“The concept of culture at its fullest should lead us to judge the adequacy of the present by reference to our gallery of monumental cultural achievements.” So writes Wilfred M. McClay in his review of Roger Kimball’s The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia in The University Bookman. Founded by the political theorist and literary critic Russell Kirk, The Bookman is no stranger to the renewal of culture, having spent over five decades discussing those books that investigate the modern age through the prism of what Kirk called “The Permanent Things.” In this review, McClay continues in this vein, discussing the wider implications of The Fortunes of Permanence using the work of historian Jacques Barzun as a starting point. Reflecting upon Barzun’s work to recover and restore the word “culture,” McClay applauds Kimball’s book as an energetic and articulate appeal to reinforce its proper meaning (and we couldn’t agree more). He writes:
We have gotten entirely too used to the idea that “culture” is fundamentally an anthropological term, descriptive of our habituations rather than our aspirations—of what groups of people already do and believe, unreflectively, and not of human excellences and ideals to which they might legitimately strive, and indeed, toward which they should strive, if they wish to be all that their human endowment calls them to be.
For the word “culture” to regain its Arnoldian force, something else must be restored along with it: the very idea of permanence itself, the belief that some human achievements have enduring meaning and value that transcend the particulars of their creation and their immediate context, and that these monuments of insight and expressive power provide a steady and enduring standard (or criterion) by which all else may be reckoned.
The idea of permanence is not without enemies, however, and restoring the etymological force of “culture” means fighting against them, including those who belong to what Kimball refers to as the cult of “instantaneity,” or those who live only for the present, regarding anything lasting as inherently suspicious. McClay observes that any belief in withstanding greatness offends those who demand that all opinions should be considered equal and all expressions legitimate, a direct contradiction of the prescribed meaning of “culture.” McClay concludes his review with the hopeful assertion that although the battle for permanence is on-going, it will not soon be forgotten with such advocates as Kimball and his work. Quoting Kimball, he writes:
An Englishman’s mind,” [Kimball] writes in conclusion, quoting Lord D’Abernon, “works best when it is almost too late.” Let us hope that the expression is equally applicable to Americans, and that the “almost” is still accurate. And that the general gloom expressed in Jacques Barzun’s final book, and felt in his passing, is not yet entirely warranted.
Read the full review here.