An oasis to celebrate

Posted: Sep 14, 2006 12:01 AM

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.

Such a magazine can be pompous and esoteric, intellectually arrogant and self-assured when it declaims what it likes (and doesn't like), but this one holds the line on making essential cultural judgments. These are true to Matthew Arnold's definition of the function of criticism, which is "to learn and propagate the best which has been known and thought in the world." Or as Goethe might put it: "To act is so easy; to think is so hard."

We must be vigilant in confronting the newest ideas just because they are untried and untested against evil and stupidity, the lowest of the common denominators of culture. We can't always see the enemy lurking in the ideologies that take over the minds of those who should know better. What the criticism in the New Criterion makes clear is that there is no absolute demarcation between political standards and aesthetic discipline. Sloppy thinking infects both the arts and governance, and high IQs and SAT scores are no guarantee against mediocrity and mendacity.

The cultural heroes of the intellectual left of recent years included Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara and Chairman Mao, whose faces still adorn T-shirts on college campuses. Intellectual luminaries of the Cold War years, including Jean Paul Sartre, Bertolt Brecht, Simone de Beauvoir and Bertrand Russell, socialists all, don't seem quite so luminous today.

"Humankind cannot bear very much reality," wrote T.S. Eliot on founding the first Criterion magazine in 1922, the model and inspiration for the New Criterion, founded in 1982 by Hilton Kramer, who was then chief art critic of The New York Times, and music critic Samuel Lipman. The magazine was founded to confront the dangers inherent in the current academic debates, where issues of race, gender and class dominate aesthetic judgment. The insidious assault on ideas that emanated from the leftward intellectual turns in the '60s marked the birth of the New Criterion, and this leftward intellectual turn continues as a target for essays: "In everything from the writing of textbooks to the reviewing of trade books, from the introduction of kitsch into the museums to the decline of literacy in the schools to the corruption of scholarly research, the effect on the life of culture has been on-going and catastrophic." The New Criterion has exposed the worst of times, but rescued and identified what's best in the creative culture. An anniversary to celebrate.