Friday, November 3, 2017

A Revolution of the Mind (2010)

by Jonathan Israel

I was initially intrigued by A Revolution of the Mind because of Jonathan Israel’s thesis, that while the idea of revolutionary change that began in the Enlightenment has waned—after producing not only the American Revolution but subsequent revolutions in France and, a century later, in Russia—the actual ideals of Radical Enlightenment have become far more pervasive internationally than most people realize. The problem is, that isn’t his thesis at all. Israel is an authority on the Enlightenment, having written a number of books on the subject, this one based on a series of lectures given at Oxford in 2008. Unfortunately, the book is a challenge to read. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the scholarship. In fact, Israel’s command of the thinkers of the period and their ideas is impressive. What seems to be lacking is a coherent narrative, with similar ideas and expressions scattered throughout the book rather than dealt with individually and for a specific purpose. It’s still compelling reading, but repeated elucidation of the same ideas—sometimes by the same writers—feels redundant at times. The other negative is that many of his sentences are tortuous in execution and take some real work to tease out their true meaning. In re-reading them they appear much clearer, but in many instances they can hardly be said to flow. Ultimately the book seems to be less about the influence of the Enlightenment on later centuries and more about the differences between the two competing factions of thought at the time. And that, it turns out, is an incredibly important idea that has been virtually ignored by historians, and what makes the book itself so important in retrospect.

Israel makes a distinction right away between the moderate ideas of the Enlightenment period in history, which tended to advocate slow and gradual change over time, and what he calls Radical Enlightenment, “an originally clandestine movement of ideas, almost entirely hidden from public view during its earliest phase (the late seventeenth century).

          Radical Enlightenment is a set of basic principles that can be summed up concisely as: democracy;
          racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression and the
          press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separa-
          tion of church and state. It sees the purpose of the state as being the wholly secular one of promo-
          ting the worldly interests of the majority and preventing vested minority interests from capturing
          control of the legislative process. It’s chief maxim is that all men have the same basic needs, rights,
          and status. (vii-viii)

All of this hardly seems radical today, but that is just Israel’s point. While in one sense the history of the United States can be viewed as a long, slow, steady decline from the ratifying of the Constitution in 1789, with religion, racism, sexism, intolerance for free speech, intrusion into personal lifestyle all trying to claw their way back to prominence in American political life—and with some success—there are still a majority of people in this country who hold dear those ideals that were promoted over three hundred years ago with only one thought in mind: to make people’s lives better. Surprisingly, according to Israel, “the history of this process—the gradual advance of the ideas underpinning democratic Enlightenment in the modern era—remains very little studied or known. Indeed, there exists scarcely any historical accounts that analyze and narrate the story of the origins and rise of modern equality, democracy, individual liberty, and freedom of thought in their intellectual, social, and political context” (ix).

Israel’s goals are ambitious and laudable. The unconscious nature of Western ideals means that they are vulnerable to being undermined by “long-dormant monarchical, aristocratic, and religious ideologies, privileged oligarchies and elites,” as well as “various Counter-Enlightenment popular movements that so resolutely and vehemently combat egalitarian and democratic values” around the world—and that includes the United States. (x-xi) “The risk,” he claims, “in considering our core values as purely abstract concepts,” is that they “remain only weakly embedded in education, the media, and in many people’s minds.” The paradox, here, in terms of American culture, is that an abstract idea of what the United States is was necessary for the cohesion of a population that had little else to bind it. This became especially crucial as immigration, expansion, and the Civil War threatened to destroy the tenuous bonds that existed between citizens of widely differing backgrounds. Authors Patrick J. Deneen and Joseph Romance make this clear in their book, Democracy’s Literature:

          Because of the continental expanse of the American system, such identification with the whole
          increasingly required a philosophic frame of mind. Devotion was not to “land” or place as such,
          but to the idea of America. We were a people devoted to a proposition, according to Lincoln, not
          to a particular piece of land in which generations of our ancestors were buried. America presented
          a unique challenge: how to cultivate a generalized philosophic disposition in the citizenry of such a
          sprawling and “abstract” nation . . . America was faced with a challenge—seemingly insurmountable—
          of making philosophy sufficiently accessible and broad yet sufficiently profound to forge a democratic
          seemingly insurmountable—citizenry on a mass scale. (Deneen 3).

For Israel, those necessarily abstract notions of America tend to lose their meaning in isolation, and for citizens to truly appreciate the kind of egalitarian principles that this country was founded on it requires that “Not only scholars but the general reading, debating, and voting public need some awareness of the tremendous difficulty, struggle, and cost involved in propagating our core ideas” (x, xii). In terms of the specific importance of this understanding for Americans, Israel makes clear what have been the two most dangerous enemies of freedom in this country for the last fifty years: anti-intellectualism and the capitalist oligarchy.

          Who can doubt that ignorance and credulity, identified by the eighteenth-century radical enlighteners
          as the prime cause of human degradation and oppression, remain still the foremost foes of democracy,
          equality, and personal freedom; or that an informal aristocracy, like that which arose in America,
          eventually nurturing vast inequality of wealth, can endanger equality and individual liberty as much as
          any formal nobility based on lineage, rank, and legally anchored privilege? (xii)

The book proper starts, rightly, with the great minds of the late seventeenth century, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Bayle, chief among them Spinoza. What Israel stresses is the theoretical nature of their thought, and the immense challenges that lay ahead of them for implementing the kinds of change they believed possible in order to make life better for all of humanity. Their pessimism, however, was borne out of a sense of the practical rather than the possible. “The notion, still widespread today,” says Israel, “that Enlightenment thinkers nurtured a naïve belief in man’s perfectability seems to be a complete myth conjured up by early twentieth-century scholars, unsympathetic to its claims” (3). Writers like Voltaire, Kant, Turgot and Hume, while expressing the Enlightenment belief in the ability of the mind to ennoble humanity, did not embrace the kind of egalitarianism that Israel is talking about. This, of course, is in direct opposition to someone like Thomas Paine, who advocated for nothing less than the wholesale reformation of European society. Many of the moderate thinkers simply couldn’t see what Paine did, from his vantage point of the successful American Revolution. For them, it was all well and good that the British in North America had thrown off their colonial yoke from three thousand miles away, but historically monarchical Europe was a different world. And the French Revolution only seemed to prove their point. Again, practical considerations tended to limit the scope of imagination in mainstream Enlightened thought. While Paine advocated something on the order of early suggestions during the Space Race—namely landing a man on the moon and worrying about how to get him back later—many thinkers of the day were not willing to take that kind of risk to achieve their aims. Hume, reflecting the views of many, “urged extreme caution—though admittedly not outright conservatism—when evaluating plans for the future depending on any ‘derangement in the only scenes with which we are acquainted’” (15).

This dichotomy of thought between radical and moderate Enlightenment thinking is actually plaguing us to this day, especially in the United States. As Israel points out, “all these were essentially either/or questions. Either history is infused by divine providence or it is not. Either one endorses a society of ranks or embraces equality, one approves representative democracy or opposes it . . . (18). The problem with the moderate Enlightenment is that it postulated “a balance between reason and tradition . . . broadly supporting the status quo” (19). Twentieth-century philosopher Max Horkheimer, in his book Eclipse of Reason, renamed these two elemental ways of thinking as “objective reason” and “subjective reason.”

          Objective reason aspires to replace traditional religion with methodical
          philosophical thought and insight to become a source of tradition all by itself . . .
          Subjective reason . . . is inclined to abandon the fight with religion by setting
          up two different brackets, one for science and philosophy, and one for
          institutionalized mythology, thus recognizing both of them. (Horkheimer 12)

Unfortunately the modern mind does not recognize both of them equally. Objective reason has not been a strong enough truth to dislodge mythology from the minds of religious believers; it has not been allowed to become a “source of tradition” but simply another stream of truth in the believer’s mind that, when faced with a choice between the two, will almost always take the path of irrationality, like atheists in foxholes who then pray for salvation. Israel makes it clear, however, that “it is essential to avoid simply equating the split with the difference between theists and atheists” (19). At the time the split was far more along political and philosophical lines, while today Horkheimer’s subjective rationalism does center primarily on religion. But in the eighteenth century there was also another way of thinking that was embodied by the “Counter-Enlightenment, a system of ideas that rejected both kinds of Enlightenment, insisting on the primacy of faith and tradition, not reason, as the chief guides in human existence” (34-35).

