Modernism & Conservatism: Does the Culture of "The Waste Land" Lead to Freedom-Or Something More?

Article excerpt

Nearly 30 years before he shocked National Review by endorsing Barack Obama for president, senior editor Jeffery Hart announced a divorce of a different kind from the American right. With "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to a Modern American Conservatism"-published in The New Right Papers in 1982 and previewed in NR a few months earlier-Hart split with tradition and declared himself on the side of modernism in art, literature, and morals.

"Despite its recent victories, the conservative cause has been creating unnecessary difficulties for itself," he wrote, and as "a professor of English at Dartmouth, a senior editor of National Review, and a conservative activist"--he might have added former Reagan speechwriter--Hart knew better than most what limits the right's philosophy ran up against. "The fact is, a lot of my students are not sold on conservatism.... They think conservatives are preppies against sex."

Was it true? "In some visible cases, the main content of 'conservatism' seems to be a refusal of experience," he wrote. Yet Hart was arguing not for hedonism but for what he called "the 'proportions' of orthodoxy." He had in mind much more than sex. "The Intelligent Woman's Guide," its title adapted from Shaw, made the case that conservatism was American modernism, at the heart of which lay a drive for freedom. "Americans believe in possibility, in 'making it new,' as Ezra Pound once urged. If conservatism is to be truly American," according to Hart, "it must embrace that sense of possibility."

And with that possibility the culture that expresses it, from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" to Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." Modernism, Hart explained, was not a period but a spirit. Works produced in the first decade of the 20th century could be more modern than anything made today, if they partook of the ethos: "The modern artist is concerned to assert his freedom, and that involves an adversary relationship to past conventions. A modern work creates its own conventions and does not take them over from previous works," even if it appropriates fragments from the past. This bric-a-brac approach is part of what it means to be modern: "Freedom implies an eclectic style."

Hart's essay seemingly won no converts-a symposium of reactions in the December 25, 1981 NR was entirely negative, including objections from Hart's colleagues Joseph Sobran, Linda Bridges, Rick Brookhiser, and Charles Kesler. The last, a disciple of Harry Jaffa, couched his critique in terms worthy of the master: Hart was "going backward ... from Burke to Hegel to Marx and Nietzsche.... The language of authenticity belongs to Heidegger, but the politics of emotion and authenticity belong to Hitler."

So far, so bad. If "An Intelligent Woman's Guide" was a dud 30 years ago, why would anyone want to give it a second look now? The fact that Hart has become the most outspoken "Obamacon" of 2012 only heightens suspicion that the Dartmouth don left the right long ago and has since been a liberal in conservatives' clothing.

But Hart was right: there is a deep connection be- tween modernism and conservatism-not, however, because modernism means freedom but because modernism shows us what comes after freedom has run to disillusionment.

Irving Babbitt, the Harvard professor of Romance languages who was one of the preeminent conservative minds of the 20th century's first decades, provides a definition of modernism that complements Hart's: "The modern spirit is the positive and critical spirit, the spirit that refuses to take things on authority." Modern man cannot take things on authority, simply because there are no authorities left. Democracy, religious liberty, scientific inquiry, and free markets have torn down the old hierarchies that once set the standards for art, morals, and philosophical truth in the Western world.

This transition from classes to the masses largely overlapped the 19th century, though it only completed itself at the time literary modernism arose--shortly before (and flourishing after) World War I. …

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