Posts tagged with: t.s. eliot

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I reviewed a new book by George H. Nash on the history of the American conservative movement:

Reappraising the Right

By Bruce Edward Walker

In his 1950 work, “The Liberal Imagination,” Lionel Trilling famously stated that American liberalism was the one true political philosophy, claiming it as the nation’s “sole intellectual tradition.”

Unknown to him, two young men — one toiling as a professor at Michigan State Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) and the other finishing his degree at Yale University – would publish two articulate, galvanizing works. The first, Russell Kirk, unleashed “The Conservative Mind,” in which he defined conservatives as being wary of change, revolutions and ideologies in the manner of Irish statesman Edmund Burke. The second, William F. Buckley, first published “God and Man at Yale” and later inaugurated The National Review, the first issue bearing Buckley’s definition of a conservative as one who stands “athwart history, yelling stop!”

Slight differences, to be sure, but, as George H. Nash notes in his excellent “ Reappraising the Right ,” these variations are indicative of the inherent schisms in the modern American conservative tradition from its beginning.

Both Kirk and Buckley agreed that the conservative tradition had its roots in spirituality –specifically, the Judeo-Christian tradition. Morality and right-thinking come not from man, but from a higher power. Furthermore, humankind will continue to succumb to the temptations and appetites of the flesh it has been heir to since the Fall. The two men took as articles of faith that humanity is not perfectible and that the striving for earthbound utopias is foolhardy.

Kirk, writing from the “stump country” of Mecosta, Michigan, and Buckley, writing and speaking in his Brahmin-drenched New England patois, differed in their views of where conservatism derived, what precisely it was and where it should go. Despite their differences, Kirk wrote a column for nearly every issue of National Review from its inception and for almost 30 years.

The early 1950s were watershed years, to be sure, because as soon as a new conservative front was established, the fortress was besieged from within and without. The 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign against Democrat incumbent President Lyndon Johnson notwithstanding, the high water mark of conservatism in the lifetime of most readers would more than likely be defined as the victory of Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. Reagan, a former Hollywood actor, supporter of Goldwater in the 1964 election, and former California governor, became an icon for all that modern conservatism came to represent: low taxes, personal responsibility and small government.

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Can you discern a nation’s spirit, even its economic genius, from the literature it produces? That’s long been a pastime of literary critics, including those who frequently see the “original sins” of Puritanism and capitalism in the stony heart of Americans.

Writing in Commentary Magazine, Fred Siegel looks at just this problem in a new appreciation of cultural critic and iconoclast Bernard DeVoto’s three-decade campaign to rescue American letters from the perception that European aesthetics were superior to the homegrown variety.

Bernard DeVoto at his desk (ca. 1954)

Bernard DeVoto at his desk (ca. 1954)

According to Siegel, DeVoto was the lone voice speaking out against the literary intelligentsia of the age. While it is true that DeVoto had his moments of clarity regarding literature, especially as it pertains to his insights that rescued Mark Twain’s work from a certain obscurity, Siegel nonetheless inflates DeVoto’s total contribution to cultural criticism.

Indeed, DeVoto was erudite and a prodigious writer. But, despite Siegel’s assertions, he wasn’t a particularly astute observer of the literary landscape. In fact, he was a bit of a cranky pants who wedged works he didn’t fully understand too quickly into an easy anti-American category. This strategy yielded diminishing returns for DeVoto’s reputation, which is probably the primary reason why his name is seldom if ever mentioned in the canon of literary criticism. Siegel’s rebranding attempt is not likely to help. DeVoto penned the monthly Easy Chair column for Harper’s from 1935 to 1955, won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Across the Wide Missouri,” and wrote “Mark Twain’s America.” Siegel notes that DeVoto’s “most important book,” however, was the 1944 volume, “The Literary Fallacy.” In it, Siegel asserts, DeVoto “illuminated the inner life of modern liberalism as no one had before or since.” (more…)

My commentary today looks at President Obama’s deft use of narrative — the art of story telling — to inspire and motivate. By his own admission, Obama has taken a page from the playbook of the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan.

Reagan biographer Lou Cannon told the Chicago Tribune last year that Obama has “a narrative reach” and a talent for story telling that reminds him of the late president. Reagan “made other people a part of his own narrative, and that’s what Obama is doing,” Cannon said. “By doing it, it expands his reach because he isn’t necessarily just another partisan Democrat.”

Indeed, in January 2008, Obama noted how Reagan “changed the trajectory” of America, put the country on a “fundamentally different path,” when the nation was ready for it. “He just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing,” Obama said.

Obama has placed his own story into the great narrative stream of American history. For many, like the million or so people who jammed the National Mall yesterday, this story has them convinced that Obama is the one to, as he promised to do yesterday, “begin the work of remaking America.” I point out that “if religious conservatives and free market advocates are to oppose Obama on those issues where there is fundamental disagreement, they will have to craft their own counter-narrative” to Obama’s.

Human actions are made intelligible as they are communicated through narrative. The ethicist Alisdair MacIntyre has observed that man is essentially a story telling animal, one that uses narrative to find truth, both through his own history and through connections to the stories of others. We enter human society, MacIntyre said, with an “imputed” character and then we learn what our role is and how others view us through that role. “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” MacIntyre wrote.

Those who wish to move nations, or start a social movement, understand how stories have been used since the dawn of time to create national or ethnic identities (beginning in the West with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid), to communicate religious truth (The Greatest Story Ever Told), and motivate social change (Uncle Tom’s Cabin). As G. K. Chesterton observed, “All life is an allegory and can be understood only in parable.”

Read “Obama and the Moral Imagination” on the Acton site.

More on this subject:

The Moral Imagination. By Russell Kirk. The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal

Moral Imagination, Humane Letters, and the Renewal of Society. By Vigen Guroian. The Heritage Foundation

The Leaky Bucket: Why Conservatives Need to Learn the Art of Story. By David M. Phelps. Religion & Liberty

Why Should Businessmen Read Great Literature? By Vigen Guroian. Religion & Liberty

The Morality of Narrative Imagination. By Jordan Ballor. Acton PowerBlog

Bavinck on the Moral Imagination. By Jordan Ballor. Acton PowerBlog