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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Fortunes of Permanence’

THE FORTUNES OF PERMANENCE: CULTURE AND ANARCHY IN AN AGE OF AMNESIA
By Roger Kimball
St. Augustine's Press, $35, 347 pages

 

Roger Kimball, essayist, editor and publisher of the New Criterion, publisher of Encounter Books, and author of a number of highly regarded books, among them "Tenured Radicals," is in many ways a throwback to a time, not that long ago, when there were men of letters and the talk was of literature, life, manners, morals and values -- when it was widely understood not only that ideas have consequences, but that those ideas are shaped by immutable truths and values worth defending and preserving.

Those are the ideas and attitudes frequently woven with wit and humor through these splendidly crafted and highly readable essays on a variety of topics, from culture, ideology and politics to literature, architecture and art.

Here's Randall Jarrell, author of "Pictures From an Institution" and one of our great forgotten 20th-century writers, quoted in a chapter titled "Why the Art World Is a Disaster": "Some of what she said was technical, and you would have had to be a welder to appreciate it; the rest was aesthetic or generally philosophical, and to appreciate it you would have had to be an imbecile."

In architecture, Mr. Kimball writes approvingly of "the Amis principle, after Kingsley Amis. 'Nice things are nicer than nasty ones.'" Of music, he asks us to consider what it means to put Sir Elton John on the same level with Bach. In fact, "It might also be worth asking what had to happen in English society for there to be such a thing as 'Sir Elton John.'" In literature there are appreciations of G.K. Chesterton; the prolific novelist John Buchan, called by Gertrude Himmelfarb "the last Victorian"; and Rudyard Kipling, who in his Nobel Prize citation of 1907, Mr. Kimball writes, was praised for his "virility of ideas."

There are penetrating essays on Friedrich Hayek and the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, whose observation on Marxism is key to the secret of its appeal: "'One of the causes of the popularity of Marxism among educated people was the fact that in its simple form it was very easy.'" Like Freudianism, Darwinism and Hegelianism, Mr. Kimball writes, Marxism is a "one-key-fits-all-locks" philosophy, entailing "the operation of a single all-governing process, which thereby offers the illusion of universal explanation."

Among American writers and thinkers, from what Mr. Kimball calls "the great pantheon of half-forgotten conservative sages" there's Richard Weaver, author of "Ideas Have Consequences," the publication of which prompted "the quirky Yale polemicist Willmoore Kendall" to declare Weaver "captain of the anti-liberal team" -- a team, Mr. Kimball writes, "that was only just coming into its own with figures like Weaver and [Russell] Kirk and, just over the horizon, William F. Buckley Jr. and the circle he assembled around National Review."

Also among the figures in that fast-fading pantheon: Henry Regnery, publisher of "God and Man at Yale" and Kirk's "The Conservative Mind," a book of great consequence when published in 1953 but not well-remembered today. And who beyond an aging few remember Frank Meyer? Or James Burnham?

That's the question Mr. Kimball asks himself in a chapter titled "The Power of James Burnham." Like George Orwell, who greatly admired him, Burnham was one of those men of the 20th century who had walked the perimeters of the ideologies formulated in the preceding century and found them wanting. But today, "almost no one under the age of sixty has even heard of him."

Some remember his first, celebrated book, "The Managerial Revolution," published in 1941. Others remember his role in the prewar world of New York intellectuals, his involvement with Leon Trotsky and his later association with the "anti-anti-McCarthy camp." But the memories are dim.

"The most notable exception to the oblivion surrounding Burnham is among people associated with National Review," the magazine he helped Bill Buckley start in the mid-'50s. "William F. Buckley Jr., the founding editor and perpetual genius loci of NR, called Burnham 'the number one intellectual influence on National Review since the day of its founding.'"

Mr. Kimball thinks Burnham's "ferocious intellectual independence and unclubbable heterodoxy" will never allow "anything like a general renaissance" among members of the intellectual establishment. But those of us who worked with him during the great years will always remember his intellectual curiosity, leadership and gifts as a teacher.

Linda Bridges and I dedicated our book about Bill Buckley, "Strictly Right," to three people: "To Priscilla Buckley and Bill Rusher, and in memory of Jim Burnham -- teachers, colleagues, friends."

They're gone now, but all of them in various ways worked in a tradition that Roger Kimball has carried forward, championing with great wit and erudition the best that has been thought and said by the defenders of the permanent things.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of "Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement" (Wiley).

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