The Life of the Mind - An interview with cultural
critic Roger Kimball
Carl E. Olson
Kimball is Managing Editor of
New Criterion, a monthly review of the arts and intellectual life,
and an art critic for the
he will take on the added duties of co-editor and publisher of The
He is a frequent contributor to many publications here and in England,
including The New Criterion, The Times Literary Supplement, Modern
Painters, Literary Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Public Interest,
Commentary, The Spectator, The New York Times Book Review, The Sunday
Telegraph, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, National Review,
and The National Interest.
Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, recently interviewed Kimball
and spoke with him about the current state of culture, the place of the
arts, the dangers of deconstructionism and other academic fads, and the
necessity of religion for the survival of culture.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Your books have addressed topics including art criticism
(Art's Prospect), criticism of art criticism (Rape of the Masters),
higher education (Tenured Radicals), cultural revolution/cultural
history (The Long March), postmodernism (Experiments Against
Reality), and intellectual history (Lives of the Mind). Your
work reflects the expertise and knowledge of a specialist, but would it
be correct to describe it as multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary in
character? Has this interdisciplinary approach been part of a conscious
project on your part, or does it simply reflect the vital interconnectedness
of disciplines (art criticism, literary criticism, philosophy, sociology,
education, etc.) that is increasingly rare in an age of hyper-specialization?
Roger Kimball: That is an interesting question, or rather set of
questions. You are right that ours is an age in which academic life is
often described as increasingly specialized. And yet I suspect that only
certain disciplines are accurately so described. The natural sciences,
certainly, have become more and more specialized. As our knowledge of
the natural world has exploded, so too it has become increasingly finely
focussed, with the result that scientists tend, in their professional
lives as scientists, to know more and more about increasingly narrow slices
of a subject.
In the humanities, by contrast, what we see is a sort of parody of this
process. You hear talk of increasing specialization in literature, history,
or philosophy. But what this turns out to mean in most cases is increasing
irrelevance and fatuousness. This is partly because the humanities, in
a vain effort to ape the sciences, pretend to a knowledge which does not
pertain to humanistic inquiry. The sciences tell us what the world is
like. The humanities educate the emotions and, in a sense, tell us what
we, homo sapiens, are like. You certainly do find people who know
and immense amount about the first book of The Fairie Queen (say) but
who otherwise seem deaf to the life of literature, art, philosophy, and
history. You also find self-consciously "inter-disciplinary" projects
that turn out to be not aspects of the humanities but aspects of the nihilistic
anti-humanism that has insinuated itself so disastrously into cultural
Take a look at the "humanities institutes" that have sprouted at so many
colleges and universities today. They're typically two parts Derrida,
Foucault, and deconstruction, five parts queer studies, and eight parts
feminism, post-colonial studies, and general purpose political posturing.
They are, in short, utterly inimical to the humanities as traditionally
conceived. Such anti-intellectual intellectualism is described as "specialized"
by those outside the academy mostly because they find its language unintelligible.
Being of charitable disposition, they conclude that what they do not understand
must be too deep for common intelligence. In fact, much of what passes
for humanistic research and scholarship today is not only not deep, it
is not even superficial: it is merely politically motivated verbal static,
a ghastly sort of impersonation of intellectual activity.
As for my own work, there is nothing especially ambitious about it. Like
many people interested in cultural life, I have devoted a fair amount
of time to reading philosophy and literature, looking at art, pondering
the fate of universities and other institutions charged with nurturing
cultural life. It is natural, I believe, that such interests would result
in work that embraces this plurality of subjects.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In the 1980s you were a graduate student at Yale
working on a dissertation. But you didn't finish the dissertation, stating
in an interview that once you started writing for magazines such as The
New Criterion you found yourself "drifting further and further away from
the culture of academia." How did that drift take place and how has it
been reflected in your books and essays? Put another way, how did you
become a cultural critic?
