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.
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 Criterionnone that I know, anywaynone
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 briotake,
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
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 deformationspostcolonial 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. Butand this is the important point to bear in mindin 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 influencefor good or illof 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 stillnow more than everconjuring with). Hegel's dialectic and view of history may be nonsense but they have affectedor infectedmany, 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 ispoliticala 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
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 couragethe 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 resourceand 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 Darwinismas well as his occasional essays on various cultural topicsdeserve 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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