The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk by Gerald J. Russello
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Burnt Norton
Russell Kirk was a Michigan writer who, along with William Buckley, is largely responsible for the rise of modern American conservatism. The 1953 publication of his seminal study, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana, established him as an iconic figure, revered across the broad spectrum of conservatism, from the beloved paleos to the dreamy-eyed Wilsonian neo-conservatives. Kirk was a traditionalist neo-Burkean, whose thought appealed to orthodox Jewish and Christian conservatives, agrarians-Southern or otherwise, and “anti-egalitarians.” Yet, this odd coalition, joining with the “dollar conservatives” of the Republican Party in a tenuous union, was able by the 1980’s to politically displace a moribund liberalism long in the embrace of neo-Marxism.
Kirk was a political theorist whose work exhibits a mastery of comparative knowledge necessary to examine the structure of reality while avoiding the numerous pitfalls established by the Enlightenment project. Dr. Kirk understood that the deformation of modern philosophy was caused by the rise of rationalism in extremis, that man was more than weights and measures, that he was a creature rooted in Aristotelian common sense, who sought the “divine ground of being.” In his The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk, Gerald J. Russello examines Kirk’s efforts at reconstructing and restoring the order of political reality by differentiating the idea of “sentiments through an imaginative rendering of history…”
Russello is the editor of The University Bookman, a Kirk founded publication, and a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University. He is also the editor of Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson. Russello renders Kirk, the man and thinker, in terms that transcend the usual biographies explaining that the fruit of Kirk’s philosophical and political inquiries lay in his famous and quite flexible “six canons,” first described in The Conservative Mind; in the idea of “place,” a counterpoise to modernity’s “rootlessness,” where Russello explains, “The emotional and imaginative resources people invest in places are important components of individual and social self-identity and, therefore, a source of loyalty and affection. These places are usually, but need not be, physical places…;” in the concept of sentiments -- “a moving conviction; by a conviction derived from some other source than pure reason” -- a concept, he argues, appropriated by postmodern thinkers; and in the signal importance of “imagination” as a counterpoise to modernity’s “ideology.”
It should be noted that the concept of “place,” its importance and function within the therapy of order, has in recent years, been brilliantly and extensively examined by such novelists, social critics, and philosophers as Roger Scruton, Bill Kauffman, and Wendell Berry.
Russello illustrates Kirk’s interpretation of “imagination,” as a “measure to counteract the modern libido dominandi (the lust for power),” allowing man to express his past and provide a nexus between individuals while initiating “sentiments, loyalties, and ideas that are usually considered opposed.” Imagination has several facets including the: historical, political, moral, poetic, and prophetic. And Kirk added two more located at opposite ends of human consciousness: the idyllic imagination and the diabolical imagination, where the former represents the Gnostic-utopian myth, and the latter the cultural dominance of rationalism-materialism.
It is the rationalists destruction of the concept of the moral imagination that, Edmund Burke quite accurately said has resulted in Western man being disconnected “from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist worlds of madness, discord, vice, confusion and unavailing sorrow.”
It is within the context of the moral imagination that Kirk outlined the recovery, for the moral imagination engaged experience, “even terror and pain,” Russello writes, “as a means to deeper understanding.” Perhaps, here Russello does not go far enough because it is by the action of the moral imagination that man moves in the tension of order and disorder toward the concrete human being, a person able to engage in noetic dialogue, the art of philosophizing.
The moral imagination triggers the act of pneumatic differentiation where man recognizes “the distinction between the radically transcendent God and the created realm or world.” It allows the growth and development of consciousness, initiates the theophanic event that enables man to enter the metaxy -- the in-between -- where he exists in his fullness in his questing for the nature of his existential being within the truth of reality. It is the key ingredient in man’s relentless search for truth, without which man may gain knowledge, but not wisdom, peace, or salvation.
Russello argues that “The heritage Kirk adopted from Burke, Eliot, and Babbitt provides the language with which to discuss the relationship between conservatism and postmodernism. The imagination is the intersection between the two schools of thought.” We will consider the use of the word “language” shortly, but first a critique of Russello’s use of the word “school.”
The question is, is conservatism a philosophical school?
Since the time of the Enlightenment project, the word “school” in philosophical terms conjures the image of the egomaniacal philosopher/theorist who opines that his work is the final answer, then refuses the question; August Comte and Karl Marx come to mind. Historically, the various “schools” spawned by the Enlightenment project have resulted, in many instances, in what Eric Voegelin referred to as, “The restrictive deformation of existence…” The “problem” with the word, school, is that it is representative of the derailment of philosophy inherent in modernity; it misdirects and confuses the inquirer and can lead to false interpretations.
Which leads to Russello’s use of the word “language.” Here the careful reader must be cognizant of the problem of the “destruction of language,” in terms of literature, philosophy, and even theology. We live in an age where the “public” language has fallen victim to pernicious philosophies that have succeeded in divorcing thought from the “reality of the tension toward the ground.” Western man has obliterated the transcendent pole of the philosophical tension, which in turn has resulted in “ersatz” beings with suicidal tendencies. And, it is this loss of the transcendent pole that now obscures the language of truth in the darkness of diabolical deceit.
Russello has predicated his thesis on the idea of language as the nexus between Kirk’s conservatism and postmodernism. It is a significant challenge the author has taken on given the current intellectual milieu. However, by choosing Kirk’s thought as one pole in the tension of inquiry he has succeeded admirably in providing an alternative to this age of disorder. “Beginning with The Conservative Mind,” Russello writes, “Kirk made a respect for the mystery a cornerstone of the conservative temperament. There is the mystery of free will, of individual choice, of divine Providence, and of the creation and sustaining of tradition. These mysteries have been addressed throughout human history, not through science or discussion, but through myth and story.” Here, in the proverbial nutshell, Russello has succeeded brilliantly in capturing Russell Kirk in his questing for the right order of the soul and his faithful adherence not only to the Judeo-Greek-Christian metanarrative but also to his perfervid resistance to modernity’s suicidal inclination to escape history (gnosticism), the devaluation of language, and its morbid faith in scientism.