Kimball: Well, when the time came to leave New Haven I had to decide
whether I want to take an academic position in some (as it seemed to me)
far-flung and desolate outpost or whether I might be better off pursuing
my intellectual interests as a freelance writer. I decided to chance the
latter. Already it had become clear to me that the nature of my interests
in the humanities made me an odd figure in the academy. I found that writing
for The New Criterion, The American Scholar (which was then edited by
Joseph Epstein), Commentary, and other such publications was refreshing
and every bit as intellectually challenging as more strictly academic
writing. I fully intended to finish that dissertation, by the way, and
I still regret not doing soone should, I believe, complete what
one begins. As for how I became a cultural critic, the answer is simple:
I started writing cultural criticism! In many ways, it was an accidentI
kept writing about what interested me, and what interested me happened
to fall under the rubric of cultural criticism.
It was not purely an accident, though. For I did receive some crucial
guidance early on from Hilton Kramer, the founding editor of The New
Criterion. He saw, in a way that I didn't, what I was up to, and he
did a great deal to nudge my writing in the direction that it eventually
took. Hilton is an editor in the old sense. That is, he is not simply
someone who fiddles with one's prose to make it clearer and more polished:
he is really a teacher and forger of talent operating under a different
license. He has helped many, many people find their own voice and intellectual
direction. I am lucky to be among that number.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You are the managing editor of The New Critierion,
which takes its name from The Criterion, edited by T.S. Eliot. For those
readers who have never read The New Criterion, how would you describe
its contents and focus?
Kimball: Of course it pains me to think that there might be some
of your readers who are unacquainted with The New Criterion. Can
it really be? Well, the world is full of deprivations. Fortunately, this
is one deficiency that is easily remedied. Any such unfortunate souls
should start by going to www.newcriterion.com and then, after having seen
what they have been missing, clicking on button that says subscribe!
But back to Eliot, The Criterion, and The New Criterion.
Eliot once defined the task of criticism as "the elucidation of works
of art and the correction of taste." That is a pretty fair summary of
what we at The New Criterion are up to as well. Like Eliot, we aim to
provide an engaging and independent look at cultural life. By "engaging"
I mean lively and well-written, by "independent" I mean not beholden to
the reigning academic and politically correct orthodoxies.
Like the original Criterion, The New Criterion
is modernist in its cultural stance and conservative in its politics.
By "modernist," incidentally, I do not mean to suggest allegiance to any
particular school or style but rather to suggest a seriousness about the
aesthetic and moral responsibilities of criticism. There really is no
other magazine like The New Criterionnone that I know, anywaynone
that offers the sort of serious reflection on the monuments of past cultural
achievement together with amusing and percipient criticism of contemporary
culture. I want to underscore the word "amusing." The New Criterion is
undoubtedly a serious magazine. But it is the opposite of somber. Our
writers address themselves to their subjects with dash and briotake,
for example, Mark Steyn, our theater critic. I cannot think of a funnier
drama critic going (though Mark is much more than a drama critic). Nor
can I think of one who is more insightful. As Horace urges, Mark delights
as well as instructs. It is a model all of us at the magazine aspire to
IgnatiusInsight.com: In what way are the arts a gauge of cultural health?
What does today's "fine" art and "progressive" literature tell us about
culture in the West?
Kimball: I believe that the arts provide a good barometer of cultural
health. They reflect the fears, obsessions, aspirations, and ambitions
of a culture. It tells us a great deal, I think, that terms like "transgressive"
and "challenging" have emerged as among the highest words of praise in
the critical lexicon. It tells us, among other things, that much art today
is less affirmative than corrosive, that it places itself in an adversarial
attitude toward the traditional moral, aesthetic, and cultural ambitions
of our culture.
