With this issue, The New Criterion embarks on its twenty-fifth anniversary season. Twenty-five yearsa quarter century: yes, it is a long time, but how quickly the years have passed! A lot has changed since September 1982. Back then, there was still something called the Soviet Union, a minatory, intractable behemoth which, for most observers, seemed destined to lumber on indefinitely. In August of that year, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dipped to 776thats seven hundred and seventy-sixand many were the bulletins alerting us to the impending Death of Equities.
By 1982, wed suffered through the disgusting spectacle of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the brazen economic blackmail of OPEChow many of our current political woes were engendered by our inadequate response to those assaults!but al Qaeda was not yet a twinkling in the mullahs eyes. No one (near enough) had heard of email, cell phones, or the internet, and the words multiculturalism and political correctness had yet to be enlisted to register the burgeoning pathologies they named. The university, then as now, was essentially a one-party state, its reflexive, hermetic leftism still untroubled by such broadsides as Allan Blooms Closing of the American Mind.
Elsewhere in the world of art, culture, and intellectual life, a similarly sclerotic complacency reigned. The term diversity had yet to emerge as the favored shibboleth of those bent on enforcing conformity, but the conformity itself was already deeply entrenched. All good people agree, as Kipling put it, And all good people say,/ All nice people, like Us, are We/ And everyone else is They. Standardsaesthetic as well as intellectualwere low, but then so were expectations. Words like transgressive and challenging had just begun their bizarre mutation into terms of critical commendation, while traditional epithets such as beautiful, technically accomplished, even true were drifting into desuetude. What the historian Elie Kedourie called The Chatham House Versionthat amalgam of smugness, moral relativism, and cherished feelings of guilt about the achievements of Western civilizationeverywhere nurtured the catechism of established opinion.
This, of course, was a world allergic to dissent, and it was no surprise that when The New Criterion first appeared the reaction was astonishment followed quickly by rage: astonishment that anyone would even think of starting an unabashedly conservative journal devoted to serious culture and the arts, rage that it would have the temerity to translate that thought into action. We were at first taken aback and then mildly amused by the fury of the left-liberalespecially the academic left-liberalresponse to the debut of The New Criterion. One common if unarticulated assumption was that by presuming to intervene in cultural debate from a conservative perspective, we had somehow violated an unspoken pact: culture, the arts, intellectual lifewasnt all that the Lefts prerogative? Who were we upstarts, presuming to contribute to the war of ideas and cultural controversy? We early on lost count of the accusations that we were a nefarious tool of the Reagan administration. After our first issue appeared, The New Republic ran a hysterical piece that, inter alia, insinuated some dark connection between The New Criterion and the Olin Corporation, a munitions manufacturer. It certainly made for some entertaining press, and it reinforced overall our fondness for William Dean Howellss observation that the problem for a critic is not making enemies but keeping them.
The New Criterion has always owed a lot to its enemies. They instantly attributed to us an influence and connection to the corridors of power far greater than we possessed. By so doing, they helped assure our success, amplifying our authority by the simple expedient of decrying it.
The business of the critic, said Walter Bagehot, is to criticize. To criticize: that means to sift, compare, discriminate, judge. As T. S. Eliot put it, the fundamental task of criticism is to distinguish good from bad, and its severest test is to select the good and lasting from the noisy throng of new works clamoring for attention. Most cultural artifacts today, as always, are mediocre or worse. Recent cultural life is subject to some special deformationsabove all, we think, an ongoing ambition to politicize culture and a concomitant effort to blur the distinction between high and low. But the present age has no monopoly on mediocrity. We look back, and rightly, to the Victorian novel as a stupendous achievement. But there were, what, two dozen masterpieces? An acquaintance recently reminded us that between 1837when Victoria ascended the throne and Dickenss first novel, Pickwick Papers, was publishedand 1901, the year of Victorias death, there were some 70,000 novels published in Great Britain. How many do you suppose have stood the test of time?
