"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

10 July 2013

Roger Kimball and Culture

I am reading Roger Kimball’s 2012 book of essays, The Fortunes of Permanence.  I’ve barely begun – just the preface (“Mostly About Relativism”) and the first essay, which is the title essay, so far – and I am as strongly impressed as I thought I would be.  (I have always enjoyed and appreciated Kimball’s work.)  I would like to write a thoughtful essay about his essay, but shall have to be content with lots of quotations for now.  So, from “The Fortunes of Permanence,” several quotations that probably won’t add up to his main point, but that particularly caught my attention as worth repeating.

Kimball writes about the sense in which culture is that which must be cultivated, but warns, in a paraphrase of Cicero:  “[E]ven the best care [. . .] does not inevitably bring good results [. . .].  The results of cultivation depend not only on the quality of the care but the inherent nature of the thing being cultivated.”

“Culture in the evaluative sense does not merely admit, it requires judgment as a kind of coefficient or auxiliary: comparison, discrimination, evaluation are its lifeblood.”  Here he quotes
Henry James:  “We never really get near a book [. . .] save on the question of its being good or bad, of its really treating, that is, or not treating, its subject.”  And Matthew Arnold:  criticism is “the disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.”

“The point is that culture has roots," Kimball writes.  "It limns the future through its implications with the past.  Moving the reader or spectator over the centuries, in [Hannah] Arendt’s phrase, the monuments of culture transcend the local imperatives of the present.  They escape the obsolescence that fashion demands, the predictability that planning requires.  They speak of love and hatred, honor and shame, beauty and courage and cowardice – permanent realities of the human situation insofar as it remains human.”

Writing about Huxley’s Brave New World, Kimball quotes a section in which the Controller tells the Savage that reading old works, such as those of Shakespeare, is prohibited merely because they are old.  And if they are beautiful, it is even more important that they not be read:  “Beauty’s attractive, and we don’t want people to be attracted by old things.  We want them to like the new ones.”

Why?  “Huxley’s brave new world is above all a superficial world." Kimball explains.  "People are encouraged to like what is new, to live in the moment, because that makes them less complicated and more pliable.”  Sensation is important, not substance (Dillard addresses this in The Writing Life:  “the life of sensation demands more and more”), and “experience is increasingly vivid but decreasingly real.  The question of meaning is deliberately short-circuited.”  As the Controller explains, “They [experiences] mean themselves; they mean a lot of agreeable sensations to the audience.”

“In part,” Kimball writes, “the attack on permanence is an attack on the idea that anything possesses inherent value.”

On the increasingly profane and crude displays in much of what passes for art these days, Kimball notes, “Hardly anyone is shocked anymore, but that is a testament not to public enlightenment but to widespread moral anesthesia.”  (He also quotes Chesterton as one of his chapter epigraphs:  “Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. . . . It may be that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal, and that you are a paralytic.”)

On technology:  “Welcome to the information age.  Data, data, everywhere, but no one knows a thing.”  Information is not knowledge.  We might be able to find information at the click of a mouse, but this comes with “a great temptation”:  “to confuse an excellent means of communication with communication that is excellent.  We confuse, that is to say, process with product.  As the critic David Guaspari memorably put it, ‘comparing information and knowledge is like asking whether the fatness of a pig is more or less green than the designated hitter’s rule.’  Oops.”

“The problem with computers is not the worlds they give us instant access to but the world they encourage us to neglect.”  The issue is not so much the developments of the “digital revolution” as “the effect of such developments on our moral and imaginative life, and even our cognitive and political life.”  (Note, please, he does not say technology is evil!)

On close and careful reading:  why memorize when quotations are instantly available?  “One reason, of course, is that a passage memorized is a passage internalized:  it becomes part of the mental sustenance of the soul.” 

He quotes Henry Kissinger at length:  “Reading books requires you to form concepts, to train your mind to relationships.  You have to come to grips with who you are.  A leader needs these qualities.  But now we learn from fragments of facts.  A book is a large intellectual construction.  You have to struggle mentally to internalize it.  Now there is no need to internalize because each fact can instantly be called up on the computer. There is no context, no motive.  Information is not knowledge.  People are not readers but researchers, they float on the surface.  This new thinking erases context.”

Artists, your work is important, now, today, despite the chaos that threatens.  Kimball quotes from C. S. Lewis on the idea that we must wait for “normal” life to engage in cultural pursuits:  “Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right.  But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons.  They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes. [. . .]  They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the latest new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopoylae.  This is not panache; this is our nature.”

“Lewis’s meditation,” Kimball writes, “reminds us that culture, and the humanity that defines it, is constantly under threat.  No achievement may be taken for granted; yesterday’s gain may be tomorrow’s loss; permanent values require permanent vigilance and permanent renewal.”