'The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia'

“‘The history of philosophy,’ Jean-François Revel observed in The Flight from Truth (1991), ‘can be divided into two different periods. During the first, philosophers sought the truth; during the second, they fought against it.’”


In addition to the books I linked to yesterday, another title arrived while I was in New Jersey last week — the galleys for my PJM colleague Roger Kimball’s forthcoming book, The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, due out the end of May, which presumably fleshes out the article that Roger wrote with the same title for the New Criterion:

“The history of philosophy,” Jean-François Revel observed in The Flight from Truth (1991), “can be divided into two different periods. During the first, philosophers sought the truth; during the second, they fought against it.” That fight has escaped from the parlors of professional sceptics and has increasingly become the moral coin of the realm. As Anthony Daniels observed, it is now routine for academics and intellectuals to use “all the instruments of an exaggerated scepticism … not to find truth but to destroy traditions, customs, institutions, and confidence in the worth of civilization itself.” The most basic suppositions and distinctions suddenly crumble, like the acidic pages of a poorly made book, eaten away from within. “A rebours” becomes the rallying cry of the anti-cultural cultural elite. Culture degenerates from being a cultura animi to a corruptio animi.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World may be a second-rate novel, but it has turned out to have been first-rate prognostication. Published in 1932, it touches everywhere on twenty-first-century anxieties. Perhaps the aspect of Huxley’s dystopian—what to call it: fable? prophecy? admonition?—that is most frequently adduced is its vision of a society that has perfected what we have come to call genetic engineering. It is a world in which reproduction has been entirely handed over to the experts. The word “parents” no longer describes a loving moral commitment but only an attenuated biological datum. Babies are not born but designed according to exacting specifications and “decanted” at sanitary depots like The Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre with which the book opens.

As with all efforts to picture future technology, Huxley’s description of the equipment and procedures employed at the hatchery seems almost charmingly antiquated, like a space ship imagined by Jules Verne. But Huxley’s portrait of the human toll of human ingenuity is very up-to-date.

Indeed, we have not—not quite, not yet—caught up with the situation he describes. We do not—not quite, not yet—inhabit a world where “mother” and “monogamy” are blasphemous terms from which people have been conditioned to recoil in visceral revulsion. Maybe it will never come to that. (Though monogamy, of course, has long been high on the social and sexual revolutionary’s list of hated institutions.) Still, it is a nice question whether developments in reproductive technology will not soon make other aspects of Huxley’s fantasy a reality. Thinkers as different as Michel Foucault and Francis Fukuyama have pondered the advent of a “posthuman” future. Scientists busily manipulating DNA may prove them right. It is often suggested that what is most disturbing about Brave New World is its portrait of eugenics in action: its vision of humanity deliberately divided into genetically ordered castes, a few super-smart alpha-pluses down through a multitude of drone-like Epsilons who do the heavy lifting. Such deliberately instituted inequality offends our democratic sensibilities.

What is sometimes overlooked or downplayed is the possibility that the most disturbing aspect of the future Huxley pictured has less to do with eugenics than genetics. That is to say, perhaps what is centrally repellent about Huxley’s hatcheries is not that they codify inequality—nature already does that effectively—but that they exist at all. Are they not a textbook example of Promethean hubris in action?

In the seventeenth-century, Descartes predicted that his scientific method would make man “the master and possessor of nature”: are we not fast closing in on the technology that proves him right? And this raises another question. Is there a point at which scientific development can no longer be described, humanly, as progress? We know the benisons of technology; are we about to become more closely acquainted with its depredations? For example, if, as in Brave New World, we manage to bypass the “inconvenience” of human pregnancy altogether, should we do it? If—or rather when—that is possible, will it also be desirable? Well, why not? Why should a woman go through the discomfort and danger of pregnancy if a fetus could be safely incubated, or cloned, elsewhere? Wouldn’t motherhood by proxy be a good thing—the ultimate labor-saving device? Most readers will hesitate about saying yes. What does that tell us? Some readers will have no hesitation about saying yes; what does that tell us?

As Huxley saw, a world in which reproduction was “rationalized” and emancipated from love was also a world in which culture in the Arnoldian sense was not only otiose but dangerous. (This is also a sub-theme of that other great dystopian novel, 1984.) Culture has roots. It limns the future through its implications with the past. Moving the reader or spectator over the centuries, in Arendt’s phrase, the monuments of culture transcend the local imperatives of the present. They escape the obsolescence that fashion demands, the predictability that planning requires. They speak of love and hatred, honor and shame, beauty and courage and cowardice—permanent realities of the human situation in so far as it remains human.


While you’re waiting for Roger’s book to be published, the article itself is also well worth your time.


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