We are living in a post-Romanic moment, a moment when we still go through
the motions of investing the arts with great existential importance (that's
the Romantic part) but find to our chagrin that the spiritual aspirations
that might have informed and guided our artistic endeavors have turned
rancid (the "post-" part). That, anyway, goes a long way toward describing
the dominant "establishment" culture. Here and there, one finds dissenting
figures and institutionsThe New Criterion is one suchwhose
commitment is not to what is new but what is true, figures and institutions
that look upon tradition not as a crippling but an enabling resource,
who understand that beauty and pleasure are essential parts of the life
of art. In the introduction to my book Art's Prospect, I noted
What established taste makers now herald as cutting-edge turns out
time and again to be a stale remainder of past impotence. It is one
of history's ironies that Romantic fervor regularly declines into antic
murmurs. Most of the really invigorating action in the art world today
is a quiet affair. It takes place not at Tate Modern or the Museum of
Modern Art, not in the Chelsea or TriBeCa galleries, but off to one
side, out of the limelight. It tends to involve not the latest thing,
but permanent things. Permanent things can be new; they can be old;
but their relevance is measured not by the buzz they create but by silences
One of the most important tasks for criticism today, I think, is to recover
those silenceswhich means also recovering a nose for the permanent,
a sense of the unfailing pertinence of our cultural inheritance.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You've written much about deconstructionism and
its high priests, especially Jacques Derrida and Michael Foucault. What
is current state of deconstructionism in the academic world? Is its influence
waning at all? What affect has deconstructionism had on popular culture
over the past few decades?
Kimball: You often hear that the influence of deconstruction and
kindred intellectual maladies is waning, that they have been replaced by
newer, more minatory, more politically engaged deformationspostcolonial
studies, for example, or transgender studies. It is true that one does not
hear the term "deconstruction" as much now as one once did. And it is also
true that the names "Derrida" and "Foucault" do not automatically produce
frissons of awe and reverence among the constitutionally credulous.
There are two reasons for this. The encouraging reason is that there has
grown up a small but vigorous culture of dissent in the academy: there are
vocal alternatives to, and criticisms of, the deconstructivist brotherhood
now. The discouraging reason is that the academic circus has simply moved
on to fresh novelties and modes of obfuscation. Butand this is the
important point to bear in mindin moving on this circus has not necessarily
moved forward. The rhetoric of deconstruction is not so widely adverted
to today as it once was. But that is not because its tenets are no longer
embraced but rather because they have become so familiar that they no longer
seem shocking. The nihilistic assumptions of deconstruction have not been
jettisoned, they have been internalized: more and more they are simply taken
for granted as part of the accepted and expected intellectual furniture
of the time. In this sense, deconstruction is a bit like psychoanalysis.
People no longer hold the theories of Freud in much reverence. But the whole
picture of human reality we take for granted still owes an immense amount
to the Freudian model. As a culture, we haven't so much gotten beyond Freud
as we have adopted him and his view of man. Freudianism, like deconstruction,
is just part of the ambient spiritual pollution we live with: no longer
novel but still toxic.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Three thinkers who make regular appearances in your
books and essays are Hegel, Descartes, and Nietzsche. How would you summarize
the work and ongoing influencefor good or illof those three
Kimball: That is a big question!Too big for this space. Let
me just say that their influence is large and ongoing. The modern scientific-rationalistic
shape of culture is unthinkable without Descartes (his boast that his method
would render man "the master and possessor of nature" is something we are
stillnow more than everconjuring with). Hegel's dialectic and
view of history may be nonsense but they have affectedor infectedmany,
many thinkers from Marx on down. And these thinkers, in turn, have helped
to create the modern world: for better or worse (doubtless for better and
worse). And of course Nietzsche with his proclamation of "the death of God,"
his "perspectivism," and his ambition to effect a "transvaluation of all
values" is the contemporary philosopher par excellence. For a fuller answer
to this question, I direct you to what I have to say about Descartes, Hegel,
and Nietzsche in Experiments Against Reality and Lives of the
IgnatiusInsight.com: In The Long March you wrote that perhaps
the greatest victory for the radicals of the 1960s "was to popularize the
idea that everything ispoliticala conviction that eats away
at the very heart of classical liberalism." In what concrete ways has this
mentality changed America over the past forty years? How can it be best
challenged and combated?
Kimball: The most flagrant example is the university, an institution
that was entrusted with the task of preserving and transmitting what Matthew
Arnold called "the best that has been thought and said" but that since the
1960s has become a refuge for radical political activism. In my book Tenured
Radicals, I noted that
With a few notable exceptions, our most prestigious liberal arts
colleges and universities have installed the entire radical menu at
the center of their humanities curriculum at both the undergraduate
and the graduate levels. Every special interestwomen's studies,
black studies, gay studies, and the likeand every modish interpretative
gambitdeconstruction, post-structuralism, new historicism, and
other postmodernist varieties of what the literary critic Frederick
Crews aptly dubbed "Left Eclecticism"has found a welcome roost
in the academy, while the traditional curriculum and modes of intellectual
inquiry are excoriated as sexist, racist, or just plain reactionary.
