Interview: Michael Walsh Goes Inside The Devil's Pleasure Palace
The champions of socialism call themselves progressives, but they recommend a system which is characterized by rigid observance of routine and by a resistance to every kind of improvement. They call themselves liberals, but they are intent upon abolishing liberty. They call themselves democrats, but they yearn for dictatorship. They call themselves revolutionaries, but they want to make the government omnipotent. They promise the blessings of the Garden of Eden, but they plan to transform the world into a gigantic post office. Every man but one a subordinate clerk in a bureau. What an alluring utopia! What a noble cause to fight for!
—Ludwig von Mises, as quoted in the preface to The Devil's Pleasure Palace.
This is a book about how we got here. It is also a book about good and evil; about creation and destruction; about capitalism and socialism; about God, Satan, and the satanic in men; about myths and legends and the truths within them; about culture versus politics; about the difference between story and plot. It is about Milton versus Marx, the United States versus Germany, about redemptive truth versus Mephistophelean bands of illusion and the Devil’s jokes. It concerns itself with the interrelation of culture, religion, sex, and politics— in other words, something herein to offend nearly everybody.
And, I hope, to inspire. For the taboos of our culture are also its totems, and the political arguments that rage around them are symptomatic of both disease and good health, of infection and immunity. They are not simply battlefields in the larger contemporary culture war— they are the culture war, a war that has been raging since the Garden of Eden but that manifests itself today in the unceasing attack of cultural Marxism (which molts and masquerades under many names, including liberalism, progressivism, social justice, environmentalism, anti-racism, etc.) upon what used to be called the Christian West.
Although this battle is simply the latest front in an ancient war, this critical struggle —“ the Fight” or “the Struggle” (or der Kampf), as leftists call it — is the defining issue of our time. It will determine not only what kind of country the United States of America will become but also whether the Western world will continue the moral, cultural, and technological dominance it shares with the larger Anglophone world, or finally succumb to a relentless assault on its values and accept the loss of its cultural vigor. In other words, will it — will we — repel the invaders, organize sorties, ride out and crush them— or wearily open the gates to the citadel and await the inevitable slaughter?
—Michael Walsh, in his preface to The Devil's Pleasure Palace.
Michael Walsh’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West is really two books in one. It’s primarily a history of the infamous Frankfurt School, the Marxist think-tank whose leading acolytes fled Germany in the 1930s after a rival faction of socialists won control over that nation and began its descent into the abyss. The men of the Frankfurt School were perhaps the most extreme example of the Leftist who flees his failed and festering Blue State only to subvert his new neighbors with the same poison that destroyed his old home turf. Frankfurt School émigrés to America immediately resumed, as Michael writes, their “‘progressive’ (in reality, ultra-regressive) guerrilla assault on Western and American culture — Critical Theory, which essentially holds that there is no received tenet of civilization that should not either be questioned (the slogan ‘question authority’ originated with the Frankfurt School) or attacked.”
The Frankfurt School’s theories would also influence Saul Alinsky (1909-1972), whose acolytes, including Hillary Clinton (who corresponded with Alinsky and wrote her undergraduate thesis at Wellesley praising him) and Barack Obama (praised by Alinsky’s son as having “learned his lesson well" from Alinsky's successors, those "great community organizers"), helped to further spread the poisoned word, all the way to the Obama White House.
The Devil's Pleasure Palace also draws upon Michael’s background as music critic for Time magazine (which would take him behind the Iron Curtain in the waning years of the Cold War), making his new book simultaneously a history of how leftism made classical music virtually unlistenable in the 20th century, through such dead-end techniques as 12-tone serialism and teeth-rattling dissonance.
Combined, Michael has written a book that’s a worthy successor to not just Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism and Fred Siegel’s The Revolt Against the Masses, two recent histories of “How the Left Was Won.” The Devil’s Pleasure Palace also does for the modern classical music world what Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House did to brilliantly illustrate how the socialist excesses of modernism intellectually hamstrung painting and architecture.
During our 20 minute interview, Michael will discuss:
- The Schubert Opera that inspired the title of Michael’s new book.
- Why the Frankfurt School hated not only Los Angeles during WWII, but also its chief export, Hollywood.
