Permanent Things: Russell Kirk’s Centenary

Mark the uncanny hand of coincidence. When I began thinking about putting together a conference about the legacy of Russell Kirk last spring, I knew that we were in the middle of his centenary. We wanted to take advantage of that milestone, so we determined to hold the conference sometime in the autumn. After various deliberations and inspections of the calendar and other obligations, we settled, as if by accident, on October 19. I had no idea, when we proffered our invitations to the participants, that October 19 happened to be Kirk’s birthday.

In his charming book about coincidences, Father George Rutler notes that “odious” though “the superstitious misuse of coincidence is,” that perversion is “only slightly less offensive [than] the underestimation of the significance of some” coincidences. The serendipity, if not the capital-P Providence, of the date of our discussion of Russell Kirk seemed appropriate for a sage who was so conspicuously attuned to the eldritch, the inexplicable, the uncanny. After all, Kirk has always been one of those figures whose example is an admonition against the ontological poverty with which we saddle ourselves in our surrender to the beguiling superficialities of a thoroughly disenchanted secular materialism.

It was no accident, as the Marxists like to say, that Kirk’s biggest sales by far were in the demotic realm of ghost stories . . . If ghosts and other non-quotidian manifestations loom large in Russell Kirk’s spiritual geography, it is partly because he was not beholden to the exiguous dogmas of a self-declared age of enlightenment whose defining prejudice is, in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s phrase, a prejudice against prejudice.

Indeed, one of Kirk’s chief attractions is the amplitude of his worldview. He did not quite approve of Walt Whitman. But there was a largeness about Kirk’s view of the universe that was Whitmanian in its insouciance regarding logical niceties, which can seem sterile when counterpoised against the rude pulse of living tradition. I do not say that Kirk, as Whitman boasted, contradicted himself. But he assuredly “contained multitudes.” Regarding ghosts, I believe that Kirk would have appreciated, with a twinkle, what Margot Asquith said. Asked whether she believed in ghosts, the elegant wife of the Prime Minister replied that “appearances are in their favor.”

Kirk, in short, was a thinker who coaxed us to enlarge, not diminish, the existential furniture of our world…

Read the rest at The New Criterion.

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