Idols of the Century

James Nuechterlein

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 61 (March 1996): 11-12.

Traditionalists find themselves ill at ease-to put it mildly-in today's postmodernist intellectual world, a world whose "animating spirit," as Gertrude Himmelfarb puts it, "is a radical relativism and skepticism that rejects any idea of truth, knowledge, or objectivity" ("The Christian University: A Call to Counterrevolution," FT, January). That unease is hardly misplaced. There is indeed much to be feared from a world in which the only true statement is that there are no true statements.

But cause for concern is not necessarily cause for despair. Traditionalists need to remind themselves that conditions in the intellectual world, as in the culture in general, are almost always in a state of disarray. That is the way of human perversity, a perversity especially characteristic among intellectuals. I can think of no time in this century, with the possible exception of the 1950s, when it was not the predominant view among cultural conservatives that things were in very bad shape indeed (and even the fifties are regarded more fondly in retrospect than they were at the time). For traditionalists, heresy always threatens and more often than not seems in the ascendancy.

It is of course no great consolation in any particular bad time to be reminded that all times are more or less bad. But it does offer useful perspective-especially when one recalls heresies of the century prior to, and considerably more persuasive than, postmodernism.

It was the towering figures of Marx and Freud that dominated much of the intellectual life of this century. Darwin was actually the third of the great modernist triumvirate, but for much of our times his standing, because of the conservative uses to which his theories could be put, has been somewhat ambiguous. (It is significant to note, however, that of the three, he alone today still wields important intellectual influence. One might say, indeed, that modernist intellectuals' effort to rescue naturalism has, in the retreat of Marx and Freud, turned with necessary enthusiasm to Darwin.)

It may be difficult for young people today to appreciate the effort it took for those of earlier generations to escape the shadows of Marx and Freud. My own intellectual generation of the fifties came at the tail end of their dominance. I recall vividly, as a would-be intellectual, wondering how the major thinkers of the twenties through the forties had managed to believe in such improbable things. Yet even as a product of the Cold War fifties and as a Christian of Augustinian persuasion, I found myself having to deal with the residues of ideologies past. Serious people simply had to work their way through Marx and Freud even when, as in my case, the natural instinct was to dismiss them as brilliant cranks.

Freud was particularly influential in literary studies, and I sometimes think that the fading of my early desire to become an English professor came from an overdose of lit crit essays searching out Freudian imagery everywhere in the canon. (Once you're on the lookout for phallic symbols, it's pretty hard not to find them.) The Freudian insistence on infantile sexuality as the key to human development never made sense to me, and I could not for a moment make myself pretend I thought it true or even plausible. Freudianism provided undoubted insights, but as a system it seemed reductionistic in method, meager in evidence, and circular in logic. (Though I should add that when, years later, I finally got around to reading Civilization and Its Discontents, I found it more impressive than anything I had earlier encountered in the Freudian corpus.)

As my interests shifted to American history and political thought, it was Marx with whom I had to come to terms. There weren't, of course, many self-confessed Marxists on the American intellectual scene during the 1950s, but I was struck by how influential they had been in the previous decades. Marxism was everywhere in the interwar years, sometimes in dogmatic form, more often in a generalized emphasis on class or group warfare that became a commonplace of historical analysis. Charles Beard's widely influential progressive school of American historiography depended heavily on Marxian ways of thinking. Even so committed an anti-Communist (and non-Marxist) as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. took class conflict as self-evident, and in The Vital Center (1949) and elsewhere he depicted the central theme of American politics as the struggle for power between the business community and all other social groups.

And of course Marxian analysis took on renewed life-if, most often, in crudely vulgar forms-in the various liberationist struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, most notably in the anti-Vietnam War movement. It was not until the revolution of 1989 and beyond that Marxism went into intellectual eclipse. Its emotional hold on the left has been such that even now one cannot be sure that it will not revive-indeed, the likelihood is that, after a prudent interval, it will.

Freud and Marx were moderns, not postmoderns. They were not skeptics as to the existence of a real order of things; both thought of themselves as scientists who had uncovered hitherto hidden laws of the universe. It was in fact their appeal to scientific standing that solidified their stature in an age sunk in scientistic superstition.

Not that the popularity of their ideas rested on science alone. Both men were, even as putative scientists, founders of secular religions. The appeal of neither can be understood outside the context of the waning of traditional religious belief among intellectuals. Marxism especially commanded allegiance because of its combination of presumed scientific authority with deep ethical commitment. It was the perfect religion for an intellectual age that assumed it had outgrown God and yet needed an outlet for the moral passions roused by Judaism and Christianity.

We have at last outgrown those who had outgrown God (though in our present state of intellectual confusion that by no means guarantees a return to orthodox belief). We can only wonder at the credulity of all those intellectuals who staked so much on so little evidence. It is ironic that people for whom the evidence of things unseen was presumably not to be credited were themselves beguiled by chimeras. My late- adolescent instincts were right: it takes an intellectual to believe the truly improbable.

How find comfort in so sorry a tale? Simply by recalling that yesterday's heresies, for all their weaknesses, were intellectually more interesting and compelling than today's. Marxism and Freudianism were both built on dubious premises, but those premises once accepted, each had a certain elegance and could be elaborated in sophisticated ways. Postmodernism, by contrast, is neither interesting nor compelling. It is the natural mind-set of sophomores. Having armed ourselves against theories that explain all reality, we are unlikely to be seduced by the theory that there is no reality to be explained. Postmodernism, however cleverly explicated, simply lacks enough substance to hold one's attention for very long. It is an argument that, except in the negative, has no argument to make.

The lesson for traditionalists? In the weakness of our enemies is our strength.