Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics
by Russell Kirk,
with an introduction by Benjamin G. Lockerd.
Cluny Media, 2016.
Paper, 399 pages, $20.
At the apex of the mid-twentieth-century Youth Movement, the year 1969 marked a time when the World War II generation was at middle age and looking toward not-too-distant retirement and relaxation while their children, the so-called Boomers, were in the ascendant as shapers of culture. It was a time when unquestioned adherence to “the permanent things”—the timeless norms that maintain the health of the person and the community—was fading in the light of fallen mankind’s oldest delusion: Ye shall be as gods, the unspoken goal of the ideologue (whether of the left or the right) bereft of faith and a normative conscience. As the song lyrics claimed, it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and anything was possible.
But as the American novelist Edith Wharton had written of a similar age of unrest, “All the old defenses were falling … [and] sucked down into the whirlpool of liberated passions. Across the sanguinary scene passed, like a mocking ghost, the philosophers’ vision of the perfectibility of man. Man was free at last—freer than his would-be liberators had ever dreamed of making him—and he used his freedom like a beast.”
Without going into a detailed litany of the squalid events that took place or came to light in 1969—marked by such place-names as the Spahn Ranch, Altamont, Chappaquiddick, and My Lai—it is enough to say that by year’s end it seemed that mere mortals could not drive the chariot of Helios after all. Humankind, which cannot bear very much reality, learned to its sorrow—and not for the first time in the twentieth century—that mere men cannot build heaven on earth. But that would not stop our progressive visionaries from trying (and failing) again—and again and again. After all, they reason, they dream of things that have never been and ask, “Why not?”
Throughout the Western world, things had been loosened that ought to have remained bound, and things had been forgotten that ought to have remained. “The malady of normative decay gnaws at order in the person and at order in the republic,” observed Russell Kirk at the time. “Until we recognize the nature of this affliction, we must sink ever deeper into the disorder of the soul and the disorder of the state. A recovery of norms can be commenced only when we moderns come to understand in what manner we have fallen away from old truths.”
In an effort to provide notes toward understanding the way to recovery, Kirk published Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature in 1969. The work was revised in 1984 by Sherwood Sugden and is now republished in a handsome new edition by Cluny Media. Herein is richness: a work of definition and vivid illustration of what’s wrong with the Western world—and what’s right about it—as reflected in its literature. It was a book that could easily be seen as something of a companion volume to C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a work Kirk considered “Lewis’s book most pertinent to our present discontents.”
The great failing of would-be world-changers is their failure to account for human fallenness, the tincture of poison in the human gene-pool. “Deny a fact, and that fact will be your master,” warns Kirk in Enemies, and he was right. The guiding star of the world-changer, ideology, entails “the belief that this world of ours may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise through the operation of positive law and positive planning. The ideologue—Communist or Nazi or of whatever affiliation—maintains that human nature and society may be perfected by mundane, secular means, though these means ordinarily involve violent social revolution. The ideologue immanentizes religious symbols and inverts religious doctrines.” The result is always the same, with those who believe in the perfectibility of man forever ignoring or excusing the crimes of those who pursue it.
The ideologue is a purveyor of abnormity in culture, in literature, and in politics. An abnormity, explains Kirk, “in its Latin root, means a monstrosity, defying the norm, the nature of things.” The foolish embrace of nonconformity within art is “monstrosity in the soul and in society.” Man is shaped by the art of his age. “Art is man’s nature,” Burke famously wrote; and Kirk provides the necessary foreboding corollary: “Personal and social decadence are not the work of ineluctable forces, but are the consequences of defying normative truth: a failure of right reason, if you will, resulting in abnormality. When we distort the arts of literature and statecraft, we warp our nature before long.”
For make no mistake: “Literature can corrupt; and it is possible, too, to be corrupted by an ignorance of humane letters, much of our normative knowledge necessarily being derived from our reading. The person who reads bad books instead of good may be subtly corrupted; the person who reads nothing at all may be forever adrift in life, unless he lives in a community still powerfully influenced by what Gustave Thibon calls ‘moral habits’ and by oral tradition.” To this assessment, Kirk famously added, “If a small boy does not read Treasure Island, the odds are that he will read Mad Ghoul Comics.” Or more likely—in our present non-reading age—he will be compelled to read the tepid, safely acceptable pabulum spooned-up by his well-meaning teachers—engendering boredom and a sense of restless discontent.
Longtime readers of Kirk notice over time that, in Enemies and elsewhere, he recurrently describes the chief fruit of statism and cultural decadence as boredom, which he pronounces with an unspoken curse. This may seem puzzling at first, but Kirk saw that from boredom springs a host of horrors that are the natural consequence of men drifting far from virtue and their Creator. Boredom leads men to contemplate and act upon activities outside the norms of healthy life and culture, venturing into the world of abnormity. Kirk asserts that “if men flout norm and convention, life becomes intolerable. It is through respect for tradition and prescription, and recourse to those sources of normative understanding, that themass of human beings acquire a tolerable knowledge of the rules by which private and social existence is made tolerable.… For the order of society is merely the order of souls writ large; there cannot be a good society without individual goodness of heart; and that goodness of heart is possible only when human beings perceive, with Socrates, that man is not the measure: God is the measure.”