What makes the book so meaningful for today is that the United States seems to be dealing with exactly the same issues, all of which can be understood historically. The reason that the French Revolution takes such a prominent place in the revolutionary history of the period, rather than the earlier and successful American Revolution, is that the United States failed to abolish slavery, thus rendering it an incomplete revolution. The other failing of the American Revolution from the perspective of radical Enlightenment thinkers was the retention of an American aristocracy, again, another vestige of the past that continues to haunt the country to this day in the form of a capitalist oligarchy. In the words of French philosopher Denis Diderot, written shortly after the Declaration, he warned the colonists to “fear a too unequal division of wealth resulting in a small number of opulent citizens and a multitude of citizens living in misery, from which there arises the arrogance of the one and the abasement of the other” (45). One explanation for the failure of the American Revolution to fully exploit radical Enlightenment ideals is the relative stability and comfort enjoyed by the former British colonists. “European writers visiting America in the 1780s and 1790s . . . noted that practically everyone in the United States enjoyed at least a modicum of dignity and prosperity, as well as liberty, whereas most men and women in Europe eked out their lives in hardship and destitution” (51).

The great irony here is that many of the European poor, while their lives were arguably worse than Americans of the same station, were the least likely to advocate for a kind of radical change that might makes some meaningful difference in their lives, and instead supported a gradual approach that was far less likely to institute change in their lifetimes. They did this for the simple fact that moderate ideas carried with them the perception of the possible. In their minds, radical ideas were doomed to be quashed and ignored, while moderate ideas stood at least a chance of being implemented.

          It is worth noting that in Britain the bulk of the lower and middle orders of society proved entirely
          willing to unite under crown and Parliament in decrying radical activity and seditious writings.
          But this was because, behind the scenes, democratic and egalitarian ideas were gaining ground
          and a fierce defensiveness, even signs of desperation were taking hold of the ancien régime’s
          defenders. (35)

Barron d’Holbach refused to blame this timidity on the people, however, and put the responsibility where it belonged, on the nobility that had all but turned its backs on the people. “‘A morally blind politics,’ proclaimed d’Holbach, ‘guided by interests contrary to those of society does not allow men to become enlightened either about their own rights, or their true duties, or about the true ends of the association which it continually subverts’” (57-58). The answer to this problem—and others posed by a tyranny of the majority in a direct democracy, or the siren song of the tyrant himself—was representative democracy of the kind eventually adopted by the United States. On this point the radical thinkers were all in agreement.

Another interesting division between the two competing modes of though is the emphasis on the proper place of the individual in society. For the moderate thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others like him, the average man had no need for social interaction, and best performed his function in society as an individual. For the radicals, however, nothing could be further from the truth, and renouncing society, according to d’Holbach, was “wholly misconceived and immoral” (57). The radicals, it turns out, were correct in their assumptions, something author Tim Blanning points out in his book on the period, in emphasizing what he considers one of the major factors in the successes of the revolutionary period.

          Whatever their social complexion, all European states had to come to terms with the emergence of
          a new kind of cultural space—the public sphere . . . a forum in which previously isolated individuals
          could come together to exchange information, ideas and criticism. Whether communicating with
          each other at long range by subscribing to the same periodicals, or meeting face to face in a coffee-
          house or in one of the new voluntary associations, such as a reading club or Masonic lodge, the public
          acquired a collective weight far greater than the sum of its individual members. (Blanning xxiv)

In modern times the ability of the majority to communicate with each other has been obliterated by providing the citizenry with far more information than they can possibly be expected to sift through. As a result, people tend to communicate only with like-minded individuals, resulting in the same kind of isolation that people face in the early seventeenth-century.

Economic divisions are tackled next, as the more moderate thinkers advocated for unlimited free trade. While at first this seems a far left position—and it is even called liberal economic theory—one can see why the radicals disliked it. Those with money already, the nobility, the clergy, the landed classes, were able to use their wealth to invest and finance, and could afford to take losses once in a while. Those who had no accumulated wealth, then, were unable to participate fully in the nation’s economic life and were relegated to working for those with capital. It’s easy to see in this position a nascent Marxist theory in which working for wealthy business owners is simply another form of tyranny, this time economic, which was decidedly not in the best interests of the majority of people and in practice almost indistinguishable from current forms of noble privilege. Nevertheless, the radicals did not believe that this kind of future Marxist philosophy would be beneficial to workers either. “While championing egalitarianism, however, Diderot, Helvétius, and d’Holbach firmly disavowed any intention of leveling society or seeking to impose full economic equality, which, they appreciated, would inevitably establish a new form of tyranny” (96-97). Again, the radicals were prescient and one only has to look at the twentieth century attempts at Communism to see their greatest fears at work. Nevertheless, in criticizing the works of free-market economists like Smith and Turgot, “Diderot argues, no one has the right to sanction manipulation of price rises in grain while his fellows succumb to famine” (118). And yet this is precisely the situation that we are faced with today, another task left to this generation to complete.

The next chapter focuses on the ability of the state to make war, and the reality that it is the people who bear the brunt of the consequences, both as soldiers and civilians. But where moderates were able to make arguments that economics and social instability weren’t necessarily the fault of the nobility, the act of making war could be laid nowhere else but at the feet of the monarchy. More than in any other sphere this supports Israel’s assertion of enlightened thought as an either/or proposition. The only way to assure against the caprice and whim of the monarch for war . . . was to remove the monarch. “Moderate Enlightenment, then, and Rousseauism lacked any political strategy that could conceivably produce the kind of structural changes capable of transforming the existing order so as to diminish the likelihood of war” (129). The moderates used a tactic common today among the right wing, arguing that while war is an unfortunate occurrence it would be folly to disarm and fall prey to those who don’t, conveniently sidestepping the issue of who is ultimately to blame for pulling the trigger—pun intended. On one side is Adam Ferguson, asserting that war is “the will of Providence,” and that only in the prosecution of war “the virtues of human nature are its happiest, no less than they are so in reaping the fruits of peace.” For the radicals, though, this idea is as ridiculous as it sounds.

          These wars, fought purely in the interests of monarchs, courtiers, aristocratic cliques, financiers,
          and merchants, they considered an inherent part of tyranny, an injustice abominably destructive
          and irrational caused directly by the system of authority, nobility and princely courts . . . in which
          many tens of thousands of soldiers were killed or maimed fighting all across the world for reasons
          few had the slightest inkling of, and which bore no relation to the true interests either of the population
          or of the soldiers and their families. (131)

The last hundred years of warfare by the United States certainly bear this out with “financiers, and merchants” the only ones who have benefitted, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, and the citizen soldiers and their families doing all the suffering. The radicals were also prescient in proposing something like the United Nations, an international body of democratic republics that would be the ultimate arbiter in a world that had no more need for war. The flaw in the modern implementation of this idea is that not enough countries today are democratic republics.

Israel then moves on to deal with morality, the most obvious schism between moderate thinkers still in the thrall of church and king, and the radicals who believed that morality does not need to be imposed from without: “morality is a universal, purely secular system based on a conception of justice wholly separate from, indeed best cultivated without, the influence of any particular religion” (154-155). One of the most fascinating responses to this is by Rousseau who, while disagreeing with the radicals, could actually find no rational argument against them and could therefore only resort to an anti-intellectual rebuttal.

          He calls Diderot, d’Holbach and their disciples, “ardent missionaries of atheism,” so intolerant in
          practice that they were incapable of not losing patience with anyone thinking differently from them-
          selves. Rousseau again admits, though, that . . . he could find no adequate arguments in terms of
          reason with which to oppose their contentions. It was his heart, his feelings, he emphasizes, not
          reasoning, that told him they were wrong. (159)

In fact, the entire anti-intellectual stance of religion was one that was going to inevitably put moderates in conflict with the radicals, especially where morality was concerned. “Revealed religion, maintained the radical philosophes, fragments rather than consolidates society, undermining true morality by extolling credulity and ignorance and discouraging science” (165). Those who argued that religion was the only way to ensure moral behavior, however, were drawing on a terminally weak hand, for if it did, “we would surely not daily hear of assassination, rapine, and brigandage in Europe’s most devoutly religious lands, such as Spain and Italy” (168). Parallels today are numerous. Just one is that while enlightened countries like Great Britain and Australia have been able to legislate just laws that have reduced gun violence almost completely, we are stuck with a credulous and ignorant electorate that is willing to accept an astronomically absurd number of gun deaths every year in the most “advanced” country in the world.

