Where Criticism Is Still an Art

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Where Criticism is Still an Art [Counterpoints: 25 Years of The New Criterion on Culture and the Arts, edited by Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer, Ivan R. Dee, 512 pages]

By R.J. Stove

THIS BOOK TEMPTS a reviewer to turn his entire critique into a disclosure of interests. It also forces him to slough his squeamishness about first-person usage, a device Orwell correctly compared to "dosing yourself with some stimulating but very deleterious and very habitforming drug." The New Criterion has printed articles of mine in the past and wUl, I hope, do so again. Obviously I am not going to endanger this working relationship by comprehensively trashing the magazine's hardcover spin-off. Yet an exhibition of toadying would be even duller to read than to write. (It is fit, though, to cite here a friend of Max Beerbohm's, who allegedly said, "I like flattery, so long as it is sufficiently fulsome." Beerbohm's devastating rejoinder: "I impose no conditions at aU.") At best, a reviewer can merely combine candor about his background with detachment about the work under discussion. He should assess its merits and defects as if aU New Criterion staffers were strangers to him. Amiable strangers, he trusts, but strangers nonetheless.

Honesty obliges the admission that during my youth I generaUy avoided the magazine. Back then, I judged publications by a simple yardstick. If they ran material like RJ. O'Rourke's "How to Drive Fast On Drugs And Not SpUl Your Drink," I applauded them; if not, not. Since The New Criterion did not, I had little time for it. Eventually, mirabile dictu, one puts away childish things (unless one is O'Rourke himself, who on his own admission "bought more expensive childish things"). In my case, two gruesome family tragedies blew apart what would otherwise have collapsed more slowly: that is, the entire hovel of semi-literate, consequence-free, protracted-pubescent heathenism in which I had previously dwelt. What had once seemed tedious and hectoring suddenly seemed urgently readable, including The New Criterion's best articles. (The periodical also began championing plulosopher-essayist David Stove; at times I stiU fear that my own New Criterion appearances have derived purely from being David Stove's son.)

Subsequent exposure to Waugh, BeUoc, CS. Lewis, Arnold Lunn, Fulton Sheen, Joseph Sobran, and RusseU Kirk - Kirk, in particular, left much the same impact on my thinking that a dozen jalapeños would leave on the roof of one's mouth - confirmed that when it came to my erstwhUe atheist home, "you can't go home again." From these authors above all, I learned that the West's chief dividing Une, far from being Right versus Left, was that of Christendom versus barbarism. A single cautionary sentence of Waugh annihilated the whole good pagan alibi: "It is no longer possible, as it was in the time of Gibbon, to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis on which it rests." The present book's introduction acknowledges another Waugh aphorism: "Unstinting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent." Kirk could have said the same things.

As it happens, Counterpoints includes an exceptionaUy disappointing interpretation of Kirk by David Frum, and woe to any reader whose first exposure to Kirk (or to The New Criterion) derives from this source. While the essay does not altogether lack insight, its dismissal of Kirk's Conservative Mind proves simply bizarre. "History, "Frum grandly proclaims, "is the one thing The Conservative Mind is not ... [it] isn't history; it is a work of literature meant to achieve political ends." Anyone who believes that Kirk wrote The Conservative Mind as an exercise in GOP instrumentaUsm, or that its original readers in their tens of thousands bought the book as such, wUl, in the Duke of Wellington's words, beUeve anything. In Frum's eyes, Kirk's main fault would appear to consist of not being Frum. …