The issue, it is worth stressing, is not the orientation of the politicsLeft
vs. Rightit is rather the politicization of intellectual life tout
court. That is, the task is not to replace or balance the left-wing orientation
of academic life with a right-wing ideology but rather to de-politicize
academic, i.e., to champion intellectual, not political, standards.
How to do this? Well, it is not the work of a moment but a task for a generation.
And what it requires above all is couragethe moral courage to take
unpopular stands, to call a spade a spade, to buck the received politically
correct wisdom that reigns in the academy in other bastions of elite opinion.
The chief weapons are unceasing criticism and a certain rhetorical insouciance:
the willingness to ridicule the ridiculous and satirize the preposterous.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You've written admiring essays and chapters about
Catholics and Anglo-Catholics such as T.S. Eliot, Muriel Spark, and Josef
Pieper. But your own religious views don't often come into focus, which
is somewhat surprising considering how openly and strongly you express your
views on a host of other topics. What role does religious belief have in
the formation of your views about culture, tradition, and the intellectual
life? What role should Christianity, specifically, have in the restoration
of healthy culture, respect for tradition, and appropriation of "the permanent
Kimball: Well, I was brought up and remain Roman Catholic. I even
survived a Jesuit high school with my beliefs intact. If I had to describe
my general philosophical orientation, I suppose I would say I am an "Aristotelean
Thomist." And I have no doubt that my religious convictions have been essential
in the formation of my view about culture. High culture is a great and humanizing
resourceand it is, moreover, a resource that is everywhere imperiled
today. The problem is not just around us: it is potentially within us as
well. As Evelyn Waugh noted, "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. Once the prisons of
the mind have been opened, the orgy is on."
In one sense, the barbarism that Waugh descried is a perennial threat. What
is new is its celebration as a form of welcome liberation. We live at a
moment when philosophers routinely espouse the nihilistic absurdities of
deconstruction and eagerly proclaim the "end of man," when all manner of
obscenity is aired on television and championed by those charged with preserving
our cultural and intellectual heritage. Part of the task of The New Criterion
is to dramatize and resist that degradation. And yet culture is not the
whole answer. In one of his essays on humanism, T. S. Eliot observed that
when we "boil down Horace, the Elgin Marbles, St. Francis and Goethe" the
result will be "pretty thin soup." "Culture," he concluded, "is not enough,
even though nothing is enough without culture." What else is there? Religion,
or at least some acknowledgement that the ultimate source of our moral vocation
transcends our mundane interventions. Eliot put it neatly: "Either everything
in man can be traced as a development from below, or something must come
from above. There is no avoiding that dilemma: you must be either a naturalist
or a supernaturalist."
It says a lot that Eliot's articulation of this core belief of traditional
conservatism is deeply controverted today, even by many conservatives. The
depth of that controversy is perhaps an index of our confusion. Dostoyevsky
once claimed that if God does not exist then everything is permitted. Considerable
ingenuity has gone into proving Dostoyevsky wrong. To date, though, the
record would seem to support him.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Who are some writers and thinkers that you believe
deserve a much wider audience, especially for readers seeking to make sense
of the cultural malaise of 21st-century America?
Kimball: Let me name two: James Fitzjames Stephen, whose book Liberty
Equality Fraternity is a devastating attack on John Stuart Mill's On
Liberty, which in my opinion is one of the most toxic books of political
philosophy ever written. And the Australian philosopher David Stove, whose
attacks on irrationality in the philosophy of science and Darwinismas
well as his occasional essays on various cultural topicsdeserve a
much wider audience. A few years ago, I put together an anthology of Stove's
the Idols of the Age and more recently Andrew Irvine has gathered
together Stove's writings on various political subjects in a volume called
IgnatiusInsight.com: What are some issues you hope to address in future
books? Are you currently working on any book projects?
Kimball: A paperback edition, with a new preface, of my book The
Rape of the Masters will be out in September. I am just now working
on a book about retaking the universities. I hope to finish that this autumn.