Anniversaries are artificial landmarks, but they focus the mind on the details of the remembrance of things past, details otherwise lost to the amnesia of the present. Whether it's a birthday, a wedding anniversary or marking the fifth year since a landmark event like September 11, we're forced to evaluate ourselves in relation to how things have changed.
The anniversary of 9/11 leads to comparisons, a search through history for clues about how to deal with landmark events of our own experience. The New Criterion, a magazine that consistently separates the tares from the wheat of what's new, measuring current writers, artists and ideas against the standards of the past, dares to draw on the unfashionable to measure the fashions of our day. Rudyard Kipling and Evelyn Waugh, for example.
In its 25th anniversary issue, the magazine resurrects Waugh quoting Kipling with words that resound with prescient urgency. "Kipling believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved, which was only precariously defended," Waugh wrote. "He wanted to see the defenses fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms."
Waugh's observations written three decades earlier in 1938 mark crucial and dangerous parallels in 2006: "Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come merely from habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent."
A 25th anniversary for a small magazine dedicated to arts and ideas is a big moment in a cultural landscape ravaged by dumbed-down relativism and celebrity hijinks. With a small circulation of only 6,000 subscribers, the New Criterion is an oasis in the chaos of criticism that has afflicted the intellectual (so called) establishment since postmodernism became fashionable. It sees the task of preserving culture as yet another battle in the war for survival. The magazine and its editors are conservative in the sense that they want to conserve what's best in the written word, the artistic image, music, dance and theater. It's a reprise of the ancient attempt to understand the finest aspirations of humankind.