Of all Russell Kirk’s books, Enemies of the Permanent Things has the oddest history. Its origins were in the Darcy Lectures that Kirk delivered at Alabama College in 1958. Over the eleven years until its final publication, it evolved significantly, reflecting the evolution of Kirk’s own ideas, especially regarding T.S. Eliot. First appearing in print in 1969, it originally came out from Arlington House, a press Kirk did not much like, but one he had come to like much better than the Henry Regnery Company. Despite their extremely profitable alliance in the 1950s, he and Henry Regnery had had a falling out in the late 1950s for a number of reasons, and they would not heal that relationship for nearly twenty more years. Even when they worked together again in 1978, Kirk would never again feel completely comfortable with Regnery’s business practices or his views of the world.
Enemies had also almost appeared much earlier under different titles—such as Fulminations of a Nocturnal Bookman—from an even less reputable publishing house, Candlelight Press, which really died from its inaugural day. Kirk had tried to publish both The Intemperate Professor (1965) and Enemies with Regnery, but Regnery had rejected each on the grounds that what he really wanted was a sequel to The Conservative Mind, not another collection of essays, loosely tied together. As far as Regnery was concerned, by 1959 or so, Kirk had foolishly withdrawn from the most important “conversation”—regarding the meaning of conservatism—with his own forays into fiction, literary criticism, and his reliance on short pieces appearing in periodicals such as National Review. Regnery wanted a long, sustained book along the lines of the book that had made both so famous in 1953.
And yet, for all of its bizarre history and possible permutations, Enemies is a triumph in almost every way. While no serious scholar would equate it with The Conservative Mind, Eliot and His Age, or Roots of American Order in terms of enduring quality sustained scholarship, it remains as much a joy to read in 2016 as it ever has been. Enemies, perhaps more than any other book by Kirk, reflects the author’s ability to mix seriousness with playfulness. It really is Kirk’s masterpiece in terms of belles-lettres, yet, even in its playfulness, it is always intense.
In the life and mind of Russell Kirk, it is a critically vital book as it is the first book Kirk wrote after almost completely absorbing the ideas and language of his beloved exemplar, T.S. Eliot. Language we take as very Kirkian—such as his constant use of “permanent things”—makes its strongest and most lasting appearance in Enemies. From Enemies forward, Kirk’s own language and thought changes very little, as he has finally become satisfied with his own voice, one that owes much—but not everything—to the poetic quality of Eliot.
It is also worth noting that Kirk dedicated this book to his father, Russell Andrew Kirk, a man for whom Kirk held little respect beyond the most limited acknowledgement of the demands of piety. Kirk always saw himself as his (maternal) grandfather’s son. Whether this acknowledgement meant a softening of Kirk’s attitude toward his father or whether it was somewhat pro forma, remains unclear. At some level, though, I suspect this dedication was important to both father and son.
Kirk carefully broke Enemies into three parts: the recovery of norms; the norms of literature; and the norms of politics. Throughout, he insightfully glides from one thinker to another, tying together their individual thought into a meditation on the good, the true, and the beautiful in the modern, violent, and ugly western world of the 1960s. Figures who receive the full Kirk treatment and analysis are, to name only a few of the most important, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Max Picard, Ray Bradbury, Eric Voegelin, and George Orwell.
Despite the title of the book, the real essence of Enemies was Kirk’s complex and nuanced examination of “norms” in a culture and, possibly, even in a civilization. He began the book by noting that we can often identify a norm by its absence rather than its presence. With its loss, so falls apart any semblance of order in a person or a society. To recover such norms—difficult, but not impossible—a society must promote the literature, poetry, and art of imagination. That is, the imagination must make whole what the degradation of reason and modernity has broken into parts, compartmentalizing realities into smaller and smaller boxes, each more separated than the previous from the overall context of reality. As to a positive definition of a norm, Kirk wrote: “A norm means an enduring standard. It is a law of nature, which we ignore at our peril.” In this, Kirk has embraced much of the Western Tradition from Heraclitus through Augustine, forward. Norms are universal, applicable to all persons, regardless of time or place of birth, but they also manifest themselves uniquely in each culture. An Imaginative Conservative must be willing to allow for the universal without crushing individual personality, and must allow individual personality without descending into a subjective chaos. And yet, Kirk romantically notes, because a truth is a truth, it can never be destroyed. It can be mocked, ignored, and distorted, but, as a truth, it remains. It only needs to be remembered. Whether that remembering comes after a year or a thousand years is beyond our scope. As Imaginative Conservatives, we have the high duty of acknowledging the universal and the particular, passing them on from one generation to another, thus attenuating what Tolkien referred to as “the long defeat.”
This new edition of Enemies, graciously brought to us by the new and excellent publishing firm, Cluny Media, comes complete with an outstanding forward by one of our finest living scholars of Eliot, Kirk, and Dante: Ben Lockerd. Dr. Lockerd movingly places Enemies in the context of Kirk’s overall thought and development of thought. As he wisely notes in his introduction, those who expect a political treatise from Kirk will be highly disappointed. This is truly a book about universal and enduring norms and cultural mores, not fleeting political controversies. If I have any complaint about the book, it is only that Dr. Lockerd’s introduction is too short! I would love to know more of his thoughts on Kirk. Otherwise, this book is a thing of beauty. It is printed on quality paper, bound nicely, and the cover is nicely designed. This version of Enemies is a must-own for any Imaginative Conservative. Indeed, if we weren’t so anti-ideological and anti-conformist, we Imaginative Conservatives could do far worse than to adopt Enemies as our manifesto.
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