TAC Bookshelf for the Week of November 19
Scott Beauchamp, contributor: I don’t remember how or when I first came across Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (possibly recommended to me by Amazon? *spits on the ground*), but I’m sure it had something to do with my ongoing struggle to teach myself how to think about visual art. The Ceylonese Tamil scholar, metaphysician, philosopher, and writer also served as curator of Indian art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts through the 1920s and, as the museum itself boasts, was a “groundbreaking theorist who was largely responsible for introducing ancient Indian art to the West.”
My introduction (ongoing, as I’m slowly picking my way through the book and savoring each sentence) to Coomaraswamy has been through his book Christian & Oriental Philosophy of Art, a slim collection of essays put out by Dover Press. The first essay in the collection, which I believe was actually the original title of the book on its first printing, “Why Exhibit Works of Art?”, avoids the compartmentalized thinking about visual arts so endemic in contemporary art “discourse” and presents instead a fully fleshed out philosophy of Being. That sounds like heavy lifting but, being a traditionalist in the best sense of the word, Coomaraswamy knows that others—Aquinas, Plato, Confucius—have already done most of the grunt work themselves. As he witheringly puts in the essay, “It should be one of the functions of a well organized Museum exhibition to deflate the illusion of progress.”
There needs to be a sorting out of the strengths and weaknesses of the kind of sophia perennis which Coomaraswamy advocates, but anyone who writes something like this, implying that we all suffer under the nihilism of colony and empire, deserves our careful attention:
We have gone so far as to divorce work from culture, and to think of culture as something to be acquired in the hours of leisure; but there can be only a hothouse and unreal culture where work itself is not its means; if culture does not show itself in all we make we are not cultured. We ourselves have lost this vocational way of living, the way that Plato made his type of Justice; and there can be no better proof of the depth of our loss than the fact that we have destroyed the cultures of all other peoples whom the withering touch of our civilization has reached.
Emile A. Doak, senior development associate: I’ve been reading Pat Buchanan’s Nixon’s White House Wars: The Battles That Made and Broke a President and Divided America Forever. I include the full subtitle here, for it aptly depicts the importance of the book—especially for those of my Millennial generation who have no real political memory before the Bush 43 years. As Buchanan reminds us in the way that only a White House insider could, the Nixon years were pivotal to our current political alignment.
The modern conservative movement in America is clearly indebted to Buckley, Meyer, et al for its genesis, but it also cannot be understood without examining the role Nixon played in consolidating conservatives as a political force. Not that Nixon himself was a conservative; as Buchanan points out, “[Nixon] often referred to the right as ‘they’…conservatives were seen as loyal friends and fighting allies, but he was not one of us.” Yet part of the genius of Nixon’s improbable political comeback was that he took seriously the conservative flank of the Republican Party in the wake of Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964. The political project of the 1960s GOP, in which candidate Nixon had to delicately balance the drastically divergent Rockefeller and Goldwater constituencies within the party, is quite the contrast to that of the 2010s GOP, which sees candidates clamoring to claim the title of “conservative” when they are often anything but. The remarkable shift in the role the “conservative” label plays in Republican politics can be traced to that president who rejected the label for himself but embraced those claiming it.
The other main revelation early in Buchanan’s book is just how uninterested Nixon was in domestic policy. In analyzing why Nixon didn’t dismantle the Great Society, Buchanan concedes that “foreign policy was Nixon’s first love and domestic policy often a distraction.” Nixon greatly wanted his legacy to be that of the president who achieved an “honorable end” to the war in Vietnam, an aspiration that chafes against the historically lazy view that the Nixon coalition’s exclusion of anti-war protesters meant that the president himself was a warmonger. That Nixon would invite Merle Haggard to perform “Okie From Muskogee” at the White House while seeking to wind down the war adds a level of nuance to the politics of war that is badly needed today. Perhaps one can oppose smoking marijuana, burning draft cards down on Main Street, and prolonged foreign wars after all.
By publishing his memories of the Nixon White House, Pat Buchanan has given us an invaluable gift. Nixon is one of the most consequential political figures of the 20th century, and one who presided over a period of a deeply divided America. That tumultuous time in American history is vital to understanding the divisions that continue to plague us today.