Michael Walsh’s latest book is nothing if not ambitious. According to the jacket summary, it “exposes the overlooked movement that is Critical Theory” and “explains how it . . . has affected nearly every aspect of American life and society.” If that thesis sounds broad enough, Walsh himself articulates a still broader one, declaring at the outset of Chapter Nine that he aims to prove 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.”
This is heady stuff. Readers might be forgiven for wondering what the heroic narrative has to do with the Frankfurt School; they might, indeed, be forgiven for making it to Chapter Nine still wondering how the Frankfurt School fits into the book at all. For the most part, Walsh assumes the dastardly character of critical theory as a premise. Only a few pages of the book are devoted to real textual analysis. Three particular members of the Frankfurt School (Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and Wilhelm Reich) are given at least a cursory treatment, but Milton, Goethe, and Wagner are all discussed in considerably more detail, and Walsh draws freely throughout on a cornucopia of cultural figures, from Boethius to Francis Ford Coppola. It’s a bit disorienting. One keeps wondering when the central argument will begin.
To find your sea legs on this voyage, you must accept that The Devil’s Pleasure Palace is not really meant as intellectual history; it is more of a Chesterton-style romp through the verdant fields of Western (and especially German) civilization. Walsh spent his college years inundated with the sophistries of the Frankfurt School and clearly has little appetite for rehashing their theories in detail. Instead, he is challenging his old nemeses to mortal combat, along with their legions of spiritual progeny. Assuring us from the start that the stakes are as high as they can possibly be (life! death! sin! salvation!), Walsh jumps into the fray in the Chestertonian spirit of a man fighting for his life. Replete with martial imagery, the book reads as a call to arms for anyone who yet has strength to defend the true, the beautiful, and the good.
Why do these things need defending? As Walsh sees it, the men of the Frankfurt School (most of them Jewish academics who fled Germany and came to New York shortly before World War II) were effectively nihilists looking to detach American culture from anything meaningful or real. From the gloom of a turbulent Europe, they stepped out into the sunshine of an idyllic American landscape and resolved to put a stop to such unseemly cheerfulness. In the Fifties, flush with post-war confidence, Americans were too complacent to be properly guarded against the spiritual sickness of Marxism. Happily ensconced among the American intelligentsia, the Frankfurt School proceeded to hollow out our culture by convincing us that up is down and black is white. Now we find our society being sucked into a vortex of ressentiment, so culturally desiccated that we cannot even answer the challenge of Islamist barbarians who are openly bent on our destruction.
Walsh details the symptoms of this cultural disease, deftly picking apart the contradictions that expose progressivism for the charade it is. He explains how the promotion of diversity and tolerance was a ruse for turning healthy dissent into a thoughtcrime. He shows how a coordinated assault on beauty was dressed up as a form of artistic novelty. He tells how the siren song of sexual desire has lured us into a world that is hostile to sexual pleasure.
Throughout these intellectual exposés, Walsh draws the battle lines with painful clarity, playing constantly with Biblical and literary themes of temptation, seduction, and the heroic struggle for victory over empty, demonic forces. It is essential to view ourselves and our society in such terms, Walsh believes, so that we can respond appropriately to the existential threat that confronts us. Progressives are masters of deceit, and they thrive on compromise. We should give them no quarter, since both sides really know that we are engaged in mortal combat. As Georg Lukacs put it: Who will save us from Western civilization?
This book will be especially delightful for contemporaries of Walsh who were similarly inundated with critical theory, and who enjoy the spectacle of seeing its tenets colorfully belittled. By drawing out the cultural and moral implications of critical theory’s errors, Walsh has done a service to those who lack the larger context that he can provide. Though initially bewildering, the cacophony of cultural associations serves a real purpose. Readers come to appreciate that Walsh isn’t just settling scores with unfondly remembered personalities from his undergraduate days. His battle with critical theory is part of a larger war.
The least satisfied readers of The Devil’s Pleasure Palace may be those who are seeking a more nuanced appreciation of the Frankfurt School and its impact on American society. Though this is ostensibly the main subject of the book, it gets somewhat lost in the exploration of larger, eschatological themes. It’s not as serious a flaw as one might think, given the real scope of Walsh’s project. Still, it’s regrettable.
As Walsh obviously understands, the errors of the Frankfurt School were in no way unique to them. Their worst features were most immediately inherited from other Continental thinkers (Hegel, Marx, Freud), but, in fact, the dialectic he sketches goes well beyond any particular school of thought. It is the story of our age: the battle of modernity against the bulwark of Western tradition. That tale is well worth telling, and people who are used to narrating it from one perspective (say, that of a Catholic moral philosopher) may profit from hearing a different version (as told by, say, an esteemed music critic). But if we are engaged in cultural and spiritual warfare, it might be useful to know: What precise role does the Frankfurt School play in modernity’s Army of Darkness?
This never becomes clear. Neither the Frankfurt School nor American society as such seems to hold Walsh’s attention for long. Thus, the question lingers: Did Marcuse and Adorno really have such enormous influence on American culture, or are they scapegoated for the sake of a compelling narrative? (German Jews infiltrate the American academy, spread the contagion of Marxism, and neutralize the greatest remaining stronghold of Western civilization. What a story!) I was curious when I picked up the book, and by the final page, I was still curious.
In short, readers looking to place the Frankfurt School on an intellectual-historical landscape should choose a different book, such as Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination. Readers thinking on a moral or spiritual plane will be more satisfied, however, and on that level Walsh’s book is astute, passionate, and sometimes profoundly moving. His diagnosis of American culture is grim, but the book is not a requiem. It is charged with Walsh’s fierce confidence that the disease that ails us need not be terminal. Our innate moral compasses are still functional, and heroic narrative is in our blood. Our enemies’ arsenal is little more than a box of costumes, while our side has more fearsome weapons at our disposal: the piercing intellect of Aristotle and Augustine, the clarifying beauty of Mozart and Michelangelo, and, most important, the Cross. Be not afraid.
Altogether, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace is a very enjoyable book that will leave the reader feeling emboldened and spiritually rejuvenated. If you need a refreshing draught in the midst of a raging culture war, come right up to the bar. This round is on Michael Walsh.
– Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.