Remembrance of Things Past
November 3, 2008
So I know that by now, it’s beating a long-dead horse to say that after tomorrow, American conservatism needs a long, hard re-think about — well, everything pretty much. While I’m certainly not the one to ask where it should start, I do think that William Brafford has been doing some wonderful and doubting thinking lately. He writes:
“And now there’s this strange split where young movement conservatives read a whole roster of reactive writers without engaging the very serious thinkers against whom their heroes were reacting.
I’ve not done much better myself, but at least I know something of what I need to learn.”
I don’t know how much the lack of engagement with opposing views is particular to conservatism more than intellectual life in general (take, for example, the class I had where my professor assigned us a short essay analyzing a series of papers he’d assigned, none of which, we didn’t yet know, he agreed with; when the majority wrote papers supporting what we thought was his view, we got a fifteen minute lecture on thinking critically and the purpose of education. But I digress). William’s last paragraph, however, is key. Not to get too Socratic (the man was a pain in the ass and smelled funny, too), but before we get anywhere of value, I think a lot of conservatives are going to need to find themselves in an aporia-like state.
A week ago, he wrote:
“Conservatism, broadly construed, is dedicated to a certain kind of story about our political life, just as the liberalism is dedicated to its own story. . . .
“So what do you do when the genre turns ugly? You don’t stay silent; you tell a better story. You take the various codes and tropes, and you learn how to make them compelling again.”
Which, as he notes, meshes well with Pound by way of Austin Bramwell: “Make it new!”
This is not a statement conservatives need to be wary of. What makes the Odyssey great, Pound wrote, is that it is “news that stays news.” Each generation can find something of relevance in it to its own time–Indeed, the poet says so much in his opening invocation of the Muse, “Speak to us in our turn.” This, in part, is what Pound means.
Pound and his contemporaries were, as Guy Davenport argued, conservative artists–they looked to the past for inspiration and style, throwing away what they viewed as stale contemporary forms:
“[W]hat has been most modern in our time was what was most archaic, and that the impulse to recover beginnings and primal energies grew out of a feeling that man in his alienation was drifting tragically away from what he had first made as poetry and design and as an understanding of the world.” [“The Symbol of the Archaic”]
When, after this election, we seek to “make it new,” a major part of what we’ll be doing is re-engaging and recovering our sense of the past. It may well be that in thought, as well as in art, the best way to “make it new” is to look at what we’ve forgotten at least as much as what we’ve yet to discover.