The Critic as Conservator: Essays in Literature, Society, and Culture
by George A. Panichas.
Catholic University of America Press (Baltimore, MD) 1992, xii + 262 pp., $49.95.

If you think that our intellectual culture is healthy, you do not want to read this book. It will only irritate you. Unless,that is, you sometimes change your mind—not usually a mark of one who is proud of our century. For George Panichas, long-time professor of English at the University of Maryland, exposes the regnant vacuities of today’s debased academy. He resists the modern academy’s “movement from relativism to disillusion to denial to nihilism.” And he does so from the firm ground of a passionate commitment to the intellectual riches and moral standards available in the West’s Great Tradition, both its classical and its Christian heritages. This man has a place to stand, and he would pull others to it, out of the quicksand of modern and postmodern fashions.

The Critic as Conservator is the final installment in a trilogy of collections of essays, following The Reverent Discipline and The Courage of Judgment. Though some of the essays in this volume were written for the occasion, most have appeared earlier, several in the quarterly Modern Age, which Panichas edits. Normally, unity in collections of essays is tenuous, at best. But in this case the unity is stronger than usual, not only because of the author’s singleness of vision but also presumably because from the start the essays were headed for collection. It is a good, and rare, thing for a writer to know from early on what sort of shape one would like one’s career to take; Milton and Solzhenitsyn (whose name peppers these pages) are examples. The result can then be coherence, symmetry, harmony of oeuvre. This is what one senses with Panichas, as with few other essayists. To be sure, he has written other things besides these three collections of essays, and I personally pay him particular homage for his The Burden of Vision: Dostoevsky’s Spiritual Art.

The Preface to the volume at hand, introducing a self-avowed “urgent, censorious, combative” tone of voice, affirms that the critic as conservator “must fight for causes he believes in, even if they appear to be lost causes.” It invokes the rhetoric of “high moral calling,” of “sapiential criticism,” of “reverence for the religious sense,” of “moral and spiritual discrimination and recovery,” of those “enduring things to defend and bequeath.” One could scan yards of library shelves and piles of university-press catalogs without encountering a glimmering of this sort of vocabulary. Never mind that it is about what used to be central to the mission of the university. This is a minority report.

The book’s twenty essays are divided into five sections: Moral Ascent, Epistolary Encounters, Polemical Forays, Educational Paths, and—saving the best till last—Spiritual Soundings. Although attention is fixed upon cultural items and issues of the twentieth century, one hears throughout the steady chorus of orienting voices from antiquity on. Panichas honors Chesterton’s democracy of the dead who comprise tradition. I am put in mind of the youthful Milton’s call to become a contemporary of time itself. To modern matters Panichas brings an erudition ever easily worn, never just for show.

The first section features Simone Weil and Irving Babbitt. This odd couple Panichas brings together in an impressive effort of nuanced synthesis, which demonstrates that the religious view of life in our dark century is to be seen as the property of no narrow party. The author can then, later on, make ready reference back to these two sentinels of the human spirit, somewhat more often to Babbitt than to Weil (though I myself would have preferred a reverse emphasis).

The second section features Henry James and D. H. Lawrence, another surprising pairing. Although this part underlines Panichas’ catholicity of taste, these two modern authors seem hardly to rank among the mightiest buttresses against the ravages of nihilism which so regularly command his attention. If it is good to have these essays preserved in accessible form, they nevertheless place some considerable strain upon the collection’s unity.

The next two sections range over a wide array oftopics. We read of the estimable Rene Wellek’s ultimate failure of nerve, of Austin Warren’s special place of honor among teachers and critics, of John Aldridge’s penetrating critical dissidence, of the New York Times’ minimal obituary for Eric Voegelin and lavish one for Herbert Marcuse, of anti-Americanism among American intellectuals, of academics’ misuses of Orwell, of bullying by triumphalist liberals, of the incubus of deconstruction, and of much more. These brief topical essays make clear, as Panichas borrows from Philip Larkin, that we live in “a time unrecommended by events.”

The final section, which culminates in the title essay, showcases a modern conservatism worth embracing. In a clause, “. . . what ultimately distinguishes the conservative ethos from all others is loyalty to moral and spiritual principles as being antecedent to all others.” How alien this must sound to persons accustomed to invoking the word conserve only for energy, trees, clean water, used containers! For Panichas, “The critic conserves and enforces a set of informing principles, and discipline of ideas, virtue, beliefs, definitions.” Such a critic believes “that there are tacit, paradigmatic reverences, verities, and meanings superior to others and that these should serve as qualitative antidotes to flux, relativism, uncertainty, doubt, absurdity, in short, to the problematic human situation and conditions.” To read Panichas is to be reminded what a noble thing conservatism is—and how little of it is promoted by most of the politicos who fly under its flag.

If history is written by the victors, this book will not be accorded much of a hearing. Our society has not produced many readers worthy of it. The price put on the book suggests that the publisher expects only libraries to purchase it. More’s the pity. For this is a book for any budding intellectual dissident to have on the shelf so as to dip back into, when discouraged, for a renewal of inspiration. Readers such as this—and there is always a remnant—will want to pay special attention to Panichas’ occasional anecdotes revealing the ostracism awaiting them in the imperial academy. They, too, should they ever snake their way through the hiring and tenuring processes, will encounter that “disdaining silence” which “tells you that you have violated some unwritten but powerful code that says that only the liberal ethos is what academe prescribes and protects, any violation of which is an unforgivable act.” They, too, will be “consigned to a small band of cranky traditionalists: those who, in terms of national honors and munificent foundation grants, find doors shut against them.” Yet the guidance of Panichas, as of a sage elder brother, just might help them focus on their life’s mission—the costs entailed and the high purpose, both.

And is it all so clear just who will be the victors in the next generation? We can now imagine a next generation in the former Soviet bloc much different from what seemed inevitable just a few short years ago. Panichas, for all his grimness, says in conclusion. “Still, these thoughts need not close on an apocalyptic note as long as it is even possible, and perhaps only in a small band of friends and allies living in the catacombs of the modern world, to define basic differences between a morality of aspiration and a morality of number.” I would add that many commentators, from disparate positions, are describing the Enlightenment-based modern age as in its death throes, observing in particular a new opening for religion. And as Panichas well knows (as do his foes), a religious view of life has the power to change everything.  

Edward Ericson’s latest book, to be reviewed in a later number of this quarterly, is Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World (Regnery Gateway, $24.)

“To read Panichas is to be reminded what a noble thing conservatism is—and how little of itis promoted by most of the politicos who fly under its flag.”