In contrast to the literature of abnormity, Kirk discourses upon several writers whose works embody the moral imagination: Dante, T. S. Eliot, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, Ilya Ehrenberg, Max Picard, Eric Voegelin, and the Oxford Inklings, among others, not all of them Christian but each holding to the permanent things. But what exactly did Kirk mean by that often-used expression, the permanent things? It was a term used one time in passing by T. S. Eliot, in Notes toward the Definition of Culture, but Kirk had grasped it and made it fairly his own. Outside the pages of Enemies, Kirk has written, “By ‘the Permanent Things’ [Eliot] meant those elements in the human condition that give us our nature, without which we are as the beasts that perish. They work upon us all in the sense that both they and we are bound up in that continuity of belief and institution called the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.” In Enemies, Kirk points to J. R. R. Tolkien, Bradbury, C. S. Lewis, and other exemplary twentieth-century writers and notes that these “modern masters of fantasy” are creators of fable, allegory, and parable whose “purpose is ethical, rousing the moral imagination of a people long ensnared by idols.”
Ah, and there is another oft-used Kirkian term, the moral imagination, which Kirk defines in Enemies as “the principal possession that man does not share with the beasts. It is man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only—of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest.”
Referencing the supporting structure of the moral imagination, Kirk defines the permanent things in terms of norms, a term often confounded with values. He explains, “A norm means an enduring standard. It is a law of nature, which we ignore at our peril. It is a rule of human conduct and a measure of public virtue. The norm does not signify the average, the median, the mean, the mediocre. The norm is not the conduct of the average sensual man. A norm is not simply a measure of average performance within a group. There is a law for man, and law for thing; the late Alfred Kinsey notwithstanding, the norm for the wasp and the snake is not the norm for man. A norm exists: though men may ignore or forget a norm, still that norm does not cease to be, nor does it cease to influence men. A man apprehends a norm, or fails to apprehend it; but he does not create or destroy important norms.…”
As noted above, Kirk contrasts norms with values, and this is a valuable distinction. For values is a term easily misunderstood and misused. He explains that a value (in contrast to a norm) “is the quality of worth. Many things are worthwhile that are not normative. When most writers nowadays employ the word ‘value’ as a term of philosophy, moreover, they mean ‘subjective value’—that is, the quality of being worthwhile, of giving pleasure or satisfaction to individuals, without judgment upon the intrinsic, absolute, essential merit of the sensation or action in question; without reference to its objective deserts.”
Enemies of the Permanent Things assesses the current state of the world—then as now, a study in spiritual and cultural entropy—and finds it wanting. Kirk minces no words: Through denial of the permanent things and embracing abnormity in art, humanity descends into the embrace of evil. He explains that evil, in essence, “is the appetite to undo the natural order of things. It is the glorification of abnormity. And the price one pays for clutching at the unnatural is metamorphosis into a freak, or into a freak-master.”
A cursory look at the present-day world reveals an arena populated with a remarkable number of such beings, disdaining their cultural heritage and absurdly proud of the small lozenge of third-hand knowledge they’ve managed to apprehend. They are caught up in the delusion Owen Barfield called “chronological snobbery”: the belief that their own viewpoints on all cultural matters—the nature of truth, sexual orientation, equality, human relations, international policy—represent not a passing phase in the progress of civilization, but the very goal or pinnacle. As the current President of the United States once said with all the self-importance of a Bourbon monarch, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” All was darkness before today, but now comes the dawn.
Such hubris is not new, and Kirk knew it. In Enemies, he writes, “We moderns, Burke [wrote], tend to be puffed up with a little petty private rationality, thinking ourselves wiser than the prophets and the law-givers, and are disposed to trade upon the trifling bank and capital of our private intelligence. That way lies ruin. But though the individual is foolish, the species is wise; and, given time, the species judges rightly. The moral precepts and the social conventions which we obey represent the considered judgments and filtered experience of many generations of prudent and dutiful human beings—the most sagacious of our species. It is folly to ignore this inherited wisdom in favor of our own arrogant little notions of right and wrong, of profit and loss, of justice and injustice.”
As is evident from this assessment, Kirk is eminently quotable, and never more so than in Enemies of the Permanent Things. To conclude with a final lengthy quotation, it is entirely worth noting that although Kirk viewed our present state of literature and culture with sober realism, he was never a prophet of gloom and surrender. He would never title a book We Are Doomed, nor would he agree with Cyril Connolly’s famous autumnal statement, “It is closing time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair.” These sentiments make the speaker sound like a tragic hero or a grim truth-teller, but they evidence existential despair and an insider’s knowledge of the end of all things, to which mortal men have been specifically denied. As Kirk once advised a beleaguered American president in a dark hour, “There is always hope.” And that hope depends upon the willingness of men and women to take heart, to take wise counsel, and to act with prudence and imagination.
“To fight the good fight,” he wrote in Enemies, “wise and virtuous men and women must become reacquainted with the permanent things and—through pursuing wisdom and virtuously exercising one’s talents—to ensure that the permanent thing are inherited by succeeding generations.” For normative knowledge, wrote Kirk, “is no burden, but instead a rich patrimony. Those who refuse it must be taught by personal experience—a hard master, as Benjamin Franklin says, though fools will have no other. Edmund Burke gave this concept of willing obligation to the dead, the living, and those yet unborn its most moving expression. We all are subject, he wrote, to ‘the contract of eternal society.’ This immortal contract is made between God and mankind, and between the generations that have perished from the earth, and the generation that is living now, and the generations that are yet to come. It is a covenant binding upon us all. No man has a right to abridge that contract at will; and if we do break it, we suffer personally and all society suffers; and we are cast out of this civil social order . . . into an ‘antagonist world’ of total disorder—or, as the New Testament has it, into the outer darkness, where here shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
Words as true today as they were in the long-ago year of 1969.
James E. Person Jr. is a Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Madison Books, 1999), and a longtime reviewer.