Art ought to be “the wellsprings of our politics…help[ing] shape our public-policy debates,” Michael Walsh argues in his book The Fiery Angel: Art, Culture, Sex, Politics, and the Struggle for the Soul of the West. But it will require a rediscovery –and embrace — of the treasures of our civilization first. Walsh talks about the book and the need with nationalreview.com. — Kathryn Jean Lopez
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Who is the “Fiery Angel”?
Michael Walsh: First, what: It’s an opera by Sergei Prokofiev. I chose the title as a symbol of Western culture, something akin to the phoenix. For 3,500 years, our shared patrimony has been unbroken from the Greeks to the present, and yet has constantly reinvented itself as well. This process of continual rebirth is what has made Western culture the dynamic engine of world progress that it is, far superior to the static nature of other societies.
Lopez: How and why is Western culture under assault and why is it crucial to preserving?
Walsh: It’s under assault from both within and without. In the aftermath of World War I, the cultural Marxists launched their attack upon it, which I chronicled in my book’s earlier companion volume, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. But a far older existential enemy is Islam, which arose in direct opposition to Judeo-Christianity and has remained an implacable foe that can neither be reasoned with nor appeased. We ignore these threats at our peril, since both the Marxist and the Islamic roads lead to fascism, totalitarianism, and death. Both are, in short, satanic.
Lopez: What’s so important about the Heroic Narrative, and what is unique to the West?
Walsh: The Heroic Narrative distinguishes our myths and legends – and thus our forms of storytelling – from other cultures. Western man is a not a cog in a machine, or a clerk in an endless bureau, or an ant in an ant heap. Rather he – Jesus of Nazareth, Tarzan of the Apes, and just about every hero in between – is the central character of his own movie: someone forced to face his destiny and who chooses (often reluctantly, and at great pain) to embrace it, no matter the cost.
Lopez: Is there a way to begin again and renew our understanding of freedom itself?
Walsh: Freedom is freedom. Diabolically, the cultural Marxists introduced the idea of “real” freedom – which is to say no freedom at all – and have hammered away at it for so long that half the country now seems to see freedom as a threat instead of a promise. For Muslims, freedom means conformance to the will of Allah, which we rightly regard as superstitious slavery. Freedom of religion, under which Islam flies its false flag, will quickly evaporate should Muslims ever become dominant in the West.
Lopez: Is there any way to renew Western civilization and appreciate what freedom truly is without Christianity? (Would there be any point to that, anyway?)
Walsh: No. I don’t mean that the world should convert to Christianity en masse. But Western civilization is unthinkable without Christianity. Its artistic symbols are almost entirely Christian (go to any national art gallery if you need proof) and it was Christian philosophers such as Abelard and Aquinas who were instrumental in the rebirth of classical studies – Plato and Aristotle – at the early universities, such as Paris, Bologna, Padua, Naples, Oxford and Cambridge. The Marxist-Islamic attacks on Christianity serve a double purpose and seek to eliminate two enemies with one blow.
Lopez: Where does that leave atheists and everyone else?
Walsh: Atheists are free to choose. What they’re not free to do is attack the very culture/religion that guarantees them that freedom. They plead for “tolerance” until they feel strong enough to dispense with it (see Marcuse’s essay, “Repressive Tolerance” for their ideological justification.) Tolerance is not an abstract virtue, but rather a situational exercise.
Lopez: “Far from being museum pieces, vestal virgins, or hothouse flowers, segregated from the practical world, the arts ought to be seen instead as the wellsprings of our politics, and therefore should help shape our public-policy debates.” With the short attention spans we have today, how is that at all possible?
Walsh: I address this in The Fiery Angel: “And yet, as we often hear, there is no time. The pace of modern life, it is said, is too fast in order to give up an hour to a Bruckner symphony, two hours to Rififi or Rashomon, or several weeks to The Magic Mountain. Bollocks. We flatter ourselves if we think we have any less time to devote to the pursuits of the mind and the spirit than did, say, the ancient Greeks. The hoplite class of Athens could rely on a deadly, nearly annual war against either their fellow Greeks or the invading Persians as surely as they could count on the seasons or the tides. Many of them would die. And yet they produced Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Aristophanes; Aeschylus’s epitaph mentions that he fought at Marathon, and says nothing about his plays or poetry.
“The pace of life, in any case, is relative. No doubt future generations will think we had it easy, with nothing to do except work desultorily at a nine-to-five government job, take annual leave, enjoy weekends and holidays off, and spend the evenings in front of giant flat-screen televisions half-watching network, cable, or satellite programming while eating take-out food delivered right to our doors. Such luxury! Such indolence!
“What is meant is: we have no attention span. An attention span demands several things: native intelligence, an ability to discriminate among choices, an ability to follow along, a keen anticipation of the outcome, and, most important, a willingness to learn so that the moral is earned rather than delivered. This is precisely the opposite of what cultural Marxism wishes from its audiences…”
The attention-span problem, therefore, is not a matter of time but of will power.
