This article was originally published in the symposium”What’s Worth Conserving?” by the John Jay Institute.
More than halfway through The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis’ classic allegory of one soul’s journey into purgatory, we meet an unhappy ghost sporting an ugly lizard on his shoulder. The lizard represents the ghost’s festering sins and is preventing him from mounting the steep path to Heaven. An angel offers to kill the lizard, and then insists upon it, but the ghost initially demurs. He has grown attached to his sin, hateful but protective of it. The angel finally must act violently in order to kill the wretched creature.
The position of most conservatives these days resembles that of the reticent ghost. We have grown comfortable with the many and varied sins of our culture, clinging to them for dear life. It is almost exclusively from conservatives that we hear rigorous and endless denunciations of “the culture”—of relativism, nihilism, nominalism, emotivism, progressivism, individualism, secularism, historicism, transhumanism, materialism, and the other horrible “–isms” that we are told plague us at every turn.
But this mentality is precisely the lizard that whispers in the ears of conservatives today, tempting us to comfortable categories of good and evil. Too many conservatives rely uncritically on stale labels in order to help make sense of a complicated world, and have little patience for arguments that so much as whiff of ideological impurity.
What is needed is not another cantankerous jeremiad but a creative and unafraid reckoning with the world as it is; conservatives must once again become capable of making culture in a world that is as messy, complex, and disorienting as any that has ever existed.
Of course, the tendency to label is not unique to conservatives. The left’s intolerance is becoming codified in law and social norms and for that reason is more dangerous. But the right, largely fixated on maintaining purity in the face of liberal predations, has not become the creative minority it must in order to engage our cultural situation. Instead, conservatives are stuck trading in outmoded currencies of the Culture War, talking unconvincingly about ‘reclaiming the culture’ or else retreating altogether. Such an attitude eventually ossifies into complacency (even if that complacency takes the form of constant indignation).
Creative culture is a useful metric in gauging the state of a culture. The sort of art, architecture, and literature, for instance, that a society manages to produce are generally representative indicators of how well it honors certain fundamental truths about man, God, and the world. Historically, the Christian cultures of Western Europe have outperformed many others—from the genius of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to the Baroque grandeur of St. Peter’s to the intimate profundity of Hamlet, “Western Civ.” is outstanding for its cultural achievements–an imperfect legacy as all are, but worth building upon. Taken together its various treasures represent a vast reservoir of humane wisdom practically unique in history; creative feats like these are not only evidence but also the driving engine of a civilization worth conserving.
We in America are heirs to that great cultural heritage. Especially during that period of time between the late 19th and early 20th centuries labeled the American Renaissance, we have historically honored that bequest with our own high culture worthy of the name: symphonies have thrived, art museums have ennobled the masses, ambitious and truly beautiful buildings adorn our best cities, and American scribes like Hawthorne and Dickinson have earned places in the cannon. But what now? Very little creative output of the kind that sustains and improves a society seems to be coming from either right or left (though for different reasons)—where are the great artists, the noble buildings, the enlightened poets? Conservatives should be better at this sort of creativity, since we claim to best understand and cherish our cultural heritage, but crass pessimism convinces many on the right that art and culture are enemy territory. We seem stuck—a culture not so much thriving as simply subsisting.
Every war has casualties, and a generation of humane artists has been caught in the crossfire of our Culture War. Meanwhile, the benefit of the War for conservatives remains far from clear, but we continue to insist upon fighting it. Wars destroy—what we need to do now is to create, to build up the culture with Beauty that speaks to Truth. And it is not enough simply to preserve the achievements of the past, though sadly this has become the conservative default position. We must once again exert ourselves in the hard work of making culture, for the legacy we wish to preserve is a creative one.
Our modern age presents new and exciting opportunities for this endeavor.
Movies and serial TV shows, for instance, can be exceptionally powerful vehicles for storytellers to reach millions in ways never before thought possible, providing rich opportunities to ponder weighty questions of justice, truth, and conversion. The widespread availability of music sharing technologies makes it possible for a twelve year old in rural Oklahoma to hear symphonies and operas once confined to the concert halls of Vienna. And it is easier than ever before to put good literature in the hands of anyone with eyes to read. In other words, for the sake of culture, we should stop hating our own status as moderns and instead marshal the impressive resources at our disposal to the service of great art. Great art, inasmuch as it speaks to the truth of the human soul and orients us towards the transcendent, will in turn create better citizens who will practice more constructive politics.
We conservatives must kill the lizard on our shoulder that is telling us to take no prisoners in the Culture War while simultaneously counseling pretentious passivity when it comes to actually building culture. These temptations are a quick path to cultural suicide. What we ought to conserve is that precious and delicate spark of dynamism and creativity that we can then fan into the flame of civilized, vibrant culture.
Travis LaCouter is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross. He lives in Washington, D.C.