The Admirable Criterion
A new collection of Roger Kimball’s literary and cultural criticism places him in the exalted company of Augustine Birrell and Walter Bagehot
There is a second-hand bookshop in Shrewsbury on whose fourth floor moulder-or used to moulder, until I bought them-volumes of essays by such as Walter Bagehot, Augustine Birrell, Leslie Stephen and Solomon Eagle (J.C. Squire). I don’t suppose many people read them any more, but they ought to do so, both for their content and style. None of these men was an academic, and all would have disdained to write a sentence which it was necessary to read a dozen times to perceive a faint glimmer of meaning, as so many literary academics now habitually do with pride in their own obscurity; they had the knack of extracting the significance from the lives and works of the authors whom they read, and conveying it with elegance and precision. They were also very funny; I had rather supposed that Bagehot in particular was dour, dry and dull, as befits the founder of the Economist, until I read his wonderful literary criticism.
It seems to me that Roger Kimball is of this exalted company. He is, like them, a man of parts: the editor of a distinguished cultural review that has just celebrated its 30th anniversary (the New Criterion), and that exerts an influence far beyond its faithful and discriminating subscribers; he runs a publishing house and blogs for PJ Media. Yet he also writes elegant essays of literary and cultural criticism, of which this book is a further collection (he has published several others), which show broad interests, wide reading and deep understanding. He examines everything from a definite but not rigid philosophical standpoint; this enables him to discuss a wide range of topics, from John Buchan to an exhibition of architectural drawings by two contrasting contemporary architects, from G.K. Chesterton to an art museum at Bard College, without the reader feeling that he has a mere New Criterion miscellany in his hand.
Kimball’s viewpoint-which I freely admit is mine-is that there are constants in human existence which it is vain and indeed dangerous to deny, and that the task of culture is to examine the present with an eye to the eternal. Good cultural criticism, therefore, will remain of interest and value long after it was written, and I suspect that in a hundred years or more Kimball will unexpectedly delight someone as much as Bagehot or Birrell have delighted me.
He writes with clarity and wit, which perhaps explains his turning away from the academic life in the humanities to which, at a different time, he might have seemed suited; for example he writes of the supposed age of information in which we live, “Data, data everywhere, but no one knows a thing.” This is a characteristically witty but also highly suggestive formulation, for it reminds readers of the necessity for a framework into which factual knowledge can be put, of the vital need for intellectual and moral perspective, and so forth. One of the aims of culture is, or ought to be, to provide such a framework and perspective, which is why easy resort to an iPhone is no substitute for a deeply-ingrained apprehension that the Roman Empire came before the French Revolution, Exodus before the Rolling Stones, and that the past may illuminate the present as much as the present illuminates itself.
The extraction of the significance of authors or artists is a more intellectually exacting and worthwhile task than recording everything known or knowable about them, which is the favoured method of all too many biographers who seem to believe that all facts are created equal. Kimball performs the task with Somerset Maugham’s trinity of the virtues of good prose: simplicity, lucidity and euphony.