Blogger disputes; literary quotations; and a discussion of modernism and liberalism

Mark E. writes:

1. As much as I do love Cindi S.’s ringing statement of principle, I can’t agree with her application of such to the present subject. It is not that there is no merit in your engaging in controversies with other bloggers, as that the opportunity cost is too high for you as writer and me as reader, compared to your expending that time and page space on other subjects. IMO, anyway.

If we had, Lawrence, world enough and time
Your extended blogger controversies would be no crime.
But Vanishing American, Conservative Swede
Are not the fight from VFR we need.

2. Glad to see you post Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte.” Hope you will continue to use more such extended literary references, besides Mr. Zimmerman.

3. Pound, Literary Modernism, and Liberalism—Not long ago you associated liberalism with literary Modernism. I think this is very off, and rather the opposite is so. Didn’t have time to respond back then, but your Pound quote has made it relevant to write to you about now. Most of the High Modernist greats—Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Yeats—if not what you would call conservative, were all distinctly not liberal or even anti-liberal. Yeats was not an experimentalist but was notably traditionalist in form and language and tone; and though he was a political revolutionary it was Irish nationalism—a distinct people and their history and traditions—not Marxist. Stevens was a career capitalist insurance company executive officer and was non-political and interior-oriented (which in those Marxist times was itself considered anti-revolutionary). Pound and Eliot were definitely politically anti-liberal, each in very different ways, of course.

LA replies:

1. Your point, with your witty paraphrase of Andrew Marvell, about the desirability of avoiding big disputes is taken, in principle. Whether it can be done in practice is another question. It would have to involve something like this: when attacked, I note the attack, point out its general features and how it resembles certain patterns of past attacks, reply briefly, and say I’ll have nothing further to say about the matter. Again, I don’t know if such an approach will be practicable or, in certain circumstances, even desirable, but I will keep it in mind. Maybe I’ll seek your advice the next time a situation comes up and ask you what I should say.

2. I offer literary quotes as they come to mind spontaneously in response to particular situations and discussions. I think I’ve quoted and paraphrased Yeats and Shakespeare and other writers an awful lot. I don’t know that I can “order up” more high literary references, since it is, as I said, a spontaneous thing. Maybe I should quote literature and poetry in a more deliberate way.

3. Your point about literary modernism is true of course and has been made before, most notably by Lionel Trilling. But I doubt that I ever associated literary modernism as such with liberalism. I’ve associated modernity—and modernism as an outlook—with liberalism. Liberalism is the political expression of modernity. I’ve made these points before but maybe it will be useful to present them again from the point of view of the relationship between modernity and liberalism.

Modernity consists, on the pragmatic level, of the increasing articulation of society in terms of the individual, the equal freedom of all individuals, and the increasingly efficient and embracing technical organization of life to meet every human need, which in turn feeds the notion of human society as a self-sufficient machine requiring nothing higher than or external to itself.* This is why almost all modern Westerners are liberals. Collective particularisms of nation, ethnicity, and culture, and transcendent realities of God, religion, philosophy, and art, are increasingly downgraded by modernity. That is why modernity must be consciously resisted so that it is not allowed to rule everything and be the determining factor in everything.

Modernism, as a philosophy, consists of making modern life one’s main guide. Years ago I was reading a book on the history of religion in America and the author said something that made a great impression on me. Up to the early 20th century, religion was the leading source of moral authority in America, and society conformed itself to religion. Then, approximately in the 1920s, because of society’s spectacular material successes, religion began to conform itself to society. Society became the leader, and religion became the follower. That’s the moment when modernism began.

As an example of this, virtually every Anglican bishop I’ve ever heard speak or have read is what I would call a modernist. Years ago at my church we had a reading group that each month discussed a sermon in a collection of sermons by Rowan Williams (this was before he became the Archbishop of Canterbury). They were quite intelligent and interesting, but they were what I called at the time modernist. He was trying to make Christianity meaningful by bringing it into relation to modern life, attitudes, and literature. He was not expounding the Gospel. He was not treating the truth of the Gospel as first and foremost. He was treating modern life and attitudes as first and foremost, then making Christianity meaningful in terms of those things.

In this connection, I once wrote in a VFR discussion about Pope John Paul II’s way of reaching out to modern people by speaking to them in the language of modern culture:

I agree with Matt that the problem of communication under contemporary conditions is a very great one. For example, in the time of the Gospels, people understood psychological language, they understood the language of parables and so on. That is much less true today, understanding is much more literal. There is also the problem (as I think Voegelin put it) that in such a thoroughly ideological age we are not just in Plato’s cave—we are in the cave below the cave, requiring much more sophisticated measures to reach us and draw us to the light.

At the same time, the problem of understanding can be exaggerated, and I think Matt is exaggerating it a bit. The Gospels are as true now as they were two thousand years ago. The truth conveyed by the liturgy is as true now as it ever was. These things just need to be communicated truly, and people can be reached by them.

But what all these modern religious figures have done, including the Pope, is to be so wowed by modernity that they have made modernity first and the truth of Christianity second; the latter must be assimilated into the former, rather than the other way around. As I wrote recently about Bishop Rowan Williams, the main approach of Anglican and Episcopal bishops is to “negotiate” between secular modernity and Christianity rather than preaching and teaching Christianity. The phenomenological approach of the Pope that Matt speaks of is another example of the same fallacy. The mistake is to make too much of the subjective state of the persons one is trying to reach.

Of course the subjective state of people needs to be understood and skillfully dealt with. Think of Jesus. On every page of the Gospels Jesus is encountering some person, and he always seems to know exactly where that person is at, and always speaks exactly the words that that person needs to hear. He perfectly understands and relates to the subjective state of the person, in order to bring that person to the truth. He doesn’t turn the subjective state of the person into a thing of importance in itself, into a “cult,” the cult of man. Yet THAT is what Vatican II and the Pope have done.
Posted by: Lawrence Auster on August 27, 2002 1:04 AM

To repeat and sum up: modernity consists of the increasing articulation of society in terms of the individual, the equal freedom of all individuals, and the increasingly efficient and embracing technical organization of life to meet every human need. Modernism consists in making modern society, organized according to these principles, our principal authority and guide in spiritual, philosophical, and cultural matters.

Traditionalism consists of consciously resisting and counterbalancing these desolating trends.

So, for example, a priest who makes the eternal message of the Gospels and salvation the main thing, and not the attitudes and concerns of modern society, is a traditionalist. A country that takes its historic nationhood seriously and makes an effort to conform such values as non-discrimination and economic efficiency to it, rather than conforming it to those values, is traditionalist. A movie maker who situates his characters within an existing society and a transcendent moral framework, rather than portraying his characters as disconnected bundles of desire and aggression in a Brownian universe of clashing egos, is a traditionalist.

Traditionalism is a counter-movement to what appear to be overwhelming and irresistible forces. But since those forces, notwithstanding their spectacular achievements, are leading progressively to the dissolution of all human connection to the past and to the transcendent, and indeed to the dissolution of the human itself, they cannot be as irresistible as they seem. That is the faith and the conviction on which traditionalism is based.


* The concern about the environment and man-made global warming would seem to contradict the idea that modern society sees itself as a self-sufficient machine requiring nothing higher than or external to itself. In reality the anti-global warming movement has very little to do with man’s place in the cosmos and everything to do with the substitute religion of liberalism.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 23, 2008 07:28 AM | Send

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