Thoughts on 'The Devil’s Pleasure Palace'

I usually decline to comment publicly on the titles we publish at Encounter Books — as the publisher, what can I say? “Gee, this is an awfully good crop, what?” For the same reason, I tend not to review the books we publish at Encounter at The New Criterion. I made an exception for Robert Bork’s posthumously published Saving Justice, which Andrew McCarthy wrote about for the magazine, but I’ve found that making posthumous publication an unofficial qualifying criterion is too stringent a requirement for even the most publicity-minded authors.  Some years back, some wag published a parody of The New York Review of Books called The New York Review of Us: you know, Joyce Carol Oates reviewing Norman Mailer who was reviewing Susan Sontag who was reviewing Joyce Carol Oates: literary spin-the-bottle among all the cool kids in the neighborhood.

But when my editor at PJM asked if I would say a few words about how we came to publish Michael Walsh’s new Encounter Book,  The Devils Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West, I thought “Why not?”  I have a keen and impartial interest in all Encounter Books, of course, but the idea for Michael’s book struck a personal chord because it rhymes or overlaps conspicuously with my own book The Long March: How The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America (also published by Encounter, as it happens, but long before I had anything to do with it). The theme of The Long March revolved around how the radical impulses of the Sixties (which had a long prehistory dating back at least to Rousseau) had not dissipated but had insitutionalized themselves in Western soceities, above all, perhaps, in the United States. “The Age of Aquarius,” I wrote in my introduction,

did not end when the last electric guitar was unplugged at Woodstock. It lives on in our values and habits, in our tastes, pleasures, and aspirations. It lives on especially in our educational and cultural institutions, and in the degraded pop culture that permeates our lives like a corrosive fog. . . .  That ideology has insinuated itself, disastrously, into the curricula of our schools and colleges; it has significantly altered the texture of sexual relations and family life; it has played havoc with the authority of churches and other repositories of moral wisdom; it has undermined the claims of civic virtue and our national self-understanding; it has degraded the media, the entertainment industry, and popular culture; it has helped to subvert museums and other institutions entrusted with preserving and transmitting high culture. It has even, most poignantly, addled our hearts and innermost assumptions about what counts as the good life: it has perverted our dreams as much as it has prevented us from attaining them.

While I cast my eye back to some intellectual and political precursors, including some figures from the Frankfurt School like Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, I focused my attention on a bestiary of prominent, or once-prominent, gurus who,  in various ways, sught to advance what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called “the long march through the institutions,” the insidious process of revolution by co-optation, by insinuation, by subversions. Had I known about his work when I wrote the book, I would have included the toxic Rules for Radicals by one of President Obama’s chief mentors, the ur-“community organizer” Saul Alinsky.

Subversion is Michael Walsh’s primary focus and the battle he describes is nothing less than a battle between good and evil. The fons et origo of his story is the insidious machinations of the Frankfurt School and its doctrine of Critical Theory. “At  once overly intellectualized and emotionally juvenile,” he writes, “Critical Theory – like Pandora’s Box – released a horde of demons into the American psyche.”

 When everything could be questioned, nothing could be real, and the muscular, confident empiricism that had just won the war gave way, in less than a generation, to a fashionable central-European nihilism that was celebrated on college campuses across the United States. Seizing the high ground of academe and the arts, the new Nihilists set about dissolving the bedrock of the country, from patriotism to marriage to the family to military service; they have sown . . . “destruction, division, hatred, and calumny” – and all disguised as a search for truth that will lead to human happiness here on earth.

As Michael understands, the disguise is crucial: it underpins the whole enterprise. The rhetoric is all about freedom, salvation, utopia, the reality is slavery and immiseration.  The Devil’s Pleasure Palace (the title, by the way, is from an early opera by Schubert) provides a seductive anatomy of those unholy seductions. I think it’s a whacking good book — learned, passionate, and literary in the highest, non-effete sense of that term — and the fact that it happens to jib neatly with some of my own work I take as an added inducement to praise. In other words, I like it, and I think you will too! Did I mention that it is available at Amazon here?