic and religious sense, precisely the opposite: It is phylogeny that recapitulates ontogeny. The evolutionary development of the species — its teleology — was adumbrated in the first moment of life. Think of art, therefore, as the Big Bang Theory applied to the soul instead of the body; by imagining the creative process in reverse, we can approach the instant of our origins and then beyond.
In short: less “science” and more art — because art is the medium through which we and God converse.
Lopez: What do you mean when you say that “the taboos of our culture are also its totems, and the political arguments that rage around them are symptomatic of both disease and good health, of infection and immunity.”
Walsh: The Unholy Left likes to say we fear what we don’t know. But that is obviously untrue: We tend to fear what we do know, and those are the things that become both totem and taboo. Sex, for example — whether it is repressed or set loose, its raw power both attracts and repels. Which is why it’s at the center of the culture wars. I am positively Paglian on this subject, as anyone who cherishes the culture of the West must be.
Lopez: What is Critical Theory exactly and how did it subvert the West?
Walsh: Critical Theory was the notion, promulgated by the cultural Marxists of the Frankfurt School, that simply states there is nothing — no custom, institution, or moral precept — that is beyond criticizing, and destroying. “Who will save us from Western culture?” famously wondered Georg Lukács, one of the Frankfurters’ founding fathers. It is license to vandalize, and the fact that it was so swiftly embraced by American academe after the war remains a national disgrace.
Lopez: How did it/does it “remove the music from our lives”?
Walsh: Quite literally. One prominent member of the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno, was also a famous music critic, and had studied with Alban Berg (although none of Berg’s humanism seems to have rubbed off on him). For Adorno and the others, the egalitarian principle was embodied in Schoenberg’s method of composing with the twelve tones — a system that required all twelve notes of the chromatic scale to be sounded individually in a sequence called a “tone row” before any one of them could be repeated, thus affording all notes equal importance. For Critical Theorists, dodecaphonicism (also known as the “twelve-tone system”) was the perfect metaphor for the egalitarian world they sought to create. It’s also the reason why concert audiences loathed “modern music” for half a century until the Minimalists came along.
Lopez: Why is now the time for your book?
The problem is we are discussing symptoms when we should be discussing root causes: the conflict between good and evil.
Walsh: Because every single one of the issues we are discussing politically today has its roots in the verities of human culture, and in the conflict between what I term the sacred ur-Narrative of man’s individual heroism and the anti-Narrative of man’s meaningless collectivist nature as pushed by the satanic Left. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. The problem is we are discussing symptoms when we should be discussing root causes: the conflict between good and evil.
Lopez: What’s the “magic helmet” you mention in association with political correctness?
Walsh: That’s a reference to the Tarnhelm in Wagner’s Ring cycle, which cloaks its wearer in invisibility, or allows him to change shape. Deception is critical to the success of Satan’s war on God and on God’s creatures; thus most Leftist schemes come cloaked in false virtues, such as “tolerance.”
Lopez: How does Critical Theory choke “the life out of free-ranging rational discourse”?
Walsh: Via the medium of “political correctness,” a fascism of the mind that seeks to prevent thought by preventing discussion. If you can’t say it, the Leftist reasoning goes, after a while you can’t think it, either. One would have thought the sudden collapse of their beloved Soviet Union would have disabused them of this notion, but no.
Lopez: Why must you bring the Devil into it?
Walsh: For some time, I’d been thinking about writing a book about Satan in the modern world, and how we grapple with the problem of evil in a society increasingly hostile to, and devoid of, Christianity. The current existential crisis facing the West — a crisis entirely provoked by Critical Theory — provided the opportunity for a larger discussion of Western culture and civilization, using the tools of that culture itself (narrative story-telling, poetry, music) to explain the relationship between religion and civilization. Political correctness turns our most innermost thoughts hellish and bids fair to punish humanity for the crime of free thinking. What could be more satanic? Whether you believe in Satan literally or literarily, he certainly makes a compelling villain, as both Milton and Goethe demonstrated.
Lopez: Surely the Left isn’t satanic.
Walsh: Au contraire, today’s Left is the very embodiment of the small-s satanic. The term applies to the Left’s advocacy of things that our culture used to recognize as antithetical to a moral society, from the nature of American government down to the social issues — some of which weren’t even issues a few decades ago.
Further, the Left has cast aside much of the mufti it was forced to adopt in the United States — “tolerance” being its principal mask — and can finally be seen for what it is really is: a totalitarianism masquerading as beneficence. If that isn’t satanic, I don’t know what is.
Lopez: What does Schubert have to do with this?
Walsh: He was one of the earliest Romantics, and wrote his youthful opera, Des Teufels Lustschloss (“The Devil’s Pleasure Palace”) while still a teenager. The only thing we hear of this opera nowadays is its overture, but it established a genre that composers such as Weber, Meyerbeer, and Wagner full exploited later in the 19th century.
Lopez: How is Jean-Jacques Rousseau perhaps the most pernicious influence in modern Western history?
Walsh: Read the chapter on Rousseau in Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals. He was a fraud, a mountebank, a poseur, and a moral reprobate: in sum, a thoroughly detestable human being who sired multiple children with his mistress and then promptly deposited them on the steps of the nearest foundling hospital, unnamed. He is the archetype of the modern Leftist who loves humanity but hates people.
Lopez: Are the ongoing Planned Parenthood scandals an opportunity for change?
