I Was a Teenage Conservative

The dead end of politics & the possibilities of art

I want to relate my work as the editor of a quarterly journal of literature and the arts to the larger patterns of Catholic civic engagement in America today. The more I think about this, the more convinced I become that the best way to address it is to attempt something of a self-portrait, to describe both the evolution of my ideas and some of the reasons for my conversion to the Catholic church.

I was born with the conservative intellectual movement’s silver spoon in my mouth. As early as the 1950s my father was at the center of the emerging conservative intellectual movement. He worked for a small foundation in a suburb of New York that promoted the virtues of the free market. Bill Buckley came there to discuss the idea of starting up a magazine to be called National Review.

By the time I got to college age it was only natural that I would go to the academic mecca of conservatism in America, Hillsdale College in Michigan. In the late 1970s two great scholars taught there, Russell Kirk and Gerhart Niemeyer. Nearly fifty years after its publication, Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953) remains a brilliant, graceful synthesis of European and American traditionalist ideas from Edmund Burke to T.S. Eliot. Though the movement Kirk helped to launch would degenerate into a large, fractious coalition dominated by Washington-based think tanks, his own thought manifests an amplitude of mind and heart that cannot be reduced to a manifesto. Niemeyer, an émigré political philosopher who had escaped from Nazi Germany, spent his life trying to understand the emergence of modern ideologies. Commuting to Hillsdale from Notre Dame, where he taught for most of his career, Niemeyer would not only guide his students through the philosophies of Plato, Augustine, Rousseau, and Marx, but also through the literary visions of Dostoevsky, Musil, Trilling, and Solzhenitsyn.

After a one-semester flirtation with libertarianism, I quickly apprenticed myself to Kirk and Niemeyer. They established their conservative visions on a rich synthesis of literature, history, philosophy, and theology. In short, they espoused a form of Christian humanism that I found deeply moving. By comparison, the conservative political and economic nostrums touted by others at Hillsdale seemed brittle and thin. They were piping voices compared to the rumbling organ chords of Dante and Aristotle, Aquinas and Newman, whom I was reading with Kirk and Niemeyer.

Even with the help of these two great mentors, I still experienced cognitive dissonance in a variety of forms. This was particularly true when it came to literature and the arts, which I had discovered to be my true passions. In my youthful ardor, I embraced the notion, espoused by many conservatives, that "modernity" was a monolithic, and very bad, thing. In the arts this entailed a repudiation of Modern Art (the words were always capitalized). It was well known that Modern Art was all about chaos and fragmentation, unfettered sexuality, the occult, and so on. It lacked order; it lacked unity; it lacked nobility. So I thought, "I’m a young culture warrior; my mission is to go off and slay the beast of modernity."

I began reading T.S. Eliot with Russell Kirk, and the cognitive dissonances became more pronounced. I gravitated toward Eliot’s conservatism, which he once expressed by declaring himself "a royalist, an Anglo-Catholic, and a classicist." This was a mantra ready-made for me. But the more I read his poetry, the more I found a disparity between his supposed classicism and the messy, fragmented, subjective reality of his poetic language. I learned that Eliot came to regret that profession of his allegiances, and since Eliot was employing the fragmented modernist style that I had believed was part of the problem, further revisions in my thinking were necessary. To paraphrase Hamlet, I gradually saw that what great art does is to hold a mirror up to nature, to reveal the "very age and body of the time his form and pressure." Eliot was seeking to embrace ancient truths, but he did so in the artistic forms of his day. Rather than impose a false classical order over his inner disorder, Eliot worked through his own chaos, shoring up fragments against his ruin.

As I pursued the implications of this line of thought, I looked around to see whether my fellow conservatives were engaging the culture of their own time. I found that they were deeply alienated from the world around them-that they had, in essence, despaired of conserving any cultural legacy. Whether consciously or not, they believed that Western civilization had died at some point in the past (some favored 1300, others 1832 or 1914). With the example of Eliot before me, I couldn’t accept such a position. I began trying to think my way out of it. I also noticed that with despair came rage, which explained why conservatives were always furious: they had no tradition left to conserve. The more I studied literature and the arts, the more I realized that they show us that the world is far more ambiguous than we think. It became more and more difficult for me to reconcile this awareness of ambiguity and complexity with the ideological fervor of the community in which I lived.