Israel makes some space here to talk about the Scottish Enlightenment, which for me is easily the most important element of the book. It actually helped to make sense of something that had always been a source of confusion for me. In writing about the Scottish Enlightenment, which is usually held up for praise, especially by those writing about the American Revolution, Israel is more accurately able to place it “within its larger international context.” As “opponents of atheism and materialist ideas,” they decidedly fall into the moderate camp and, as such, are far less impressive in terms of their long-range thinking than the radicals. (177) More than that, however, is the way that these particular Enlightenment ideals have been embraced by the right in the United States, something that never seemed to make sense. But Israel puts it all into clear focus. “Precisely the social conservatism implicit in Scottish moral thought and its emphatic restricting of philosophical reason by means of faith and theology lay at the root of its immense appeal at the time (and subsequently)” (182). Suddenly the vehement embracing of the Enlightenment aspects of American Revolution by those on the right in U.S. politics makes sense—for the reason that it is not enlightened thinking they are celebrating at all. By citing the Christian thinkers from Scotland to the exclusion of the radical thinkers, the U.S. right continues to support the myth of America as a country founded on religion. It’s a tactic that was even used by counter-Enlightenment writers at the time. “A much-cultivated philosophical strategy of the anti-philosophes was to invoke the great Moderate Enlightenment thinkers” in order to discredit the radicals. “By highlighting in this manner the deep chasm between Radical Enlightenment and Deist mainstream while at the same time also sharply criticizing the later, Christian Moderate Enlightenment refined a powerful rhetoric effective for disparaging and discrediting all the philosophical authors it condemned” (174-175). Thus the religious right in this country can have it both ways, claiming to be enlightened by citing Scottish writers, and keeping their anti-intellectual religious beliefs at the same time. As a result, “Scottish moral sense and, most of all, Scottish Common Sense, were destined for a long and glorious career, remaining for decades highly influential in Germany and Scandinavia as well as Britain and North America” (182).

At the end of his lecture series on the founding of the United States, Daniel N. Robinson contrasted the thoughts of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine in their reactions to the French Revolution. The final chapter of Israel’s book seemed as if it was going to do something similar, with Voltaire representing the moderates, and Spinoza as the founding thinker for the radicals. But instead it really comes off as more of a rehash of what has gone on before. The idea actually makes for an intriguing missed opportunity, however. One of the online reviews of the book says that Israel takes a lot for granted in terms of the reader’s pre-existing knowledge. Had Israel put this chapter at the beginning of the book and spent some time outlining Spinoza’s influence on the radicals, as well as Voltaire’s desperate response, that might have been a good way to provide some crucial background for the reader. In the end, the primary notion that comes out of the book is that there were really two Enlightenments. The first was geared toward the nobility itself, and of course these moderate thinkers supported and justified the existence of the nobility and the church in order to further their own cause. The radicals, on the other hand, “had no other recourse but to turn philosophy into effective ideology and inundate the reading public with its new revolutionary awareness . . . Ultimately, their aim was to transform the political and social framework of modern life” (223). But by far Israel’s most forceful declaration is, however destitute and abused the French people were by the nobility, that fact alone was not enough to account for the revolution that followed. “Indeed, without referring to Radical Enlightenment nothing about the French Revolution makes the slightest sense or can even begin to be provisionally explained” (224). As a result, any history that fails to take into account the importance of the Radical Enlightenment writings—and Israel claims almost none of them do—is incomplete at best, and highly misleading at worst.

This is part of an overall problem with the historiography about this period, in which historians mistakenly attempt to look for the instances that brought about the French Revolution in the area of social change rather than in the area of thought, “some dramatic transformation of conditions, as their primary cause. This seems to be a fallacy . . .” (37). The reason for this becomes clear if one looks at a nearly contemporaneous example: the Industrial Revolution. In that instance the complete reshaping of economic life for the citizens in Great Britain brought about an attendant change of ideas that resulted in the formation of labor unions on up to more radical ideas like the Luddite movement. The revolutionary period of the late eighteenth century, however, was exactly the opposite. “The real structural shift before 1789 has been broadly missed because it was a ‘revolution of the mind’; an intellectual transformation, bringing with it a huge cultural shift” (37-38). Thus it was that the ideas preceded the action as “radical writers hoped that the American Revolution would not just continue internally but also accelerate the process of democratization in Europe, the West Indies, Spanish America and elsewhere” (47). This is a point that Israel would make clear early in the book:

          This does not mean that the whole emphasis should be placed on books and ideas. Rather, the
          interpretation proposed here envisages revolution as a complex interaction of thought and action
          emerging by stages at a particular moment in history. But while great revolutions are always fueled
          by pre-existing social grievances, to create genuine revolution these grievances must be articulated
          in new, forthright, and much broader terms than previously. (87)

To see a negative example of this effect, one only has to read Nancy MacLean’s book Democracy in Chains, to see how the anti-democratic right wing in this country has been attempting to manipulate themselves into complete power for the last fifty years.

It’s difficult to know how to assess Israel’s book. On the one hand there’s a strong sense of abbreviation in the chapters, part and parcel of its original inception as a series of lectures. But at the same time Israel’s other works on the era are gargantuan, in the neighborhood of eight hundred pages or so each. Given that, there’s probably something to be said for the introductory aspect of this book, though it would have been nice if his thesis were clearer in the beginning. What the book is really about is the largely unsung nature of the radical wing of the Enlightenment during the revolutionary era, one that turns out to be more highly influential than historians give it credit for. The big names of the era, Hume, Voltaire, and Locke, it turns out were rather timid and overcautious, while names that I had never really heard of before—as Paine tends to suck the oxygen out of the room in most histories—like Helvétius, Diderot and d’Holbach are given a considerable amount of credit, and deservedly so. The real success of Israel’s book is to place the radical Enlightenment thinkers in their rightful place in the context of the age, especially given some of what passes for scholarship about the era today. It’s easy to miss this because the moderates were the only ones who were able to implement some of their ideas, and so “it has often appeared that they represent the real Enlightenment, the sensible Enlightenment, the Enlightenment that counts . . . But, on closer examination, such an analysis hardly seems plausible” (120). This is the real importance of A Revolution of the Mind, discovering the true thinkers behind the Enlightenment, the true ideas that have gone into creating our own Democracy, and by doing so demonstrating how far we still have to go.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819)

by John Keats

Anyone who knows my literary preferences will know that I have a strong dislike for poetry. In the first place, poems are far too brief to be compared favorably to anything like the sustained effort it takes to produce a novel. But it’s probably the artificiality of the rhyme and meter that put me off the most. I prefer my literature in naturalistic language, and so I will always prefer prose. That being said, there is no denying that there are examples of poetry that are unsurpassed in their beauty and eloquence and must be respected as a the literary equal of any other. John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is just such a poem, and as such has been the source of much spilled ink over the last two centuries. The greatest source of contention for modern critics has been the quotation in the final sentence of the fifth stanza: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” At first glance it is difficult to make out how there could be any controversy in the statement, for the simple fact that it seems self-evident.

The best example supporting Keats’ idea comes from, of all places, science. In 1987 the BBC produced an episode of their Horizon science series called Life Story, eventually renamed Race for the Double Helix, about the discovery of the structure of D.N.A. The film was based in part on James Watson’s book The Double Helix, and written by William Nicholson. In the film Watson, played by Jeff Goldblum, and Francis Crick, played by Timothy Pigott-Smith, attempt to guess at the structure of D.N.A. without using any original research, taking what they know and have heard from other scientists working in the field to see if they can piece it together before anyone else. As they are beginning their quest, Crick suggests William Astbury’s work might be a place to start, but Watson shoots down that idea by saying one word: “Ugly.” Crick responds by saying, “You don’t like ugly?” to which Watson replies, “It doesn’t deserve to be true. Truth is . . . pretty.” At the end of the film when the two scientists do in fact come up with the structure, Watson says, “I knew it would be pretty.” Again, the idea seems self-evident, as the simple beauty involved in the scientific structure inheres its very truth. And this idea seems just as fitting a way to explain the historic messages conveyed by Keats’ personified urn. Others, however, are not as convinced.

T.S. Eliot famously said of the statement, “This line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem; and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement that is untrue.” While Eliot’s inclination is clearly toward the later, I’m inclined to see it as the former. Literary critics Kenneth Burke and Cleanth Brooks, among others, have devoted entire essays to the explication of the poem. Brooks essay, “Keats’ Sylvan Historian: History Without Footnotes,” begins rather unfairly, however, suggesting that Keats, “would have approved of Archibald MacLeish’s dictum ‘A poem should not mean / But be.’

          Hence it is the more remarkable that the “Ode” itself differs from Keats’s other odes by culminating
          in a statement—a statement even of some sententiousness in which the urn itself is made to say
          beauty is truth, and—more sententious still—that this bit of wisdom sums up the whole of mortal
          knowledge. This is “to mean” with a vengeance—to violate the doctrine of the objective correlative,
          not only by stating truths, but by defining the limits of truth.

The reason I say this is unfair is that Brooks begins by putting words into Keats’ mouth—the words of MacLeish’s dictum—and then chiding him for violating them. The fact that Brooks wants to read into Keats’ poem an underlying objectivism based on the subject matter, an inanimate urn, does not obligate the author to adhere to the critic’s expectation. Rather, the onus is on the critic, in the words of Eliot, “to understand it.”

