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.)


Miss Self-Important said...

Was there ever such a "conservatism of culture" as you describe? Even the people most dedicated to reading old books, to whose own old books you are now dedicated, have fallen prey to the temptation to also read newer ones. Hobbes and Locke: big readers of their contemporaries, for example. Rousseau: reader of trash novels and great promoter of Daniel Defoe, a writer perhaps not among the first rank of writers (though I've not read him enough to call that my own judgment, so on this I defer to the popular judgment). In the 20th C., Strauss gave much to the cultural conservative mindset that attracted you, but also read and defended detective stories or mystery novels or something like that.

Your complaint seems to be based on a mutual exclusion between defending old books and reading new ones, but why would that be? Some (anglophilic) cultural conservatives like Waugh and Chesterton and they might rank them above other contemporary writers, but I can't think of any who would elevate them above ancient or early Christian writers.

Nicholas said...

The argument is about revealed preferences, as our social scientist colleagues would say: anyone with sense will rank Augustine above Chesterton, but the sort of person who would engage in that ranking in the first place is far more likely to spend time on Chesterton and read more deeply into his ouvre. It doesn't mean anything to praise the classics if you never read them; talk is cheap.

As to whether there ever was such a conservatism of culture, I do believe there was: Eliot and F.R. Leavis and I.A. Richards, who were concerned about properly canonizing and ranking amongst historical figures, and who all evinced a healthy skepticism of even those new things they liked (Eliot turned down Auden's first book of poetry when at Faber even though he thought it showed promise). I think that's a better model than most of what has come after, though I think conservative cultural commentary still believes itself to be working in that manner.

My concern is that, absent some concerted effort along these lines, the 'conservative' in 'conservative approach to culture' will mean something more like 'dogmatically in line with conservatism as a political/social phenomenon' than 'attempting to preserve the best of the past.' (My fear is that this is already what it means.) And perhaps this would even be fine, were it not for the lip service paid to that great tradition which is mostly neglected.

I must be missing the point about Hobbes and Locke reading their contemporaries, because it seems like a non-sequitir on my argument. The point was rather than there's a tendency to overvalue those contemporary things that are read, which conservatives of all people should be the last to do, and a tendency to use those to displace the classics (not that it must be so by an immutable law: just that, by revealed preferences, this seems to be what happens).

Miss Self-Important said...

So Eliot's concern (never heard of those other dudes, sorry) with ranking and canonizing IS conservative, while contemporary rankers and canonizers are just covering up their revealed preference for the new? Would you prefer if they talked publicly only about Augustine (revealed preference) but secretly devoured Agatha Christie novels? Or should serious cultural conservatives avoid contact w/ genre fiction and other middle-brow vulgarity (like say, indie music)? How, moreover, can we identify the contemporary things that will last throughout time? Should that simply be left to the workings of history, or the cultural liberals?

Who specifically are you accusing of this philistinism? There are many academics (Deneen, Lawler, A. Jacobs come to mind; probably you can think of more) whose academic publications are mainly about old books but who, thanks to the advent of teh internets, expend a lot of verbiage on pop culture. Is that the kind of mis-allocation of preference that you find problematic? Should they focus their internet commentary on preserving Augustine instead in order to re-shape their audiences' preferences, or get off the internet altogether?

The Locke/Hobbes point was that they valued their contemporaries (each other, for example, and also Descartes, Spinoza, Grotius, Pufendorf, etc) and this prioritization didn't seem to detract from their reading or valuing the ancients. But yes, sure, none of these people claimed to be "cultural conservatives," they were just noted readers and users of old books.

Nicholas said...

I'm not actually expressing my own opinion about the relative value of the new and old, which I would not label in any sense conservative. It just seems to me that it's a linguistically funny usage of "conservative" if they're people whose way of approaching culture is the same as anyone else's and not devoted to conserving anything in particular.

Miss Self-Important said...

But who are these people? And what would "particular" conservation look like? Writing academic books on the object of conservation? Writing blog posts on it? Converting to Anglicanism and becoming a British citizen as a testament to one's devotion to it?

