Michael Walsh has written a new book: The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West. It is a dazzling book. It’s erudite, bold, entertaining, and important.
I heard the author comment on his book at a lunch. (We’re friends.) He said something like, “All I know is in this book. And it’s just 200 pages. That’s it. It’s all I know.” It’s plenty, trust me.
What’s the book about? In essence, it’s about the struggle before us: truth and liberty and life versus error and bondage and death.
Big enough for you, theme-wise?
I will not review the book. As is my practice, I’ll jot some notes, prompted by the book. You will read it for yourself, I hope. I imagine that most readers of my column will agree with it. And those who don’t will find themselves equally stimulated and enriched.
‐What about the title, “The Devil’s Pleasure Palace”? It is the title of Schubert’s first complete opera (Des Teufels Lustschloss). Schubert is one of our central composers, and we hear his music incessantly: his songs, piano pieces, chamber music, and symphonies. But his operas, we see and hear never. Which is curious.
During Alexander Pereira’s brief tenure as music director of the Salzburg Festival, he very much wanted to stage a Schubert opera: and did, Fierrabras. I wrote about it here. When will the opportunity next come to see a Schubert opera?
The 13th of never?
‐Michael dedicates his book to “Ann Patricia Walsh, my mother, who taught me to love words.” I thought of one of my favorite dedications ever: that of Paul Johnson in his biography of Jesus: “To my mother, Anne Johnson, who first taught me about Jesus.”
‐At the outset of Devil’s, Michael prints a number of epigraphs. One of them comes from P.J. O’Rourke: “At the core of liberalism is the spoiled child — miserable, as all spoiled children are, unsatisfied, demanding, ill-disciplined, despotic, and useless. Liberalism is a philosophy of sniveling brats.”
Very rude — but I have often made the same observation. And I sometimes think of the difference between liberals and conservatives as the difference between those who haven’t grown up — who have made an effort not to grow up — and those who have indeed grown up.
But, as I said, very rude (and I apologize to liberals of whom this is not at all true). (Trust me, there are some very juvenile conservatives.) (Sometimes I’m one of them.)
‐Another epigraph comes from Leo Strauss: “The crisis of the West consists in the West’s having become uncertain of its purpose.”
True, true — so true. What we have now is a loss of civilizational confidence. That is at the heart of our woes.
‐Listen to Michael — he’s talking about the Frankfurt School and critical theory, and their stupendous influence after World War II:
At once overly intellectualized and emotionally juvenile, Critical Theory — like Pandora’s Box — released a horde of demons into the American psyche. When everything could be questioned, nothing could be real, and the muscular, confident empiricism that had just won the war gave way, in less than a generation, to a fashionable Central European nihilism that was celebrated on college campuses across the United States. Seizing the high ground of academe and the arts, the new nihilists set about dissolving the bedrock of the country, from patriotism to marriage to the family to military service. They have sown (as Cardinal Bergoglio — now Pope Francis — has written of Satan …) “destruction, division, hatred, and calumny” — and all disguised as a search for truth that will lead to human happiness here on earth.
Yup. True dat. Virtually the nub of it.
‐As you may have been able to tell already, Michael Walsh and David Horowitz write in similar styles (or sometimes do). But David has had the experience of Communism — I mean, of being on that side. He understands the Left inside out. Michael, to my knowledge, has never been on the left. And he too has their number.
‐The Frankfurters got one thing right, says Michael: They understood that “popular culture lay at the heart of the American experience. It was hugely influential in a way that surpassed the understanding of European academics; without official sanction, it spoke for the people …”
Bear with me for a second — this reminded me of Vittorio Mussolini, the Italian dictator’s eldest son. His great passion, before the war, was movies. I write about it in my book about the sons and daughters of dictators.
Actually, I quote Umberto Eco — who noted that Vittorio “wanted to be the pioneer of the Americanization of Italian cinema.” Vittorio, said Eco, “criticized the European cinematographic tradition and asserted that the Italian public identified emotionally only with the archetypes of American cinema. … He genuinely loved and admired Mary Pickford and Tom Mix, just as his father admired Julius Caesar and Trajan. For him American films were the people’s literature.”
I could tell you more about Vittorio and America and the movies, but that’s another book …
‐Michael refers to the “Unholy Left” — “a term unapologetically both descriptive and judgmental.” He takes care to say he’s not talking about garden-variety liberals — people “who see Washington as a kind of taxpayer-funded supra-charity, dispensing goodies to the deserving poor and making sure chemicals aren’t dumped in the drinking water.” No, he’s talking about “the hard Left, the radicals, many of whom are now in power, who would remake (‘fundamentally transform’) — wreck — the United States of America and, by extension, the civilization of the West.”
And who’s on the other side? “Not conservatives per se, but those who see themselves in the role of conservators — preservers of the Western legacy who recognize that we should not lightly abandon a long, shared cultural tradition that, whatever its real or perceived faults, has been the primary engine of human moral, spiritual, social, scientific, and medical progress.”
Bracing, right? And clear. And Manichean (not wrongly so).
‐Our stories have various main characters — and when I say “our stories,” I mean the legends, tales, of our civilization. “But mostly they are stories of heroes,” says Michael.
“Humanity is inconceivable without heroes; we are not egalitarian members of an ant farm, shuttling from cradle to grave, indistinguishable from one another and easily replaceable. Not everyone can be a hero, but everyone can dream of heroism. Bravery has always been a cardinal human virtue …”
Yes. Many have remarked — Michael is one of them — that we have endless stories, but just a few core ones. A few recurring ones. I’ll illustrate, quickly, what I mean.
I was watching the new Star Wars. And I thought, “There’s the Bible. There’s King Arthur. There’s Wagner.” You know, these same themes — even actions, even plot twists — coming at us again and again.
‐Michael describes the world that the Left (loosely speaking) has dreamed up for us — and calls it a place that “sounds very much like Heaven.” I thought of the title of Joshua Muravchik’s book about socialism: “Heaven on Earth.”
(This is a critical book, perhaps I don’t need to mention …)
‐How good to see Saul Bellow quoted, as Michael does! “Open discussion of many major public questions has for some time now been taboo. We can’t open our mouths without being denounced as racists, misogynists, supremacists, imperialists, or fascists. As for the media, they stand ready to trash anyone so designated.”
‐“The Bloomsbury Circle was a hotbed of hot beds” — that’s not Bellow but Walsh. And a fine example of his wordplay.
‐Give you something else. Here’s Michael reminiscing: “I spent much of [a given] day wandering around the spot where Hitler had spent his last hours in the Führerbunker, aware that the advancing Soviets were drawing ever nearer, and finally shooting himself, like Brünnhilde throwing herself upon Siegfried’s burning bier, a drama queen to the end.”
Hitler as drama queen — excellent. Or does Michael mean Brünnhilde? Works either way.
One really shouldn’t end on Hitler — Brünnhilde would be okay — but maybe we’ve had enough for one day? And should return for Part II of Michael Walsh and the devil, whom he beats, like a red-headed stepchild? Very well then. See you tomorrow.