We find ourselves at a crossroads. If civilization is to survive, we must choose manliness, fertility, and, most of all, opera, over the forces of the satanic Left—those gender-confused, child-hating, art-ignorant people who call themselves “progressives.”
That chest-pounding crossroads business is the cri de cœur of The Fiery Angel by the novelist, music critic, and Time magazine veteran Michael Walsh, a follow-up to Walsh’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West. The latter was a best-seller in 2016 and received broad and high praise (“important,” “erudite,” “dazzling”) from conservative opinion leaders and outlets. This review will cover both The Fiery Angel and The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. Bottom line: They’re better read less as books, and more as a thermometer.
These two feverish volumes proceed according to a formula. First, Walsh will sketch an opera or other literary or artistic work. Then, instead of interpreting it, he will move incongruously into polemics against feminists, homosexuals, political correctness, progressives, or Islam.
Two examples should suffice.
A chapter of The Fiery Angel on “Beauty and the Beast” ranges over a variegated terrain, quoting the Aeneid and The Arabian Nights, attacking feminists who “rage against Mother Nature, and Nature’s God,” and defending the “essential, unique, and historically validated attributes of femininity.” After some plot summary, Walsh offers the following gem in lieu of substantial textual analysis: “In its prolonged siege of Western civilization, the satanic Left always prefers to wield the weapons of ugliness against beauty, going so far as to deny the very possibility of happiness, ever-after or otherwise. It prizes debunking, demystifying, de-mythologizing; it insists all saints have feet of clay, and that beneath the virginal white of Belle’s costume throbs the cunt of a trollop.” (Help Wanted: A feisty conservative woman to show Walsh where he could stick a dash.)
After directing further invective at Nazis, communists, “sexual dysfunction and transgressivism,” and Islam, Walsh ends the chapter extolling the power that “Real Woman” has over the proper manly man of the West.
He begins another chapter with a few pages on zombie movies before gossiping about Lord Byron and summarizing the history of the vampire legend. At the close of the chapter, Walsh presents some history on the West’s struggle with Islam and then concludes: “Like the vampire, Islam keeps coming back, as do all the enemies of the West and its civilization. . . . ‘Take us away from all this death,’ we cry, and then offer our necks, because the teeth are so inviting, and because the evil, like Satan, falls so fast and yet takes so long.”
In these chapters, Walsh has identified two important issues we face: the cultural instability arising from reconfigured sex roles, and the advent of radical Islam. The first is a challenge, the second a threat, and we must think them through in order to conserve and augment the goods of our civilization. Very little evidence has been offered. No argument has been presented. Nothing has been learned. The author merely pronounces our struggle “the latest front in an ancient war” between good and evil. Rather than providing insight into the challenges we face, he winds us up with Braveheart-style exhortations: “Will we repel the invaders, organize sorties, ride out and crush them—or warily open the gates to the citadel and await the inevitable slaughter?” The style here is polemical—the rhetoric of battle, directed toward those already enlisted and, perhaps, already suited-up for combat.
Who Is Walsh’s Enemy? What Is His Casus Belli?
The enemy is Satan, whose current incarnation is the “unholy Left.” Once or twice, Walsh tries to clarify that by “the satanic Left” he means not “garden-variety ‘liberals’” but “the hard Left.” Yet he wields a shotgun, not a rifle—hitting all manner of liberal and even mainstream ideas in addition to extreme movements, shifting his target breezily from women in the work force, sexual liberty, and families not rooted in genetic relation, to political correctness, communism, National Socialism. Though the announced theme of both books is the Frankfurt School of cultural Marxism, Walsh does not waste time explaining that school or its connection to “the threat.” It is easier, apparently, to just keep reiterating that Western civilization is at stake: “Here lies the threat: Wave after wave of what I dub ‘satanic’ leftism—in the sense that Satan cannot create but only destroy—has gradually eroded and undermined our own belief in ourselves.”
The interesting question is, what do we believe in when we believe in “ourselves”—that is, in Walsh’s West? His explicit answer is the “Ur-Narrative” of the hero who fights against evil: “The Heroic Narrative is the source of Western strength, pride, and accomplishment.” This involves, he says, a belief in Good and Evil as dual metaphysical principles structuring all of human existence. If this sounds Manichaean, that’s because it is. Walsh repeatedly condemns compromise: “Compromise, even in the smallest things, leads to synthesis, and there can be no synthesis between Good and Evil.”