I lost the last of my enthusiasm for conservatism soon after graduating from Hillsdale, when I was at National Review in the summer and fall of 1980 during the final run-up to Ronald Reagan’s election. For a time after the election I was caught up in the euphoria, but I was already lost to the conservative movement. A few days after the election, the phones at NR and other conservative organizations began ringing off the hook as people jockeyed for positions in the new administration, including jobs in departments these stalwarts had resolutely pledged to abolish. My euphoria evaporated and was replaced by something closer to moral revulsion.

I went off to Oxford University to study literature and theology. Throughout the evolution of my ideas about politics and culture, I had also been on a spiritual journey. Having moved through several Protestant denominations in my undergraduate years, I had arrived at the threshold of the Catholic church. Catholicism appealed to me because it offered a corrective vision to the individualism, triumphalism, and politicization of the conservative movement. I was drawn by many facets of Catholicism, including its communitarian ethos and sacramental vision. But what ultimately drew me to the church was another facet, one about which too little is spoken. It’s what the great Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called "the tragic sense of life." At the center of this sensibility is a profound awareness of the ambiguities and divisions within the human heart, along with a stress on the importance of suffering and contemplation. I came to understand why Catholics venerate the crucifix, not the empty cross, why they are haunted by the words to Mary that "a sword shall pierce your own soul also." There have been times when critics have confused the tragic sense with mere fatalism, but I suspect that is because Americans still suffer from the illusion that they can escape tragedy and remake themselves in the process. The truth, as I came to see it, is that the tragic sense of life is the ultimate antidote to religious arrogance and sentimentality, as well as to the ideological triumphalisms of the Right and Left.

During my two years in Oxford, I read the leading novelists of what has loosely been called the Catholic Literary Revival: Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. For all their differences of personality, literary style, and politics, every one of these writers explored the tragic dimension of the Catholic worldview. Like T.S. Eliot, these novelists synthesized modern concerns-from existentialism to scientism-with the truths of the ancient faith. Far from causing them to write safe, didactic tales, their Catholicism encouraged them to render in dramatic form the paradoxes of faith for an increasingly secular audience. Their characters-including the country priest and the whisky priest, Charles Ryder and Hazel Motes-learned the painful lesson that happiness and blessedness are not the same thing, that the church calls us to make a choice "costing not less than everything" (Eliot). Where some saw only gloomy, depressing stories, I found liberation. At the end of my time in Oxford, I was received into the church.

A few years later I found a way to live out the best part of my conservative education and address the need for a deeper engagement between religious faith and contemporary culture. In 1989 I launched a quarterly journal of literature and the arts called Image, whose purpose is to feature original creative work that grapples with the Judeo-Christian tradition. The journal is a two-edged sword: a challenge both to the secular critics convinced that religion can no longer inform great art and to those believers who, like my old conservative comrades, are convinced that the Western tradition is dead and buried.

Image is also a response to the hyper-politicization of our social order, a process that has been most visible in the so-called culture wars and the bitter dispute over last fall’s presidential election. There is some debate about just how deep the divisions of the culture wars go, but I think it’s fair to say that, at the level of public discourse, we have witnessed a slide into increasingly shrill, utopian ideological rhetoric on both sides of the aisle. Politics may be a noble calling, but it is always in danger of becoming an end in itself. Political struggles take place over issues that are defined by the underlying culture. And culture, in turn, is nourished by art and religion. With all respect to my elders and betters, I think my generation, which grew up after the ’60s, is less interested in manning the ideological battlements and more interested in cultivating the spiritual and imaginative sources of our common life.

