Fighting for the Soul of Western Civ

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 5, 1997 | Go to article overview

Fighting for the Soul of Western Civ


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


If there has been a weakness among writers on the political right when trying to defend European culture and tradition against the successive attacks of structuralists, deconstructionists and their successors, it has been the temptation to overstate an already good case. Ferdinand Mount, in his contribution to this collection of essays, makes the point nicely.

"I think," says the current editor of the London Times Literary Supplement, "that both British and American conservatives, though clearly right in some respects, are sometimes mistaken about the extent and nature of the damage. But I do not expect to make many converts on this particular battlefield, since for most combatants it is a question of first digging your trench and then staying in it, while firing continuously into the air."

Mr. Mount, looking at American society today, goes on to distinguish - also nicely - between problems of an educational nature, those stemming from an inferiority of national life or character requiring us (as some would argue) to learn from other cultures, and the larger human predicament of living in the world after Nietzsche. The writer's willingness to allow plusses and minuses along the way is striking.

In just this way, the strength of "The Future of the European Past," 10 essays published earlier this year in the New Criterion now with an introduction by editors Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball, is the book's usefulness in helping a reader discriminate within a large and unqestionably problematic, but also mixed, field of cultural, political, literary and artistic situations.

Themes reoccur in the essays, but they do so across a broad range of subjects. Where else could one consider, in little more than 200 pages, the incompleteness of communism's fall in Eastern Europe, emergence of the new bureaucratic Europe, ubiquity of pop culture and concomitant junking of the collective past, "dumbing down" and politicizing of subject matter in education, mangling of the writing of history and of art history, war on tonality in classical music and the study of Greek and Latin in our great universities.

To this extent, readers of the book enjoy an advantage over those who waited to read the essays at intervals in the New Criterion's monthly pages. One is able to consider the aspect of the European past each essayist is addressing in relation to numerous others, and the mental juxtapositions, both explicit and (sometimes even better) implicit, are exciting.

Two essays that pull no punches on the cultural-political front are those of the novelist and historian David Pryce-Jones and Anne Applebaum, a political columnist based in London. These pieces have been put at the front of the book, to make the running perhaps.

Mr. Pryce-Jones allows that the "new softened Europe" is not all bad but fears, and feistily, a narrowing of the definition of culture to the point where prosperity is valued for its own sake at the expense of traditional moral choices. He sees in an emerging Europe dominated by Brussels, and in decline of the nation-state, traces of the "ancient ghosts" of totalitarianism, a Europe in which, thanks to the welfare state and government institutionalization of the arts, the past will be kept in "pickling jars."

Miss Applebaum's essay is even more alarming in its way, being based not on analysis or speculation so much as plain fact available for all to see. She begins with a visit to Prague, now free and bustling with market capitalism, but also where former Soviet paraphernalia is sold on the streets as if nothing particularly evil were signified by it - this is in contrast to in Germany, where sporting a swastika would be unthinkable. Miss Applebaum's great fear is that the lack of any public reckoning of communism's sins (she counts the Czech Republic's and East Germany's lustration laws merciful exceptions) is blocking the path to any truly open political society.

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