Only a childish view of heroism excludes prudence.
In any case, the Ur-Narrative cannot be what is at stake, since, as Walsh admits occasionally, the unholy Left also believes in the Ur-Narrative—only with reversed hero and villain roles—and also rejects compromise as cowardice. When he avers, “both sides are Manichaean in their outlook,” we recognize that what he is offering isn’t so much an alternative to leftism as a mirror image of it: think of his ideology as a leftism for curmudgeonly contrarians.
Believing in the West would mean a return to “the fundamental principles of Western civilization,” which are defined for Walsh by what the satanic Left hates: manliness, the family, fertility, sexual morality, Christianity, and patriotism.
The author’s theory seems to be that sometime after 1945, the satanic Left—led by the Frankfurt School, followed by feminists, gay rights activists, atheists, and other relativists—tricked the country into rejecting the verities of Western civilization. And the results are in: “What the West has experienced since the end of the Second World War has been the erection of a modern Devil’s Pleasure Palace” that “sounds very much like Heaven” with its “creature comforts” and its promises of justice and equality. “Instead,” Walsh asserts, “this world has become Hell.”
The Manichean Heresy
Before settling into conservatism, I was a teenage culture warrior. A grown man, Walsh claims to be a conservative, even a “conservator.” That’s nonsensical given that he thinks the contemporary world is hell. In fact, we live in a time and place with challenges and faults and dangers, but also with innumerable, incredible benefits. Viewed historically, the relative political stability, economic prosperity, and liberty enjoyed imperfectly but deeply and widely by people in the West should make us marvel, not to mention the privileges we enjoy in technology, medicine, food supply, and sanitation. And—thanks to the market—many of these benefits are spreading more widely in and outside of the West.
These are fragile, hard-won accomplishments demanding our honest and humble gratitude. Anyone who doesn’t feel that cannot be a conservative. Just as one must recognize what is imperfect in order to improve, one must recognize both what is good and what is delicate in order to conserve. Not Walsh. Rather than seeing benefits, imperfections, and dangers when he looks at our world, he sees Evil with a capital “e.”
Perhaps Walsh, a self-identified Catholic, doesn’t know that Manichaeism is a heresy. While for the Manichee, the world we see is evil, according to Genesis 1, God creates the world and sees that it is good.
Manichaeism is a perennial and equal-opportunity heresy. Variants of it resurface in every age (Paulicians, Bogomils, Cathars, Albegensians, Puritans), and tinges of it are pretty common. Thus Martin Luther sounds pretty Walsh-like, writing, in 1523, that “The devil has taken complete possession of the universities.” The key is a dualism that condemns this world—especially the flesh and one’s adversaries—as evil.
“Satan” is the word for “enemy” or “adversary” in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the story as developed by Christian tradition, “the satan” comes to name the fallen angel Lucifer, the light-bearer, who rebels against God. A Manichaean overlay then makes Satan/Lucifer pure evil—a superstition that cannot fit into Biblical metaphysics or Christian doctrine. (Thus Thomas Aquinas claims that the demons experience sorrow at their punishment, as a sign of the intrinsic goodness of their nature.) It is a further mistake—one of pride—to confuse one’s opponents with God’s by dismissing them as controlled by a Manichaean Devil.
The books thus suffer from two related theological problems. First, when Walsh characterizes his enemies as satanic for rebelling against Western civilization, he implicitly casts his imagined version of Western civilization as divine, when it isn’t. Second, Manichean dualism isn’t true.
The brutal fact is that our political adversaries disagree with us, but they aren’t seething with hatred for God or civilization. They may, or may not, be wrong in all manner of ways, but they are, mostly, not evil. This is a dangerous mistake on Walsh’s part: by denying that our adversaries participate in incarnate logos, we undermine our own logos; we lunge headlong into fisticuffs instead of sharing in the life of reason. The West is stronger for being a dynamic tradition open to self-criticism.
Walsh’s books participate in a millennia-old tradition—occurring on both the Left and the Right—of the jeremiad according to which others’ moral corruption threatens to bring catastrophe and destruction upon us all. Conservatism, in contrast, is supposed to be the politics of prudence and discernment.
