The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West

The Devil’s Pleasure Palace The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West“Everybody’s got a beef.” (2)

This includes author Michael Walsh at his incisive best in his latest work, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West. Walsh’s ambitious objective is to provide a sustained and cogent explanation of Western and specifically American cultural woes.

How he succeeds. Equally at home with snappy one-liners (most memorable is a comment on why good and evil admit no synthesis) (36), and the deep-end of metaphysics, Walsh, formerly a Classical music critic at Time, uses the prism of aesthetics to demonstrate the intellectual–and moral–failings of thinkers such as Adorno, Gramsci, Lukacs, Marcuse, and their predecessors Marx and Rousseau. Some of the above represent the interwar and postwar Frankfurt School of Critical Theory (social theorists bent on widespread societal change) and are Walsh’s principal culprits. Taken together, these thinkers are responsible for advancing the toxic “What is Truth?” relativism pervasive in lecture halls, theaters and galleries, and media-driven public discourse. For Walsh, what’s at stake is nothing less than the “primary engine of human, moral, spiritual, social, scientific and medical progress.” (4)

How did we come to such a critical point in our thinking, our culture? After all, was not America as strong, materially and militarily, as could be hoped for and more powerful than our allies at the end of World War II? Walsh points to America’s seeming intellectual and spiritual vulnerability, which in turn fostered a weaker cultural base.

“The Frankfurt School sucker punched American culture right in its weaker solar plexus,” he writes. (2)

But if the purveyors of then fashionable pseudo-philosophy led low and with their left, it was collective American naivete that stepped into it. “What the hell were we thinking?” (149) Indeed, how did our faith in universally upheld truths on matter of justice, beauty, and goodness heretofore established by thinkers far better and for more than a millennia (Augustine, anyone?) become prey to ill-conceived intellectual dissection? For it was in the excess of unnecessary dissecting of the tried and true, of what wisdom harvested from experience, that the theories of the Frankfurt School advanced—however speciously: “Results are an illusion; theory is what counts, because theory can be debated endlessly within the safe harbors of academe.” (147) In other words, experiential wisdom is sacrificed at the altar of criticism—or what counts for it. The “because professor-said-so” argument was taken as Gospel truth—void of the Gospel. One of the salient points brought forth in the book is the absence of the Judeo-Christian underpinnings in our contemporary thought: a nation that has taken freedom of religion to freedom from religion.

In the book’s opening pages, Walsh refers to Milton’s genius in Paradise Lost to bring to light anew the “ye shall be as gods” hubris of the contemporary West. But pride and naked rebellion are thin gruel for sustenance, their anemic influence everywhere, from today’s valuations on traditional morality, e.g., current criticism on the family, to the state of artistic endeavor.

Walsh uses his trained, musical ear to translate examples within the arts that serve as canaries in the coal mine of contemporary culture–with trenchant conclusions, e.g., “If you can attack Mozart, one of Western Europe’s greatest geniuses, then you can attack anybody.” (102) But where contemporary music may suffer, Walsh’s argument is more persuasive still in his many allusions to the wide screen (one would be hard pressed to find any book wherein mention of the animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the philosopher Rousseau occupy the same page). (141)

“Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” Marlon Brando’s character is asked in the 1953 movie, The Wild One, to which the petulance characteristic of the 1960s is highlighted in retort: “Whaddya got?” (79) So begins a shifting of the director’s lens from the ideal of Robert Young’s Father Knows Best to the cynical surrender to moral relativism cemented in, as Walsh mentions, Robert Towne’s 1974 film, Chinatown (“Forget it, Jake…”). (95-96)

That such cynicism and relativism prevail in cinema and society, and as a result of academe’s barrage of hollow hypotheses, is not a new revelation. Still, Walsh’s focus on our acceptance of misconstrued social theory is worthy of re-examination. Central to this argument is the reality that our contemporary situation is as much about upholding truth as it is about contemplating it. For only in adding to our understanding of current intellectual and moral failures, a crisis of confidence, seen in root and end as a crisis of faith, are we able to fully realize the contemporary situation. Herein, Walsh’s analysis yields promise: “Everyone has a chance to see the light.” (103)

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