Some 18 years ago, Gregory Wolfe used his position as editor of Image, the excellent arts and letters journal he founded in 1989, to proclaim his position on this country’s unceasing culture wars and their politicization of every corner of our lives: understood to be a man of the cultural right, he had decided to become a conscientious objector.
He went on: “I’ve burnt my draft card to the culture wars. It may sound unpatriotic and irresponsible, but I have come to the conclusion that these wars are unjust and illegitimate, and I will not fight in them. If necessary, I will move to Canada.” (The threat was merely rhetorical; Wolfe continues to reside in Seattle.)
Wolfe argued that without projects like Image, the culture wars would expand and our civic life would be increasingly tribalized. “Our culture will then be like the place in Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, a country ‘where ignorant armies clash by night.’”
Regrettably, despite the literate and delightful contributions of Image, the ignorant armies, and even the learned, clash by day as well, having long since adapted to the 24-hour news cycle.
Nevertheless, Wolfe has continued to write essays in his quest to get to the roots, the radices, of our cultural dilemma. And his hopeful answer—one owed to Solzhenitsyn by way of Dostoyevsky and echoed by such eminences as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Russell Kirk—is captured in the disarming title of his new book, Beauty Will Save the World.
Somewhere in our history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than culture … Whereas I once believed that the decadence of the West could only be turned around through politics and intellectual dialectics, I am now convinced that authentic renewal can only emerge out of the imaginative visions of the artist and the mystic.
Yet this is not a retreat into some escapist fantasy, he argues. It rather “involves the conviction that politics and rhetoric are not autonomous forces, but are shaped by the pre-political roots of culture: myth, metaphor, and spiritual experience as recorded by the artist and the saint.”
Moreover, the very phrase “culture wars” is an oxymoron: “culture is about nourishment and cultivation, whereas war inevitably involves destruction and the abandonment of the creative impulse.”
It’s worth noting that Wolfe’s credentials as a movement conservative, had he wanted to create for himself a comfy corner somewhere within the great noise machine that is our current politics, are very solid. His father, on staff with the Foundation for Economic Education in the early 1950s, met with the young William F. Buckley Jr. to discuss a new publication to be called National Review. When Reagan swept into office in 1980, Wolfe, a Hillsdale College graduate, was on staff with NR, where his initial euphoria gradually turned into dismay at the carnival of jobbery and hypocrisy that followed the election among his movement pals, many of them eager to join this well-paying “revolution.”
While Wolfe is partly engaged here in re-grounding the term conservatism, he is perhaps more comfortable borrowing the older notion of Christian humanism, that of Thomas More and Erasmus. (Wolfe’s forthcoming book on Erasmus will surely reflect on his famously eirenic influence amid the more-than-merely-cultural wars of the 16th century.)
In one essay, Wolfe sketches this older notion of humanism and its several hallmarks: 1) a passion for bonae litterae, roughly translatable as the masterpieces of the old Western tradition, in their original languages; 2) the primacy of rhetoric, understood as part of the education that creates engaged and articulate citizens; 3) a return to the sources—in the spirit of, say, the Catholic Ressourcement theological movement—and the development of a historical sensibility. Wolfe surely owes a debt to his teachers Russell Kirk and Gerhard Niemeyer for his appreciation of the latter quality, and this collection includes essays in tribute to both men.
When Wolfe turns to the state of our literary and artistic culture, he puts to use another notion from this Christian humanist tradition: the idea that “secular forms and innovations of a particular time can be assimilated into the larger vision of faith.”
Examples: T.S. Eliot’s modernist poetics, Flannery O’Connor’s adaptation of Nathanael West’s nihilistic style into a redemptive one, G.K. Chesterton’s use of Wildean fin-de-siècle paradox to mount a full-blown cultural critique of his times.
Wolfe has always sought beyond these earlier figures to celebrate contemporary artists and writers such as Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Ron Hansen, Louise Erdrich, Mark Helprin, Geoffrey Hill, Arvo Pärt, Wim Wenders, Makoto Fujimara and Fred Folsom.
Why might these names be unfamiliar to most of us? Because, Wolfe suggests, we have forgotten that the Judeo-Christian concept of stewardship applies not only to the environment and to institutions but also to culture. “To abdicate this responsibility is somewhat like a farmer refusing to till a field because it has stones and heavy clay in it. The wise farmer knows that with the proper cultivation that soil will become fertile.”
Putting it another way, we are so hag-ridden with politics by this point that few of us still believe art provides the necessary contemplative space to send us back wiser and more fully human into the realm of action. (There are echoes of, among others, Josef Pieper in this idea.) Our “conservative” materialism in fact resembles the Marxian preference for revolutionary action over the “classical-Christian belief in the primacy of contemplative understanding of transcendent order,” a diagnosis very close to that of Russell Kirk himself.
Even non-religious observers of our slow-motion cultural collapse have noticed it has something to do with a mind-body problem, specifically our growing loss of any sense of being embodied persons. Take James Howard Kunstler’s complaints about the gigantism that has afflicted our civic planning, so that our public spaces no longer have any relation to human scale but are always designed for cars traveling at least 20 to 30 miles per hour.
In response, Wolfe’s humanism is sacramental, based on his sense that culture and art can become analogues for the Incarnation. He notes the late Welsh poet David Jones’s observation—in the latter’s “Art and Sacrament”—that the Eucharist, the preeminent Christian sacrament, consists of bread and wine, not wheat and grapes. “In other words, the gifts offered to God at the altar are not the untouched products of the earth but artifacts, transformed through human hands through an art.”
The work of social change thus goes beyond merely offering a cultural critique. Culture-making, especially making new culture, is part of our earthly mission of redeeming the time.
Contrast this analysis with the editorial views of, say, the New Criterion or The Nation. The former often finds the cause of our cultural malaise in the rejection of bourgeois democracy by disaffected radicals. The latter typically reverses that formula in order to come down in sympathy with the dissidents. Both publications share a preoccupation with politics and circular name-calling.
Wolfe highlights two problems with this ideological approach to culture: its liability to be co-opted and, more importantly, its shallowness. Looking deeper at our crisis, he says, will reveal that it has theological and philosophical roots that go far beyond mere political fashion.
And revitalizing the roots of culture is a recovery operation requiring nothing less than the instinct Russell Kirk discovered in Edmund Burke—that of the moral imagination, precisely the faculty that can mediate between the poles of order and freedom, skepticism and faith, the individual and the community.
Wolfe worries that Kirk’s thought will be treated today as a “quaint Tory aesthetic, rather than a substantial intellectual synthesis.” Indeed, it’s difficult not to conclude that Kirk’s authentic conservatism has already been extirpated from the political scene.
The process, Wolfe notes, had already begun in Kirk’s lifetime, as he received invitations to speak from think tanks whose white papers contradicted much of what the author of The Conservative Mind stood for. “Having Kirk in as a guest lecturer thus became a form of guilt money, a nod in the direction of the humanistic tradition on the part of those who had lost sight of that tradition in their own mental and emotional lives.”
As Wolfe suggests, we must begin to imagine another way, one that frees us to cultivate our surroundings and truly make things new.
Elias Crim was the editor and publisher of the Armchair Historian and is at work on a new webzine to be called Solidarity Hall.