The Life of the Mind | An interview with cultural critic Roger Kimball | Carl E. Olson

The Life of the Mind | An interview with cultural critic Roger Kimball | Carl E. Olson

Roger Kimball is Managing Editor of The New Criterion, a monthly review of the arts and intellectual life, and an art critic for the London Spectator. In September he will take on the added duties of co-editor and publisher of The New Criterion.

Kimball's latest books are The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art (Encounter, 2004), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee, 2002), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee, 2003).

Other books by Kimball include The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America (Encounter 2000) and Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age (Ivan R. Dee, 2000). Kimball is also the author of Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (HarperCollins). A new edition of Tenured Radicals, revised and expanded, was published by Ivan R. Dee, in 1998.

He is a frequent contributor to many publications here and in England, including The New Criterion, The Times Literary Supplement, Modern Painters, Literary Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Public Interest, Commentary, The Spectator, The New York Times Book Review, The Sunday Telegraph, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, National Review, and The National Interest.

Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, recently interviewed Kimball and spoke with him about the current state of culture, the place of the arts, the dangers of deconstructionism and other academic fads, and the necessity of religion for the survival of culture.


IgnatiusInsight.com: Your books have addressed topics including art criticism (Art's Prospect), criticism of art criticism (Rape of the Masters), higher education (Tenured Radicals), cultural revolution/cultural history (The Long March), postmodernism (Experiments Against Reality), and intellectual history (Lives of the Mind). Your work reflects the expertise and knowledge of a specialist, but would it be correct to describe it as multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary in character? Has this interdisciplinary approach been part of a conscious project on your part, or does it simply reflect the vital interconnectedness of disciplines (art criticism, literary criticism, philosophy, sociology, education, etc.) that is increasingly rare in an age of hyper-specialization?


Roger Kimball: That is an interesting question, or rather set of questions. You are right that ours is an age in which academic life is often described as increasingly specialized. And yet I suspect that only certain disciplines are accurately so described. The natural sciences, certainly, have become more and more specialized. As our knowledge of the natural world has exploded, so too it has become increasingly finely focussed, with the result that scientists tend, in their professional lives as scientists, to know more and more about increasingly narrow slices of a subject.

In the humanities, by contrast, what we see is a sort of parody of this process. You hear talk of increasing specialization in literature, history, or philosophy. But what this turns out to mean in most cases is increasing irrelevance and fatuousness. This is partly because the humanities, in a vain effort to ape the sciences, pretend to a knowledge which does not pertain to humanistic inquiry. The sciences tell us what the world is like. The humanities educate the emotions and, in a sense, tell us what we, homo sapiens, are like. You certainly do find people who know and immense amount about the first book of The Fairie Queen (say) but who otherwise seem deaf to the life of literature, art, philosophy, and history. You also find self-consciously "inter-disciplinary" projects that turn out to be not aspects of the humanities but aspects of the nihilistic anti-humanism that has insinuated itself so disastrously into cultural life today.

Take a look at the "humanities institutes" that have sprouted at so many colleges and universities today. They're typically two parts Derrida, Foucault, and deconstruction, five parts queer studies, and eight parts feminism, post-colonial studies, and general purpose political posturing. They are, in short, utterly inimical to the humanities as traditionally conceived. Such anti-intellectual intellectualism is described as "specialized" by those outside the academy mostly because they find its language unintelligible. Being of charitable disposition, they conclude that what they do not understand must be too deep for common intelligence. In fact, much of what passes for humanistic research and scholarship today is not only not deep, it is not even superficial: it is merely politically motivated verbal static, a ghastly sort of impersonation of intellectual activity.

As for my own work, there is nothing especially ambitious about it. Like many people interested in cultural life, I have devoted a fair amount of time to reading philosophy and literature, looking at art, pondering the fate of universities and other institutions charged with nurturing cultural life. It is natural, I believe, that such interests would result in work that embraces this plurality of subjects.

IgnatiusInsight.com: In the 1980s you were a graduate student at Yale working on a dissertation. But you didn't finish the dissertation, stating in an interview that once you started writing for magazines such as The New Criterion you found yourself "drifting further and further away from the culture of academia." How did that drift take place and how has it been reflected in your books and essays? Put another way, how did you become a cultural critic?

