Listening To Joni Mitchell Down On The Farm, Listening To Queen In The Diner

Ted McAllister at The Front Porch Republic:

At the risk of approaching a definition, a bohemian conservative believes humans ought to appreciate, live amidst, and even love the eccentric particularity of physical nature, of distinctive persons, of local culture, of odd traditions that reach back before memory, and more generally of the person rooted in time and place–a historical expression as unique as the proverbial snowflake.  The bohemian conservative appreciates less the abstract beauty of the woman on the billboard and more the peculiar beauty of the woman who works at the diner.  The bohemian conservative does not love the individualist as much as the eccentric person who is rooted in cultural soil unprocessed by sanitizing consumerism.  The bohemian conservative admires the unique and peculiar over the abstracted perfection of a universal form.

The person, understood as a being rooted in history, culture and tradition, is not any one thing.  She isn’t defined by the composition of her body. She isn’t defined by her individual experiences.  She isn’t defined by her accomplishments, or failings, or abilities, or limitations.  The complexity of her person, as contextualized in a living culture, allows her to think of herself as physical and spiritual, as an individual and part of a group, as living in the flux of existence that is nonetheless situated in the timelessness of reality.

Now, you really should read the comments to the article as well as reading the article. Peter Lawler pops up and directs us to his post at PomoCon:

The true conservative, in our day and age, defends the bohemian against bourgeois careerism and slouching toward a meritocracy based on the productivity that comes from being smart, pretty, pleasing, and industrious–as opposed to being virtuous or just in love with life. So we conservatives unite against the bourgeois bohemian described by David Brooks. In the Bobo’s life, bourgeois trumps bohemian at every turn. And we admire Russell Kirk for having been a bohemian Tory, which means we can’t help but also have some reservations about his competence or prudence. We even admire BEATNIKS–such as Maynard G. Krebs–who graced the fifties and but were commodified by the late sixties. That also means we don’t like Red Tories or anyone who takes the colors red or green too seriously. Ted shows us the real issues that surround being a leftover in a world otherwise so well described by modern science. He could be clearer that our alienation–what ails us as persons–couldn’t be cured by going back to the farm.

To the comment section we go, snapping our fingers and wearing black turtlenecks…

Bob Cheeks:

Voegelin argues that ‘alienation’ is a mood of existence that is the result of “…hypostates of the poles of existential tension.” He further argues that the “world” we experience under this condition is “dissociated” under the pressure of alienation into a separation of “this world” and the “other world,” where we exist in the tension between the two, between the world of time and the timeless.

If “alienation” is the result of the breakdown of order in modernity (as in every era) and Voegelin identify’s one element as “the dissolution of traditional economic and social forms through the rise of industrial society, and the global wars (and we might now include globalization and the collapse (in the U.S.A.) of industrial society) then, is it not possible that a return to “the farm” represents our attempt to recover order in our existence?

Lawler responds to Cheeks:

Bob, Back to the farm! comes, I think, from a desire to recover order, but some of our alienation is natural. And so any and all “order in history” talk might have the tendency to overrate any and all human order. (When I read summaries of Voegelin likes yours, it occurs to me that Eric ain’t too Christian.) For Walker Percy, being “lost in the cosmos” can’t truthfully be cured by being too at home in history, but by being at home with our [natural] homelessness. I’m not saying, of course, that some times and places aren’t more ordered or homey than others. I really and truly don’t think industrial society is collapsing, as do you very late Marxists. I don’t even think our society is properly described as industrial–as in the industrial vs agrarian dichotomy. Well, it’s still normal and healthy to like both Maynard and Thelia–and to be somewhat repulsed by both Dobie and Zelda, although for different reasons, of course.

James Poulos weighs in (just a snippet here):

Farm life promises to educate both individual and social life; but those skeptical of these claims also promise to do the same only better. The political question pertains to the comprehensiveness of farm life and of the life proposed by its critics. Ultimately what troubles the critics is the creeping comprehensiveness of the farm. The alternative, as we know well from the various totalistic strains of cosmopolitanism floating about, can also slouch toward comprehensiveness and closed finitude; but madness first sets in with the turn to bad infinity. A people obsessed with the fairy kingdom of ‘full individuality’ will fall into the arms of the most all-encompassing of nursery states — ‘good government’, and ‘thuruh’ — faster than a people obsessed with rational control will inspire mass eccentricity and the mania for multiplicity, acting, and appearances. (I wouldn’t want to run in either race, of course.) I think finally the ‘fun’ of conservatism is it never asks to take over the world, just to have its plot in what perpetuity it can win as a more-closed-than-not system. Friends of the farm are under great pressure in democratic times, however, to settle for this without feeling guilty about it; in times like these, the conservative claim has always the whiff of aristocratic aestheticism with a bad conscience, and if there’s one thing the aristocrat lacks it’s a bad conscience about his STYLE — which is even more different from OUR style than Burke’s drapery was from Wilde’s drapes.

