Unexamined Premises

A Long, Slow Ride to Hell -- and We're Not There Yet

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

As Roger Kimball noted on PJ Media last month, Encounter Books has recently published my new book, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, a study of the nature of good and evil, God and Satan, and the heroic culture of the Judeo-Christian West vs. the collectivist nihilism of what I call the Unholy (or satanic) Left, followers to a man of the Frankfurt School of mostly German Marxist philosophers, whose destructive, anti-cultural handiwork we can see all around us. For just about every social pathology that currently has Americans and Europeans scratching their heads — how the hell did we get here? — has its origins in the teachings of the Frankfurters and its practical application embodied by the pernicious doctrine of Critical Theory. Destruction of national sovereignty? Check. Redefinition of marriage and the family? Check. Replacement of the Individual-as-Hero with the collectivist ethos of the human ant farm? We have a winner.

Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Wilhelm Reich — the list of villains reads like Hell’s honor role. Herewith, some excerpts:

Were any of the originators of Critical Theory sill among us, they might well say, quoting Sir Christopher Wren: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. Look about your daily lives here in early twenty-first-century America and Western Europe, and see the shabbiness, hear the coarseness of speech and dialogue, witness the lowered standards not only of personal behavior but also of cultural norms, savor the shrunken horizons of the future.

The Frankfurt School sucker punched American culture right in its weak solar plexus. Americans have always been sympathetic to an alternative point of view, sympathetic to the underdog, solicitous of strangers, especially foreign refugees fleeing a monster like Hitler. Largely innocent of the European battles over various forms of socialism, and softened up to a certain extent by the Roosevelt administration’s early, frank admiration of Mussolini as it tried to solve the economic crisis of the Depression, the American public was open to self-criticism.

The problem with the Frankfurt School scholars was that they arrived with ideological blinders—men of the Left fighting other men of the Left back in the old Heimat —and were unable to see that there was another, different world welcoming them in the United States if only they would open their eyes. (How, for example, could they hate California?) They appear not so much scholarly as simple, viewing American capitalism as a vast, deliberate, conspiracy against their own socialist ideas, when, in fact, their ideas were simply wrong, their analysis flawed, and their animus ineradicable. They were creatures of their own time and place, with no more claim to absolute truth than the man on a soapbox in Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park or the lunatic staggering down Market Street in San Francisco talking to himself. Everybody’s got a beef.

Unfortunately for us, these particular lunatics wound up at Columbia University after fleeing Nazi Germany, from which redoubt they injected their relativist poison into the academic bloodstream. Critical Theory effectively states that there is nothing — no cultural totem, institution, set of beliefs — that cannot and should not be questioned, attacked and destroyed. And they went right at the heart of what I call the ur-Narrative, the primal cultural underpinnings of western societies that in fact antedated organized religion. Like Satan in Paradise Lost, they sought not a kingdom of their own, but the diminishment of God’s creatures, Mankind.

For what we—in an increasingly secular West—misread as a political argument is, in reality, nothing of the sort. It is a literary argument, if we define literature properly not as “fiction” but as the expression of the soul of a people, in this case, of all people. Politics (which for many has come to replace sports as the subject of rooting interest par excellence) is merely its secondary manifestation, the generally tiresome litany of regurgitated policy prescriptions and bogus campaign promises that residents of the Western democracies routinely encounter today. But where once in our culture raged religious arguments (whose moral underpinnings were never in doubt), today we are concerned not simply with the details of a system of governance and social organization, but with the very nature of that system itself. In fact, at issue is the very nature of Western civilization itself and how it may be subverted to achieve a vastly different—indeed, opposite—end than originally intended. For one side has changed the meaning of the principal words in the debate, including “democracy,” “culture,” “civilization,” and “justice,” among others. The two sides speak different languages, but with a superficially shared vocabulary that serves as a means of deceit for one and confusion for the other.

Seduction, subversion, sedition—these are the tools of a creature we once called Satan, the Father of Lies, the loser of the Battle in Heaven. Yet he continues the fight here on earth with the only weapons at his disposal: man’s inherent weaknesses and zeal to be duped if the cause seems appealing enough. Chief among the weaknesses of Western man today are his fundamental lack of cultural self-confidence, his willingness to open his ears to the siren song of nihilism, a juvenile eagerness to believe the worst about himself and his society and to relish, on some level, his own prospective destruction.

Whether one views the combatants in the struggle between God and Satan ontologically, mythically, or literarily, God created man in his own image and likeness but chose to give him free will—a force so powerful that not even God’s infinite love can always overcome it. Thus given a sporting chance to ruin God’s favorites, the fallen Light-Bringer, Lucifer, picked himself and his fellows off the floor of the fiery lake into which they were plunged by the sword of St. Michael, and he endeavors each day not to conquer Man but to seduce and destroy him. As Milton’s Satan observes in Book One of Milton’s Paradise Lost:

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

What matter where, if I be still the same…

To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

Satan himself, however, has no need for servants in Hell, as God does in Heaven; he is instead satisfied with corpses on earth.