No doubt some of our fellow citizens on the radical Left do hate America and Western civilization. No doubt, so do some on the Right. Walsh claims that leftists have only “the patriotism of the America of the Future”—their imagined future. Walsh prefers a patriotism of the America of the past—the past as he imagines it to have been. Patriotism in the present is a harder task, since the faults of the past and the future can be more easily imagined away. A reason that discerns the imperfect perfections of our present doesn’t lend itself to Manichaeism or jeremiads.
Walsh insists that it isn’t the text, but the subtext, that conveys a writer’s or an artist’s meaning. So perhaps it is by design that he barely addresses his announced topic—how the Frankfurt school has undermined our civilization—and fails to analyze seriously any of the artworks or important subjects his books breeze through. If “the context and subtext contain the real message,” what is the real message of The Fiery Angel and The Devil’s Pleasure Palace? The list of people to complain about includes, as I said, immigrants, Muslims, Nazis, and communists; but let us now zero in on the most-complained-about. The books recur most frequently to feminism, sex, and sex-roles.
Christianity elevated women to be “equal partners with men,” writes Walsh, but he adds: “not ‘equal’ in the sense demanded today.” According to him, “It is not true, as contemporary ‘feminists’ and cultural Marxists like to argue, that women were of a status inferior” before feminism. Rather, “A far more important equality [than political equality] already exists—one dictated by a Supreme Being and not the Supreme Court.”
The author extols the sexual superiority of a beautiful woman as “She Who Must Be Obeyed,” adding passing compliments to “The Eternal Feminine,” such as: “Japanese women are among the most sexually alluring on earth.” While thus admitting that women are his spiritual equals and sexual superiors, Walsh ridicules the idea that women might be treated as equal agents in the political, economic, intellectual, or domestic realms. “The famous ‘labor-saving’ devices advertised as the housewife’s best friends in the 1950s,” he writes, “merely displaced women enough so that, after a brief period of putting their feet up before hubby and the kids came home, they were in the official labor force two decades later. The results, for whatever personal satisfaction some women may have gained by emulating men, were an effective halving of the family’s per-capita income.”
To want evidence for this claim misses the point. Subtextually, Walsh incessantly circles around masculinity, femininity, and sex roles. And his militaristic rhetoric may be a natural response to feeling attacked on that score.
He writes that feminists “now seek to destroy their primary biological target: men,” and also that they want to “emasculate and feminize males and turn women into ersatz men.” He comments on the “radical lesbians and ‘transgender’ advocates whose bitterness toward both God and Nature is manifest.” According to him, feminists are “enraged by the fact that women are not men.” This fits with his satanic rebellion theme: “their argument all along has been with God.” One wonders, on the contrary, whether it is Walsh, and not God, who feels threatened by “rebellious” arguments for female equality in public and domestic life.
So often does he complain about the “increasingly deracinated ‘feminist’ harpies whose anti-male rhetoric bespeaks not so much impotent rage as sexual jealousy” that one starts to think, The lady doth protest too much. The rhetoric is cartoonishly typical of men who are insecure in their masculinity.
This reading would make sense of Walsh’s derision toward less manly men—the “metrosexual” and the “beta-male.” After the 1960s, he says, “balls were out, pussies were in.” To disagree with him implies a testicular failure. Thus the Ur-Narrative. By envisioning himself warring, culturally, alongside Saint Michael the Archangel against Satan, the opera-lover proves his masculinity with his ideology. Just as the books’ erudition is for-display-only (without citations or analysis), so is Walsh’s armchair machismo: “Warriors do not seek to understand the motivations of their enemies or to treat them with ‘respect.’ They kill them, and they keep on killing them until those enemies either are all dead or cannot fight anymore.” It would be trendy to label this “toxic masculinity” or “hyper-masculinity,” as though masculinity were the problem. It is, instead, faux masculinity.
I would suggest, contrarily and Socratically, that the deepest courage—real manliness—is found not in violence but in following the logos and facing the truth about oneself.
But Satan has stolen Walsh’s culture. He feels dispossessed. He’s a marginalized, macho, anti-modern, militaristic Manichee, riled up by the West’s sexual decadence and women’s equality. Yet he accuses the Left of making common cause with Islamist jihadism. Conservatives should not laugh off Walsh’s fiery rhetoric as mere rhetoric. He’s playing with fire. We should hope no one takes him seriously.
Not Walsh, but his success, should be noticed. These two books are finding legions of readers. Rather than logrolling, we should criticize our own when criticism is merited. It has been said, “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” If these books were used diagnostically, they would indicate that conservatism today is weak.