Lopez: Is there a danger of romanticizing our politics, where we’re expecting more from it than it can or should deliver?
Walsh: Yes. The man on the white horse causes as much, if not more, trouble than he solves. And yet we are now so obsessed with Washington politics and, thanks to the media, the presidency, that we have no room for anything other than man-on-white-horse stories. The Romans had the right idea: two consuls, each elected for a year, ran the Republic on a day-to-day basis, but in times of great crisis the Romans turned to a dictator, who stayed in office exactly as long as it took to sort out the situation, then stepped down. What got Caesar killed was his assumption of that office for life – which turned out to be quite short.
Lopez: Are we, simply put, undergoing an identity crisis? What’s the best-case scenario?
Walsh: I’m suspicious of this word, “identity,” which has been wholly subsumed by the Marxist project. Simultaneously, the cultural-Marxist Left treats “identity” as something immutable and fixed, as in identity politics, and at the same time declares it to be fluid and whimsical, as in sexual politics. As usual (and especially in matters of sex) they want to have it both ways, so to speak. Rational people don’t have identity crises. Their lives may be a process of self-realization, but not of self-discovery, which is a kind of madness.
My principal argument in The Fiery Angel is that we need to return to the wellsprings of our culture in order to (re)discover who we are and how we got here. The best-case scenario is that it’s rather easy to accomplish, since the great works of Western art are still readily available – for now. But if we allow the Left to complete its orgy of iconoclastic destruction, we are out of business because where they have ideology, we have civilization.
Lopez: So, in this era of tearing down monuments if historic figures are imperfect — as we all are – how do we teach and recover and learn from history? How do we remember our achievements and mistakes and cultural memories and roots in a constructive and even beautiful way again?
Walsh: We must never accept the Left’s premise that the past deserves to be punished for today’s often freshly invented, generally ephemeral transgressions. History should never be whitewashed, and if snowflakes can’t handle it, tough.
Lopez: What it means to be a conservative is a bit of a mess today. Where would you begin and with whom?
Walsh: I think this whole notion of a “conservative movement” is a load of codswallop, in part because political “movements” are the province of the Left and their reductive, group-oriented world view. It’s been especially destructive to younger conservatives, who believe that the “conservative” position on any given issue comes down to a catechism of policy points – what I’ve termed “cheklist” conservativism in honor of the old Soviet Cheka – instead of the simple belief in the essential rightness and goodness of Western culture and the unabashed defense of the same. But this is what you get when the Leftist notion “political science” captures the hearts and minds of the Right.
Lopez: How can we inspire people to do things of beauty and virtue when we’re so overwhelmed and there is so much noise and there is so much anger?
Walsh: By encouraging them not to take their work home with them, as it were. To back away from Twitter and other social-media platforms and crack open a book, listen to a recording, visit an art gallery, go to the theater – in other words, to do the kinds of things that used to be the hallmarks of an educated man or woman. Otherwise, you’re an uncivilized savage, little better than our opponents and enemies.
Lopez: Your epilogue includes the line: “The way forward might just be backward.” Doesn’t that sound a wee bit like the caricature of conservatives: that we want to turn back the clock? Is there a dangerous temptation to nostalgia there?
Walsh: Truth is immutable. There are no “higher truths” or “new truths.” The way forward can only proceed once the rightness – or wrongness – of the path that got us here is fully understood. Otherwise, we’re simply human flotsam – which is exactly the way the totalitarian ideologies of Marxism and Islam see us.
Lopez: Should interns at the Heritage Foundation and National Review be listening to more Bach than reading about Brett Kavanaugh before the summer is through? What classic books would you have them read before they head back to school?
Walsh: The Fiery Angel includes an appendix that lists every work of art (literary, musical, plastic) mentioned in both Devil and Angel. If I were drawing up a short course for aspiring conservatives, it would include Caesar’s Commentaries, and Grant’s Memoirs; Bach’s Art of Fugue, and Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, and Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel; Dickens’s Bleak House, Willkie Collins’s The Woman in White, and Mann’s The Magic Mountain; the Oresteia, the Poetics, Sophocles’s Theban plays, and Lysistrata, plus the Aeneid. I’d also give them a ticket to a major art gallery and a copy of the Bible, so they can decode what they’re looking at. In this way, they might learn something about the human condition and thus be better equipped both to write about it and to handle it when it finally comes their way. As I often say on Twitter: I never take political advice from small children.
Lopez: How exactly do we better “listen … to the angels of our nature, for better and worse”? And isn’t it the better angels we best be listening to?
Walsh: If we would all just shut up for a moment, we would hear the angels in the still, small voices that sing in our ears. And we should listen to both better and worse angels; one-third of the Heavenly Host went to Hell along with Satan, and we’d damn well better know why, unless we want to end up there ourselves.