Notes & Comments September 2012
The fourth decade
With this issue, The New Criterion embarks upon its fourth decade of publication. In our special thirtieth-anniversary issue a year ago, and again in “Thoughts on 30” this past June, we cast a retrospective glance back to the origins and early years of the surprising literary-cultural experiment that is The New Criterion.
New readers, we’ve found, regularly experience that frisson of astonishment when they first encounter The New Criterion. The surprise is enduring. The great Renaissance churchman and philosopher Nicholas of Cusa wrote extensively about “the coincidence of opposites.” Cusa was writing about a species of mystical insight in which the conundrums of the infinite weigh upon the quotidian machinations of human understanding. The New Criterion rarely trespasses into such heady theological purlieus, but there is no doubt that from the beginning the magazine made its mark at least in part because it, too, regularly exhibited qualities that, in contemporary cultural life, were rarely found together. One way of expressing that anomaly—a locution that our founding editor Hilton Kramer favored—was to say that The New Criterion was “modernist in its aesthetics and conservative in its politics.” Some people of modest acquaintance with cultural history regarded the conjunction of “modernism” and “conservatism” as puzzling; some of our classically oriented friends raised an eyebrow at the term “modernist,” regarding it narrowly as an allegiance to a certain style of (transgressive) art rather than (as Hilton understood the term) as a certain disabused seriousness about the whole realm of cultural endeavor.
Another way of framing the oddity of The New Criterion is in relation to the academy. The New Criterion, like T. S. Eliot’s Criterion, which in many ways served as its inspiration, has always been regarded as a highbrow publication. A look at the contents of this issue shows why. Solzhenitsyn (actually, two Solzhenitsyns), Montaigne and Weber and Madison, the playwright Horton Foote, Homer, and a spate of more contemporary writers and artists: The New Criterion devotes itself to the Arnoldian side of culture, to those aspects that address (or conspicuously fail to address) the pressure of serious human aspiration. Serious, not academic. One of the great impetuses to create The New Criterion was the wholesale abandonment of that humanizing devotion to the vocation of culture in our colleges and universities, which more and more, in the liberal arts, have declined into hermetic irrelevance or febrile political posturing. We like to observe that, where a year’s tuition, room, and board at an elite college will set you back more than $50,000 (more than $60,000 in many instances), a pretty impressive education by reading The New Criterion can be had for three zeros fewer, less than $50 per annum.
In any event, as we enter upon our fourth decade, we would like to reaffirm our commitment to providing the “dissenting critical voice” we announced in our first issue. A lot has change since 1982, but the parade of cultural folly has not vanished, nor has the requirement of reanimating the past to nourish the present been replaced. The New Criterion is just as anomalous today as it was thirty years ago, and we intend to keep it that way.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 1, on page 1
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