Helen Rittelmeyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Helen Rittelmeyer said...

Unlike MSI, I absolutely recognize the phenomenon you’re talking about here—possibly because I thought first of journalists rather than academics? Certainly in conservative journalism one gets the impression that 80 percent of the people writing it have read Flannery O’Connor, C.S. Lewis, Jane Austen, Edmund Burke, Evelyn Waugh, and G. K. Chesterton, and no one else. If I had the authority to declare a “No One Mention the Big Six” month, I would.

The worst offenders are usually folks right out of college, which makes me wonder whether the problem is that their English and Philosophy professors didn’t do a very good job of teaching them to love first-rate, non-middlebrow literature. If they had been properly introduced to the rewards waiting for them in Henry James and Shakespeare and Augustine, then they wouldn’t fall so easily for flashy guys like Chesterton, right? And, on the other hand, if a bright kid with a vague sense that the past is important were forced to explore literature on his own, with no guidance to speak of, aren’t reader-friendly writers like Lewis and Waugh exactly who you’d expect him to go for?

That’s why the hypocrisy accusation (“the average conservative never reads any of the classics whose importance he defends”) doesn’t bother me. Maybe conservatives holler about great books precisely because they weren’t educated in how to love them, and they feel that lack acutely. Maybe the average young conservative knows—consciously or subconsciously—that he’s not the sort of person who gets more pleasure from Augustine than from Chesterton, he realizes that that's a bad thing, and he wants to blame someone else for it.

I'm not saying that wanting to blame someone else for your own intellectual failings is particularly honorable. I'm just saying that this psychological explanation is one way to make sense of this phenomenon.

Nicholas said...

Yes, pretty much what Helen said re: the audience in question: journalists, people in the higher-brow but journalism-ish industry, and people who take their cues from same. Academics, I think, tend to mostly be like other academics in this regard: HPT types and intellectual historians are all pretty much agreed on the value of the classics whatever other political positions they might hold (to pick an example I know well, Peter Euben might not like the idea of a canon, but he also believes there's a value to reading and knowing Plato, perhaps even over contemporary sources).

Re: Helen's point: I pretty much agree with it, though I'd put a more negative valence on it, since there is literally nothing stopping the average person of this disposition from educating themselves, via libraries or the internet and the endless lists of Great Books. If Aristotle's right and virtue comes through habituation, it's not like there's another way to come into this knowledge than to do the work of getting it. (And: obviously I'm not claiming this should be anyone's mission 100% of the time, just that the barriers to entry are not as high as they are sometimes made out to be. If the classics weren't classic they would all be a pain to read; treating them as though they are a pain is making an implicit judgment on their worth.)

Miss Self-Important said...

Journalism would seem to be an even more difficult arena than academia for Nick's cultural conservatism to take root. How exactly would 23-year-old kids write about Augustine even if they loved him and wanted to? Is the NR or the Weekly Standard looking for an exegesis of the City of God in the context of Middle East conflict or gender controversies? Here is an Augustinian pitch: one way for women to cope with rape is to remember that a violation of their bodies is not a violation of the soul unless the soul also willed it, so you remain pure in God's eyes, as in the opening chapters of the City of God. I predict great things for this piece.

The cultural conservatives here named were not journalists, but critics and academics, and aren't there are a number of reasons why a 23-year-old editorial assistant at one of the conservative magazines is unlikely to live up to Eliot's standards that don't necessarily indicate a decline in reading or appreciation of great literature, but more like the exigencies of political journalism and the pitfalls of youthful pedantry and inexperience? What will you really get from judging the journalistic output of the 23-year-old against Eliot's criticism? Unfortunately though, the longer you stay in political journalism, the dimmer will your memory of those philosophy books from college become and the less likely you'll be to encounter them again, so it's for the middle-aged that cultural conservatism as a faith-based enterprise might be more salient.

So I still want to know what it is that true cultural conservatives should be doing or writing to demonstrate their cred?

Also, how did Austen and Burke get demoted from the highest ranks?