Modernism & Conservatism
Nearly 30 years before he shocked National Review by endorsing Barack Obama for president, senior editor Jeffery Hart announced a divorce of a different kind from the American right. With “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to a Modern American Conservatism”—published in The New Right Papers in 1982 and previewed in NR a few months earlier—Hart split with tradition and declared himself on the side of modernism in art, literature, and morals.
“Despite its recent victories, the conservative cause has been creating unnecessary difficulties for itself,” he wrote, and as “a professor of English at Dartmouth, a senior editor of National Review, and a conservative activist”—he might have added former Reagan speechwriter—Hart knew better than most what limits the right’s philosophy ran up against. “The fact is, a lot of my students are not sold on conservatism. … They think conservatives are preppies against sex.”
Was it true? “In some visible cases, the main content of ‘conservatism’ seems to be a refusal of experience,” he wrote. Yet Hart was arguing not for hedonism but for what he called “the ‘proportions’ of orthodoxy.” He had in mind much more than sex. “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide,” its title adapted from Shaw, made the case that conservatism was American modernism, at the heart of which lay a drive for freedom. “Americans believe in possibility, in ‘making it new,’ as Ezra Pound once urged. If conservatism is to be truly American,” according to Hart, “it must embrace that sense of possibility.”
And with that possibility the culture that expresses it, from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” to Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Modernism, Hart explained, was not a period but a spirit. Works produced in the first decade of the 20th century could be more modern than anything made today, if they partook of the ethos: “The modern artist is concerned to assert his freedom, and that involves an adversary relationship to past conventions. … a modern work creates its own conventions and does not take them over from previous works,” even if it appropriates fragments from the past. This bric-a-brac approach is part of what it means to be modern: “Freedom implies an eclectic style.”
Hart’s essay seemingly won no converts—a symposium of reactions in the December 25, 1981 NR was entirely negative, including objections from Hart’s colleagues Joseph Sobran, Linda Bridges, Rick Brookhiser, and Charles Kesler. The last, a disciple of Harry Jaffa, couched his critique in terms worthy of the master: Hart was “going backward … from Burke to Hegel to Marx and Nietzsche. … The language of authenticity belongs to Heidegger, but the politics of emotion and authenticity belong to Hitler.”
So far, so bad. If “An Intelligent Woman’s Guide” was a dud 30 years ago, why would anyone want to give it a second look now? The fact that Hart has become the most outspoken “Obamacon” of 2012 only heightens suspicion that the Dartmouth don left the right long ago and has since been a liberal in conservatives’ clothing.
But Hart was right: there is a deep connection between modernism and conservatism—not, however, because modernism means freedom but because modernism shows us what comes after freedom has run to disillusionment.
Irving Babbitt, the Harvard professor of Romance languages who was one of the preeminent conservative minds of the 20th century’s first decades, provides a definition of modernism that complements Hart’s: “The modern spirit is the positive and critical spirit, the spirit that refuses to take things on authority.” Modern man cannot take things on authority, simply because there are no authorities left. Democracy, religious liberty, scientific inquiry, and free markets have torn down the old hierarchies that once set the standards for art, morals, and philosophical truth in the Western world.
This transition from classes to the masses largely overlapped the 19th century, though it only completed itself at the time literary modernism arose—shortly before (and flourishing after) World War I. That conflict was a clarifying moment in art. “The war smashed romanticism and sentimentalism, naïve notions of patriotism and imperial adventure,” writes critic Malcolm Bradbury in The Modern British Novel,
But, paradoxically, some of the complex aesthetic ideas that had stirred in the years between 1910 and 1914—‘hardness,’ ‘abstraction,’ ‘collage,’ ‘fragmentation,’ ‘dehumanization’—and the key themes of chaotic history, Dionysian energy, and the ‘destructive element,’ did help to provide the discourse and forms of the world to come.
T.S. Eliot, in a review of James Joyce’s Ulysses, would allude to “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” In a world like that—the one described in Eliot’s own masterpiece, “The Waste Land”—everything was possible. But nothing was real; nothing possessed fixed meaning.
Literary modernism was a product of this desert of meaning, as well as an attempt to transform it. Sanguine souls—or manic ones—might follow Pound’s injunction to “make it new.” Yet newness led Pound to enthusiasm for Benito Mussolini and sent others down the path of Bolshevism. This was new politics to answer the new art, certainly: an attempt by main force to create value and meaning in a world that had been stripped of them. Liberalism had failed to provide answers, and if it provided bread, it asked men to live by that alone. And when between the wars even bread seemed beyond liberalism’s powers, new modes of authority-politics arose.
Then they fell in Europe’s last great conflagration, which ended with Stalin in command of half the continent but put paid to any delusion that communism was on the side of progress, let alone art. (The CIA, quick to recognize this, began to subsidize modern art and the modern-minded literary journal Encounter.) “All the great tyrannies of the twentieth century are monstrously reactionary,” Hart insisted in 1981. “They are rear-guard attempts to hold back the universal human desire for concrete freedom. Naturally they suppress modern art. They are puritanical about sex. From Hitler and Stalin through Mao and the Ayatollah they have been desperate attempts to re-establish a lost community.”
But why does modern man feel such a longing for community?