John (last name I don’t know) comments:

That being said, I must demur in this. Mr McAllister’s version of the non-abstract is as abstract as the abstract. It is all fine to speak in Burkean and more honestly Kirkean fashion of the dangers of abstraction, but one never looks at the ways in which abstraction has “colonized” (to use a trope from the Frankfurt School of all places) ordinary day to day life. His version of the particular is almost as abstract as Robespierre. Okay I too exaggererate, but like Rod Dreher, this particularity that Mr. McAllister speaks of only relates to a particular few when it comes to the life that any one of us lives. It is fine to speak of the local traditions in American politics, but there is no particular in the particular. It’s all abstract. Is McAllister willing to write off the rest of humanity as beasts unless they adhere to his version of humanity? Of course not, but then is Rod Dreher’s version of life the only life to be led in an ordinary way? Peter Lawler tries to defend the other side of ordinary, as it were.

Matthew J. Peterson:

This begs the question. If a part of the problem is endemic to human nature, as Peter preaches, and this alienation is exacerbated by ideas/error-ridden philosophies, then it is clear that going to the farm isn’t going to completely address the core issues. Do the corrupt portions of modern ways of life cause corrupt ideas or do corrupt ideas cause the corrupt portions of the modern way of life? Generally speaking, and assuming one isn’t romanticizing a way of life that one doesn’t know from actual experience, I think it is true that farming puts one in touch with nature in a realistic way (see the article above-heh), and modern society could use a dose of this, but this is a long way from the extremes to which some people go.

Bob Cheeks and Peter Lawler discuss Joni Mitchell briefly, and then McAllister weighs in:

I just reread my essay to find out what people were talking about. I finally deduced that this conversation about agriculture, life on the farm, and so forth, has nothing to do with my essay but with some longstanding debate between different intellectual clans. My essay was about the way our language had become too abstract and simplified and that we were losing our capacity to deliberate together or even to see things that a more differentiated language might expose.

I explored the alienation that is part of the human condition (on this I’ve long been influenced by Peter) and I never even hinted that going to the farm was the answer to this problem, so called. I employed a quotation from Lippmann that invoked the life of the village rather than the life of the modern cosmopolitan, but that was brief and not meant to provide a foundation for a neo-agrarianism. Peter, I guess, wanted me to more expressly claim that going back to the farm was not the proper response, but since I never considered that as a possibility, I didn’t get the point. At any rate, however fascinating the debate between different camps on the virtue of life on the farm, it is not my debate. I will address related themes next month, but not as part of this debate primarily.


Ted’s confusion–expressed by the question “What does the bleepin’ farm have to do with it?”–shows that we’re in deep agreement and that he’s a card-carrying postmodern conservative. I will say something about the techno-language issue, which is a lot more real–as soon as I can. My apologies for using his post to make a point that’s not his own.

And Lawler on the main PomoCon blog:

Ted–Maynard G. Krebs–from the semi-classic 50s show DOBIE GILLIS–was famous for his beard (sure sign of a Beatnik in the 50s), his slovenly dress, and especially his aversion to work. Russell Kirk, whom I also admire, couldn’t really hold a normal job. The same might be said of numerous professors, but Russell even found being a State U. professor too stultifying. Kirk’s political judgments are very uneven, and that’s not why anyone serious would read him. There are others who are masters of prudence but are boring otherwise, like the used-to-be-underrated Eisenhower or even the erotically challenged Bob Dole. Burke, to recall the controversy at our ISI conference (where our Ralph Hancock was accused of caricaturing in the Straussian mode the great Edmund), scores really high on the prudence-meter and at least moderately high on the bohemian one. But he’s the exception who proves the rule. Otherwise, it seems we BOHEMIANS are pretty close to agreement about having more natural and loving lives, which are even possible in McMansions and megachurches in the suburbs of our South (or at a university with a bizarre name in Malibu with a stunning view of the ocean and fit California girls). And we agree on not getting way existential about the farm. I’m no Lockean, as you know, although we’re stuck with what the judicious Ralph called Locke’s inconvenient partial truth about our freedom.

McAllister comments:

Peter–are you suffering from comment-envy? I have never commented on a post before, so this is my first (I’m usually too busy hugging trees in Malibu to think about engaging in these conversations). Since I did respond to your comments at FPR, I’ll cut and paste my answer:

Peter, if Maynard was famous for his aversion to work, Gilligan was more successful at being “natural” and “authentic” without the beatnik pretensions of Krebs. Gilligan, oddly, was closer to Rousseau than Krebs–neither of them what I had in mind for my somewhat eccentric adoption of the label bohemian.

If by Kirk’s “uneven” political judgments you mean that his were often at variance with yours, then I agree. I’ll push our agreement even further. If one were to list the reasons for reading Kirk, his reflections on contemporary politics would be near the bottom–this is particularly true by the time he got involved in the election of 1992. But I’m not sure exactly what a normal job would be. It sounds very much like those folk who use the hideous phrase “real world” to make reference to some privileged sphere of commercial activity. It is safe to say that Kirk would not have been good at many professions, which is to say something obvious about almost all humans.

The fact of the matter, however, is that despite our very different ways of saying things, we agree much more than is seemly.

And thus began a small conversation on comment envy and cutting and pasting.

UPDATE: Peter Lawler links to Blake Hurst at AEI


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