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The American Taliban and the assault on memory

The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, by Michael Walsh. Encounter Books, 2015. 222 pages. US $23.99

Western culture has been under attack by enemies within since the leveling collectivism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Michael Walsh observes in The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. But something new and horrible emerged in the 1960s, when the cult of Critical Theory gained a beachhead at American universities, and began a long march through the institutions that culminates in today’s Orwellian witch-hunt against politically- incorrect thought.

The subversives of the past at least preserved the memory of the past. The composer Richard Wagner used the techniques of Western classical music to pervert the way we hear music, but the accomplishments of his predecessors remain embedded in his work. James Joyce may have turned Homer’s Odyssey into pornographic bathos, but he demanded that we read Homer. Thomas Mann’s 20th-century Faust character, the composer Adrian Leverkuhn, wanted to “take back Beethoven’s 9th symphony,” but even the act of subversion elicits the memory of the original.

Not so the children of the Frankfurt School, the motley collection of German Marxist-Freudian-Nihilists who migrated to America during the 1930s and invented what the academy calls “critical theory,” a nihilistic reduction of all thought to political categories. They set the tone for the radicalism of the 1960s, and their students now rule the major universities.

They are the American Taliban and ISIS, who set out to destroy the monuments of the past. Their objective is to erase the old order so thoroughly that it ceases to persist even in our cultural memory. Not only offending texts, but the names of flawed historic figures (for example Cecil Rhodes at Oxford) must be erased.  Like Goethe’s Mephistopheles, they are spirits that only deny, who believe that “everything that comes to be goes rightly to its ruin.”

One might object that other miscreants deserve as much of the blame as the Critical Theorists. Jean-Paul Sartre’s version of Existentialism, for example, gave us the idea that we can invent our own identity, down to and including designer genders. Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man gave us Deconstructionism, the French equivalent of Frankfurt Critical Theory. That is a minor quibble; by taking on the Frankfurt School, Walsh has addressed its fellow demons by implication.

If the past enemies of the West were wicked, the Frankfurt School and its ilk are Satanic in the precise sense of the word. Michael Walsh calls them by their right name: the new enemies of the West are Satan, in the precise way that we understand Satan as channeled by Milton and Goethe. Walsh has produced a fascinating, rambling, and sometimes infuriating Jeremiad. Because he cites my work (on Richard Wagner) generously and at length, I cannot review it, but a response seems in order.

Walsh has done the world a great service. With the loss of our memories, we will lose our freedom and become slaves. It is noteworthy that the concept of freedom and the concept of time appear in Western thought in the same utterance, in Exodus 12. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the great Orthodox Jewish thinker, observes that the “first commandment (the people of Israel) were given in Egypt which signaled the commencement of their liberation was to mark time,” to place the month of the Exodus at the head of the months. “The slave,” Soloveitchik explained (in Festival of Freedom, pp. 37-42), “lacks time experience. To the slave, time is a curse; he waits for the day to pass. The slave’s time is the property of his master.” He added, “Time-awareness of experience has three components. First, retrospection; without memory, there is no time; Second, the exploration of close examination of things yet unborn and the anticipatory experience of events not yet in being. Third: appreciation or evaluation of the present moment as one’s most precious possession.”

This understanding of time is fundamental to the West; we read a similar thought in St. Augustine’s rejection of Aristotle’s concept of time (Confessions XI), and perhaps in Ecclesiastes 3:15. Western music orders time in goal-oriented motion, consistent with Christian teleology. The glory of this uniquely Western art form is its capacity to represent time on more than one level.

Walsh is of two minds about Wagner: on the one hand he recognizes in him the neo-pagan, and on the other a great story–teller. Ultimately he wants to separate the man and his music. Here I see things differently. Richard Wagner set out to destroy time, with malice aforethought, in full knowledge of the implications of his action. As he wrote to Theodor Uhlig (March 26, 1850): “Time is absolutely nothingness. Only that which allows us to forget time, only that which destroys it, is something.”

As surely as Babe Ruth hit the homer over the left field fence after pointing to it, Wagner accomplished in music just what he had warned the world that he set out to do: the destruction of musical time. Thinking about Wagner’s objectives in Wagner’s own terms makes his machinations transparent. Walsh has professional music training, but appears unfamiliar with newer academic literature that would clarify some matters. For example, he writes that “Wagner destabilized conventional tonality with the now-famous “Tristan chord” in the opening phrase of his opera ‘Tristan and Isolde.’” That is the usual way to read it, but not the most persuasive. There is nothing unconventional about Wagner’s tonality as such; what is unusual is its function in time.


As John Rothgeb and William Rothstein show, the “Tristan chord” is simply passing motion from A minor to its domnant, E major. Wagner simply freezes the passing motion in time before heading on to the E major conclusion, in order to create an aural illusion. Wagner’s goal throughout is to create the illusion of suspended time; some audio examples are available here.

Wagner asserts spurious freedom of impulse in opposition to the covenants that bind together the West, and the personification of wilfulness is his hero Siegfried. But pure impulse can lead only to self-destruction, and Wagner’s characters all plunge headlong to a glorious death of one sort or another.