Walsh: The fact that an enraged population hasn’t risen up and closed every one of these murder emporia is a sign of how much the dreaded sin of “judgmentalism” has corroded our souls.
Lopez: What is Chesterton’s fence and why do we need it?
Walsh: Let Chesterton explain it:
In the manner of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which probably will be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law, let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this, let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you destroy it.”
Or, just watch The Walking Dead.
Lopez: Why must “the path to destruction and darkness . . . be enforced by totalitarian means”?
Walsh: Because the struggle between light and darkness is unequal. For darkness — Satan’s realm — to triumph, it must be complete and total, infinite blackness. And yet the light of a single candle, somewhere in the universe, defeats it; there is now light, where formerly there was none. Either there is Light or there is not; there can be no synthesis. The most important element for our survival is ridiculously potent. No wonder Genesis begins with it, for God’s creation of Heaven and Earth cannot truly exist until it can be seen.
Lopez: What’s so seductive about nihilism?
Walsh: It’s juvenile, and we now live in a juvenile culture in which grown men play video games and ogle Kim Kardashian’s rear end. They can’t create, but they can destroy.
Lopez: “Satan may be able to destroy, but he cannot create.” Why is this important to bear in mind?
Walsh: God is light, creation; Satan is darkness and destruction. Paradise Lost is one of the principal analytical tools in The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, and you will note that Satan’s entire revenge plot hinges not on retaking Heaven, but in destroying Man.
Lopez: How can we regain cultural confidence? Do we still have something worthy of confidence?
An unheroic culture is trying to beat heroism (which may manifest itself in rebellion) out of us.
Walsh: By heeding the words of Marcus Aurelius and getting back to first principles. “Ask yourself, what is this thing in itself, by its own special constitution? What is it in substance, and in form, and in matter? What is its function in the world? For how long does it subsist? Thus must you examine all things that present themselves to you.”
Or, as Mephistopheles says to the students in the Auerbachs Keller scene in Faust: “Irrtum, laß los der Augen Band! Und merkt euch, wie der Teufel spaße.” Loose the satanic bands of illusion, and see things as they really are. When you do, you see how much we have to lose. The Left tries to tell us there’s nothing worth fighting for; as P. J. O’Rourke says, it’s a philosophy of sniveling brats.
Lopez: How is humanity “inconceivable without heroes”?
Walsh: Because otherwise it’s just a pointless ant farm, a satanic Matrix in which we’re all just basically batteries. Plus, Hollywood would be out of business without heroes, and the fact that the most commercial business in America absolutely requires heroes ought to tell you something elemental.
Lopez: Why is it so important that we at least dream of heroism? Who is stopping us?
Walsh: Everyone dreams of being a hero; it’s the human condition. But an unheroic culture is trying to beat heroism (which may manifest itself in rebellion) out of us. Part of my thesis in The Devil’s Pleasure Palace is that religion itself is only the secondary manifestation of the spark of the Divine that every human being instinctively feels within. We are, each of us, the heroes of our own movies, engaged in a Quest for redemption. And, as in so many of our primal cultural stories that antedate organized religions, that Quest very often involves a return “home,” or at least to the status quo ante. This dramatic structure is codified in Aristotle’s Poetics and used by every screenwriter working in Hollywood today. We all want to go home. And if you don’t believe me, ask Ulysses.
Lopez: Why do you write: “Whoever thought turning women into men was a good idea needs his head examined.” And why was “turning men into women . . . even worse”? How do you propose to change this if it is the state of current affairs?
Walsh: Heterosexuality, procreation, and the family unit were among the principal targets of the Frankfurt School, because in order to effect the Leviathan State you needed to destroy the family. The crackpot Wilhelm Reich devoted his entire life’s work (which ended in an American federal penitentiary) to advocating sexual license under the cover of an equally crackpot Freudian psychiatry. Wheeee!
Lopez: How did you mother teach you to love words?
Walsh: By reading to me from the time I was born. I liked it so much I was reading on my own by the time I was three. When I was five or six she read me a kids’ version of Melville’s Moby Dick, a novel I’ve since read in every decade of my life. As a teenager I hoovered up most of Dickens, and at the Eastman School of Music I had a wonderful literature teacher who made us read, among other things, Don Quixote, The Magic Mountain, Bleak House, Tom Jones, Man’s Fate, and Madame Bovary. And there were quizzes.
Lopez: You note that Pope Francis talks about the #DamnedDevil (a hashtag I’d like to see trend) a lot. Why?
Walsh: Because he understands what the essential conflict in this world is all about. The Unholy Left naturally regards this as embarrassing superstition, and would rather encourage the notion that Francis is a gay-friendly liberation-theologist Jesuit, even though he’s really just another Italian pope who happened to have been born in Argentina, and who took the name “Francis” for an obviously symbolic reason. So non-Catholics are shocked now to find out that when push comes to shove, the Pope is, in fact, Catholic, and regards the Father of Lies as one who sows “destruction, division, hatred, and calumny.” Which describes any number of current Democrat politicians today, when you stop to think about it.
Lopez: You see more light, even with so much darkness, don’t you?
Walsh: I am a proponent of the felix culpa, or happy fall that freed Man to fulfill his heroic destiny as something other than God’s humble, obedient servant. As St. Augustine wrote in the Enchiridion, “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.” Milton puts it even better in the Areopagitica: “And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil.” Eros and Thanatos, together again.
Lopez: What are you most grateful for?
Walsh: That, like Elton John, I’m still standing.