Is culture relevant anymore in this world of rap and video games? The New Criterion - one of America's leading journals of culture and the arts - just had its twenty-fifth anniversary and set out to prove its worth with an anthology: Counterpoints. Roger L. Simon reviews the result for Pajamas Media. by Roger L. Simon
I never could understand what Hannah Arendt wrote – a lot of it anyway.
This is painful to admit – and the undergraduate quasi-beatnik me in beard and turtleneck would have ducked under the coffee shop table in shame if he had heard me say it – but it’s true. I couldn’t make heads or tails of most of the famous German Jewish political theorist’s vaunted writings.
Finally I have been exonerated. I discovered Hilton Kramer – once the esteemed art critic of the New York Times and the author of The Triumph of Modernism and The Twilight of the Intellectuals, among other august works – often couldn’t either. That alone was worth the price of admission to me for %%AMAZON=1566637066 Counterpoints%%, the just-published anthology of essays from The New Criterion, edited by Kramer and Roger Kimball.
There are plenty of other goodies in this collection honoring the twenty-fifth anniversary of that literary and cultural journal, once called “probably more consistently worth reading than any other magazine in English” by the Times Literary Supplement. But let’s stick with Kramer for a moment, because his short essay “Remember the Gulag” encapsulates what I take to be some of the intentions of this stimulating anthology and of The New Criterion in general. Superficially, Kramer’s piece is a positive review of Ann Applebaum’s study of the Soviet camps Gulag: A History, but the critic is using this opportunity to go after larger prey – the post-modern, cultural relativist world in which we have been mired for most of our lives.
For this he brings in the aforementioned Arendt. It was fascinating, after so many years, to read the icon’s words as she describes the Holocaust as being “outside of life and death” (what does that mean? not much to the dead) and bizarrely (Kramer’s word) denigrates eyewitness reports of the horrors in favor of theorizing by literati who weren’t there. Obscurantism rules, the actual events themselves disappearing into a cultural relativist oblivion, which is in itself cloaked in a sentimental Marxist haze.
No wonder it was all so baffling to me as a college student. Even today, Kramer points out, this haze continues as far as the Soviet Gulag is concerned. It is barely known to us and not reviled nearly as much as Nazism, despite having claimed millions more victims.
This obscurantism is what the anthology’s writers are fighting. They are also fighting to preserve the best in art, music and literature as something with objective critical and moral standards, something worth studying and learning.
Of interest to PJ Media readers, in his introduction, editor Roger Kimball extends this fight to the digital sphere: “The issue is not, or not only, the digital revolution – the sudden explosion of computers and e-mail and the Internet. It is rather the effect of such developments on our moral and imaginative life, and even our cognitive life. Why bother to get Shakespeare by heart when you can look it up in a nonce on the Internet? One reason, of course, is that a passage memorized is a passage internalized: it becomes part of the mental sustenance of the soul. It’s the difference between a living limb and a crutch.”
Many of the writers in this anthology – Mark Steyn, David Frum, Theodore Dalrymple, Robert H. Bork, etc. – are considered “Lions of the Right.” (They are all at their best here, urged on, I suppose, by the reputation of The New Criterion.) But the collection is not so much ideologically pure as it is critically pure. Quality governs. Critics like John Simon appear as well as the excellent dance critic Laura Jacobs whose husband is not known to be an admirer of PJ Media (to put it mildly). In the spirit of literary excellence, we forgive him. Everyone else, get this book. It will enrich you.
Novelist and screenwriter Roger L. Simon is the CEO of PJ Media. He occasionally still blogs here.