Monday, July 12, 2010

Neocon critics

Terry Teachout, ed., Beyond the Boom: New Voices on American Life, Culture, and Politics (New York: Poseidon Press, 1991). 237 pp. $18.95.

Originally published in Commentary (February 1991): 63–64.

According to the conventional understanding, baby boomers were hippies in the 60’s and then, after tuning out, turning off, and dropping back in, they became yuppies in the 80’s. At one extreme they are associated with antiwar protest, down-to-where-I-like-it hair, bell bottoms and tie-dyed T-shirts, McGovern for President, Eastern mysticism, the novels of Hermann Hesse, the poetry of Gary Snyder, sex, drugs, and rock-’n’-roll. At the other extreme they are the image of self-absorption and greed: two incomes, no kids, fancy cars, even fancier sailboats, junk bonds, safe sex, an expert knowledge of restaurants, Italian suits, the return of the wet look, and a certainty that their generation, if no longer the most idealistic in history, is still the most conspicuous.

It is the thesis of several of the essayists in Terry Teachout’s new anthology Beyond the Boom, however, that there are actually two boom generations. The hippies, those old enough to have found the Vietnam war personally threatening, can now be described as “older boomers.” They did not become yuppies because they never dropped back in. They drifted from job to job or settled in the university, drawing about them volumes of neo-Marxist theory like an old comforter. “Vietnam seems to have broken them,” Teachout writes in his introduction. “They . . . lost their nerve and were never heard from again.” The younger boomers, by contrast, surprised everyone by voting in heavy numbers for Ronald Reagan. They broke decisively with the politics and culture of their older brothers and sisters, and theirs are the voices you will be hearing “tomorrow,” Teachout promises—“and the day after tomorrow.”

Much support for this view can be found in Beyond the Boom. Although they range in age from thirty to nearly forty, the fifteen contributors are as one in repudiating the ideas embraced by the first wave of the baby-boom generation. Maggie Gallagher and Richard Vigilante convincingly demonstrate, for instance, that the political carryover of 60’s activism included no-growth restrictions which drove up the price of real estate, keeping younger buyers from the market; and a reliance upon government that led willy-nilly to staggering taxes, the deterioration of personal responsibility, and schools distant from or antagonistic to parents’ standards and values. In this light, what may appear as “yuppie greed” is in actuality a reassertion of an ideal much laughed at by 60’s activists—the “bourgeois ideal,” as Vigilante puts it, of “well-ordered prosperity in a law-abiding community.”

Actually, however, the book these authors have collaborated to produce is at best only tangentially concerned with the boomers, early or late. The chapters range from Roger Kimball’s “Requiem for the Critical Temper,” which traces the decline of literary criticism since the 50’s, to David Brooks's happy revival of the seventeenth-century character essay, “Portrait of a Washington Policy Wonk.” Some of the best writing in the book has nothing at all to do with the baby boom. Andrew Ferguson’s “Everything You Know Is Wrong” is a caustic belittlement of revisionist history, the spirit of which is summed up in Ferguson’s title, a line from an album by the Firesign Theater. At the other end of the tonal scale, Lisa Schiffren’s “Whiff of Grapeshot,” the surprise of the volume, is an earnest defense of the martial virtues.

Uncharacteristic of their generation—in as far as that generation is lingeringly identified with the values and deficiencies of the “youth culture” of the 60's—the writers in this volume are also not particularly interested in substituting a clearer image of it. They are not even sure that a generation is an intelligible category. After considering the failure of the boom to bring about a realignment in American politics, Richard Brookhiser concludes: “Maybe no one found a way to use the boom generation or its successors for political purposes because those generations didn't exist in the first place. . . . [T]here are no generations, in a politically coherent sense, at all.” And to judge by this volume, the same could be said of generations in art, literature, religion, business.

Yet if they are not coherent as a generation, the fifteen authors of Beyond the Boom are coherent as a movement—they are neoconservatives. And their book announces a flowering of criticism among a younger set of conservative intellectuals, the legatees of such as Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Hilton Kramer, Thomas Sowell, Joseph Epstein, Midge Decter, Robert Nisbet, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Edward Shils. Indeed, the authors of Beyond the Boom extend the achievement of neoconservatism as a critical movement. What makes them especially significant is that as Americans who came of age during the 60’s, or in the years immediately following, they acquired their intellectual maturity, their critical surefootedness, almost entirely at the expense of the ideas of the 60’s. This first-hand contention with bad thinking has given them, as writers, an authority and (at times) a hard literary edge that sets them apart from their run-of-the-mill contemporary, the workshop graduate who conceives of writing as the itemization of a sublimely ordinary life. Even when their subject is personal experience, these young critics return continually to ideas.

