The Other War
There has been a lot of talk recently, including some on this site, about civilization. But what is it? "A sense of permanence," declared Kenneth Clark in his book Civilisation (using the British spelling): "Civilised man … must feel that he belongs somewhere in space and time; that he consciously looks forward and looks back … " I am not going to try to improve on that, though I do recommend you read the whole book, or view the video series it is based on, to get the full force of Clark's argument.
Connotations are generally more interesting than definitions. What comes to mind when you hear the word "civilization"? Rather a lot, if you belong to the dwindling band of human beings who are interested in anything at all beyond their own precious selves. Some big, obvious things — the Parthenon, perhaps, or the plays of Shakespeare, or Monet's water-lilies — but also some smaller, more personal ones.
For me, a lot of interiors come to mind. I have mentioned in a previous piece the house of the Kellermans, an elderly central-European Jewish couple I knew in my schooldays. There are one or two other private houses or rooms that seem to me to capture at least part of what it means to live a civilized life: the Coolidge homestead in Plymouth, Vermont, and the study of an old-style Chinese gentleman I knew in Taiwan. Some private clubs, too — the Reform in London, the National Arts Club in New York. And then there are the offices of The New Criterion.
The New Criterion is a monthly review of arts and culture, with offices on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. I go in there three or four times a year, either for a party — they throw very good parties — or to talk about something I'm writing for them, or just because I'm passing by and have time. It's a pretty typical small-magazine place: four or five rooms with computers on the desks, stacks of back issues on utility shelving, and books everywhere. Piles of books, stacks of books, wobbling towers of books, books on shelves, books on desks and tables, books underfoot and heaped on spare chairs. TNC is the sort of place where, to get at anything, or even just to sit down, you generally have to move an armful of books.
What brings TNC to mind in a word-association test on "civilization" is the mission the magazine set itself when it was founded, and which it still doggedly pursues today.
TNC was the brainchild of two men: the concert pianist and music critic Samuel Lipman, and art critic Hilton Kramer. They were both senior figures in their respective lines of work: Lipman, as well as his concert performances, was music critic of Commentary, Kramer was head art critic of The New York Times. Both were fed up with the way that juvenile leftist ideologies and nihilistic fads had taken over so much of the arts, of arts criticism, and of intellectual life in general. They determined to do something about it, taking as their model T.S. Eliot's defunct literary review The Criterion (1922-39). With Lipman raising the funds and Kramer recruiting the talent, they founded TNC in September of 1982, appealing, in a sort of manifesto that ran as the first issue's editorial, to "anyone capable of recalling a time when criticism was more strictly concerned to distinguish achievement from failure, to identify and uphold a standard of quality, and to speak plainly and vigorously about the problems that beset the life of the arts and the life of the mind in our society."
A conservative magazine of the arts and high culture? You could hardly expect the critical establishment to take that lying down. In fact, they — notably Carlin Romano in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic — denounced TNC even before its first issue appeared.
That was 19 years ago. TNC is still here, offering thoughtful, highly literate commentary on intellectual and artistic trends by a deep bench of contributors of a mainly conservative inclination. Which is to say, they do not believe that any useful, interesting or inspiring work can be done by authors and artists who disdain, or are ignorant of, or seek to hold up to scorn, the accumulated wisdom of civilized humanity. The denunciations continue, mostly along the lines that TNC represents the "rich" (it is run as a non-profit, sustained mostly by the generosity of private contributors — none of them, I would venture to speculate, anything like as rich as Edward Kennedy, Barbra Streisand or Jesse Jackson) protecting "their" culture.
An especially satisfying feature of TNC, for those of us who like conservatism in all things, has been the magazine's unchanging appearance across the first two decades of its existence. Other than the introduction of poetry — real poetry, that usually scans, often rhymes, and always makes sense — which began with the April 1984 issue, only one new department has been instituted: the "Notes and Comments" section, which began in September 1989, offering editorial remarks about current events. There have been no changes of layout, no "make-overs." The covers of the ten annual issues (TNC does not publish in July or August) are color-coded — September is cyan, October yellow, November mauve and so on, the only exceptions being those that started the tenth and twentieth years of TNC's existence. Browsing through the first 190 issues at the TNC offices last week, I was able to discern only a single change of format: the list of contributors was broken into two columns from the September 1990 issue on. By TNC standards, this was practically a stylistic revolution.
Samuel Lipman died in 1994 but Hilton Kramer remains as editor of The New Criterion, still wielding the charm, erudition and sly wit that has endeared him to three full generations of American intellectuals (he was the model for the minor character "Magnasco" in Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift). Erich Eichman, the original Managing Editor, moved on to the Wall Street Journal in 1989, being replaced by Roger Kimball, whose withering broadsides against the shams and mountebanks who infest our high culture — deconstructionists, gender-theorists, performance artists and the rest of the motley crew — were enlivening the pages of TNC well before he joined the staff. (Those broadsides have been collected in three books: Tenured Radicals, The Long March, and Experiments Against Reality.)
Principal support for Hilton and Roger these past three years has been Associate Editor Robert Messenger, who is leaving the magazine this month. As well as being the most prodigiously well-read person I have ever met in my life, Robert is that rarest of birds, an American WW1 buff. Editorial assistant Sara Lussier, webmaster Max Watman and poetry editor Robert Richman (he started out with the title "Business Manager" — go figure) complete the house staff. Somehow this little band turns out the funniest, angriest, most literate review of high culture in America today, while still having time for a chat and a cup of coffee with any idle freelancer that decides to impose himself on them for half an hour.
There really is such a thing as civilization — Clark's "sense of permanence" — and civilization really does have enemies, as has recently been demonstrated to us very dramatically. I do not at all mean to belittle the magnitude or horror of those recent events when I say that there are other enemies at work too, quietly and without overt violence, without bombs or guns or even box-cutters, digging away in our schools and universities, in our libraries and galleries, in our academies and conservatories, sapping away at the spiritual and intellectual foundations of our civilization.
It is good to know that The New Criterion, just embarked on its twentieth year of publication, is out there defending reason, sense, science, tradition, and the divine revelation of true art. I wish them twenty years more, and then twenty more after that; for this war, unlike (let us hope) the other one, is a war that will never be won, as long as there is fool's gold to be dug from the rocks, and fools to buy it.