Brooks goes on to make a further misstep when he states that “one can emphasize beauty is truth and throw Keats into the pure-art camp, the usual procedure. But it is only fair to point out that one could stress truth is beauty, and argue with the Marxist critics of the ‘thirties for a propaganda art.” How anything labeled propaganda can be associated with the idea of truth is a bit mystifying as the two would appear to be mutually exclusive, but the real question that emerges from Brooks’ two arguments is, what’s the difference? Clearly Keats didn’t think there was one, which is why he tied the two phrases together and united them as a single thought. The more beautiful something is the more it speaks to the truth inherent within, whether that truth is designed to enlighten or ennoble or inspire. Likewise, the truth inherent in the work of art is born out by its beauty. Certainly there are truths to be had in things that are not beautiful, but that isn’t really Keats’ point. The two phrases belong to one sentence, and begin with the word beauty. In the context of the poem they must be referring to the same specific object. Once the beauty of an object has been established then beauty and truth are interchangeable. Reinforcing this is Brooks best line in the essay, where he finally grants Keats the genius of his own artistry. “This is surely not too much to ask of the reader—namely, to assume that Keats meant what he said and that he chose his words with care.”

In the opening sentence of the poem, Keats offers an utterly devastating—in its positive sense—example of compression. “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, / Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, / Sylvan historian, who canst thus express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:” Though he speaks of quietness and silence, this is light-years away from the comparison Brooks tries to make with MacLeish’s “palpable and mute” fruit. The emphasis here is on the nouns. Keats’ unravish’d bride still holds within her the secrets of history that she has been decorated with. Likewise, she has also been born away from her home like a foster-child who remembers a time long before but can only tell us what it was like, vague reminiscences of something we can never experience for ourselves. And then all of this is summed up in a phrase of almost Shakespearean invention: “sylvan historian.” Again, it’s the noun that informs the previous phrases by demonstrating that the urn itself is not merely a piece of history, but an historian that has the ability to tell us something about the past. As Brooks says, “historians tell the truth.” What is most telling is the adjective sylvan. The urn, while man made, has now become a part of nature, perhaps even reclaimed from the soil in which it was once buried. Like the scientist who examines plants as a way of making any number of deductions about their lives and habitats, the narrator understands that the urn can only reveal its secrets in the same voiceless way. And just like the plant, the urn is able to express her “flowery tale” with an aesthetic quality more pleasing than the poet’s pen.

In the second half of the first stanza the narrator wonders aloud what secrets the urn has to tell. “What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape / Of deities or mortals, or of both, / In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? / What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? / What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?” The ring of leaves that frame the scene is similar to that worn by men, thus reminding us of the personification of the urn in the first sentence which also renders the last spoken line of the poem perfectly understandable. The scene it decorates is a legend that “haunts,” a vestige from the past, murky and unclear but vivid enough to seem real, from a time back in time that the ancient Greece of Tempe and Arcady evoke. The male figures might be mortal or might be representations of the gods, as are the maidens they pursue. Loth in this context means reluctance rather than hatred, though it depends on the context. If the “mad pursuit” is love, then reluctance is merely prudence. If it depicts a “struggle to escape,” then hatred would certainly apply. The fact that the scene is accompanied by musicians playing flutes and tambourines implies the former, especially as the narrator goes on to use the phrase “wild ecstasy” to describe it. Nevertheless, all of this is conjecture, a questioning on the part of the narrator who must explore all possibilities—much as the botanist does—before coming to any conclusions.

Again, Keats uses the next sentence to explain not only what has come before, but what will come after. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; / Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, / Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:” The unheard melodies are like the information offered by the sylvan historian, silent and yet all the more exquisite because of it. As is so often the case with art, the imagination is far more powerful than anything the artist can render. The musician on the urn who plays in perpetual stillness therefore plays for our soul rather than our ears. It’s in the second half of the second stanza that Keats most obviously waxes Shakespearean. “Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave / Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; / Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, / Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” Comparisons with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18—and there are many others—in which it is the poem itself that forever captures the beauty of the narrator’s lover, are inevitable. Frozen in time upon the urn, the lovers who are serenaded by the silent musician will never touch, will never consummate their love. But the narrator tells them not to grieve because their love will never grow old and never be spoiled, and they will always be beautiful.

In the opening of the third stanza Keats uses his overlapping technique to good effect by taking a passing phrase from the previous stanza, “nor ever can those trees be bare,” and expanding on it. “Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu; / And, happy melodist, unwearied, / For ever piping songs for ever new;” Though in the previous stanza Brooks would have us ponder the fact that perhaps the musician who “canst not leave” is trapped, here we are told he is “unwearied,” as is everything else in the scene. The branches on the trees are just as happy as the musician, as they will never grow old, never lose their leaves and always exist in the full spring of their youth. Keats then expands on this idea for the lovers. “More happy love! more happy, happy love! / For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, / For ever panting, and for ever young; / All breathing human passion far above, / That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” The first line is important, because the emphasis here is on the adjective happy. The love that young lovers experience—and even more so because they have yet to consummate their love, “still to be enjoy’d,”—is the most exquisite there can be. And so it is only that happy love that the eternal lovers will share. Keats continues with an impressive description of the heart that is “for ever panting.” First he says that the heart is “high-sorrowful,” as in the bittersweet ache for something not yet possessed. But then he goes on to use the word “cloy’d,” meaning completely full up with desire, which is really an absence. This is a tremendous juxtaposition of ideas, though he ends the stanza with a more prosaic comparison of unconsummated love to a fever in the final line.

In the fourth stanza Keats shifts his gaze completely—to another scene on the urn in the conceit of the poem, though in reality probably an entirely different work of art. Here he witnesses a religious rite being performed. “Who are these coming to the sacrifice? / To what green altar, O mysterious priest, / Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, / And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?” If there’s a stanza that’s confusing, it’s this, not the final one. Keats repeats the same kind of questioning from the end of the first stanza, wondering aloud exactly what these people are doing, especially the “mysterious priest,” but the rest is primarily description. From the foreground scene Keats then shifts to the background. “What little town by river or sea shore, / Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, / Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn? / And, little town, thy streets for evermore / Will silent be; and not a soul to tell / Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.” The issue is that Keats has devoted fully three stanzas to the lovers and the musician, only to shift to unanswered questions about this new scene that suggest there is no background at all and we are simply left to imagine whether these people lived by the sea or in the mountains. Brooks, however, manages deftly to remind the reader of the purpose of the urn in the poem, and that Keats’ intention here is “thoroughly relevant to the sense in which the urn is a historian.” Thus, instead of seemingly being taken in a different direction by the poet in this stanza, he is actually returning full circle to the main idea rather than allowing us to be so transported by the timeless lovers that we forget our purpose, which comes finally in the fifth stanza. According to Brooks:

          The “reality” of the little town has a very close relation to the urn’s character as a historian. If the
          earlier stanzas have been concerned with such paradoxes as the ability of static carving to convey
          dynamic action, of the soundless pipes to play music sweeter than that of the heard melody, of the
          figured lover to have a love more warm and panting than that of breathing flesh and blood, so in the
          same way the town implied by the urn comes to have a richer and more important history than that
          of actual cities. Indeed, the imagined town is to the figured procession as the unheard melody is to
          the carved pipes of the unwearied melodist.

The beginning of stanza five also finds Keats returning to the first stanza in the way that he once again addresses the urn directly. “O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede / Of marble men and maidens overwrought, / With forest branches and the trodden weed;” Attic is a reference to another region of ancient Greece and, along with the weaving together of branches, men and maidens on the urn, is taking the reader back to the first stanza literally as well. The next sentence is probably the most important in terms of understanding the final stanza. “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity:” Thought, in this context, is the mind filled with the cogitations of everyday life. The “silent form” of the urn is then able to release the viewer from those mundane thoughts in order to focus on something else, in the same way that the contemplation of eternity makes us think of things beyond ourselves. These scenes of everyday life in a time long past, will eventually be no different than the viewer’s life, swallowed up by the distant march of time. “Cold Pastoral!” the poet addresses the urn in another cunning juxtaposition, a lifeless piece of clay that nevertheless has the power to conjure the bucolic reality of those long dead and give solace to those in the present. “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, / ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’”

Brooks makes a nice observation about the word generation here, which is in keeping with Keats’ own use of juxtaposition. The verb form of the word implies action, things being generated, people being continually created as in the breed (brede) of the men and women who inhabit the urn peopling the earth down to the present day. But as a noun, along with Keats’ reference to the wasting of that generation, the word conveys the finite amount of time that humans have to live. And still the urn remains, a friend to future generations in the way that it will continue to inform the human soul. More importantly than the “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” line, however, is the context in which it is presented. This is all that we can know on earth. Things beyond our sensory perception will forever remain beyond them, and the urn is letting us know that this is as it should be. It’s all we need to know. The implication is that in setting our sights on things beyond our knowledge we ignore all the aesthetic truth that the world has to offer right now. Whether we believe that a god created that beauty or not, the emphasis of life needs to be on allowing beauty to “tease us out of thought” so that we don’t wind up mired in our own “woe” all our lives. The search for love, the creation of music, the attention to duty, these are all to be done with the consciousness of the truth inherent in all of these actions, and the more beautiful they are the better.