The answer is that modernism and modernity are inherently unstable: the hollowing of authority that elicits modernism in the first place leaves a vacuum something will fill. In the immediate postwar West, that something was a state-resuscitated liberalism. The war effort had temporarily reinvigorated authority—that of parents and pastors as well as presidents and generals. The baby-boom generation born into this war-reinforced web of authority rebelled against it—but did so with a doomed idealism that echoed the romanticism (and revolutionary fever) of more than a century before. Again it failed, and modernism came roaring back in the popular culture of the 1970s and early 1980s: in nihilist punk and the alienation and ennui of authors such as Bret Easton Ellis.
Then—and still now—the ethos of the later 19th century came around again, with money and technology promising to supply what the Age of Aquarius failed to achieve. We’ve arrived at a world that looks a little like the Brave New World Aldous Huxley described back in 1932, at least as far psychopharmaceutical and pornographic substitutes for happiness are concerned. Freedom, yes—but to do what? To pass the time as painlessly as possible, through the most intense distractions available.
Modernism points a way out of this wasteland—but only if it’s carried to its utmost extent, past the point of all-consuming skepticism. Consider the case of Eliot, whose unflinching engagement with the modern condition brought him back to the understanding that society is never a mere contract or the expression of pure will or reason. Modernism brought Eliot back to tradition.
He would come to call himself a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion” after being baptized into the Church of England (and that same year, 1926, renouncing his American citizenship). If this self-description sounds too Tory by half, there’s no doubting the sincerity of his beliefs—they are well attested in such later works as Four Quartets, the play “Murder in the Cathedral,” and the essay “The Idea of a Christian Society.”
For these Eliot is much admired by cultural conservatives. But too many overlook the role his modernist commitments played in making him who he became. The Eliot who stared into the abyss in “The Waste Land” saw something there that brought him back to belief. Russell Kirk, writing in Eliot and His Age, perceived how it happened: “In the progress of a terrifying quest, some wisdom is regained, though no assurance of salvation. We end by knowing our peril, which is better than fatuity: before a man may be healed, he must recognize his sickness.” This diagnosis is what modernism provides—what perhaps only modernism can provide.
Modernism is freedom from all formerly established authority, a critical mindset, as Irving Babbitt said, that uncovers the shattered foundations of authorities old and new. Everything can be juxtaposed, recontextualized, and thrown into question. What’s left may seem to be sheer will—the individual free to choose his own direction in an endless sea of possibility. But one cannot even choose a direction without fixed points of reference by which to navigate. Those, however, are ready at hand in the civilization into which one is born. Modernism, after debunking rationalistic and universal pretensions, provides a surer basis for appreciating what we already have—presence and familiarity.
What Eliot accomplished through literary modernism is parallel to what David Hume discovered through thoroughgoing philosophical inquiry—another form of modernism. The acids of philosophy dissolved not only what Hume took to be superstition but even reason itself; he wound up casting into doubt even as basic a notion as “cause.” Pursued to its end, reason led to Pyrrhonian skepticism. But as Donald Livingston, professor emeritus of philosophy at Emory University, points out, this is not where Hume ended—he drew a distinction between the true philosopher, who having discovered reason’s limits accepts what is before philosophy, and the false philosopher, who attempts to rationalize his way beyond the limits. As Livingston summarizes:
The true philosopher recognizes that philosophical reflection consistently purged of the authority of the pre-reflective leads to total skepticism. In this moment of despair, hubristic reason … becomes impotent and utterly silent. It is only then that the philosopher can recognize, for the first time, the authority of that radiant world of pre-reflective common life in which he has his being and which had always been a guide prior to the philosophic act.
Once reason has disestablished everything, including its own authority, what remains? The ground beneath your feet, the social order of which you are a part—things predicated not on any theory but on their immediacy. This is the profound conservatism to be realized from modernism. In Eliot’s case—and those of certain others, including Evelyn Waugh—the free and critical spirit led to the despair of “The Waste Land.” It’s the despair of Europe after World War I, the despair of Eliot in the midst of an unhappy marriage, and above all a poetic and philosophical despair over the absence of order. To this Eliot’s poem supplies an answer in its penultimate line: the Sanskrit datta, dayadhvam, damyata—give, sympathize, control. It’s a reasonable paraphrase for what Livingston calls “the autonomy of custom.” Or as literary critic Hugh Kenner says of Eliot’s poem, “The past exists in fragments precisely because nobody cares what it meant; it will unite itself and come alive in the mind of anyone who succeeds in caring…”
Following the spirit of modernism past despair to a new appreciation for the givens in life meant different things for Eliot and for Hume, to be sure. Both turned toward political conservatism, but while Eliot embraced the Christianity embedded in the given culture of his (adopted) country, Hume did not. “No assurance of salvation,” as Russell Kirk said.
But modernism, in literature or philosophy, clears away a lot of dead wood, including its own detritus. The rigid rationalisms and aimless will to power—the “restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death”—that characterize today’s culture and politics break down under the solvents of modernism. What does not break down is the social world that pre-exists ideology and individual will. And the reference points provided by that social world, however minimal they may seem at first, imply larger constellations of customs—the very stuff of a civilization, including its ideas. Modernism has its risks, but it makes conservatism possible once more in a world otherwise blasted to fragments.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative. Follow @ToryAnarchist.