It is ideas, as Richard Brookhiser says at one point, that the neocon critics see as “the real force for change” in culture and politics. And from this angle, neoconservative criticism becomes the deliberate avoidance of what Bruce Bawer, in an essay on American movies since the 60’s, calls the “fashionable posture of ‘sensitivity’ ”—which usually means an “insensitivity to thoughtful distinctions.” The critics in Beyond the Boom are not too worried about being sensitive. In “Break Glass in Case of Emergency,” George Sim Johnston takes to pieces the “vague religiosity” in which many Americans find refreshment—just as long as it “does not interfere in any way with how they live.” Genuine religious ideas are too “rigid and authoritarian” for most people, and Johnston predicts that only “an unprecedented cataclysm, a new Dark Ages,” will shake them.

Not that these writers are out to shake anyone, at least not in the sense of winning converts. The function of social and cultural criticism, as they engage in it, is not so much to propose answers as to offer clear thinking on questions that are at present badly confused. In his essay “Second Childhood,” for instance, John Podhoretz shows how cultural attitudes toward children in America have oscillated wildly from a pleasant vision of their “spiritual greatness and moral superiority” (as embodied in the movie E.T.) to the current anxiety, needled by exaggerating the problem of child abuse, that children are “possessed of an infinite capacity for victimization.” In lieu of the truth about childhood, what Podhoretz's essay provides is a calm moment in which to reflect that the truth about childhood is not what it is popularly said to be.

This is a gain in knowledge, although it does raise a question about these young critics at this stage of their careers. They do not like The Greening of America, deconstruction, Gary Hart, health foods, the Grateful Dead, feminism, Jay McInerney, nuclear-free zones; they do not like too many new movies, and they are not crazy about the notion of old movies as high art, either. They are rather obscure, however, on the question of what they do like. At one point Walter Olson speaks of “reading Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman by flashlight under [the] bedcovers,” but he really means to contrast his private reading to the “Keynes-and-points-Left economics lectures” he was made to sit through in college. Andrew Ferguson touches upon the normative force of tradition, but he really means to scorn those (unlike him) who consider tradition to be “the vessel of the vulgarest errors.”

Although Beyond the Boom is crammed with derision for cultural quacks and mountebanks, it includes no sustained defense of a single artist or intellectual figure. At this stage, the neocon critics are still absorbed in the task of hauling away the last rusted-out ideas of the 60’s. But it is hard to believe this will satisfy them for long, particularly in view of their great gifts. For the correction of bad thinking is, as Santayana says, a “terrible tax to pay to the errors of others.”

Friday, July 09, 2010

Absence of Mind

Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010). 158 pp. $24.00.

Marilynne Robinson sets out to restore subjectivity to modern thought in her 2009 Terry Lectures, reprinted earlier this year as Absence of Mind. Any account of reality which leaves out the “testimony of the individual mind” is limited and defective, and yet that is pretty much the only account of reality which moderns will offer or accept. “A central tenet of the modern world view,” she says, “is that we do not know our own minds, our own motives, our own desires.” Modern thought, whether descended from Darwin or Marx or Freud, is eager to unmask those motives and desires, revealing the real forces behind human behavior. (How the modernist can act from superior motives and desires, if everyone else’s are suspicious, is a mystery that he is not curious to solve.) With gentle logic and a zinging prose, Robinson shows that the modern enemies of mind, those who engage in “a hermeneutics of condescension,” claim the authority of science without practicing “the self-discipline or self-criticism for which science is distinguished.” In the end, thought without mind is self-refuting.

Much of what passes for modern thought, Robinson argues, is little more than the bulletins of science without the method of science: “parascientific literature,” she calls it. It sets out to establish its scientific credentials by excluding “the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul, that is, of the world as perceived in the course of a human life”—this is its first principle, its “signature,” its “inflection.” As Robinson convincingly demonstrates, though, the genre of parascientific writing first arose and took form as “a polemic against religion,” and has never really progressed beyond its origins and earliest form.

Robinson’s immediate target is the self-congratulatory New Atheism of Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, which chortles (in the subtitle of a bestseller) How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. For Robinson, however, there is little new about such men and such books. “The motif of a shocking newness that must startle us into painful recognition is very much a signature of ‘the modern,’ ” she points out, and their adoption of the motif is, by this point in literary history, shockingly old. For her, the historic “threshold”—the rupture between tradition and modernity—was crossed some time in the nineteenth century, when the “confidence that science has given us knowledge sufficient to allow us to answer certain essential questions about the nature of reality, if only by dismissing them,” caused intellectuals’ heads to spin. By now, she says, “the parascientific genre feels like a rear-guard action, a nostalgia for the lost certitudes of positivism.”

