The Fortunes of Permanence. Roger Kimball.

Kimball, Roger. The Fortunes of Permanence. St. Augustine’s, South Bend Indiana. 2012. NF;2/20.

when everybody’s somebody, nobody’s anybody
– W S Gilbert, The Gondoliers

I discovered Roger Kimball – who is definitely of the opinion that being “somebody” (and that he is) is no mean achievement – reading the New Criterion, a periodical with essays and arts reviews recommended by a conservative friend. Kimball is the editor, and most of the issues I’ve read begin with a diatribe by him usually focused on absurdities and abuses he perceives in modern universities. He is also an art critic, speaker, essayist, publisher, and commentator on culture.

I’ve just finished his Fortunes of Permanence and Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, both strongly conservative books. Quick googling didn’t reveal that Kimball and Deneen are best buddies, but I was surprised to find that the location of Kimball’s publisher, South Bend Indiana, is minutes away by car from Notre Dame University where Deneen teaches (and is the town Pete Buttigeig was once mayor of). It would be surprising if the two conservative authors hadn’t put their heads together at some point and agreed on an awful lot of things. I think Kimball is a livelier and more interesting writer than Deneen, but he doesn’t bother with arguments establishing the legitimacy of conservatism and the Right with the same thoroughness. It’s just presumed that the Left is degenerate and doomed.

Fortunes‘s three Parts mix essays with titles like The Death of Socialism, What’s Wrong with Benevolence? and Does Shame Have a Future? with comments on some of Kimball’s favourite characters and authors. These include John Buchan (1875-1940, English public-school-educated adventurer who eventually became a Governor General of Canada – Kimball doesn’t mention that latter distinction), Rudyard Kipling, GK Chesterton, James Burnham (author and philosopher, originally a Trotskyite who in later years saw the light and became a conservative), Malcolm Muggeridge, and Leszek Kolakowski (a well-respected Marxist scholar). All of these support Kimball’s view that socialism and communism are anathema and conservative values need to be reestablished.

Kimball seems to me “right” at times. He’s dead-accurate in heavily criticizing the far left that prevails in (especially elite) universities in the West: “higher education often fosters a particular form of political stupidity.” I was also struck by another comment:

… it is this failure — the colonization of intellectual life by politics — that stands behind and fuels the degradation of liberal education. The issue is not so much — or not only — the presence of bad politics as the absence of nonpolitics in the intellectual life of the university.

I said about art and politics in my review of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination:

We have replaced the critical question Does this created thing make an emotional difference that changes me? (with all the subjective risk that implies) with Does it safely fit with my preferred left, or right, ideology?

I think that’s been a terrible thing for arts and humanities, which as far as I can tell developed approximately through the 1980s. But what seemed interesting (although I’m sure immediately de-constructable from both sides of the fence) was the same sentiment coming strongly from the Kimball’s Right and also Trilling’s Left.

Mr. Kimball has three chapters on art (the graphic kind) which is his original professional focus. Although I was out of my depth with most of the detail, I had to agree with his blistering criticism of a 2007 art exhibition at liberal Bard College in upstate New York, featuring photographs and paintings of naked genitals, which exhibition critics had praised as “cutting edge”, challenging the status quo, etc. Kimball said:

Far from “challenging” or “subverting” the status quo, the 1,700 objects … accumulated are the status quo. And far from “struggling” with questions about gender or feminism or anything else, (they) simply issued a rubber stamp endorsing the dominant clichés of today’s academic art world.

Quoting art historian Sedlmeyer, Kimball also comments on what sounded a lot like what this unsophisticated appreciator of paintings in art galleries called The Art Gallery Experience:

The magic that pertains to this way of looking at things is that even the most ordinary scene acquires a strange and original freshness, and above all that color released from its task of indicating and identifying objects, gains an intensity that it never previously possessed.

Roger Kimball’s style is part-ironically academically pretentious. I had to hit the dictionary feature in my Kindle every few pages. But it’s entertaining and I can see how a real conservative would enjoy its enthusiasm:

The sad truth is that theoretical benevolence is compatible with any amount of practical indifference or even cruelty. You feel kindly towards others. That is what matters: your feelings.

“The welfare state,” Muggeridge observed, “is a kind of zoo which provides its inmates with ease and comfort and unfits them for life in their natural habitat.”

Please take a look at the conclusion of my review on Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. Nothing in Fortunes of Permanence changed my attitude to the Right and Left, or helped me with my bewilderment over thousands of the very brightest, best-educated, most serious and experienced people in America failing to grasp what I think is going on in their country and much of the rest of the Western world.

I throw up my hands.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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