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Many social conservatives excel at diagnosis of our social ills, but often fail or stop short of prescription. They can tell us where we’ve gone wrong, but haven’t a practical plan for going right once more. Instead, in the words of Anthony Esolen, they “brandish popguns against the family-dissolving forces,” or seek distractions and abandon the fight entirely.
A review of Nostalgia: Going Home In A Homeless World, by Anthony Esolen (Regnery Gateway, 256 pages, $28.99)
Esolen, however, is not among them. He is not one of “those in our time who do sense that we have strayed far from home, but who do not choose the heartache of the battle.” His book Nostalgia: Going Home In A Homeless World is a field manual for that battle.
It’s not a book for those conservatives resigned to defeat and seeking solace only in “I-told-you-so’s.” The classical model for “nostalgia,” Esolen explains, is the wily, belligerent, indefatigable Odysseus. There is nothing merely wistful about his longing for home. It’s neither a return to an idealized past, nor a romanticized vision of a perfect future.
Odysseus seeks his home because it is his home. He belongs there, and has duties there—including the duty of restoration.
In this mad time, when so many in the West repudiate our very civilization, the story of a war hero scheming and fighting his way home, and undoing “change” when he gets there, is a refreshing reminder of what it looks like when well-adjusted people have healthy instincts. Nostalgia is Esolen’s encouragement to us to commit ourselves to such a journey, despite the obstacles and perils in our way.
There are joys along the way, as well. Esolen is one of those writers who’d be worth reading for his wordcraft alone. Musing, critiquing, mocking, exhorting, and craftily employing his literary allusions in a manner which draws us back to great books many of us haven’t thought about since college (or to which we were cheated out of ever having been introduced).
One more observation about Nostalgia: Esolen fans frequently compare him to the notoriously quotable G.K. Chesterton. It’s an apt comparison, I think. And If the Chesterton Society is to be followed, a century from now, by an Esolenian Society (a glorious notion!), some of the aphorisms they’ll put on their coffee mugs and beer steins, or perhaps engrave upon their ceremonial swords, appear on Nostalgia’s pages.
“Men are seldom as bad as the worst of their ideas.”
“To ‘progress’ in quicksand is to sink further.”
“Freedom is to the soul as health is to the body—it is a power.”
“Man without culture is an inert thing.”
“No pilgrim, no progress.”
“To be working in a tradition is to be alive.”
“The progressive has turned original sin, which afflicts all mankind, into political error, which conveniently afflicts his opponents and not himself.”
“A stupid law may be revoked. A depraved custom may be repudiated. A forgotten virtue may be recalled. Otherwise we are bound as slaves to the most irresponsible and irrepressible among us, who wreak havoc and call it history.”
Certainly that last lengthy quote would require a particularly long sword, or a very tall stein, for proper inscription. But then, Anthony Esolen reminds us that we have a lot worth fighting for—and that, is worthy of a tall drink.
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