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.

Keith Windschuttle, the Australian writer, gives a taste of the argument in his own new book ("The Killing of History," Free Press) by showing how the writing of history has changed for the worse over the past 30 years. He discusses a book called "Millenium: A History of the Last Thousand Years," in which Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (an Oxford don) throws away the traditional story of European civilization's march in favor of a theory that the real governing influence all that time has been the seas, with movement from the China sea to Mediterranean, to Atlantic and now back to Pacific rim. The debt to Fernand Braudel and the French Analystes is clear, but Mr. Windschuttle has plenty more, and worse, to offer.

Mr. Kramer, like Mr. Windschuttle, is exercised over historiography, in his case the writing of art history. He swoops down on Svetlana Alpers' book, "The Making of Rubens," in which she explains the painter's work on homosexual grounds at the total expense of aesthetic analysis. Mr. Kramer then looks at the new "Oxford History of Art" (the first five voumes are now out) and sees something similar. He scans a wretched present, typified by the eroticised self-portraiture of Robert Mapplethorpe, and measures much ground needing to be won back.

Clearly, the scene in the visual arts is grim. But turning to another art, music, Roger Scruton in his essay discerns encouraging signs of a return to tonality - the combination of melody and harmony central to Western classical music until declared worn out by Arnold Schonberg and attacked by Theodore Adorno and the Frankfurt School. The philosopher sees a way back of sorts in the "half-serious" music, somewhere between classical and popular, of a composer like Henryk Gorecki.

Such cautious optimism goes well with the stoic thought of the theater critic John Gross in his piece that television when it came in did not corrupt viewers' tastes so much as "serve preexisting tastes all too faithfully." Nor is it so far from another insight offered by Mr. Gross that "dumbing down" is the real problem, there being nothing wrong with vulgarity in itself, vulgarity being "democracy's natural accompaniment."

There is a hardiness to such positions and the feeling that people may be more resilient and less easily taken in than their intellectual betters fear. It brings to mind Mark Steyn's essay, in which the Canadian writer and critic wittily decries, among other horrors, a vulgarization by elites that destroys all distinction between high culture and low.

The book is dedicated to the late John Herington, onetime professor of Greek at Yale, who in his essay anatomizes with great patience the factors making it hard nowadays to study and teach Greek and Latin ("the anthologists arrive within the walls a century or so before the barbarians"). He touches too upon the crisis of literacy lower down the educational food chain (the word being attacked by "a roaring torrent" of images).

But - encouraging again - Mr. Herington does all this while reckoning up the prospects for another renaissance of the kind seen periodically down the European centuries and possibly even now portended by some of the better classics publishing projects in the universities and by poets of the stripe of Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott.

Mr. Herington's essay comes about halfway through the book but is a perfect compliment to that of Mr. Kimball, whose focus in his essay on Latinity in the European past and our debt to it wraps up the volume. Mr. Kimball's sweep, taking off from Robert Curtius' 1948 book, "European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages," and working through the mixed legacy of the European Enlightenment and French Revolution, rise of popular democracy and modernism to the postmodernist, postcolonialist "ruins" (Mr. Gross' word) is quite splendid.

I am not sure that Mr. Kimball is even as encouraged by the prospects as Mr. Herington or Mr. Scruton, and, as an American, he certainly is not so undismayed as are Mr. Gross and Mr. Mount in their seen-it-all British way. Which brings me back to where I began and the feeling that while much has been lost, there is plenty left on which a suitably chastened future generation may build.



Edited and with an Introduction by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball

Ivan R. Dee, $26, 233 pages

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