Kimball: Well, when the time came to leave New Haven I had to decide whether I want to take an academic position in some (as it seemed to me) far-flung and desolate outpost or whether I might be better off pursuing my intellectual interests as a freelance writer. I decided to chance the latter. Already it had become clear to me that the nature of my interests in the humanities made me an odd figure in the academy. I found that writing for The New Criterion, The American Scholar (which was then edited by Joseph Epstein), Commentary, and other such publications was refreshing and every bit as intellectually challenging as more strictly academic writing. I fully intended to finish that dissertation, by the way, and I still regret not doing so–one should, I believe, complete what one begins. As for how I became a cultural critic, the answer is simple: I started writing cultural criticism! In many ways, it was an accident–I kept writing about what interested me, and what interested me happened to fall under the rubric of cultural criticism.

It was not purely an accident, though. For I did receive some crucial guidance early on from Hilton Kramer, the founding editor of The New Criterion. He saw, in a way that I didn't, what I was up to, and he did a great deal to nudge my writing in the direction that it eventually took. Hilton is an editor in the old sense. That is, he is not simply someone who fiddles with one's prose to make it clearer and more polished: he is really a teacher and forger of talent operating under a different license. He has helped many, many people find their own voice and intellectual direction. I am lucky to be among that number.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You are the managing editor of The New Critierion, which takes its name from The Criterion, edited by T.S. Eliot. For those readers who have never read The New Criterion, how would you describe its contents and focus?

Kimball: Of course it pains me to think that there might be some of your readers who are unacquainted with The New Criterion. Can it really be? Well, the world is full of deprivations. Fortunately, this is one deficiency that is easily remedied. Any such unfortunate souls should start by going to www.newcriterion.com and then, after having seen what they have been missing, clicking on button that says subscribe!

But back to Eliot, The Criterion, and The New Criterion. Eliot once defined the task of criticism as "the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste." That is a pretty fair summary of what we at The New Criterion are up to as well. Like Eliot, we aim to provide an engaging and independent look at cultural life. By "engaging" I mean lively and well-written, by "independent" I mean not beholden to the reigning academic and politically correct orthodoxies.

Like the original Criterion, The New Criterion is modernist in its cultural stance and conservative in its politics. By "modernist," incidentally, I do not mean to suggest allegiance to any particular school or style but rather to suggest a seriousness about the aesthetic and moral responsibilities of criticism. There really is no other magazine like The New Criterion–none that I know, anyway–none that offers the sort of serious reflection on the monuments of past cultural achievement together with amusing and percipient criticism of contemporary culture. I want to underscore the word "amusing." The New Criterion is undoubtedly a serious magazine. But it is the opposite of somber. Our writers address themselves to their subjects with dash and brio–take, for example, Mark Steyn, our theater critic. I cannot think of a funnier drama critic going (though Mark is much more than a drama critic). Nor can I think of one who is more insightful. As Horace urges, Mark delights as well as instructs. It is a model all of us at the magazine aspire to follow.

IgnatiusInsight.com: In what way are the arts a gauge of cultural health? What does today's "fine" art and "progressive" literature tell us about culture in the West?

Kimball: I believe that the arts provide a good barometer of cultural health. They reflect the fears, obsessions, aspirations, and ambitions of a culture. It tells us a great deal, I think, that terms like "transgressive" and "challenging" have emerged as among the highest words of praise in the critical lexicon. It tells us, among other things, that much art today is less affirmative than corrosive, that it places itself in an adversarial attitude toward the traditional moral, aesthetic, and cultural ambitions of our culture.

