Rod Dreher

In the new issue of Touchstone, Ken Myers publishes a short essay (not available online) about the importance of Richard Weaver’s short but highly influential 1948 book “Ideas Have Consequences.” I have the same paperback edition Ken has, apparently; when I was packing up my books for the move, and smiled as I read the fading margin notes I made with my undergraduate hand almost a quarter century ago. A recent New Republic essay by Leon Wieseltier reminded Ken of Weaver’s basic critique of our decadent culture. From Wieseltier’s piece:

But what really rattles Menand is Trilling’s magnitude. In his conception of the intellectual life, Trilling was big. Menand is the professor of littleness. He is a man in flight from the seriousness of his own vocation. In his telling, Trilling exemplified the era of “heroic criticism,” whereas “it feels a little funny just typing the words today.” I don’t know, I just typed them and it felt fine. But Menand, you see, “went to graduate school after the nineteen-sixties, when the age of heroic criticism was over, and thank God.” He has more to tell us about himself: “I became a critic because I wanted to write sentences like ‘This intense conviction of the existence of the self apart from culture is, as culture well knows, its noblest and most generous achievement.'” Also: “I didn’t care about the canon, and I didn’t care much about Communism, either.” I am not sure why he expects to be admired for his mental blitheness, but he is certainly not the only liberal for whom the Communists are as pertinent to us as the Donatists and the Cathars. “I just liked the way Trilling could turn a thought,” he weirdly brags. But then he discovered that “there was a lot of righteousness, not to mention self-righteousness, back in the days of Partisan Review.” Unlike in these post-heroic days, I suppose. And to what do we owe our exemption from grandeur, our release from gravity? Menand explains this–he knows, above all, how things work–in a passage that should move the parents of his students to demand the return of their tuition: “Most people don’t use the language of approval and disapproval in their responses to art; they use the language of entertainment. They enjoy some things and don’t enjoy other things. It just doesn’t matter to them whether someone prefers Dreiser or James. This seemed to me to give literary criticism a lot less moral work to do.” The less moral work, the better.

Wieseltier is savaging Louis Menand for his unkind judgment of Lionel Trilling’s work. Wieseltier’s general point is that critics like Menand fatuously ignore or shrug off the big questions and controversies of our time because (in his view) they are too taken up with entertainment. This brought to mind a public radio interview I heard yesterday with David Gelernter, in which he accounted for the “obnoxious” (his word) nature of some Jews by saying that the Bible doesn’t give its followers the freedom to be morally indifferent. Attention must be paid, said Gelernter. I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, but he’s right. Gelernter said the sons and daughters of the Hebrew prophets, whether or not they still believe in the God of Israel, are inheritors of an intellectual and cultural tradition that commands moral engagement. That strikes me as just about right. We Christians are heirs to the same tradition, and have the same obligations.
Anyway, Ken Myers points out that Weaver made a similar observation in his book as Wieseltier does in his recent essay: that one of the deepest causes of our contemporary decadence is our having given ourselves over to the values of entertainment (or, as Kierkegaard might have put it, we have chosen to live permanently in the Aesthetic Mode, in which boredome is the root of all evil). That is, having decided that there can be no answers to the big questions, we call the pursuit of such wisdom folly, and trouble ourselves only with the diverting — and we mock those who do wish to engage their passions in the pursuit of truth and wisdom. As Wieseltier, a liberal, and Weaver, a conservative, both understood, this is sophisticated rot.
The damage it can do is substantial. I was talking to a teacher friend not long ago, who told me that despite the daunting challenges of her profession, she sticks it out because, “you can’t imagine how much these kids need, and how much they need to know that there’s at least one adult in their lives who cares about them.” She explained further that they are lost, without direction, and no adult in their lives cares enough to give them any direction. I thought later that maybe the adults in these kids lives no longer believe that there is any such thing as direction, for themselves or anybody else.
I would rather spend time with someone who passionately disagreed with me about one or more of the Big Questions, than with someone who was indifferent to them.

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