The Conservative Imagination: Orthodoxy and Popular Culture

Russell Kirk spoke often of imagination, specifically the “moral imagination”. It was, in his eyes, perhaps the keystone of a conservative mind. He defined “moral imagination” as,

a man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely from day to day, or rather from moment to moment, as dogs do. It is a strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only—of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest.

The phrase originated with Burke, who saw in the Revolution a fundamental challenge to this foundation of civilization:

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

The moral imagination is also echoed in Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s emphatic statement that “the issue is between man created in the image of God and the termite in a human guise”. It is what allows us to recognize that we are created in God’s image and understand natural law, to ascend from primitive barbarity into civilized beauty; it is that sliver of divinity within us that is our best defense from surrendering to our capacity for Evil.

Russell Kirk recognized an inherent connection between the moral imagination and imagination of another sort. He saw it at work in the creative imaginations of some of the greatest writers and artists in history. I believe, and I’m sure Kirk would agree, that the greatest vehicle for fostering the moral imagination in the West has been orthodox Christianity, specifically the Catholic Church and, to an extent, High Anglicanism in England. I believe this is evident not only in high culture (e.g. roughly all western European painting, sculpture, architecture, and music from roughly the 9th through the 19th century), but also in low – specifically in the pop culture of the second half of the twentieth century.

While the link between orthodoxy and much of the great classic literature of the twentieth century is obvious – the works of T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, J.R.R. Tolkien spring immediately to mind – many are somewhat puzzlingly bewildered to know that Jack Kerouac was a Catholic. While often thought of as a left-wing figure, much of Kerouac’s work arguably reflects a traditionalist disillusionment with modern, materialist society.

The connection between an orthodox moral imagination and creative imagination doesn’t stop with literature. Master of darkness on film, Alfred Hitchcock, was also a Catholic. It should not surprise anyone that Catholics are so good at depicting evil (after all, The Church has been at the forefront of fighting the forces of Darkness in the world). It’s certainly true in music, as in film; Ozzy Osbourne and Toni Iommi of Black Sabbath were both raised in Catholic households (Slayer’s Tom Araya is also a Catholic who attends Mass regularly).

Perhaps the last place one would look for signs of the moral imagination is in modern art, but hero of popular art of the 20th century, Andy Warhol, was a Byzantine Catholic. While he certainly benefited from the modern art culture, his personal statements indicate a contempt for what art had become; his life’s work was satirizing that world, his art’s popularity and praise the punchline.

In every major artistic field of the second half of the twetnieth century, some of the most influential and leading figures have been Catholic. Warhol poked fun at the absurdity of the modern art world. Kerouac captured modern man’s spiritual emptiness, while Hitchcock revealed his capacity for evil. Black Sabbath made music that reflected and warned of both.

While their work was frequently seen by so-called conservatives as a threat to bourgeois, capitalist society, their critiques of society lay not in any marxist notions of class struggle or leftist ideas of revolution, but in an inherent reactionary, even traditionalist objection to the atomized, de-spiritualized, hedonistically materialist mess of modernity.

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