It’s clear by the end of Brooks’ essay that his initial unfairness is simply his way of playing devil’s advocate. Despite some minor quibbles, his respect for the author and the assumption of authorial preeminence in analyzing the author’s work become obvious the deeper the reader gets into the text. In looking at those elements of juxtaposition in Keats’ poem, which Brooks calls irony, his respect for the author is evident. “The purpose in emphasizing the ironic undercurrent in the foregoing lines is not at all to disparage Keats—to point up implications of his poem of which he was himself unaware. Far from it: the poet knows precisely what he is doing. The point is to be made simply in order to make sure that we are completely aware of what he is doing.” And this gets to the very heart of what it means to analyze literature: the assumption that the author knows what he or she is doing. The first step in finding meaning in literature is to understand what the literature means in and of itself, “‘to mean’ with a vengeance,” rather than bringing to the work preconceived theories or ideas that turn Keats’ “well-wrought urn” into something unrecognizable. This is something Brooks deals with convincingly in his conclusion:

          If we can see that the assertions made in a poem are to be taken as part of an organic context,
          if we can resist the temptation to deal with them in isolation, then we may be willing to go on to
          deal with the world-view, or “philosophy,” or “truth” of the poem as a whole in terms of its dramatic
          wholeness: that is, we shall not neglect the maturity of attitude, the dramatic tension, the emotional
          and intellectual coherence in favor of some statement of theme abstracted from it by paraphrase.

And nothing could be more beautiful than the truth of the author’s words allowed to stand on their own and conveying all their meaning to us in “silence and slow time.”

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Devil's Pleasure Palace (2015)

by Michael Walsh

I picked up Michael Walsh’s book, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West in the hopes of getting some kind of perspective on the Frankfurt School of literary theory that has become such a perversion of true literary theory in colleges and universities over the past fifty years. Unfortunately Walsh’s book is nothing more than a fundamentalist religious screed posing as scholarship. It’s too bad that so many on the religious right feel obligated to argue the legitimacy of a faith based worldview when they have absolutely no argument to make. Christian mythology, regardless of how religiously adhered to, has no validity on which to make a rational argument and so believers are forced to fall back on ad hominem attacks and “evidence” culled from religious texts, neither of which are valid in any reasonable sense. And that’s the real problem with the whole exercise; religious belief is not reasonable endeavor, which makes their arguments all the more ludicrous when they try to present them as such. There’s nothing wrong with their belief, per se, but they are for some reason compelled to try and prove that they are “right” despite the fact that there is no evidence for their belief, hence the word faith.

Walsh tries to come up with a workable thesis in his preface, the idea being that literary theory is important to a culture because it is the lens that their actions and progress are viewed through. In terms of the United States he gives lip service to the Greek philosophical tradition by calling it “one of the pillars on which rests the entire edifice of Western civilization”—the other being Christianity—but then essentially ignores it to deal almost exclusively with the Bible and Christian mythology for the rest of the book. Much of the rest of the preface is given over to show how evil the “radical left” is, before launching into his introduction to which he devotes the majority of the space to fictional examples that, while meant to bolster his argument, have no basis in fact and are thus invalid on their face. But then that seems to be his point, when he states in the first chapter, “The roots of the intractable political conflict that currently plagues Western societies lie almost entirely in our rejection of myth, legend, and religion as ‘unscientific’” (24). I would hope we would. Walsh’s distress seems to come from the fact that his brand of mythology doesn’t carry any weight for rational, thinking human beings anymore. The only political “conflict” he sees, therefore, is that everyone isn’t doing things his way. By the time the reader is finished with the second chapter, over forty pages into the book, it becomes glaringly obvious that Walsh has spent absolutely zero time telling the reader what Critical Theory actually is, which can’t help but make the reader suspect he doesn’t really know himself.

My understanding of Critical Theory is that it is an offshoot of Marxism—which has almost nothing to do with Soviet Communism—in which a group of German, post-World War One intellectuals tried to come to grips not only with the abandonment of true Marxism in Russia, but the inability of the Communist Party in Germany to break out of its societal constraints. In thinking about these failures they began to wonder if those societal constraints weren’t, in reality, a set of givens that people didn’t even think about and yet were operating within, which had the effect of limiting their perspective by not allowing them to look objectively at what was really going on. Of course, being Marxist, those constraints were capitalistic ones, set by the ruling oligarchies of the period, whether governmental, economic . . . or religious. In his introduction to Theodor W. Adorno’s The Jargon of Authenticity, author Trent Schroyer defines it this way:

          The intent of critical theory is to reconstruct the generation of historical forms of consciousness
          in order to demonstrate how they misrepresent actual social relations and thereby justify historical
          forms of domination . . . Their concern for the growth of false consciousness generated by the
          “culture industry” and the increased integration, and yet atomization, of persons in the industrial
          order resulted in a series of critical analyses of mass culture and ideological traditions, e.g.,
          authoritarian social forms. (Adorno viii-ix)

In other words, authoritarian societal forms—of which the capitalist oligarchy is certainly one—maintain their domination of the people through the use of mass culture, which generates false ideals that citizens unconsciously accept as their own, never knowing that they have been given to them with the express goal of integrating them into a society that, ironically, tends to isolate them from other members of that society. Thus, there are certain “norms” that people intuitively accept without even realizing it, and Walsh has clearly absorbed them all—individualism, competition, a good vs. evil dichotomy that doesn’t exist in nature, religious submission to an imaginary deity, the myth of the liberal media, a fear of expertise, projection of his own philosophical blindness—and is on a personal crusade to demonstrate his ignorance on the subject to all the world, and to that end he has done a magnificent job.

Just one page from the book will serve as an example of the deficit of evidence and abundance of fallacious arguments that are to be found throughout. On page 33, at the beginning of his argument about how Critical Theory has debased the family, Walsh begins by citing John Milton’s Paradise Lost as “evidence.” It’s an interesting work, and an important piece of Christian mythology, but it’s just as much a work of fiction as The Iliad or The Nibelungenlied, or for that matter, Harry Potter. As such, when arguing about the reality of our lives, fiction carries no weight at all. This is a point that literary critic John Crowe Ransom makes about poetry in general, but can be applied quite easily in this situation as well. In his book The World’s Body Ransom makes a distinction between poetry that describes actual things, physical objects—for our purposes, facts—and poetry that attempts to describe concepts or ideas as if they were physical objects—otherwise known as fiction. “This poetry is an imitation of Physical Poetry, and not really a poetry. [They] practice their bogus poetry in order to show that an image will prove an idea, but the literature which succeeds in this delicate mission does not contain real images but illustrations” (Ransom 52). I love the fact that Ransom never denies that this type of argument succeeds in its “delicate mission,” but is nevertheless compelled to point out that an illustration is not the real thing. However much Walsh might want his images to prove his ideas, at the end of the day they are still fictional illustrations, not facts.

But Walsh is just getting warmed up. He then goes on to commit a standard right-wing fallacy without, of course, even realizing it. It talking about how what he calls “the Unholy Left,” has as one of its prime directives to destroy the nuclear family, he makes this statement:

          Soviet Communism (along with its evil twin, National Socialism, as pure an expression of the
          satanic in man as one can imagine) understood this well: Destroy the family, seize the children,
          and give the insupportable notion of a Marxist post-Eden replacement paradise a purchase
          power for at least one more generation. (33)

Okay, let’s begin with the most glaring fallacy: equating Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, and speaking of them as if they were the same. In reality, they are two very different things. One is communism and the other is fascism. Communism is philosophically left wing, while fascism is philosophically right wing. Soviet Communism my have had as one of its primary tenets the breakdown of the family unit, but the same cannot be said about Nazi Germany. The Nazis, in fact, were zealous promoters of the family and family values—as long as they were in line with Nazi philosophy—similar to the way fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. don’t just promote family values, they insist on attempting to legislate them and impose them on everyone who doesn’t believe in their mythology. That’s called fascism. Nazi philosophy actually has far more in common with modern fundamentalist Christianity than it does with Russian Communism. But Walsh had already made the same fallacious association earlier in the book when he said, “this battle is simply the latest front in an ancient war, this classical struggle—‘the Fight’ or ‘the Struggle’ (or der Kampf) as leftists call it—is the defining issue of our time” (3). Again, Nazis aren’t “leftist,” they are right-wing fascists who hated the communist left every bit as much as Walsh. But like so many on the right, he doesn’t bother trying to understand the difference. Hitler and his master plan, Mein Kampf, were evil so they must be the same as every other evil. Of course, for people who don’t have the ability to distinguish between the fantasy of religion and the reality of their own existence, all things evil must emanate from the same place—Satan—and therefore they must be indistinguishable.