Narrative time appears in the West as a manifestation of freedom. Walsh, a successful screenwriter and novelist, cites Homer as a template for narrative art, but Homer is precisely what Western writers do not emulate. Time has no compulsion to move forward in Homeric narrative. Friedrich Schiller’s epigram, “The Epic Hexameter,” captures its timelessness: “Dizzily it bears you along on restless streaming waves;/Behind and in front you only see heaven and sea.” As Erich Auerbach explains in the first chapter of his classic Mimesis, a turning point in the Odyssey occurs when the hero returns to Ithaka disguised as a beggar, but is recognized by his old nursemaid by a scar sustained in a boar hunt years earlier. Homer stops the action with a hundred-line excursus about the boar hunt, which is recounted in painstaking detail. This is not a device to heighten dramatic tension; on the contrary, as Auerbach explains, it expresses indifference to narrative time.

Auerbach contrasts the biblical narrative of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19). In place of Homer’s detailed description of the surface of events, the Bible relates nothing extraneous and focuses on the forward motion of the narrative. The characteristic storytelling of the Christian West is biblical rather than Homeric. Among all modern literary works, none is closer to the Bible than Goethe’s Faust, an extensive paraphrase of Ecclesiastes and Job.  Walsh has pondered Faust at length, although I believe he has misread a crucial point: Faust bets that the devil can’t show him a moment of perfect contentment, not because he desires such a moment, but (as he says) because he deserves hell if he ceases to strive. Faust’s Augustinian restlessness is the source of his salvation, not (as Walsh suggests) the unfortunate Gretchen: “Wer immer strebend sich bemüht/Den können wir erlosen” (We can save him who always exerts himself striving), sing the angels who bear Faust away at the end.

The story of Abraham’s family is the definitive story of the West. The ministry of Jesus of Nazareth is a recapitulation of the history of Israel; every miracle in the Christian Testament repurposes a miracle in the Hebrew Bible. For evangelical Christians, religious life is an imagined reliving of the history of Israel.

I find it surprising that Walsh thinks well of the late Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and other studies in myth. “The quest myth is basic to every society, whether told around tribal campfires or in Hollywood tentpole movies,” Walsh observes. But there is one exception: Campbell’s “hero” myth is alien to the story of Israel, whose central figures Jacob, Joseph, Moses and David do not fit the “heroic” mold. The critic Brendan Gil famously accused Campbell of anti-Semitism; defending Campbell against this charge, his friend Joan Konner allowed that Campbell abhorred “the Jewish God…and the Old Testament, as a mythology (like all religions) [as] the expression of a war-like, punitive culture.” My late father Joseph Goldman was a colleage of Campbell’s at Sarah Lawrence College and told me that he had personal experience of Campbell’s anti-Semitism.

Joseph Campbell endeared himself to the 1960s generation by telling them, “Follow your bliss,” and they followed it right into the waiting arms of the Nihilists. I do not mean to imply in any way that Walsh bears rancor towards Jews or to the Jewish religion. Rather, Walsh falls back too readily on what he calls the “muscular” popular culture that prevailed before the 1960s. He wants to make it easy for us. He sums up this view as follows:

The Occam-like simplicity of Right thought is, then, its greatest attribute. It requires no particular leap of faith beyond the initial buy-in (which Pascal’s Wager also makes the rational buy-in). It presumes a belief in, but not necessarily a knowledge or proof of, a power greater than ourselves. It allows each individual to listen to his heart and follow the implanted heroic story he finds deep within himself. It frees Everyman to be a Hero, the leading character in his own movie, complete with dialogue and soundtrack. It unites all men into the ur-Narrative of statis, sin, loss, change, conflict redemption and ultimate victory, even beyond death. It is the song of everyone. Why anyone should want to reject it is an enduring mystery.

“By contrast,” he continues, “the philosophy of the Unholy Left, while ostensibly simple—Critical Theory, i.e. Us vs. Them—requires repeated mental contortions, which might be why they constantly congratulate themselves on how smart they are, how appreciate of comlexity, compared with crude, simplistic, reductionist conservatives.”

If the solution is so simple, how come we’re in so much trouble? That’s a “mystery,” as Walsh says. It’s the great mystery. In a sense, it’s the only really interesting question in the history of the West.

I will suggest an answer, which I learned from Franz Rosenzweig: Each of the constituent nations of Christendom made itself into its own Hero and set off on its own Quest, a quest for salvation in its own skin and its own national costume. Richelieu’s France and Olivares’ Spain fought the Thirty Years War over the right to claim the title of God’s proxy on earth. (The first great modern novel of the West, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, ridiculed the heroic quest of his contemporaries by turning the hero into a comic madmen).  The pagan residue in Christian Europe came to dominate the life of the nations, whose priests blessed cannon to kill the others’ Christians again and again—in the Napoleonic Wars and the two World Wars of the 20th Century—until what seemed simple looked very messy indeed to those caught in the maelstrom.

Tolkien called mortality the “gift of men.” Our mortality can give us the motivation to achieve the eternal. The nations of Europe, tragically, looked for immortality in all the wrong places.  Time, the time of our lives, is not dumped into our lap by nature. It is a work of construction in partnership with the Creator. To bring immortality into our mortal lives is a life-long labor. The great composers wove its illusion with refinement and artifice, in an art form that is nearly lost to modern audiences. The great religions of the West, Christianity and Judaism, sought to bring eternity into mortal existence through prayer, liturgy, practice and a culture of learning that sustained it. Moses told Israel the path was not too difficult nor too far from us (Deut. 30:12). But he didn’t say it was easy, either.

I do not think that Western culture is finished. But if we are to save it, a great labor lies before us.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.


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