March 11th, 2009

Captive Dreams

(no subject)

You Just Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Stefan McDaniel

One Stefan McDonald writes this Elsewhere.  Those of us in mourning for Western Civilization pass it on, FWW. 

A friend of mine who is studying in England ordered a book from the library. His order was canceled for the following reason: UNABLE TO FETCH BOOK KEPT ON TOP SHELF IN GALLERY. DUE TO NEW HEALTH & SAFETY MEASURES STEP LADDERS CAN NO LONGER BE USED.

McDonald hopes that soon the library will hire a professional Step Ladder Technician.

Speaking of Not Making This Up

The following was in a 1994 essay recently encountered on the Web:

“I know I have let you down, but I have also let myself down.” So said Tonya Harding at a press conference, admitting that she had been hiding knowledge about the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. Jane Alpert, a 1960s radical who had taken part in bombings that injured twenty-one people, said she had spent years in therapy “learning to understand, to tolerate and forgive both others and myself.” Lorena Bobbitt’s lawyer said the acquittal was “a giant step forward for Lorena in the healing process. She really needs healing.” And Michael Jackson’s lawyer, announcing a multimillion dollar settlement for alleged child molestation: “Michael wants to get on with his life and let the healing process begin.” Then there are the Menendez brothers. Testifying for the defense, the psychologist says of Lyle: “He had this strong love for his father. And the conditions that had been produced meant he had lost his father. He no longer had this person he loved.” The condition that Lyle had produced is called patricide.

Glad to hear, of course, that Lorena Bobbit needed healing, though I suspect that Mr. Bobbit may have needed a bit more.  And more peopole that Michael Jackson may have needed to get on with their lives.  The essay continues:

“The themes are self-betrayal and self-forgiveness. They reflect perfectly a culture in which one no longer sins against God, natural law, the moral order, society, or even one’s fellow man-to take them in descending metaphysical order-but against oneself.” In the Menendez case: “Their trial has elevated therapeutic expiation to truly comic proportions. The classic definition of chutzpah is a person who murders his parents and then demands mercy from the court on the grounds that he is an orphan. . . .

All of this is no doubt appropriate for the 50th Anniversary of Jacques Barzun's The House of Intellect. 

An Amiable Stupidity

In a retrospective of Barzun's The House of Intellect, R.R.Reno writes:

[Barzun in 1959]... points out the way in which our egalitarian ethos encourages an “amiable stupidity.” The best man for a committee is someone who is cheerful, optimistic, and incapable of disturbing others with critical thoughts. The trend continues. These days the single most important qualification for academic administration is the ability to project an “empowering” and “inclusive” style of leadership.  He foresees the soft relativism of our day, noticing the way in which people take all the edges off conversations. Well-socialized people begin their sentences with “I feel,” or “I may be wrong but,” or “I’m only thinking aloud.” “The lexicon of pussyfooting,” he observes, “is familiar.” Things have only gotten worse.

Certain images recur: abdication, desire for release, and exhausted impotence. The adult world of achieved self-discipline abdicates to an adolescent world of spontaneity and desire. Among those charged with responsibility for cultural standards, Barzun sees a strong desire for “a release from responsibility.” People “idealize youth” and “hope that youth will bring to the conduct of life an energy that manners have sapped in their elders.” The really smart and ambitious intellectuals read the signs of the times and strike poses accordingly: “Nowadays it is assumed that all attacks on culture are equal in virtue, and that attacking society, because it is society, is the one aim and test of genius.”

Because these words were written in the late 1950s, they help us see that the 1960s was not the result of a youth movement. It is best understood as an abdication of the elders, a renunciation of responsibility by the adults. The Bourgeois Era ended because its intellectual project crumbled. The guardians of Western culture determined that they were custodians of inhumanity. Barzun pictures for us the forward-thinking man of the late Fifties, wearing a suit, going to the tastefully decorated offices of the Ford or Rockefeller Foundations. “He may be a minor foundation official living rather comfortably off some dead tycoon, but he talks like Baudelaire.”

This imaged foundation official circa 1957 tells the tale. The children and grandchildren of the old Bourgeois elite decided to throw their lot with the Bohemian project. We are to live as we wish, and the primary intellectual project these days is to beat down whatever remains of the old Bourgeois forms of sacred order. Repressive! Patriarchal! Logocentric!

By [Barzun's] reckoning, the modern bourgeois form of intellectual self-discipline and honesty “is a broom with which to clear the mind of cant.”  This tradition of reflection helps us avoid “trumpery art,” “ideological drugs, “facile enthusiasms,” and a simple-minded worship of science. Intellect encourages what Barzun calls “fineness” and “virtuosity.” One does not just have opinions or commitments. One has a fabric of considered views that are woven from the threads of inherited traditions. They are nuanced, tenuous, and shaded with all manner of uncertainty, but even so, for the Bourgeois intellectual, considered views have the serious weight of truth, a weight that gives shape to one’s sense of self.

And the Bohemian project? It retails itself as the royal road to self-discovery through the alchemy of self-expression. It promises a more “real,” more authentic, and more individual existence. As Barzun suggests, the claims are hollow. The emerging Bohemian Era will be anti-intellectual: characterized by an externalized and collective sense of purpose (politics über alles) and an undifferentiated, amorphous inner life (the empire of desire).

Barzun was right to view the future with foreboding. Our Bohemian Era is and will be crude and thoughtless. All you need to do is go to P.S. 1, the contemporary gallery run by the Museum of Modern Art in Long Island City. It is full of flat, ideological gestures and great gushers of the id.

We had, too, at the same time a warning from outgoing President Eisenhower about the Government-Science complex.  This was in the same speech in which he warned against the Military-Industrial complex, although for some reason it is less often mentioned in polite, post-Barzunian company.  Eisenhower observed that science was passing away from the lone scientist-inventor and into the hands of bureacratized teams dependent on government funding.  He worried that the priorities of funders would begin to influence what scientists looked at, and even what conclusions they would feel constrained to reach, lest they offend their funding sources.  This can be clearly seen when the funding source is Those Guys, although when they are Our Guys a dispassionate objectivsm is somehow assumed.  Couple that with publish-or-perish and we feel the chill wind of the death of science.  Scientists feel compelled to publish snippets and partial results.  There is no time for deep thought or the years of reflection and self-questioning that a Copernicus, Newton, or Darwin once engaged in. 

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The Paper That Would Not Die