And speaking of Satan, are we really going to try to explain away the Holocaust and the Stalinist Purges by trotting out Flip Wilson in drag to have him say, “The Devil made me do it?” But that’s what Walsh would have us believe. Unfortunately for him, Arthur Miller already thoroughly destroyed that argument back in the nineteen fifties in his background narration to The Crucible when he wrote about the political uses of the Devil.

          Since 1692 a great but superficial change has wiped out God’s beard and the Devil’s horns, but
          the world is still gripped between two diametrically opposed absolutes . . . When it is recalled that
          until the Christian era the underworld was never regarded as a hostile area, that all gods were
          useful and essentially friendly to man despite occasional lapses; when we see the steady and
          methodical inculcation into humanity of the idea of man’s worthlessness—until redeemed—the
          necessity of the Devil may become evident as a weapon, a weapon designed and used time and
          time again in every age to whip men into a surrender to a particular church or church-state. (33-34)

The first aspect of Miller’s genius is to place Christianity firmly within the long line of other human mythologies. In this context God and the Devil are no different from any other fictional deities that have been an integral part of human existence. But the big difference is on Christianity’s insistence on “man’s worthlessness,” a humiliating and meaningless prerequisite that serves only one function: submission to the Church. In this way the idea of the Devil is simply a form of control that has been used by the Christian Church to varying degrees since its inception. Miller mentions the Inquisition, to name just one example, but then goes on to say, “the Church’s enemies relied no less upon the Old Boy to keep the human mind enthralled” (34).

This is an important point. Walsh continues to paint Marxism and Communism—again, indistinguishable in his mind—as Satanic and evil, but fails to realize that Communists think the very same thing about him. “In the countries of the Communist ideology,” says Miller, “all resistance of any import is linked to the totally malign capitalist succubi” (34). Walsh can’t have it both ways. If he wants to believe the left is evil just because he says it is, then he has to admit to being just as evil because they say he is. Again, no evidence is proffered; the mere fact that he assumes the Devil exists seems to be his only argument. But this idea of calling the enemy evil is, in point of fact, evil in and of itself. Miller concludes by illuminating the bottom line for the political use of the Devil. “Political opposition, thereby, is given an inhumane overlay which then justifies the abrogation of all normally applied customs of civilized intercourse. A political policy is equated with a moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence” (34). And there it is. Walsh, by turning a cultural theory into a moral abomination, is now free to take whatever action he likes against it with the delusional comfort of knowing the other side isn’t worthy of civilized discourse or the use of anything like facts or rationality. If the people on the religious right actually did some thinking for themselves perhaps they would realize that they already have religious freedom in this country. But that’s not good enough. Apparently they won’t be happy until they take away everyone else’s right to religions freedom—which includes the right not to practice religion at all. Once again, that’s called fascism, which, once again, doesn’t come from the left.

What Walsh does next is another classic example of Christian argumentation: projection. What this consists of is taking all of the flaws and irrational behaviors that the religious right indulges in and pretends to make the other side guilty of them, as if simply saying it makes it so.

          Leftists are fueled by a belief that in the modern world, it does not so much matter what the
          facts are, as long as the story is well told. Living in a malevolent, upside-down fantasy world,
          they would rather heed their hearts than their minds, their impulses than their senses; the
          gulf between empirical reality and their ideology-infused daydreams regularly shocks and
          surprises them, even as it discomforts and kills millions who suffer the consequences of their
          delusions. (33)

It’s almost laughable how accurately Walsh describes fundamentalist Christianity in this paragraph. Almost, because it’s pretty clear he actually believes in his own delusions. To begin with, ignoring facts is one of the dominant features of the Christian right, everything from Evolution to climate change is denied as part of the propaganda campaign waged by corporate America to guarantee votes from those on the religious right who don’t bother using their brains to think for themselves. And to justify their ignorance is, of course, The Greatest Story Ever Told. Whoever came up with that title for the Christ narrative probably didn’t get the irony of using the word “story” to describe it—though I secretly hope they did. But on we go. The malevolent, upside-down fantasy world of which he speaks is none other than the world of the Devil. “Satan . . . has no need for servants in Hell, as God does in Heaven; he is instead satisfied with corpses on earth. As modern history shows, the Devil has had great success and ample reward in that department” (7). The only people with the worldview that the earth is in the grip of some supernatural malevolence force are those who believe in the fantasy of the Devil. And as far as heeding hearts rather than minds, that sounds rather more like a Biblical injunction that a condemnation of philosophy. Similarly, “ideology-infused daydreams” is as apt a description of living the Christian life as any I’ve ever seen. And if we want to go back to the year one and work our way forward, there are probably hundreds of millions who have died at the hands of religious delusionaries through the centuries.

Finally, Walsh ends page 33 with what I can only assume is a Freudian slip, when he says about Critical Theory, “It, like scripture, contains all the themes and clichés deemed necessary to sell a governing philosophy that no one in his right mind would actually vote for absent deception and illusion.” Correct, Mr. Walsh—that is exactly what scripture is. But this is actually one of the most charming things about the book, the way in which his sarcasm continually trips him up into making bold pronouncements about religion and right-wing ideology that are absolutely true. Another such bon mot is this gem about Satan himself: “If the myth of the Fall is correct—and it either it is, or it is a mass hallucination that somehow, against all odds, has sprung up and endured . . .” (59). You couldn’t put more accurate words into his mouth to describe exactly what Miller is talking about. But it’s no hallucination; it’s a calculated tool on the part of the Christian Church to coerce compliance with their ideology and adherence to their dogma. And all of this is on just one page. Unfortunately, there are two-hundred and eleven more to wade through. Much of what he has done to this point in the book is put words in the mouths of the nebulous “left” that he disparages, usually the words of Satan from various sources—his favorite is Milton—but offering absolutely nothing from the actual words of critical theorists themselves. And continuing to read phrases like “the Unholy left” and “wheedling Leftism” gets tiring very quickly as it becomes increasingly clear that ad hominem attacks are his only real argument. In Chapter Three Walsh quotes Marx directly, his oft cited words summarized to the effect that religion is the opiate of the masses, and is then compelled to deliver this intellectual rejoinder: “These are the demented ravings of a dangerous idiot.” Ah, if only Marx were alive so that he could respond with, “I’m rubber, you’re glue . . .”

There are also plenty of contradictions, as should be expected in an anti-intellectual diatribe like this. In one chapter Walsh utters the stinging indictment of the Unholy left stated above as those who “would rather heed their hearts than their minds,” and in the very next chapter he castigates the very same people for “rebel[ling] against the evidence of their hearts” (39). He also quotes Brian Anderson to the effect that the Russian people in 1917 knew they were being lied to, and yet the siren song of Communist—again, not to be confused with pure Marxist—propaganda brainwashed them with “the emotional pull of the grand illusions that they served,” (40) completely ignoring the oppressive nature of the omnipresent police state that forced them to accept Communist lies. Walsh also wants it both ways when it comes to Christian hypocrisy. Christianity in this country has gone hand in hand with hypocrisy since the time of the Puritans, but instead of recognizing that he accuses the left of “casting human frailty as hypocrisy” (45). He even wants to criticize the use of the term Christianity by those on the left because, “there is no one Christian church.” And yet he has no compunction about repeatedly painting all liberals as the same, unified “Unholy Left.” He also claims that the reason the Soviets lost their war in Afghanistan is because of “the self-discrediting Marxism-Leninism of the Brezhnev era” that resulted in a “loss of cultural self-confidence” (47). Though he mentions dozens of films, it’s painfully obvious that Walsh hasn’t seen Charlie Wilson’s War, which begs the question of whether or not he’s learned anything that hasn’t been filtered through his religious-capitalist worldview—which was exactly the Critical Theorists’ point.

It’s not until Chapter Three that he finally gets to actually discussing Critical Theory. His definition? “There is no received tenant of civilization that should not either be questioned . . . or attacked” (48). Questioned, sure. Attacked? Philosophically, maybe, but for the anti-intellectual right there’s no distinction when it comes to attacks. They’re all evil. Walsh presents three quotes by various theorists with no comment, assuming a rhetorical indignation at their apparent self-condemnation. The first is by Herbert Marcuse. “Freedom of enterprise was from the beginning not altogether a blessing. As the liberty to work or to starve, it spelled out toil, insecurity, and fear for the vast majority of the population . . . the disappearance of this freedom would be one of the greatest achievements of civilization” (42). The sarcasm of the second mention of freedom by Marcuse was apparently way over Walsh’s head. With no other option but to work for someone else at the wages they decide, the hours they set, and the ability to fire their employees at will, this “freedom of enterprise” is the very opposite for the vast majority of workers in a capitalist society. Given that, any other way of ordering a society’s economic life, either real or theoretical, would be a tremendous step forward in human civilization.