Lunatic No. 1: Gramsci

Lunatic No. 1: Gramsci

Throughout the book, I use two great dramatic poems, Paradise Lost and Goethe’s Faust — as analytical tools in order to bring the primal conflict between good and evil into focus. We have had the entire notion of Evil pretty much beaten out of us over the past half-century (that is to say, during the ascendancy of Critical Theory, especially in its latter-day guise of “community organizing”) but we forget that Evil exists at our own moral peril. Strange that we should have done so, since Good vs. Evil is the theme of every compelling narrative since time immemorial. 

The crucial importance of narrative to the leftist project cannot be overstated.  Storytelling—or a form of it in which old themes are mined and twisted—sits at the center of everything the Left does. Leftists are fueled by a belief that in the modern world, it does not so much matter what the facts are, as long as the story is well told. Living in a malevolent, upside-down fantasy world, they would rather heed their hearts than their minds, their impulses than their senses; the gulf between empirical reality and their ideology-infused daydreams regularly shocks and surprises them, even as it discomforts or kills millions who suffer the consequences of their delusions.

And what, precisely, is the point of their twisted narrative? Simply this: It, like scripture, contains all the themes and clichés deemed necessary to sell a governing philosophy that no one in his right mind would actually vote for absent deception and illusion. No matter how evil, the leftist story must seem to have a positive outcome; it must appeal to the better angels of our nature; it must promise a greater good, a higher morality, a new and improved tomorrow. In short, it must do what Milton’s Tempter (“with show of zeal and love / To man, and indignation at his wrong”) does in the Garden: lie. Thus spake Lucifer to Eve, in the same words that come out of every cajoling Leftist’s culturally Marxist’s mouth. We might well refer to this passage in Book Nine of Paradise Lost as the Left’s very own foundational myth:

Queen of this Universe! do not believe

Those rigid threats of Death. Ye shall not die.

…will God incense his ire

For such a petty Trespass, and not praise

Rather your dauntless virtue, whom the pain

Of Death denounced, whatever thing Death be…

Why then was this forbid? Why but to awe,

Why but to keep ye low and ignorant…

…ye shall be as Gods,

Knowing both Good and Evil as they know.

This speech by Satan is perhaps the most perfect embodiment of wheedling Leftism ever written, combining nearly all the tactics we still see in use today. The Tempter, in a nutshell, asks: Why not? Besides, what’s the big deal? God is lying to you. He wants to keep you naked and ignorant. Look at me: I ate the apple, and now I, a mere serpent, can speak human language with wisdom and compassion. And you—just one small “transgression” against a stupid and arbitrary edict—and you, too, shall be as God is.

“Why” asks any sensible person when egged on to transgress; “Why not?” is the satanic answer. And just in case you believe this kind of thinking hasn’t fully infected our body politic, consider this: 

Speaking at the funeral of his assassinated brother, Robert, the late Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy quoted his fallen sibling: “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?” Telling words, which reveal which side of Chesterton’s Fence these two Kennedys were on, and how much cultural mischief they have caused. Conservatives believe there is a reason—a very good reason—why things that never were, never were.

And where did that line, uncredited, come from? From this passage in George Bernard Shaw’s 1921 play, Back to Methuselah: “I hear you say ‘Why?’ Always ‘Why?’ You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’ ”

The speaker is the Serpent.

Once safely in the United States, the Frankfurt School sappers had one philosophical objective: to remove the moral high ground of the American Way and replace it with self-doubt. Having lost Germany to an equally murderous leftist ideology, Nazism, the Communists of the Frankfurt School were perfectly content to sit out the war for ideas in the safety of Morningside Heights. There, they unabashedly continued the undermining of Western civilization that they had begun at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. Puny avatars of Mephistopheles, they determined, for reasons large and small, to turn Siegfried into Faust, cut him down to size and send him to Hell.

You can read Robert Stacy’s McCain’s review of the book here. You can read Kathryn Jean Lopez’s interview with me at National Review here. More to come. And I particularly like this observation:

It is not chance, by the way, that Walsh includes art and beauty into his book ( Exposing the hostility of this crypto-Marxist ideology toward that which is spiritual in man’s nature, Walsh appeals to the finest traditions of Western culture, deriving his book’s title from Franz Schubert’s first opera, Des Teufels Lustschloss. Walsh’s book bristles with references to classical music (e.g., Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner) and philosophy (e.g., Aristotle, Rousseau, Nietzsche), as well as literature and films, including Casablanca, High Noon, The Wild One, The Godfather and Independence Day.)

If one cares to remember, Truth and Beauty are attributes of the Judaeo-Christian God. You quite literally cannot have one without the other. Conversely, when Beauty is diminished, so is Truth.

NEXT: The “Eternal Feminine” and the assault on sex and the family.