We are living in a post-Romanic moment, a moment when we still go through the motions of investing the arts with great existential importance (that's the Romantic part) but find to our chagrin that the spiritual aspirations that might have informed and guided our artistic endeavors have turned rancid (the "post-" part). That, anyway, goes a long way toward describing the dominant "establishment" culture. Here and there, one finds dissenting figures and institutions–The New Criterion is one such–whose commitment is not to what is new but what is true, figures and institutions that look upon tradition not as a crippling but an enabling resource, who understand that beauty and pleasure are essential parts of the life of art. In the introduction to my book Art's Prospect, I noted that:

What established taste makers now herald as cutting-edge turns out time and again to be a stale remainder of past impotence. It is one of history's ironies that Romantic fervor regularly declines into antic murmurs. Most of the really invigorating action in the art world today is a quiet affair. It takes place not at Tate Modern or the Museum of Modern Art, not in the Chelsea or TriBeCa galleries, but off to one side, out of the limelight. It tends to involve not the latest thing, but permanent things. Permanent things can be new; they can be old; but their relevance is measured not by the buzz they create but by silences they inspire.
One of the most important tasks for criticism today, I think, is to recover those silences–which means also recovering a nose for the permanent, a sense of the unfailing pertinence of our cultural inheritance.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You've written much about deconstructionism and its high priests, especially Jacques Derrida and Michael Foucault. What is current state of deconstructionism in the academic world? Is its influence waning at all? What affect has deconstructionism had on popular culture over the past few decades?

Kimball: You often hear that the influence of deconstruction and kindred intellectual maladies is waning, that they have been replaced by newer, more minatory, more politically engaged deformations–postcolonial studies, for example, or transgender studies. It is true that one does not hear the term "deconstruction" as much now as one once did. And it is also true that the names "Derrida" and "Foucault" do not automatically produce frissons of awe and reverence among the constitutionally credulous.

There are two reasons for this. The encouraging reason is that there has grown up a small but vigorous culture of dissent in the academy: there are vocal alternatives to, and criticisms of, the deconstructivist brotherhood now. The discouraging reason is that the academic circus has simply moved on to fresh novelties and modes of obfuscation. But–and this is the important point to bear in mind–in moving on this circus has not necessarily moved forward. The rhetoric of deconstruction is not so widely adverted to today as it once was. But that is not because its tenets are no longer embraced but rather because they have become so familiar that they no longer seem shocking. The nihilistic assumptions of deconstruction have not been jettisoned, they have been internalized: more and more they are simply taken for granted as part of the accepted and expected intellectual furniture of the time. In this sense, deconstruction is a bit like psychoanalysis. People no longer hold the theories of Freud in much reverence. But the whole picture of human reality we take for granted still owes an immense amount to the Freudian model. As a culture, we haven't so much gotten beyond Freud as we have adopted him and his view of man. Freudianism, like deconstruction, is just part of the ambient spiritual pollution we live with: no longer novel but still toxic.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Three thinkers who make regular appearances in your books and essays are Hegel, Descartes, and Nietzsche. How would you summarize the work and ongoing influence–for good or ill–of those three men?

Kimball: That is a big question!–Too big for this space. Let me just say that their influence is large and ongoing. The modern scientific-rationalistic shape of culture is unthinkable without Descartes (his boast that his method would render man "the master and possessor of nature" is something we are still–now more than ever–conjuring with). Hegel's dialectic and view of history may be nonsense but they have affected–or infected–many, many thinkers from Marx on down. And these thinkers, in turn, have helped to create the modern world: for better or worse (doubtless for better and worse). And of course Nietzsche with his proclamation of "the death of God," his "perspectivism," and his ambition to effect a "transvaluation of all values" is the contemporary philosopher par excellence. For a fuller answer to this question, I direct you to what I have to say about Descartes, Hegel, and Nietzsche in Experiments Against Reality and Lives of the Mind.

IgnatiusInsight.com: In The Long March you wrote that perhaps the greatest victory for the radicals of the 1960s "was to popularize the idea that everything is–political–a conviction that eats away at the very heart of classical liberalism." In what concrete ways has this mentality changed America over the past forty years? How can it be best challenged and combated?