- How leftism made 20th century classical music virtually unlistenable.
- Why the Frankfurt School sought to undermine American pop culture.
- The intersection of radical leftism and radical Islam.
- How the Frankfurt School continues to influence modern politicians.
- How the rest of us can fight back.
- And much more.
Click here to listen:
(20 minutes, 50 seconds long; 19.1 MB file size. Want to download instead of streaming? Right click here to download this interview to your hard drive. Or right click here to download the 8.35 MB lo-fi edition.)
During the early days of PJTV, Bill Whittle produced an excellent segment on the Frankfurt School and how its theories continue to influence American political; click here to watch:
A transcript of my interview with Michael begins on the following page. For our many previous podcasts, start here and just keep scrolling.
MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll and I’m talking with Michael Walsh, my fellow PJ Media.com columnist and the author of the new book, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West. It’s published by Encounter Books and available from amazon.com and your local bookstore.
And Michael, good to talk with you again, and thanks for stopping by.
MR. WALSH: Hey, thanks for having me on, Ed.
MR. DRISCOLL: And you’re coming to us from Ireland?
MR. WALSH: Live from Ireland, yes, in beautiful County Clare on the west coast of scenic Ireland.
MR. DRISCOLL: Michael, I listened to your recent interview with Cam Edwards of NRA News, and he made the observation that I was thinking but didn’t want to say: it’s obvious you put a lot of research and your own life experiences into “The Devil’s Pleasure Palace”. But at 280 pages, it’s a surprisingly quick read, particularly given what could be a very ponderous subject. I’m glad you took that as a compliment from Cam Edwards.
MR. WALSH: I did, yeah. You know, when you’re younger you tend to overwrite and beat a subject to death. And as you get older, you realize if you have the technique to say it succinctly, that’s the best way to do it.
So I wanted to write a short, readable book that took you down these various paths and led you to, I hope, the conclusion that I’ve come to about the left and its origins, and what it’s doing to us.
MR. DRISCOLL: Michael, we should probably start with your new book’s title, which has three elements to it.
First up, what is “the Devil’s Pleasure Palace”?
MR. WALSH: Well, the title is from an opera by Schubert, which he wrote when he was a teenager. And for Schubert, of course, that meant he was a middle-aged man. In German, it’s “Des Teufels Lustschloss,” the devil’s pleasure palace, and it’s an opera that really began the whole train of operas during the nineteenth century about exotic, mysterious, satanic, demonic things. And we don’t have to go into the whole plot of the opera right now, but suffice it to say it’s about a knight who discovers the haunted castle and whose virtue and whose love for his wife is tested. And when he triumphs, the pleasure palace collapses in a heap of dust, and it turns out it was all just a test by his wife’s father, who didn’t like him very much, to make sure that he was worthy of his daughter.
But the notion of the spooky, mysterious castle with its fleshly temptations seemed to me the perfect metaphor for what the left has done to us over the last fifty, sixty years to create temptations that we’ve fallen for but we now realize is -- we realize that are chimera, in a sense. They disappear into air when we look at them, but they hurt us nonetheless.
So I wanted to write a book about God and Satan; that’s the short version.
MR. DRISCOLL: Michael, the middle part of your book’s title is “The Cult of Critical Theory,” and ground zero for the cult of critical theory was the Frankfurt School. Who were they and what were their goals in Germany before a much more powerful rival socialist faction forced them to emigrate to the U.S.?
MR. WALSH: Bingo -- they’re the rival socialist faction. You’re getting at the thing that actually makes the left, like Satan, curl up in horror and start flinging its scorpion tail around at the sight of holy water and the crucifix, which is these men were Marxist communists who came out on the short end of the stick versus Hitler and his National Socialists, and so they fled Germany in the 1930s.
They were a group of scholars of the Goethe University in Frankfurt, and they wound up at Columbia University during and after the war where they began to inject this poison of relativism, critical theory, political correctness, progressivism, which of course, had American ‑- a whole American wing coming from the Wilson administration but it met this sort of crazy, progressive Marxist notion.
