Culture without the War

By Crim, Elias | The American Conservative, August 2012 | Go to article overview

Culture without the War


Crim, Elias, The American Conservative


Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, Gregory Wolfe, ISI Books, 278 pages

Some 18 years ago, Gregory Wolfe used his position as editor of Image, the excellent arts and letters journal he founded in 1989, to proclaim his position on this country's unceasing culture wars and their politicization of every corner of our lives: understood to be a man of the cultural right, he had decided to become a conscientious objector.

He went on: "I've burnt my draft card to the culture wars. It may sound unpatriotic and irresponsible, but I have come to the conclusion that these wars are unjust and illegitimate, and I will not fight in them. If necessary, I will move to Canada." (The threat was merely rhetorical; Wolfe continues to reside in Seattle.)

Wolfe argued that without projects like Image, the culture wars would expand and our civic life would be increasingly tribalized. "Our culture will then be like the place in Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach, a country 'where ignorant armies clash by night.'"

Regrettably, despite the literate and delightful contributions of Image, the ignorant armies, and even the learned, clash by day as well, having long since adapted to the 24-hour news cycle.

Nevertheless, Wolfe has continued to write essays in his quest to get to the roots, the radices, of our cultural dilemma. And his hopeful answer--one owed to Solzhenitsyn by way of Dostoyevsky and echoed by such eminences as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Russell Kirk--is captured in the disarming title of his new book, Beauty Will Save the World.

He writes:

   Somewhere in our history we
   passed a divide where politics
   began to be more highly valued
   than culture ... Whereas I once
   believed that the decadence of
   the West could only be turned
   around through politics and intellectual
   dialectics, I am now
   convinced that authentic renewal
   can only emerge out of the imaginative
   visions of the artist and the
   mystic.

Yet this is not a retreat into some escapist fantasy, he argues. It rather "involves the conviction that politics and rhetoric are not autonomous forces, but are shaped by the pre-political roots of culture: myth, metaphor, and spiritual experience as recorded by the artist and the saint."

Moreover, the very phrase "culture wars" is an oxymoron: "culture is about nourishment and cultivation, whereas war inevitably involves destruction and the abandonment of the creative impulse."

It's worth noting that Wolfe's credentials as a movement conservative, had he wanted to create for himself a comfy corner somewhere within the great noise machine that is our current politics, are very solid. His father, on staff with the Foundation for Economic Education in the early 1950s, met with the young William F. Buckley Jr. to discuss a new publication to be called National Review. When Reagan swept into office in 1980, Wolfe, a Hillsdale College graduate, was on staff with NR, where his initial euphoria gradually turned into dismay at the carnival of jobbery and hypocrisy that followed the election among his movement pals, many of them eager to join this well-paying "revolution."

While Wolfe is partly engaged here in re-grounding the term conservatism, he is perhaps more comfortable borrowing the older notion of Christian humanism, that of Thomas More and Erasmus. (Wolfe's forthcoming book on Erasmus will surely reflect on his famously eirenic influence amid the more-than-merely-cultural wars of the 16th century.)

In one essay, Wolfe sketches this older notion of humanism and its several hallmarks: 1) a passion for bonae litterae, roughly translatable as the masterpieces of the old Western tradition, in their original languages; 2) the primacy of rhetoric, understood as part of the education that creates engaged and articulate citizens; 3) a return to the sources--in the spirit of, say, the Catholic Ressourcement theological movement--and the development of a historical sensibility. …

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