The second quote is by Max Horkheimer. “Although most people never overcome the habit of berating the world for their difficulties, those who are too weak to make a stand against reality have no choice but to obliterate themselves by identifying with it. They are never rationally reconciled to civilization. Instead, they bow to it, secretly accepting the identity of reason and domination, of civilization and the ideal, however much they may shrug their shoulders” (42-43). This goes to the heart of Critical Theory in the way that the economic freedom that Marcuse talks about is really a prison for most workers who haven’t the mental energy to understand who their jailers really are. Thus they fall in line and get their job and work for the man, which has the net effect of obliterating their individuality. And even for those who know it’s wrong and doesn’t work, what are the alternatives to the domination of their lives by the capitalist oligarchy? The reality is, there are none. The final quote is by Theodor Adorno. “A German is someone who cannot tell a lie without believing it himself” (43). This speaks to the self-deception in all of us. Perhaps this last quote bothers Walsh so much because it describes him so well. His book is filled with lies, and yet he believes them with all his heart.

In reality, all three quotes are cogent examples that explain how in a free-market system the individual is left to fend for himself rather than looked after as part of a larger economic community, and most have no other choice than to go along with it. Jesus chasing the merchants and money-lenders from the temple couldn’t have said it any better, but Walsh seems clueless to the implications, only seeing what he has been programmed by capitalism to accept without question, namely that capitalism is an unquestioned good. Perhaps that’s why he accuses them of “complexity over simplicity . . . obfuscation and misdirection,” because he’s too dumb to get it, which is reinforced by the fact that there’s no other explanation of Critical Theory in the entire book, nothing. Throughout, Walsh continually connects Critical Theorists with Soviet Communism, which means that he either doesn’t understand the difference or is purposefully practicing “obfuscation and misdirection” himself. The Frankfurt School was actually highly critical of Soviet Communism for becoming just another dictatorship and, in its abuse of workers, no better than capitalism. According to David Held, in his book Introduction to Critical Theory, both Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch wrote works in the early 1920s,

          calling into question the dominant Marxist orthodoxies—the established doctrines of the
          Communist and Social Democratic parties. The publication of Lukács’s History and Class
          Consciousness and Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy met with a number of bitter polemical
          attacks. Some of the harshest criticism came from leading spokesmen of the Communist
          International itself. (20)

Walsh accuses the Frankfurt School of being “anti-religious,” which they most certainly were, as religious fascism and fanaticism is every bit as hurtful to people as the economic and governmental varieties. Certainly Christianity hadn’t been able to do the job in its nearly two thousand-year trial run, so it clearly doesn’t work. But then he goes on to claim they were also “anti-human,” which makes no sense, as the only goal of these theorists was to figure out a way of making life better for mankind. He also continues to argue that it is only with religion that man experiences free will—this despite references to being God’s servant in heaven, or Arthur Miller’s point about accepting the worthlessness of man—while claiming that it is the leftist ideology that wants to create “a mass of self-corralling slaves who mistake security for liberty” (50). Again, that sounds more like people taking a trip up the aisle to the altar at the front of the church to supplicate themselves before the radical right’s insistence that we give up all our liberties for the illusion of security. Oh, and he’s also a misogynist: “If the feminists have an argument, it is with God, not men.” How convenient; take up your argument with the magical, mythical, imaginary figure in the sky, not the real people responsible for your subjugation.

The book is essentially a radical right, neocon greatest hits collection. As such, Walsh naturally takes a swipe at expertise, the obvious reaction of someone who is averse to factual evidence. “But in an age when credentialism is disguised as supreme, practically Faustian knowledge, and when minutiae are elevated to the status of timeless universal principles (even as the existence of such principles is otherwise denied), Leftism masquerades as sophistication and expertise” (41-42). Interestingly, his parenthetical dig at principles that are “denied” doesn’t say that they are disproven, only that the right disagrees—not the same thing. But a recent book by Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, lays that particular anti-intellectual sound loop to waste . . . and does it expertly.

          Any assertion of expertise form an actual expert, meanwhile, produces an explosion of anger
          from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are
          nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an
          obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy. Americans
          now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion
          about anything must be accepted as equal to anyone else’s. This is the credo of a fair number
          of people despite being obvious nonsense. (5)

More tedious science bashing follows, including another swipe at Evolution (and he has the nerve to claim that the left is a relic of the fin-de-siècle). Examples from Through the Looking Glass, Orwell’s 1984, and movies like Independence Day and To Live and Die in L.A. are used because they apparently originate from “some deep, Jungian wellspring of primal memory and collective unconscious” and so to doubt their use as evidence is “is to doubt nearly the entire course of human history” (50-51). This is all mind numbing in it’s tenacious clinging to the very blinding of thought produced by religious mythology that the Critic Theorists were attempting to expose. In writing this book, Walsh has become the poster boy for the very mindless automatonic behavior that the Frankfurt School was warning against. Then, in Chapter Four Walsh attempts to tie Critical Theory to Romanticism, and it’s easily his least effective argument—and that’s saying something. German Romanticism, Wagner and Hitler all get somehow thrown into the left side of the pool in his version of reality though again—and again, and again, and again—fascism is not left-wing ideology. This is followed by more projection: “leftists could not conceive of any diminution . . . that could possibly effect their own standard of living . . . The primary goal of the Frankfurt School . . . was the attainment and retention of power in order to amass wealth” (60, 62). Again, a tidy recap of capitalist oligarchical thinking.

Walsh then delivers to the reader another right-wing chestnut in the form of the myth of the liberal media, this time in league with academia and government, a cultural axis of evil that is apparently controlled by the Critical Theorists. Though how that’s supposed to work he presents no evidence for, in direct opposition to his sarcasm about the other side with their “charts! graphs!” (62) which must at least contain some kind of statistical information. Instead he rants and raves with the only real effect being—to paraphrase a line from Amadeus, which he should appreciate—“You are passionate, Mr. Walsh . . . but you do not persuade.” The myth of the liberal media has long been debunked, most eloquently by Noam Chomsky, this from the film Manufacturing Consent:

          If the system functions well, it ought to have a liberal bias, or at least appear to. Because if it
          appears to have a liberal bias, that will serve to bound thought even more effectively. In other
          words, if the press is indeed adversarial and liberal and all these bad things, then how can I
          go beyond it? . . . A well functioning [propaganda] system would in fact have a bias of that kind.
          (Chomsky)

It’s certainly no secret that all of the large media outlets in the United States are owned by giant corporations, and that they are only interested in the bottom line. If the perception of liberal bias helps them achieve that, then so much the better. Laura Mulvey, in her book on the film Citizen Kane, explains this apparent paradox about as well as anyone. Media tycoons like William Randolph Hearst were forced to rely on the general public rather than doing business exclusively with a coterie of like-minded business owners, which naturally developed “a split between different types of capitalism, a conflict between banking interests which represent only an elite and those of communications which have to find a populist appeal outside the narrow limits of the capitalist class” (Mulvey 58). As such, “the newspaper tycoons had vested interest at stake in populist, anti-elitist, anti-capitalist rhetoric” (Mulvey 55). And things haven't changed since.

Chapter Five begins with another inadvertent undermining of his own argument when Walsh discusses the variant ways that authors have dealt with the descent of Christ into Hell after the crucifixion. Augustine and Aquinas have differing views, and the whole subject “has become so controversial within Christianity that it is often now dropped from the prayer” (67). If various Christian writings disagree, then how can any one of them be used as actual evidence of anything? Next, Walsh makes a blanket condemnation of political correctness (How every single one of America’s woes can be laid at the doorstep of the Critical Theorists defies credulity, but Walsh is nothing if not thorough) without realizing the metamorphosis it has gone through long after the critics themselves were dead. In his article on political correctness for New York Magazine, author Jonathan Chait had this to say about the genesis of political correctness.

          [L]iberals are correct not only to oppose racism and sexism but to grasp (in a way conservatives
          generally do not) that these biases cast a nefarious and continuing shadow over nearly every
          facet of American life. Since race and gender biases are embedded in our social and familial
          habits, our economic patterns, and even our subconscious minds, they need to be fought with
          some level of consciousness. The mere absence of overt discrimination will not do . . .

This is certainly something Critical Theorists would agree with. Unconscious behaviors of any kind that influence our thinking should be understood so that, if harmful, they can be eliminated. But what became perverted was the nature of political correctness itself, until it gradually mutated into the form it commonly takes today, a cudgel used to punish those who, intentionally or not, have said or done something that a person identifying themselves with some kind of minority chooses to be offended by.