In his poem At the Grave of Henry James, W. H. Auden speaks of the Resentful muttering Mass, its ruminant hatred of all that cannot/ Be simplified or stolen and its lust/ To vilify the landscape of Distinction. James dedicated his career to opposing that hatred of complexity and lust for leveling. From the beginning, The New Criterion has understood its vocation in similar terms. All will be judged, Auden declaims in the last stanza of his elegy for that master of discrimination. For us, the imperative of judgment, of criticism, revolves primarily around two tasks.
The first is the negative task of forthright critical discrimination. To a large extent, that meant the job of intellectual and cultural garbage collector. In the note to our inaugural issue, we spoke of applying a new criterion to the discussion of our cultural lifea criterion of truth. The truth was, and is, that much of what presents itself as art today can scarcely be distinguished from political sermonizing, on the one hand, or the pathetic recapitulation of Dadaist outrages, on the other. Mastery of the artifice of art is mostly a forgotten, often an actively disparaged, goal. At such a time, simply telling the truth is bound to be regarded as an unwelcome provocation.
In the university and other institutions entrusted with preserving and transmitting the cultural capital of our civilization, kindred deformations are at work. Pseudo-scholarship propagated by a barbarous reader-proof prose and underwritten by adolescent political animus is the order of the day. The New Criterion sallied forth onto this cluttered battlefield determined not simply to call attention to its carnage, but to do so with wit, clarity, and literary panache. We acknowledge that these have been hard times for the arts of satire and parody. With increasingly velocity, todays reality has a way of outstripping yesterdays satirical exaggeration. Nevertheless, The New Criterion has always been distinguished by its effective deployment of satire, denunciation, and ridiculeall the astringent resources in the armory of polemicand that is one of the things that enabled the magazine to live up to Horaces injunction to delight as well as instruct.
But The New Criterion is not only about polemics. The second, equally important part of criticism revolves around the task of battling cultural amnesia. From our first issue nearly a quarter century ago, we have labored in the vast storehouse of cultural achievement to introduce, or reintroduce, readers to some of the salient figures whose works helped weave the great unfolding tapestry of our civilization. Writers and artists, philosophers and musicians, scientists, historians, controversialists, explorers, and politicians: The New Criterion has specialized in resuscitating important figures whose voices have been drowned out by the demotic inanities of pop culture or embalmed by the dead hand of the academy.
It is worth noting that our interest in these matters has never been merely aesthetic. At the beginning of The Republic, Socrates reminds his young interlocutor, Glaucon, that their discussion concerns not trifling questions but the right conduct of life. We echo that sentiment. The New Criterion is not, we hope, a somber publicationbut it is a serious one. We look to the past for enlightenment and to art for that humanizing education and ordering of the emotions that distinguish the man of culture from the barbarian.
Allan Bloom once observed that a liberal education consists in knowing and thinking about the alternative answers to lifes perennial questions. Today, when some of historys less savory alternatives are once again on offer, the claims of cultureand criticism, which keeps culture vitalare particularly exigent. Five years ago, in a note introducing our twentieth anniversary issue, we quoted two passages from Evelyn Waugh. The first, written near the end of Waughs life, concerned Rudyard Kiplings conservative view of culture. Kipling, Waugh wrote, believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defenses fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms.
In the second passage, written three decades earlier, Waugh dilates more fully on this theme. Barbarism, he wrote in 1938,
is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come merely from habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on . The work of preserving society is sometimes onerous, sometimes almost effortless. The more elaborate the society, the more vulnerable it is to attack, and the more complete its collapse in case of defeat. At a time like the present it is notably precarious. If it falls we shall see not merely the dissolution of a few joint-stock corporations, but of the spiritual and material achievements of our history.We wrote this only a few weeks before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In the years since, we have often returned to Waughs prescient observations. Conservative: that means wanting to conserve what is worth preserving from the ravages of time and ideology, evil and stupidity. In some plump eras, as Waugh says, the task is so easy we can almost forget how necessary it is. At other times, the enemies of civilization transform the task of preserving of culture into a battle for survival. That, we believe, is where we are today. And that is one reason that The New Criterions effort to tell the truth about culture is as important today as it was in 1982.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 1, on page 1
Copyright © 2018 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com