A part cut out from the long post on realism and contemporary culture, still in progress:
One of the attractions of conservatism when I was in college was its cultural aspect: as an avid reader of old books, I found only in conservatism the idea that the very activity I was engaging in anyway was worthwhile, that for a book to maintain its importance over centuries or millennia meant something, and that we should, as a rule, defer our judgment on all matters until taking a judicious sampling of the opinions of the past. (I have since learned that the correct term for this view is "political theory")
Except, as it turns out, this is not what conservatism of culture is about these days. Instead, it is dedicated to raising the profile of second-tier authors of the 20th century ('middlebrow,' if you prefer) and the third-tier authors of the present day, so long as their writings may be used to buttress the conclusions already determined.* I have read a lot of Graham Greene, who is certainly a fine writer, but not a significant one; I've read less Evelyn Waugh or G.K. Chesterton, in part because it is not difficult to detect the unpleasant personality just below the surface (if that); and T.S. Eliot is certainly a fine poet (though an awful playwright or, if you prefer, as good a master of theater dialogue as Whit Stillman is of film dialogue, which is to say not at all, though in neither case is it entirely the point, even if it remains a deficiency), but minor when compared to the rest of English verse. Moreover, I'm not sure any of these people would have disagreed with the assessment of their own place. Yet they are read to the exclusion of the classics, re-read lovingly, and quoted as though they contain all the wisdom of the universe.
The average (cultural!) conservative never reads any of those classics whose importance he defends, or reads them at a rate of one a year (or less) as a task to be done in order to maintain credibility, or as a necessary eating of vegetables. This makes him subject to the same trends and rages as the rest of culture, but because he thinks of himself as removed from the crowd, he remains unaware that he is being so affected.
*(Dave Brubeck, the John Mayer of his day, came in for unseemly and unmerited praise after he died after it was discovered that he converted to Catholicism. Dave Brubeck was not in any way path-breaking or significant to the history of jazz; heck, he wasn't even the best kind-of-square white guy combo leader at the time: that was Bill Evans. And Bill Evans, as much as I like him, was no Thelonious Monk, who was actually a genius and significantly important.)
Labels: general musings on culture