By citing a number of excellent sources the author explicates Kirk’s desire “to recover coherence in these ‘radically disjunctive times.’” Russello then makes the cogent and defining point that Kirk is misunderstood by both his critics and admirers, persuasively deflecting the often-heard criticism that he was either a nostalgic or a reactionary. Kirk was the mystic philosopher in search of “other instruments or methods” to recover a conservatism-a way of life-that had suffered much as the hands of the Enlightenment project.
In describing Kirk’s historical “style” as “historical imagination,” the author explains that he was able to “examine historical circumstances to separate ephemera from lasting conditions, to find answers to present problems in the past, and to provide a counterweight to two dangers: a narrow provincialism and a preoccupation with novelty, which Kirk thought a dangerous modern temptation.” Russello argues that there are similarities in Kirk’s historical perspective and that of the postmodern historians; one element being that both shared an “antipathy” toward the conceptualization of “objective facts” and, the second being modernity’s erroneous adherence to the idea of linearity in the historical process.
But the modern and postmodern historian shares an adamantine denial of the transcendent historical reality. Kirk, however, rightly understood that human consciousness transcended a history “completely contained within nature or immanence,” and he examined Anglo-American figures, perhaps, with the intention of finding those examples where men experienced the pneumatic “irruption” that led to the insight that constituted a “meaningful history.” Consequently, as Russello illustrates, Kirk’s forte was the narrative form which is best suited to explicate these historical insights. One example is Kirk’s study, John Randolph of Roanoke, which examines the life of a brilliant and flawed intellect who in the throes of chronic depression (or worse) nonetheless resisted any effort to deform the essential character of federalism.
Russello provides another example in quoting Kirk from his Roots of American Order where he entwines the “patrimony traced in this book:” from the Hebrews dwelling under God’s law, to Greek philosophy and Roman law, through Christian redemption to medieval learning and chivalry, and from the British religious wars to American federalism. Kirk knew that the process of history was as Eric Voegelin wrote, “a mystery in process of revelation…” and that “The theophanic events do not occur in history; they constitute history together with its meaning.” Consequently, Kirk’s questing for the historical truth in reality is a search within his own consciousness for the pneumatic irruption that reveal “man’s participation in a flux of divine presence that has eschatological direction.”
Russello writes that “Kirk’s conception of history is not complete” which he follows with an in-depth and accurate analysis of Kirk’s alleged “murkiness” regarding the relationship between history and tradition.
The problem with Kirk’s “murkiness” may center on the unsuccessful efforts of historians to develop the “structure of history” with its primary constituent being the theophanic events that are the “source of meaning.” These events constitute a duality inclusive of history and tradition, where both elements develop not in a linear milieu but rather along a matrix where the historical analyst is required to “move backward and forward and sideways, in order to follow empirically the patterns of meaning as they revealed themselves.”
The second problem is related to the question of communication. History and tradition are joined cheek-to-jowl and conveyed not only by the written word but by oral expression, symbol, and image, all of which function consciously within the tension between the poles of immanent world-reality and the divine beyond. But, the question is, is the written and oral expression, the image, or the symbol the best or only methods of accessing a historical consciousness that is drawn toward the divine?
Here, Russello’s apt description of the current era as “the Age of Sentiments” comes into play. Then we might ask, what of sentiments, intuition, the “mystical meditation on history,” and other instruments that we have failed to name or symbolize yet “know” when experienced in the metaxy (the in-between)? At this point Russello’s suggestion that Kirk’s thought may affect the postmodern mind takes flesh. The author points out that Postmodernism’s stinging rebuke of the Enlightenment project with its eradication of the divine, proclivity for centralized government, and deformation of language has revealed a philosophical failure that has wrecked Western culture, leaving us exposed to our enemies.
In critiquing postmodernism Russello writes, “Because there is no agreed-upon standard of truth postmodernism transforms counterarguments into mere ‘juxtapositions’ of their own, with neither really able to defeat the other or even shed light on the controversy at hand.” Postmodern thinking has an absurdity about it; it is a philosophy of “nothingness,” and in the end is doomed, even in the present culture of nothingness.
Russello posits a “capturing” of postmodernism by an intuitive philosophical turning back to the “epochal feat of the philosophers,” to an understanding that the quest represents “the source of order and disorder in existence, with the exploration of its structure, and the creation of a language that will express the discovery.” Here, Russello proffers the Kirkean synthesis with its adherence to the Judeo-Greek-Christian meta-narrative, his careful search for the historical symbols and images that aid in reconstructing a new era of Aristotelian “common sense” in the dysfunctional “stop-history” present, and, finally, in his reverential love of God.
Russello’s book is a brilliantly rendered exegetical disquisition of the life, thought, and oeuvre of America’s foremost conservative thinker. It is a book that is incisive, insightful, and sensitive of the obligation to present Kirk both in the noetic and pneumatic (reason and revelation) elements while maintaining a critical objectivity of his analysis. It is a book that calls out for dialogue, discussion, and debate.
Russello’s book implicitly illustrates that we have reached a point in this era of “liquid modernity” where the old demons are passing away. The order of being is now challenged by a parousiastic gnosticism more powerful and threatening then Nietzsche’s Superman or Marx’s Soviet Man. This entity is the fruition of the “collectivist-corporatist” ideological deformation, a being fully immanent, soulless, anesthetized by media, and motivated only by pleasure. Perhaps, we might call him “global-man,” the egophanic triumph, the eschaton.