Catholics are playing a central role in a revival of art that grapples with faith. Think of writers like Oscar Hijuelos, Alice McDermott, Ron Hansen, Annie Dillard, Richard Rodriguez, David Plante, Tobias Wolff, Jon Hassler, and poets such as Dana Gioia, Paul Mariani, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and the late Denise Levertov. I take it as a healthy sign that there is no school of Catholic writers, that the group I’ve just listed is marked by a tremendous diversity of styles and sensibilities. We don’t have figures today like Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy who might be capitalized by the critics as Catholic Authors. While we should mourn that to some extent-O’Connor and Percy were profoundly Catholic writers whose works manifested philosophical depth and prophetic wisdom-there are plenty of reasons to celebrate the fact that fewer writers are being pigeon-holed by their denominational allegiances.

Contemporary Catholic writers are in some ways less ambitious than their predecessors earlier in the twentieth century. Today’s Catholic writers are describing more intimate and familiar worlds. Instead of O’Connor’s belief in the need to shout for a hard-of-hearing secular audience, we are more likely to find writers these days choosing to whisper. Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy and Oscar Hijuelos’s Mr. Ives’ Christmas are both portraits of sanctity and suffering, but their take on the "tragic sense of life" is quiet and unassuming when contrasted with the stark, existential dramas of the whisky and country priests. It goes without saying that many contemporary Catholic writers have troubled or anguished relationships with the church. The metaphor of Jacob wrestling the angel is frequently invoked these days. But this still represents a significant shift: there’s less anger, less irony, and less willingness to turn one’s back on the church in the leading Catholic writers today than was the case twenty years ago. If these authors are beset by doubts, they are also less likely to condemn the institutional church out of hand.

If I’ve had a recurring frustration over the years, it’s been the difficulty of getting people to listen to good news. The relentless negativism of the culture wars and the suspicion of imagination that runs deep in our American religious tradition remain potent forces. Despite the aesthetic richness of our tradition, American Catholics are not exempt from these forces. A great deal of education is needed. Seminaries should offer more courses in literature and the arts. The bishops could use a refresher course or two: their responses to controversial works of art like Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ, for example, have been inept. Then there is the waste that comes with political posturing and name-calling. Conservatives routinely deride one of the most cultured and artistically sensitive Catholic bishops, Archbishop Rembert Weakland. Liberals dance around the fact that the giants of twentieth-century Catholic aesthetics, including Jacques Maritain, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Romano Guardini, were not self-styled dissenters from church teaching and authority.

At a time when two of our most precious forms of communication-political discourse and reason itself-have been compromised by the divisiveness of ideology, art is one of the few things that can still bind us together. It should be no surprise that beauty-long vilified as hopelessly bourgeois or subjective by modernists and postmodernists alike-is making a comeback. From scholarly books like Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton University Press) to such films as American Beauty, it is clear that our culture is longing for the liberating and restorative power of creative intuition (to use a phrase of Maritain’s). In her book, Scarry laments the loss of a transcendent ground for beauty in modern thought. "If the metaphysical realm has vanished, one may feel bereft not only because of the giant deficit left by that vacant realm but because the girl, the bird, the vase, the book now seem unable in their solitude to justify or account for the weight of their own beauty. If each calls out for attention that has no destination beyond itself, each seems more self-centered, too fragile to support the gravity of our immense regard." Place this alongside this thought from von Balthasar: "Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past...can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love."

Forbidding as these two quotations may appear at first, I find them liberating. The problem that von Balthasar sets out-the danger of a social order in which truth and goodness are stressed at the expense of beauty-speaks directly to my own struggle to find an integrated vision in a polarized time. Taken together, these two statements suggest not only the enormous challenges facing our politicized society but also the possibility of a theological aesthetic that can heal and unite. The communitarian, sacramental, and tragic dimensions of the Catholic tradition grew out of a faith attuned to beauty. The effort to renew this tradition through literature and the arts shapes my own form of Catholic civic engagement.

This essay is adapted from a talk given for "American Catholics in the Public Square," a project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Published in the 2001-03-09 issue: 
Also by this author
Art Returns to Baghdad

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