And they took over the universities. And I went to college in the 1960s, so I got a pretty good dose of it at that time. And we’ve all had a bellyful of it now. We see what it’s done by attacking every single institution in the country, in Western civilization.
And that was their goal. They wanted to bring down Western civilization and replace it with nothing. They’re nihilists; they’re Communists; they’re Marxists. They were antithetical to everything the American experiment stands for.
MR. DRISCOLL: Now, there was a subset, though, or at least a portion of the Frankfurt School that wound up in Los Angeles during World War II, is that correct?
MR. WALSH: Yeah, some of them came out to L.A. and there was a whole movement of the refugee community that went to Los Angeles, and among them -- well, Herbert Marcuse himself, who was one of the Frankfurt School theorists, wound up at the University of California, San Diego, but Theodor Adorno, who was a well-known music critic in his day, went to L.A. and so did -- well, we can name them all: Stravinsky, Schoenberg, of the great composers. Mann wound up there at one point.
So you had a lot of them that went to California, and the funny part was they hated California.
MR. DRISCOLL: (Laughter)
MR. WALSH: And yeah, I grew up in California in the 1950s. There wasn’t a better place on the entire planet to live, but they found it seductive and scary; again, almost like reacting to the holy water, that there was this beautiful American place that had been created out of nothing, but they loathed it and they needed to take it down.
So these are the guys we welcomed into our house as refugees, and this is how they repaid us.
MR. DRISCOLL: You would think that for the vast majority of German immigrants who reached America, winding up in Los Angeles at the peak of the movie industry would seem like arriving in Heaven after fleeing the Nazis. But the Frankfurt School hated L.A. and America, in general.
After generously taking them in, why did America and Los Angeles give the Frankfurt School such a bad case of the hives?
MR. WALSH: Yeah, well, they hated the movie business, too. One of the reasons was that they felt that the American popular culture -- and Adorno is very, I wouldn’t say eloquent but he’s very specific about this -- they hated American popular culture because they couldn’t understand how it could arise without central control.
You know, all of the socialist movements, whether Nazis, Communists, Chinese Communists, the Modern Progressives, they gravitate towards the necessity for central control. So they were suspicious of the enormous ability of Hollywood to move the needle culturally in America and felt that Hollywood could only be tamed by coming under government control.
Well, now, of course, it partly is under government-control since so many of them are lefties. So they got their wish.
But they didn’t like it. They didn’t like the Disney story. They didn’t like anything that reflected favorably upon the heroic narrative and, having read the book, you know that the heroic narrative really lies at the heart of what I’m arguing here.
MR. DRISCOLL: As Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, mid-twentieth century American intellectual life really seemed like a colony of the Weimar Republic.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Tom Wolfe wrote The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, which were savage and well-deserved attacks on the European influence nihilism of twentieth century modern art and architecture.
I was really fascinated by how you flipped back and forth between the history of the Frankfurt School and its impact on the reductivist horrors of twentieth century classical music, particularly twelve-tone serial music, which made your book a very different read than, say, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism or Fred Siegel’s The Revolt Against the Masses, which also covered the rise of the left in twentieth century America.
What made you choose this approach?
MR. WALSH: Well, obviously, Jonah had covered a lot of this territory in his great book. I haven’t read Fred’s book, but I’m sure it’s quite good as well.
But I had one -- not quite advantage over those guys, but a different life experience which was I came up through the classical music business. I went to the Eastman School of Music as a teenager and spent twenty-five years as a music critic in Rochester, New York; San Francisco, California; and then finally at Time magazine in New York City.
So it’s always seemed to me that music has been left out of the cultural discussion because it’s harder, in a way, to apprehend than going to a movie. Well, you’re a musician, so you know what I’m talking about.
It requires some training, some taste, some exposure, whatever you want to call it. But you can’t leave music out of the equation. It has always been among the most influential of the arts, especially during the nineteenth century. And since we started with Schubert, let’s move to Wagner, who is the most influential artist, period, of the nineteenth century, possibly of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century.
And if you don’t understand Wagner, you don’t understand anything about European cultural history in the last 200 years. So I really wanted to tie that in as closely as I could, and I hope it doesn’t put too many readers off. But I don’t think you have to know a lot about music in order to understand the thrust of my argument here.