The irony of Walsh bemoaning p.c. as another left-wing conspiracy is one that blogger Mitchell J. Freedman pointed out in his FM Blog namely, that conservatives have co-opted their own brand of political correctness that centers on patriotism and the Bible, and they are every bit as adept at using shame as a weapon to coerce people to their way of thinking as those on the left. “What I find sadly lacking [in the argument] is that the Right and conservatives also have political correctness . . . Political correctness on the Left is about sensitivity to racism, sexism and the like while . . . political correctness on the Right is about sensitivity to religion (one’s own of course), white males, traditional hierarchies and symbols, capitalism and the like.” Therefore, when Walsh makes the entirely spurious claim that “Subduing the freedom of speech is precisely the goal of the Jacobins of the Unholy Left, who cannot countenance any thought unmoored from policy prescriptions or social goals” he is really talking about Christian fascists who denounce political candidates who won’t wear American flag lapel pins or pay lip service to religion as a requisite for being elected.

Chapter Six should be titled Chapter Sex, because what right-wing rant would be complete without the hand wringing of Christian fascists who can’t stand the though of people making up their own minds about who they want to fall in love with how they want to express that love. Walsh’s fascism shows right from the first page when he claims another of the left’s secret missions is breaking down “the relationship between the sexes and the hard-won morality attending such congress” (75). Hard won? From whom? Walsh goes on to admit that the left has no interest in any of this, but insists they want to do it anyway. The lack of logic is almost comical: if those on the left are outraged by things that the right feels similarly about, then it’s only “to obscure its true purpose” (78). Further, if anyone he deems a leftist is actually exhibiting sings of agreeing with the right, he claims, “there’s no Progressive like a Regressive” (83). At the end of the day things mean only what Walsh wants them to mean, and if they don’t really mean that he simply says they mean the opposite. His racist and misogynist diatribes are exhausting to read, and all the quotes in the world from Faust or Paradise Lost or Casablanca can’t hide the fact that there is not one shred of evidence in the whole of it to back him up.

In Chapter Seven he goes from using fiction to back up his assertion, to trashing authors of fiction like H.P. Lovecraft. Yeah, go figure. Apparently nihilism has run rampant in our culture and everything from abortion rights to social security is Satanic in the way that it robs the people of their will to live. Then he trots out the “heroic impulse” as the proof underlying his selection of fictional evidence that demonstrates why he is right when he attempts to connect leftist ideology with—wait for it—Islam. Yep, you read it right. Walsh loves to use the phrase Ur-Narrative to prove how the literary norms—as he reads them—must be coded into our DNA, which makes Umberto Eco’s fourteen points from his essay “Ur-Fascism” in the New York Review of Books such a welcome antidote to Walsh’s entire book. For now, Number 11:

          In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology heroism is the
          norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death . . . In non-fascist societies,
          the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faces with dignity; believers [in the
          myth] are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the
          Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-
          Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.

The reality is spiritual fantasies like religion, whether Christian or Muslim, are extremely dangerous in the way that they ultimately denigrate human life, whether their own in the case of martyrs, or others in the case of holy wars. If the afterlife is all that is important then human existence on earth is meaningless with a mythical heaven to look forward to, and in that way the fundamentalist Christian is no different from the Salem witch hunter, Jim Jones and his followers, or the Muslim suicide bomber.

Chapter Eight is a bit of a ramble and a definite reach in an attempt to equate music theory with that of the right-left conflict in America. He concludes this short chapter with another juicy bit of projection claiming about Critical Theorist philosophy, “It appears to require thought, but in fact all it requires is faith” (121). A better definition of religion it would be difficult to devise. Chapter Nine begins with a typically intellect-free argument against abortion—“it’s not as if condoms and other prophylactics are not readily available” (124). Gee, I must have missed sex-ed. class the day they said those methods were one hundred percent effective. Of course this is a typically patriarchal view of abortion, coming from a man who will never have to face the “choice” he so glibly ridicules. And like another group of people who were obsessed with the lives of fetuses, and wanted mothers to bear as many offspring for the Fatherland as they could, he is just as obsessed with Wagner, using the composer to support any number of arguments, as if opera wasn’t every bit as fictional as the writing and movies he references. And though he desperately wants to associate Wagner with leftist philosophy, like the fat lady, it just doesn’t fly. In Chapter Ten, Walsh again, wants it both ways as he denounces rationalism in the form of Rousseau—as he had done earlier with his pejorative use of the adjective Jacobean—while in his previous denouncement of Romanticism, praised rationalism when it comes to the Founding Fathers. He even calls Rousseau a champion of Romanticism! Clearly, this is a man who doesn’t just want it both ways; he wants it every way.

Chapter Eleven excoriates William Reich for his bizarre psychological theories, which of course casts every one of the intellectuals he is associated with into perdition. Shall we do the same thing to Walsh? Jim Jones was an evil, cult leader with a Messiah complex who founded all of his teachings on Christianity. To use Walsh’s logic, that makes all of Christianity evil. While that’s not far wrong, it still doesn’t make any logical sense and is therefore an invalid argument, just as Walsh’s is. In Chapter Twelve Walsh suggests that the way to win the culture wars is to ridicule the left. “The most potent weapon the Right has against the Left—mockery of its sheer pretentious ridiculousness.” This is pretty much standard operating procedure. When intellect fails, as it has in the case of the right, they resort to bullying. Chapter Thirteen begins with an attack against one of his favorite targets, Saul Alinsky. Why is the right so afraid of this guy? Oh, because he wanted to make things better for poor people. Walsh and the rest of the fascist right can only see public assistance through one lens: “‘social justice’ morally demands equality of outcome, obtained by stealing property and selling it to someone else in exchange for his vote.” This is the ultimate in capitalist credo, that helping someone else only serves to diminish one’s own material wealth. I’m pretty sure Jesus had something to say about obsession with money and possessions, but perhaps I have a different Bible than Walsh and his pals.

Walsh attacks health care in Chapter Fourteen, stating that it’s “a tax increase in the service of a welfare scheme of largely subsidized recipients that benefits only a small fraction of the population” (178). Wrong on every count. The Affordable Health Care Act helped millions of people with no extra tax burden on capitalists or Christians, but by now Walsh’s anti-intellectual upbringing is on full display. He whines about not having devastated the Middle East after 9/11 so that “it would have taken a century or more to recover,” (179) conveniently forgetting that it was Bush who botched the job. In Chapter Fifteen he equates atheism with a belief “in nothing.” No, that’s the myth of Christianity. Then he says that the left’s struggle is really with God. No, it’s against mindless zealots who believe in a fantasy that doesn’t exist. And of course he equates leftism with Soviet Communism for the umpteenth time, still clueless that they are almost mutually exclusive and that the model of the Soviet Union is what the Critical Theorists were fighting against. And there is still more projection: “The Left must always have something to ‘fight,’ lest it be rendered impotent, because its driving force, as we’ve seen, stems not from philosophy but from emotion—hatred, resentment, envy, and malcontentment.” Again, a pithy summary of Christian fascist and capitalist oligarchical behavior.

Finally, mercifully, the last chapter, but no relief in sight as Walsh defends the indefensible lone-gunman theory of the JFK assassination, gives us more Wagner and Rousseau, and some Blackadder thrown in for good measure. All of which is followed by the rallying cry of “we have standards” (204). This is actually the first of Eco’s fourteen points: “The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition” (Eco), which can also be coupled with number three: “Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake.” Or, as articulated by Walsh, “righteous anger when necessary, when attacked, when challenged on moral grounds” (204). More Milton, more Wagner, more Nazis—the guy is relentless. This is followed by Ur-Fascist point number nine, “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle . . . life is permanent warfare” (Eco). And Walsh’s version: “Warriors do not seek to understand the motivations of their enemies or treat them with ‘respect.’ They kill them, and they keep on killing them until those enemies are all dead or cannot fight anymore” (209). I think that’s what they call “that old-time religion.” After that it’s Dr. Strangelove, Rocky Horror Picture Show and, to close everything out with the last word, you guessed it, John Milton.

Normally I would say something here about my purpose in reading this book was to get a better handle on what the radical right is thinking, but it’s painfully obvious that there’s no thinking going on here at all. The entire book is like a black hole of ignorance in the way that knowledge and wisdom gets sucked in and are never seen again. Nothing is going to penetrate the minds of a group of people desperately clinging to a way of life and a belief system that are completely non-functional in today’s world. All one has to do is look around the globe at a world mired in hatred masking as religion. “There is nothing,” said Goethe, “more frightful than ignorance in action,” which makes the fascist Christian right the most frightful thing in our country right now. The tremendous, overwhelming irony in all of this is that Michael Walsh’s complete societal enculturation is exactly the thing that the Critical Theorists were trying to wake up the world to. But as long as religion keeps blinding people to reality, the capitalist oligarchy will be able to use them as tools to keep all of us intellectually and economically enslaved. Which may be great for Michael Walsh, but it’s not okay with me and millions more who think—not like me, but who actually think. Reading Mein Kampf is actually a beneficial endeavor, a way of understanding an episode of historical significance that can serve as a warning and enhance the reader’s wisdom as a result. Michael Walsh’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace is none of those things and, something I rarely say about any reading experience, a complete waste of time. My only solace is that I bought the book used, so he won’t see a dime of my money.