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A necessary book

[The following review appeared in the June, 2014 issue of Chronicles:]

We have been enduring the cultural revolution of liberal modernity. It is hard to say exactly when that revolution began, but it took a great step forward in the 60’s, when social and religious tradition lost its last shreds of public authority, and another after the collapse of communism freed it to go wherever it wanted without a serious external check.

Since then its victory has become all but absolute. Its principles are held without question by universities and other cultural institutions considered authoritative, while artistic, literary, and intellectual life has become more and more centered in such institutions. The result is that cultural life is almost wholly in the hands of liberal modernists. That is a problem, because their principles are radically at odds with the possibility of high culture. A basic principle of liberal modernity is the reduction of goods to preferences, while artistic, literary, and intellectual culture exists by reference to goods that transcend preference. The triumph of the revolution, therefore, creates an impossible situation in cultural life.

Edward Short, a New York writer known for his biographies of Cardinal Newman, has written a book that explores the implications of that situation, with specific reference to abortion. The example is well chosen, since the universal right to abortion, a right that prominent politicians have referred to as “sacred ground,” brings out better than any other the nature of the world in which we now live. Culture is about life, goods, and the unpredictable. Abortion is about death, will, and technique. What does it mean when the right to abortion acquires fundamental cultural authority?

The author starts the story, somewhat surprisingly, with Matthew Arnold, who divorced culture from common human life and from any transcendent reference. He thought that his refined but bloodless version of culture, based on supposedly disinterested knowledge and supported by the authority of the state, would show us the way to a better way of life. However, the project failed to engage the world Shakespeare, Johnson, and Chesterton describe and actual human beings live in. The consequence was the emergence of a culture that does not value life.

To explore the problem, the author examines in concrete detail examples of pro-life and anti-life tendencies in various fields of social and cultural endeavor. The largest part of the book is devoted to the lives and concerns of writers who have presented the stories and poetry of childbirth and motherhood, its joys, difficulties, and place in human experience. He discusses Anne Ridler (T.S. Eliot’s secretary and a highly accomplished poet), Penelope Fitzgerald, Walker Percy, and Charles Dickens. The examples he draws from their works are telling and well worth reading on their own account. Not surprisingly, Dickens was a master at presenting the miraculous and quotidian drama of birth in difficult circumstances, but others, such as Penelope Fitzgerald, presented their own very effective variations on the theme.

The other topics the author discusses are quite varied. He describes the abuses of history, and outright lies, in academic histories of abortion and feminist histories of motherhood and women’s lives. He speculates what would have become of English literature if it had been pro-abortion. What would have become of A Modest Proposal, for example, or for that matter of Swift himself, whose birth was not convenient for his parents? Short also tells the story of figures associated with the fight for life, from William Wilberforce to Rose Hawthorne, Paul VI, and John Paul II. And he suggests what would be needed to turn the cultural situation around: a renewed orientation toward the source and giver of life, and a renewed feeling for the seriousness of sex and sacredness of marriage.

This is a necessary book. The author has begun the long-needed project of making sense of current cultural life by reference to the inhuman things that have forced their way into its center. The commentary is perceptive, the specific topics relevant and exceptionally diverse, and the style clear and engaging. It is a project others should reflect on and continue with the same spirit and insight.

[Culture and Abortion, by Edward Short (Leominster
(UK): Gracewing) 308 pp., $24.95]