MR. DRISCOLL: Michael, you mentioned Wagner, and there were also composers such as Gustav Mahler. These late nineteenth century composers were still writing what most people would recognize as listenable classical music.
Could you talk about how that flowed into the atonal dead end of twentieth century twelve-tone serial music?
MR. WALSH: It’s a complex subject and it’s not entirely a plot by the Frankfurt School, let me hasten to add. There’s a couple of chapters in which Wagner plays a major role in this book, and I talk about the famous Tristan chord, which is an unstable, four-note chord comprised of a tri-tone and a perfect fourth. And that chord, what you hear at the beginning of Tristan and Isolde is a chord that doesn’t seem to want to resolve in any direction. Mostly when we have an unstable element in our lives, it eventually is going to sort itself out one way or the other.
And Wagner brought that notion into music, and that notion was then taken by composers who came after Wagner to really shatter the whole notion of resolution and move us into a direction that Schoenberg took us in, which was that all twelve notes -- here comes the egalitarian argument -- are equal, and therefore, no one note should be dominant. So therefore, C major is kind of a -- how would we put it today -- paternalistic, hegemonistic, cisgender, whatever, I don’t know --
MR. DRISCOLL: (Laughter)
MR. WALSH: -- notion of harmony. So you have the twelve-tone system, which destroys harmony and, in doing so, destroyed our appreciation of concert music. And I think that’s one of the reasons that concert music is much less popular in American than it was, say, in the 30s when Toscanini was an American national hero, and when Horowitz went to Moscow in ‘86, I was lucky enough to go with him. And that was kind of the end of the classical musician as Byronic, heroic figure.
The short version is everything the left, the progressives, the Frankfurt School, taught and believe is anti-heroic. They hate heroism. They hate the notion that we have a destiny to fulfill. In other words, they hate every Disney movie ever made, let’s put it that way.
And we have to argue that the heroic narrative is the fundamental essence of Western humanity. I’m not arguing for the entire world here. I’m really arguing in favor of Western culture.
MR. DRISCOLL: Speaking of movies, music, and deconstructionism, right around the same time the fun and sun of Los Angeles was seriously depressing the dour Frankfurt School, as Mark Steyn has written, “a young middle-class Egyptian spending some time in the U.S. had the misfortune to be invited to a dance one weekend and was horrified at what he witnessed: The room convulsed with the feverish music from the gramophone. Dancing naked legs filled the hall, arms draped around the waists, chests met chests, lips met lips”.
As Steyn goes on, “Where was this den of debauchery? Studio 54 in the 1970s? Haight-Ashbury in the summer of love? No, the throbbing pulsating sewer of sin was Greeley, Colorado in 1949. As it happens, Greeley, Colorado in 1949 was a dry town. The dance was a church social and the feverish music was, ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside,’ as introduced by Esther Williams in the film, ‘Neptune’s Daughter’ co-starring Ricardo Montalban. Revolted by the experience, Sayyid Qutb decided that America (and modernity in general) was an abomination, returned to Egypt and became the leading intellectual muscle in the Muslim Brotherhood and set off a chain that led from Qutb to Zawahiri to bin Laden to the Hindu Kush to the Balkans to 9/11 to the brief Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt to the Islamic State marching through Syria and Iraq.”
Qutb’s freak-out over seeing young people dancing to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a hilarious story with a nightmare ending. But radical Islam has used a lot of the Frankfurt School’s theories to attack the west, haven’t they?
MR. WALSH: Holy cow! I mean, what to make of this? These guys, they don’t handle Western culture well.
One of the main progenitors of the Frankfurt School, he famously asked, “Who will save us from Western civilization?” That was Gyorgy Lukacs, the Hungarian revolutionary.
Lukacs -- I had the privilege of being in Budapest about three weeks ago to talk on this subject and actually had several people in the audience who knew Lukacs, who had served with him in the Hungarian Parliament. That was quite an audience.
But Lukacs, like many of the other Frankfurt scholars, reacted very negatively to the -- and correctly so -- to the horror of World War I and the immense destruction of European civilization that that war created. And his notion was this was so awful it can’t happen again. How do we destroy this thing at its root?