Robinson is the right one to defend the mind and soul, subjectivity and “novelistic interest,” against those who would eliminate inwardness from reality. She is not only a great novelist—one of the two greatest American novelists of her generation—but she is also intensely religious, an unembarrassed Calvinist whose Death of Adam, a 1998 collection of essays, unembarrassedly entertained “the idea that people have souls, and that they have certain obligations to them, and certain pleasures in them.” Unlike many of her contemporaries in the fiction-writing trade, Robinson understands that a fashionable atheism is far graver a threat to literature than religious intolerance.

Absence of Mind is divided into four chapters. The first, “On Human Nature,” borrows its title from a 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning book in which the sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson sets forth a popular version of his view that human behavior is genetically determined. Wilson is not Robinson’s only example of a parascientific thinker; she also examines Dennett, the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, and the biblical scholar James L. Kugel. In this chapter, she carefully defines the “assertive popular literature,” the “remarkably reiterative literature,” that she calls parascientific.

“The Strange History of Altruism,” her second chapter (and her best), revisits the problem that bedevils any system that would explain away human subjectivity—namely, the random acts of kindness that human beings occasionally perform, even when (to all appearances) they gain no benefit from them. From its beginnings, the genre of parascientific writing has faced the difficulty of how to redefine altruism as something else entirely. For Robinson, this tendency is sadly typical of the parascientific frame of mind, “defining humankind by the exclusion of the things that in fact distinguish us as a species.”

In the book’s strongest and most memorable passage, she examines how the parascientific writers have handled the case of Phineas Gage (1823–1860), the American railroad worker who became famous for surviving “an explosion that sent a large iron rod through his skull.” The case is a favorite of parascientific writers, who are struck by the fact that, after the accident (in the words of one), Gage became “fitful, irreverent, and grossly profane.” What this supposedly proves is that a brain injury had destroyed his ability to exercise appropriate social control over his speech, demonstrating that appropriateness of speech cannot properly be described as an activity of mind.

Robinson makes short work of such analysis. The explosion might have damaged not merely his skull, leaving Gage disfigured and half-blind, but also his hopes and self-image. If so, irreverence and profanity might not be so surprising, since they are, after all, attitudes that “culture and language have prepared for such occasions.” But parascientific writers never stop to consider how the explosion might have affected Gage’s subjective life, because they rule it out of account from the start—even though, a century and a half after the fact, and entirely dependent upon secondhand accounts in an imprecise and dated idiom, they cannot possibly know anything about Gage’s injury with any degree of certainty. Robinson lowers the boom on them:

I trouble the dust of poor Phineas Gage only to make the point that in these recountings of his afflictions there is no sense at all that he was a human being who thought and felt, a man with a singular and terrible fate. In the absence of an acknowledgment of his subjectivity, his reaction to this disaster is treated as indicating damage to the cerebral machinery, not to his prospects, or his faith, or his self-love. It is as if in telling the tale the writers participate in the absence of compassionate imagination, of benevolence, that they posit for their kind.In the third chapter, Robinson examines “The Freudian Self.” She suggests a different source for the neuroses that Freud identified in his Jewish clientele—by pointing to the ambiguous and increasingly perilous situation of Jews in Vienna. Because he dismissed such immediate worries out of hand, Freud could not even be bothered to refute such an obvious and alternative explanation. That his latter-day followers commit the same error, knowing what became of the Viennese Jews, is inexcusable. Ideas that claim the authority of science are as susceptible as any other to what Robinson calls “cultural contamination,” but the sense that such figures as Freud introduced an “epochal change” in modern thought is only heightened by viewing them “against a background void of detail.” To fill in the background, after all, might require something in addition to science to complete the picture of man.

And that is the theme of her fourth and final chapter. “Thinking Again” reveals that Robinson has been writing a defense of man all along. Perhaps even more significantly, Absence of Mind is a defense of the humanities—history, literature, and especially religion. Without them, human life is incomplete, because the subject of the humanities (“the witness of mind”) is otherwise dismissed as irrelevant. If there is a “modern malaise,” Robinson suggests—if indeed there is “an emptiness peculiar to our age”—the reason is not that the advance of science has caused “an ebbing away of faith,” impoverishing modern experience. To the contrary, men and women still hunger for the “felt life of the mind,” which has been eliminated from their experience only because they have made the mistake of falling under the influence of the parascientific writers thoroughly dismantled in this short but brilliant book.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

13 epigrams

These were published many years ago, in an obscure pamphlet issued by Robert L. Barth; then I set them aside and forgot them. The only epigram I have written in the years since, I believe, went unnoticed by readers of this blog. (When I drew his attention to it, Patrick Kurp apologized. “Sorry I screwed up your Martial Plan,” he said.) Earlier today, cleaning out my office in College Station, I came upon these twenty-five-year-old epigrams again, and decided to lend them impermanence in a new form.

