A few essays have taken their place in the great tradition as masterpieces of intellectual demolition. Among such classics stands Samuel Johnson’s Review of Soame Jenyns’ A Free Enquiry Into the Nature and Origin of Evil. Jenyns’s “glib optimism” in the face of human suffering (as Walter Jackson Bate called it), and his complacency over the problem that suffering poses to religious belief, struck a nerve. If Johnson knew anything from his own painful experience and deep reflection, he knew that an irreducible element of tragedy inhered in our lives.
Hugh Kenner’s learned essay reviewing John Harrison’s book The Reactionaries follows in Johnson’s footsteps. Kenner’s essay provides the best modern example I know of anger provoking genius into a review that stands on its own as a masterpiece. Kenner was the foremost expositor of literary modernism. In a 1967 book, the forgotten critical mediocrity John Harrison had brought Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Pound, Eliot and Lawrence before the bar of brain-dead left-wing judgment and found them all wanting on political grounds. In his review of Harrison’s book (“The Sleep Machine,” collected in William Buckley’s anthology Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?), Kenner noted that it had been a critical hit among the tastemakers despite Harrison’s utter cluelessness regarding the authors under discussion.
Kenner was not amused. “This fatuity, this ignorance, this silliness, this stark insensibility,” he wrote in his review, “none of it would be worth five minutes’ attention but for the highly symptomatic fact that reviewers paid it no heed at all in their headlong endorsement of Mr. Harrison’s attitudes.” Kenner is sorely missed as the Harrisononian symptoms have developed into the cancer that permeates our culture.
As Johnson did to Jenyns, as Kenner did to Harrison, Heather Mac Donald now does to Yale President Peter Salovey in her City Journal essay “The true purpose of the university.” In this essay Mac Donald addresses the “highly symptomatic” piffle of Yale President Peter Salovey. Mac Donald first sketches the farce at Yale:
Of all the Black Lives Matter–inspired protests that were sweeping campuses at that moment, Yale’s shrieking-girl episode was the most grotesque. In reaction, Yale groveled. President Salovey sent around a campus-wide letter declaring that he had never been as “simultaneously moved, challenged, and encouraged by our community—and all the promise it embodies—as in the past two weeks.” He proclaimed the need to work “toward a better, more diverse, and more inclusive Yale”—implying that Yale was not “inclusive” —and thanked students for offering him “the opportunity to listen to and learn from you.” That the shrieking girl had refused to listen to her college master—or to give him an opportunity to speak—was never mentioned; she suffered no known repercussions for her outrageous incivility. Salovey went on to pledge a reinforced “commitment to a campus where hatred and discrimination have no place,” implying that hatred and discrimination currently did have a place at Yale. Salovey announced that the entire administration, including faculty chairs and deans, would receive training on how to combat racism at Yale and reiterated a promise to dump another $50 million into Yale’s already all-consuming diversity efforts.
From the farce at Yale Mac Donald moves on to a general critique of the childish ignorance Salovey defends and perpetuates. She writes, for example:
If ever there were a narrative worthy of being subjected to “stubborn skepticism,” in Salovey’s words, the claim that Yale was the home of “hatred and discrimination” is it. There is not a single faculty member or administrator at Yale (or any other American college) who does not want minority students to succeed. Yale has been obsessed with what the academy calls “diversity,” trying to admit and hire as many “underrepresented minorities” as it possibly can without totally eviscerating academic standards. There has never been a more tolerant social environment in human history than Yale (and every other American college)—at least if you don’t challenge the reigning political orthodoxies. Any Yale student who thinks himself victimized by the institution is in the throes of a terrible delusion, unable to understand his supreme good fortune in ending up at one of the most august and richly endowed universities in the world.
Read the whole thing here. It is highly recommended, if not an instant classic.