Kimball: The most flagrant example is the university, an institution that was entrusted with the task of preserving and transmitting what Matthew Arnold called "the best that has been thought and said" but that since the 1960s has become a refuge for radical political activism. In my book Tenured Radicals, I noted that
With a few notable exceptions, our most prestigious liberal arts colleges and universities have installed the entire radical menu at the center of their humanities curriculum at both the undergraduate and the graduate levels. Every special interest–women's studies, black studies, gay studies, and the like–and every modish interpretative gambit–deconstruction, post-structuralism, new historicism, and other postmodernist varieties of what the literary critic Frederick Crews aptly dubbed "Left Eclecticism"–has found a welcome roost in the academy, while the traditional curriculum and modes of intellectual inquiry are excoriated as sexist, racist, or just plain reactionary.
The issue, it is worth stressing, is not the orientation of the politics–Left vs. Right–it is rather the politicization of intellectual life tout court. That is, the task is not to replace or balance the left-wing orientation of academic life with a right-wing ideology but rather to de-politicize academic, i.e., to champion intellectual, not political, standards.

How to do this? Well, it is not the work of a moment but a task for a generation. And what it requires above all is courage–the moral courage to take unpopular stands, to call a spade a spade, to buck the received politically correct wisdom that reigns in the academy in other bastions of elite opinion. The chief weapons are unceasing criticism and a certain rhetorical insouciance: the willingness to ridicule the ridiculous and satirize the preposterous.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You've written admiring essays and chapters about Catholics and Anglo-Catholics such as T.S. Eliot, Muriel Spark, and Josef Pieper. But your own religious views don't often come into focus, which is somewhat surprising considering how openly and strongly you express your views on a host of other topics. What role does religious belief have in the formation of your views about culture, tradition, and the intellectual life? What role should Christianity, specifically, have in the restoration of healthy culture, respect for tradition, and appropriation of "the permanent things"?

Kimball: Well, I was brought up and remain Roman Catholic. I even survived a Jesuit high school with my beliefs intact. If I had to describe my general philosophical orientation, I suppose I would say I am an "Aristotelean Thomist." And I have no doubt that my religious convictions have been essential in the formation of my view about culture. High culture is a great and humanizing resource–and it is, moreover, a resource that is everywhere imperiled today. The problem is not just around us: it is potentially within us as well. As Evelyn Waugh noted, "barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come merely from habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment, however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on."

In one sense, the barbarism that Waugh descried is a perennial threat. What is new is its celebration as a form of welcome liberation. We live at a moment when philosophers routinely espouse the nihilistic absurdities of deconstruction and eagerly proclaim the "end of man," when all manner of obscenity is aired on television and championed by those charged with preserving our cultural and intellectual heritage. Part of the task of The New Criterion is to dramatize and resist that degradation. And yet culture is not the whole answer. In one of his essays on humanism, T. S. Eliot observed that when we "boil down Horace, the Elgin Marbles, St. Francis and Goethe" the result will be "pretty thin soup." "Culture," he concluded, "is not enough, even though nothing is enough without culture." What else is there? Religion, or at least some acknowledgement that the ultimate source of our moral vocation transcends our mundane interventions. Eliot put it neatly: "Either everything in man can be traced as a development from below, or something must come from above. There is no avoiding that dilemma: you must be either a naturalist or a supernaturalist."

It says a lot that Eliot's articulation of this core belief of traditional conservatism is deeply controverted today, even by many conservatives. The depth of that controversy is perhaps an index of our confusion. Dostoyevsky once claimed that if God does not exist then everything is permitted. Considerable ingenuity has gone into proving Dostoyevsky wrong. To date, though, the record would seem to support him.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Who are some writers and thinkers that you believe deserve a much wider audience, especially for readers seeking to make sense of the cultural malaise of 21st-century America?

Kimball: Let me name two: James Fitzjames Stephen, whose book Liberty Equality Fraternity is a devastating attack on John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, which in my opinion is one of the most toxic books of political philosophy ever written. And the Australian philosopher David Stove, whose attacks on irrationality in the philosophy of science and Darwinism–as well as his occasional essays on various cultural topics–deserve a much wider audience. A few years ago, I put together an anthology of Stove's writings called Against the Idols of the Age and more recently Andrew Irvine has gathered together Stove's writings on various political subjects in a volume called On Enlightenment.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What are some issues you hope to address in future books? Are you currently working on any book projects?

Kimball: A paperback edition, with a new preface, of my book The Rape of the Masters will be out in September. I am just now working on a book about retaking the universities. I hope to finish that this autumn.



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