The Sword of Imagination (Russell Kirk)

Kirk, Russell.  The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995.

This is an unusual memoir, as Russell Kirk narrates his intellectual life in the third person.  It is a fascinating account of the intellectual currents that would later merge into post-WWII conservatism (which is to be distinguished from the banal variety today).   True conservatism means the defense of Permanent Things.  Modern day conservatism is simply libertarianism that is too scared to go all the way.

Kirk does a great job describing his studies at St Andrews, Scotland.  No doubt it provided fodder for his ghost stories.  He also shows the big difference between real scholars and American university guns for hire.  

“The St Andrews scholars of that generation were truly learned men who reda, who thought, who were civilization incarnate…Kirk reflected that some of his American professorial colleagues had no books in their homes except free copies of textbooks” (88).

Following Kirk, we should understand our goal for society should be something like a “mannered aristocracy.” In one devastating but undeveloped remark, Kirk notes that “Many Americans labor under the illusion that they exist in a classless society–and are startled if informed that the classless society was the goal of Karl Marx” (110).  Kirk should have drawn the logical conclusion: if you don’t believe in some form of aristocracy and cultured nobility, you are at root an egalitarian.

Kirk gives us a neat overview of the beginning of modern American conservatism overlapping with the Eisenhower generation.  As he was always wont to point out, conservatism is the negation of ideology. It does not negate, however, conservative impulses (143).

“If Communism is the inversion of Christianity, [then] Ayn Rand, reacting against practical communism, negated the negation” (144).

Among his more interesting acquaintances was the Archduke Otto von Hapsburg of the old imperial dynasty. Archduke Otto’s family can best summarize the goal of conservatism and why it should never be identified with small-govt American conservatism.  “When Theodore Roosevelt inquired of Franz Joseph how he saw his imperial place in modern times, the Emperor answered, “To protect my people from the government” (208). That’s monarchy in a nutshell.  We are too much infected with the Whig notion of progress to really understand this. As a general rule, monarchs saw themselves as last-stand efforts to save the people from monied interests (or in our times, technological experts).  No monarch ever dreamed of the power over a people that Anthony Fauci has.

As with many of the older books by Eerdmans, this is bound with chains of iron.  The spine of the book will never crack.  Unfortunately, you might get carpal tunnel syndrome from reading it.  


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