Book of the Week
The Intelligent American’s Guide to Europe
by Erik Maria Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn
There were certain books my father tried relentlessly to get me to read when I was a teenager. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s The Intelligent American’s Guide to Europe (which is regrettably out of print) was probably at the top of the list. It would always work out the same way. He would look up something in the book he’d wanted to remember and then he’d end up reading bits and pieces of it for a couple days. Then, he’d walk into my room or catch me en route to it and say, “You really should read this.”
Now, I’m that guy. No, I haven’t started in on my eight-year-old daughter to read it, but I’ve pressed it on quite a few friends and colleagues like a 1970’s Hare Krishna in at the airport. And every time I pick it up, I spend a lot longer reading it than I planned.
Erik Maria Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn described himself as a "extreme conservative arch-liberal” – by which he meant that he was for liberal societies but not necessarily democratic regimes or other forms of hyper-egalitarianism. He was a creature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and one of its last great defenders in the English language (and the French, German, Spanish, Italian languages. In fact, he spoke something like nine languages and could read more than a dozen more).
There’s a myth that “independent thinkers” are always smarter than the conventional wisdom or the historical consensus. This is, of course, poppycock. One can be independently idiotic. The guy at the bus station ranting about how Matt Labash is the last king of Scotland is independently crazy. But the reason we have the myth is that there are some people who are capable of swimming against the prevailing tide. Of necessity, many of the founders of modern conservatism were such men. We know about the famous ones, Bill Buckley, Irving Kristol etc. But the lesser known geniuses are starting to fade from memory (Albert Jay Nock, for example).
Kuehnelt-Leddihn was one such genius. His Intelligent American’s Guide to Europe is like one man’s minority dissent from the majority report of liberal (and, often, conservative) historiography. Indeed, I believe it was in Guide that I first encountered the argument that Fascism was a phenomenon of the Left (an argument he later expanded in another book, Leftism). I don’t agree with everything Kuehnelt-Leddihn says, but everything he says is interesting, fact-driven and – almost always – counter-intuitive. For instance, he lays out the best defense of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement I’ve ever seen. And, it’s all written in an almost ur-blog familiarity in which the author is simply telling you something you may or may not know over a cocktail, for hundreds of pages.
He was perhaps at his crankiest in his grumbling against democracy, which he saw as an offshoot of the French Revolution which, he believed, was not so much a revolt against monarchy as a revolt against God (it seems to me it was, at least, both). But, again, he was not an authoritarian. Even though he was a little put off with Edmund Burke, he shared Burke’s dislike of arbitrary power. He saw himself more in the tradition of de Tocqueville and he was a great lover of liberty who just happened to believed a liberal society could best be protected by illiberal institutions. ''Can anyone imagine Louis XIV (or for that matter Maria Therese) introducing the 1040 income tax form?” he asks in the Intelligent American’s Guide to Europe? “Or. . . or an edict prohibiting the consumption of Sauterne, Benedictine, Riesling, or beer? Apparently parliaments were necessary to introduce such coercive measures.”
Given events in Washington these days, that’s worth some mulling
The book itself is impossible to summarize because on every page there’s a fact you didn’t know, or didn’t know in the proper context (Quick what was the first European power to stand up to Nazi cross-border aggression? Answer: Mussolini’s Italy). It’s a swirling tour of European history from the dissenter’s point of view, from someone who knows it better than anyone of his, or perhaps any, generation.
Jonah Goldberg is a contributing editor to National Review, a Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.
There are lots of people whose jobs I don’t envy – porta-pottie repairman, papal gag writer, manager of the Washington Nationals – and “Chesterton anthologist” is at the top of the list. Near the top, anyway. Chesterton was the greatest journalist who ever lived, and his stuff was so prodigious and of such high quality, and ranged so freely across so many literary forms, that no single book, even one as fat as G.K. Chesterton, could ever give a new reader a sense of the vastness of his talent. But Ian Ker has done it so we don’t have to, and more power to him. The selection in The Everyman Chesterton, a just published addition (as the title suggests) to the Everyman Library series, is as judicious as can be, all contained within a svelte 900 pages. He’s tossed in a few Father Browns and a half dozen poems with generous chunks of Everlasting Man, Orthodoxy, and Chesterton’s oddly neglected autobiography of St. Thomas Aquinas is bobbing around in there too, somewhere. My only complaint is that Ker has failed to answer the most interesting question raised by his book: Why the hell did it take so long for Everyman’s Library to get around to Chesterton?
There's a case to be made that this is Vonnegut's best book and it was tragically ignored because it came so late in the witty curmudgeon's uneven career. Nonetheless, Vonnegut weighs in on genocide and the worth of modern art (or lack thereof) with great insight. And, as a bonus, there's an unexpected pro-life subtext.
The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen
Elizabeth Bowen is without a doubt one of the most under-celebrated authors of the 20th Century. So far, my favorite book of hers is The Heat of the Day, a tense, thrilling story about a woman in WWII London during the bombing raids. Stella learns that her lover may be selling secrets to the Germans, and the man charged with revealing him becomes infatuated with Stella and demands her affection as payment for keeping quiet. Bowen’s has an eye for behavior and detail as sharp as Austen’s, and her descriptions are as consistently dense and beautiful as almost any work of poetry.
I’m notoriously bad at checking out books, television, and movies that friends recommend to me. My best friend once urged me to watch Gallipoli starring Mel Gibson. He said it’s one of the great war movies. Years passed before I checked Gallipoli out from Blockbuster, popped it in the VCR, and loved every second. The next day I told my friend what a great film I’d discovered. He was not amused.
For a while now Ross Douthat has been telling me to read George R.R. Martin’s fantasy septology A Song of Ice and Fire. As usual I was desultory in picking up the first book, Game of Thrones. Then I saw HBO was turning the book into a miniseries. I read Martin’s list of the best science fiction movies and decided we had similar tastes. Browsing through Hudson News at Penn Station the other day, I decided to give Game of Thrones a whirl.
The book is awesome: Lord of the Rings meets Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. I found myself addicted, even with the fantasy geography and funny names. And the best part? There are three more books in the series to read, with a fourth on the way.