1. To J. V. Cunningham

Take these, the work of quiet days,
In place of what I owe you—measured praise.
As you have made my mind your own device
To honor you I epigrammatize.

2. To the Reader

Though you’d prefer a known designer brand,
Accept these rhymes: they’re cheap, but made by hand.

3. To My book

In Herrick’s day men wiped themselves
With quarto leaves. If you ne’er sit
On permanent collection shelves
At least you have got free of shit.

4. To My Bookseller

Behind the thick-backed boys where clerks neglect it
My book will slip and cower if you let it.
Don’t. Make it stand up front where all can get it.

5. Dr. Johnson on the Death of His Mother

                           Idler, 41

If you have tears, whoever you may be,
Enough to drop for mourners filing by,
Then let this train be your last cause for grief:
The last steps of an inoffensive life.


Post-Structuralist, rest in peace,
For whom all substance was caprice,
All meaning vain. At your demise
Yourself were desubstantialized.

7. Martial 3.71

I know, yes. How? I didn’t read your mind.
He’s sore between the legs and you, behind.

8. To Shakespearean Actors

Uncertain kings on th’raisèd stage
Strutting and frothing in a rage
Of unmarked accents, ill-bred shouts,
Easy but in a bawdyhouse,
You act this pre-neurotic drama
To give the audience a trauma.


Men praise here eyes, her lips, her dress, her stockings.
Coy answers naught. And why? To keep them talking.


Once Loose was young, petite, and love was free!
To any man who’ll listen now she tells
Her serial erotic odyssey.
What passion gave away confession sells.

11. Someone’s Epitaph for His Wife

The girl was trouble; I desired no bride
Except in bed, and after she had died.

12. With the Baseball Encyclopedia

These epitaphs, by each man scored
In measures from antiquity,
Keep his life’s record here assured,
Though evened to finality.

13. To My Wife

I never write of love, it’s true.
If love be mutual attraction,
The simultaneous urge to screw,
Let us pass time in mute distractions
Who seek inherence in the act
And have no voices to announce it.
Our marriage is a binding pact
In a dead tongue. We can’t pronounce it.

Friday, July 02, 2010


My essay on Myron Brinig’s 1929 novel Singermann is up this morning at Jewish Ideas Daily.

If the novel is ever reprinted, as it should be, it will be because of its transvestism and homosexuality. The best thing about the novel, though, is that it tells a more typical Jewish story—a story that no other Jewish writer ever seemed interested in telling, despite its significance to American Jewry.

Singermann documents the career of a Jewish emigrant from Central Europe who becomes a peddler in the Middle West, and then travels further west to open his own clothing and dry-goods store—the makings of a successful department store. Many if not most of the local department stores in small to mid-sized American cities were established by Jews (the stores have largely been swallowed up by larger chains). The stores, and the Jewish merchants who created and ran them, anchored both the communities in which they were located and the Jews who came there to live and to establish Jewish institutions.

Most of the midwestern Jewish communities in places like Butte, Montana (the novel’s setting), have disappeared. And with them a chapter in American Jewish history. Singermann is one of the few remaining traces.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Hitchens diagnosed with cancer

Christopher Hitchens has released a terse, 37-word statement that he is beginning to receive chemotherapy for cancer of the esophagus. He says nothing about the stage of his cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, five-year survival rates for esophageal cancer are 37% if it has not metastasized, 19% if has metastasized to nearby bones or organs, and only 3% if the metastases have spread to distant parts of the body.

Sadly, though, esophageal cancer is rarely detected until symptoms appear, by which point, again as the American Cancer Society says, the cancer has “reached an advanced stage, when a cure is less likely.”

It is sobering to learn that a writer of such fierce and unshakable integrity must face such a grim prognosis. Coincidentally, I finished eight weeks of radiation earlier today, designed to eradicate the last remaining traces of the metastatic prostate cancer with which I was diagnosed two-and-a-half years ago. At the time, I was given small chance to survive, but I have beaten the odds, and perhaps Hitchens can too. Even though he would sneer, I shall pray for him. I can’t imagine a world in which his voice is silenced.