Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, by Anthony Esolen (Regnery, 203 pp., $27.99)
Reading Anthony Esolen’s bright new book, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, in which the acerbic Catholic gadfly suggests remedies for the legion ills besetting our often depraved culture, I was reminded of a famous essay by another gadfly, H.L. Mencken, “The Libido for the Ugly” (1926), in which the editor of The Smart Set described taking the train through Western Pennsylvania and marveling at “the unbroken and agonizing ugliness, the sheer revolting monstrousness, of every house in sight . . . churches, stores, warehouses, and the like.” For Mencken, “they were downright startling; one blinked before them as one blinks before a man with his face shot away. It was as if all the more advanced Expressionist architects of Berlin had been got drunk on Schnapps, and put to matching aberrations.” And his conclusion could not have been more provocative: “Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States. Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty as it hates truth. The etiology of this madness deserves a great deal more study than it has got.”
In many ways, Esolen’s book can be seen as a response to Mencken, a meditation on why beauty and truth are such inseparable mates—or contrariwise, why falsehood always begets ugliness. Certainly, Esolen’s concern for the absence of beauty in our culture has all of Mencken’s passionate solicitude. “Our young people are not only starved for nature,” he writes. “They are starved for beauty. Everywhere they turn, their eyes fall upon what is drab or garish.” Their schools, their music, their dress, their fast-food restaurants are unlovely. Indeed, even their churches are ugly. To gauge the quality of Esolen’s appreciation for what this means in cultural terms, we can turn to his description of Chartres Cathedral. “Chartres,” he says, “is a magnificent symphony of countless works of sculpture, glazing, tiling, carpentry, masonry—and poetry and theology too.” And, for Esolen, a professor of English at Providence College, all this inspired, painstaking, beautiful craftsmanship defines the people who at once commissioned, made, and delighted in it: “If you went to the Great Exposition [in Paris, in 1900], you might suppose that the most important thing is to make machines that turn things . . . If you went to Chartres, you would not need to suppose, you would simply and readily perceive that the most important thing was to sing with the Psalmist, ‘I rejoiced when I heard them say, Let us go up to the house of the Lord.’”
For Esolen, the “house of the Lord” is the one place above all others where truth is at home. He believes this because he believes in what the bishops of Nicaea set out in the fourth century in the Nicene Creed. In contrast with it, he sets out the beliefs promulgated by the twenty-first century state.
“Family structure does not matter.” “Sex is biological, but gender is social.” “The feminist movement is about equal opportunities for women.” “The Indians were peace-loving people, close to nature, and benevolent to everyone.” “The world is now warmer than it has ever been, and we are all going to fry like eggs on a skillet unless we cede control over all actions that use up energy”—which is to say, all human actions whatever—“to a centralized world bureaucracy.” “Religion is the cause of all wars.”
If what we believe defines our culture, no one can be surprised that a people who put faith in such propositions find themselves incapable of art, religion, music, literature, rigorous science, or other works of lasting cultural value. One reason Chartres is so beautiful is that it was designed and built, like so many of the great cathedrals of Europe and America, to honor Mary, who inspired a great deal of Western art. What ideal of womanhood would feminists put in her place? Here, Esolen is blistering:
If we are to believe the women’s magazines on sale at groceries and drug stores, a woman is obsessed with her body, eager to learn new sex tricks, always on the watch for dirty revelations about pop-culture celebrities, prone to consulting horoscopes, ready to shell out a lot of money for new fashions . . . and firmly committed to “women’s health,” which depends on contraceptives and abortions and everything else that is meant not to restore healthy function to a diseased organ but to thwart the natural action of a healthy one.
If some readers find such writing insufficiently nuanced, they will find a good deal of the book exasperating, for Esolen is not big on nuance. “Keep it always in mind,” Esolen says, in his best foursquare manner:
The world hates the family. The state is the family’s enemy. The state grows by the family’s failure and the state has an interest in persuading people that the family can do nothing on its own. It hates fatherhood, and makes little pretense otherwise. It hates motherhood, though it makes a show of championing the unwed mother as well as the mother, who, as the ugly phrase puts it, “has it all,” though a moment’s reflection should suffice to show that no one can give his or her career to a career and a family and the local community.
Culture is defined by what we believe but also by what we say. “All life,” Henry James believed, “comes back to the question of our speech, the medium through which we communicate with each other, for all life comes back to the question of our relations with each other.” James remains our greatest novelist, and he foresaw the degradation of speech that now pervades our culture. He saw it in the irresistible rise of newspapers. He saw it in the banality of the Anglo-American stage. He saw it in what he called “the abyss of human illusion that [is] the real, the tideless deep.” And he realized how consequential such threats to the vitality of speech are precisely because he realized that all “our relations are made possible, are registered, are verily constituted, by our speech, and are successful . . . in proportion as our speech is worthy of its great human and social function; is developed, delicate, flexible, rich.” And for James, it followed that speech’s “quality its authenticity, its security are hence supremely important . . . for the dignity and integrity of our existence.”
Yet Esolen rightly sees what the aesthete in James misses—that before our speech can be “developed, delicate, flexible, rich,” it must first be true. And here is where the social prophet in the author comes to the fore. “We have no choice now,” he tells his readers bluntly, “but to live in a world whose governments and most successful businesses are mills for the mass production of deceit.” George Orwell could not have put the matter more precisely, but it is what Esolen exhorts his readers to do in response that sets him apart: “We must not only refuse to give credit to the lie. We—and our children—must refuse to utter the lie, or to use its language.”
The language of deceit is ubiquitous in the pages of the elite press, in billboards and advertisements, in doctor’s offices, libraries, and museums, on television, radio, and the Internet, in schools—and in churches. To measure just how false and dehumanizing this language of deceit is, Esolen gives an example that comes naturally to an author who lives and works along the seacoasts of New England.
When the fishermen on an old schooner set down for the night, they did not talk about democracy, diversity, equality, inclusivity, and the rest of the nonsense. They talked about their work: the sea, good spots for cod or halibut, the ropes, the bad food, sails that needed repair, what ports they had visited, and what they saw and did there. They talked about home, their children, the woman waiting for one of them in Saint John’s, various misadventures with the police. They talked about human things . . . If one of them did launch into political cant, he’d be roared down by the others or have a shot of whisky splashed in his face.
The moral of this instructive contrast could not be more applicable to our own predicament: “You have to be educated into cant; it is a kind of stupidity that surpasses the capacity of unaided Nature to confer.” And this cant results naturally from a school system devoted to indoctrination. “There are only two things wrong with our schools,” Esolen writes. “Everything that our children do not learn there and everything they do.”
Although his judgments are withering, Esolen remains hopeful. He resembles a man who has awakened from a long, paralyzing nightmare and finds, despite his demons, that good things still lie within his grasp. “I see boys and girls teasing one another merrily,” he writes, “which they can do in full confidence, because innocence protects them from intending or supposing evil, and they grow up like olive shoots in a garden, straight and strong.” It is no accident that children figure so prominently in Esolen’s hope for the future. For him, they are heralds of renewal made possible only by the family, for whose blessings Esolen proves himself an admirable advocate:
I hear men praising the beauty of and the wise ways of their wives, and women praising the courage and the intelligence of their husbands. I see boys and girls walking hand in hand again, and I see the cheeks of a lad flush with confusion and happiness when the girl he likes lets him walk her home. These are not sentimentalities. They are the great and real things, no less real for having been for so long denied, despised, and forgotten.
All Americans of good faith should read and ponder Esolen’s eloquent, incisive, combative book before sallying forth to reclaim not only our culture but also our lost content.
Photo by David Merrett