That, as you’ll notice, is the same thing that motivated Monnet and the others to create the European Union, which was a way to tame France and Germany, especially Germany, and lock them in a relationship where they could never again destabilize the European system.
Now, that’s left them open to Islam, of course, and we see this enormous flood of so-called migrants and refugees into the west. But they destroyed the west’s notion of itself and the notion of its own goodness.
And as -- whoever it was -- Chesterton or someone said, you know, the man who believes in nothing will believe in anything. So we now have people believing in nothing being replaced by people who believe in something very, very specific.
So the left and Islam have made common cause but it will end badly for one of them or both.
MR. DRISCOLL: Even if they wouldn’t quote Adorno or Marcuse directly, how much has the Frankfurt School influenced, directly or indirectly, the current American left, including Obama, Hillary, and someone like Bernie Sanders?
MR. WALSH: Well, if you talk to your leftie buddies, and I’m sure you have them, too -- if I didn’t have any leftie buddies, I probably wouldn’t have many friends at all -- but they all will tell you two things immediately when you raise this book, which by the way, they’re not going to read.
One is that -- who cares about a bunch of obscure German academics? Nobody reads them anyway. And two, one of them who did read them, Saul Alinsky, whose name, as you know, is infamous in conservative circles, he was just a kindly old fool who, you know, was a little bit of an activist but had no impact on contemporary progressivism, which, of course, are both lies because they have to lie about what their objectives are.
As you know, they can’t run on their platform, although we’re about to see them run on their own platform with either Hillary, or Bernie Sanders, or whoever, so they need to obscure it. And they downplay the whole notion of the Frankfurt School. But the Frankfurt School really came into America at a time when America was triumphant, which often means you’re at your weakest because you’re not expecting to be stabbed in the back by somebody, and at a time also when the young people were beginning to question, you know, obviously their parents. Just as we 60s kids questioned our parents, they questioned their parents, et cetera. It’s the normal generational scheme of things.
So I think we were uniquely vulnerable to this, partly because we couldn’t imagine that America would ever change. And boy, has it ever changed since the mid-50s.
MR. DRISCOLL: Michael, last question: the Frankfurt School’s deconstruction of American culture is now near omnipresent in American universities. So how do the rest of us fight back?
MR. WALSH: Well, my suggestion and my solution in Devil’s Pleasure Palace is to get back to the verities of Western culture. I am not a Pollyanna, George W. Bush, Pope Francis kind of guy -- Catholic, I am, but not in this particular case -- who thinks that everybody is exactly the same, that there’s no difference among cultures, there’s no difference among people.
Were that true, Western Europe wouldn’t be seeing an influx of immigrants to take its money, essentially, because of the failing societies these people are coming from. But what we need to do is to go back to something that actually antedates religion, which is the notion of the heroic narrative.
Now, I’m sitting here in a field in the middle of Western Ireland overlooking the ocean, but also in one of the most historic parts of Ireland which has been populated by human beings for about 5,000 years and there’s a lot of spooky paths right outside the darkness of my window.
But the Irish legends are always about heroes, and the French legends, and the German legends, and the Scandinavian legends. And Wagner, of course, took many of these elements into the Ring of the Nibelung cycle, which uses the Scandinavian Edda poems and German mythology. So all of this comes before Judaism, Jesus of Nazareth, or Mohammed. And it what it prizes is the one man against the many who stands up to fight. And the progressive left is the ant farm who crushes the one man who stands up to fight.
So when Roger Kimball, the publisher of Encounter and also our colleague at PJ, and I were talking about this book and I said I want to write a book about God and Satan and good and evil, he said what’s the policy angle? And then we realized it was the Frankfurt School and how they brought the notion of the demonic, the unholy, the evil, the satanic, small S, into Western culture.
And they’ve done a very good job -- Lukacs should be very proud -- of saving themselves from Western civilization.
MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com and we’ve been talking with Michael Walsh about his new book, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West. It’s published by Encounter Books and available from amazon.com and your local bookstore.
Michael, thank you once again for stopping by today.
MR. WALSH: Ed, my pleasure.