Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Compare and Contrast: Oscar Wilde and Michael Oakeshott

Renato Poggioli's theory of "decadence"—in the 19th-century literary sense—is the compare (translated from the Italian, so forgive anything that hits your ear at a funny angle):
The very notion of decadence, at least its modern version, is practically inconceivable without the psychological compulsion to become the passive accomplice of and willing victim of the barbarian... When the hour of decision comes, he [the decadent] discovers all too late that history has reverted to nature; and that the barbarian, being nature's child, is now becoming history's agent.

At this point the decadent recognizes that he is left no alternative but to play a passive, and yet theatrical, role on history's stage. That role is that of scapegoat or sacrificial victim; and it is by accepting that part, and acting it well, that he seals in blood the strange brotherhood of decadence and barbarism.
And Stefan Collini's put-down of Oakeshott the contrast:
I think the appeal of Oakeshott has often been an appeal to a kind of political snobbery, an appeal to those who aren't faced with making day-to-day decisions. It's an appeal more to those who like to present themselves as having a longer perspective, who are always somehow the voices of true conservatism which any example of everyday, existing conservatism falls short of.
When Andrew Sullivan bothers me, it is because he falls into that Oakeshottian trap.

UPDATE: An explanation of the post's title— Conservatives tend to find something aesthetically attractive about over-refined and well-dressed sophisticates, but our enthusiasm for decadence, dandyism, and mannerism might be coming from the same place as Oakeshottian withdrawal from politics. I'm all for aristocratic temperaments, but let's make sure ours is the deep superiority of Wilde and not the shallow, can't-be-bothered, dare I say lazy superiority of Oakeshott.

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