Thursday, August 19, 2010

"Variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful"

Russell Kirk was my introduction to political thought. I read and re-read The Conservative Mind and then everything else of his that I could find, including the fiction. One of the highlights of every issue of National Review was his column about educational matters. After a lecture in Janesville, Wisconsin, a friend and I had the opportunity to sit and talk with him. He was gracious and friendly and talked of his upcoming book about T.S. Eliot's work that became Eliot and His Age. An article about him by John J. Miller, originally published in 2007, has been made available online. Some excerpts:
At a time when conservative principles are reshaping American law and culture, it is difficult to imagine that half a century ago, the conservative movement barely existed. Its few adherents struggled against the widespread perception, voiced by 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, that they comprised “the stupid party.” The literary critic Lionel Trilling equated conservative thought to “irritable mental gestures.”

Into this environment stepped Kirk, who claimed that conservatives were the inheritors of a proud tradition whose members included the likes of Edmund Burke, John Adams and Nathaniel Hawthorne. This genealogy was idiosyncratic as well as useful: it presented conservatives with an intellectual pedigree that they sorely needed.

“Before Kirk came along, conservatives didn’t even know what to call themselves,” said Lee Edwards, a historian at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. “After Kirk, they had a name for themselves.”

In The Conservative Mind, Kirk outlined a set of basic principles that defined conservatism, such as belief in a divine moral order, an understanding that private property and political freedom are linked, and a disapproval of radical change. Above all, Kirk insisted on a deep respect for time-tested traditions: “Even the most intelligent of men cannot hope to understand all the secrets of traditional morals and social arrangements; but we may be sure that Providence, acting through the medium of human trial and error, has developed every hoary habit for some important purpose.” He often made this point by stating, simply, “The individual is foolish, the species is wise.” ....

By the time Kirk finished his doctoral studies in Scotland, he concluded that although he might have made a career as a professor, he didn’t want one. Shortly after the release of The Conservative Mind, he informed the administration at Michigan State that he didn’t want to return. He resettled in Mecosta and spent the rest of his days at the old farmstead, a home, barn and assorted outbuildings he called Piety Hill.

Kirk typically woke late, answered correspondence in the afternoon, and worked on his books and articles when the sun went down. He dressed formally, even when he didn’t plan on seeing anybody in particular. .... His jackets were specially tailored to include what he called a “poacher’s pocket” on the inside—a pocket big enough to let him carry a book wherever he went. He also loved to go on long walks, often planting trees in areas that had been clear-cut many years earlier. ....

This night-owl routine produced not only an enormous amount of writing, but also an enormous range of it. In addition to high-minded nonfiction, Kirk published short stories in Fantasy and Science Fiction, London Mystery Magazine and New Terrors. In 1958, T.S. Eliot wrote to him: “How amazingly versatile and prolific you are! Now you have written what I should have least expected of you—ghost stories!” ....

“Mine was not an Enlightened mind,” [Kirk] wrote, “it was a Gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure. I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful.” .... [more]
Kirk once wrote an appreciative review of a book by an author even more important to me: C.S. Lewis's spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy.

Russell Kirk Shaped Conservative Thought from a Northern Michigan Farm - My North - August 2010 - Northern Michigan