By JOHN M. EVANS
THE VERY TITLE of George Will's new collection, The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions, invites us to place his writing in a historical context deeper than the New Deal, which serves as the Primitive Church for most political commentators today.
Toward its end, the 17th century, like our own, had burned out on ideological intensities. And the sense of exhaustion led some of its thinkers to inaugurate a revision of standards which has underlain progressivist thinking for three centuries. For rationality within existing institutions (e.g. the Church, the law), they substituted benevolent feeling as the basis of moral action.
With feelings as the primary touchstone of ethical decision, concepts such as "authority," "tradition," and "repression" came to point backward, while "progress," "liberation," and "revolution," evoked the newly expanded sense of self which certified improvement. Writing in the 1690s, Swift took on this ideological change; in an ironic pronouncement which could serve as epigraph to Will's collected columns, the modernist of A Tale of a Tub calls happiness "a perpetual possession of being well deceived." But Will, like Swift, prefers the lacerated heart and savage indignation to being well deceived. And indeed, Will's well- known Tory posture--license both for comic curmudgeonliness and for prophetic scorn--enables him to analyze current moral and political cant with fearsome clarity by means of insights from older and sturdier intellectual standards.
Will, acknowledging that there is potential for despair in either extreme, explores the madness and self-loss of leaving the ego to sail before the winds of feeling; he also warns us of the disillusioned misanthropy at the end of the quest for the perfect institution. He places before us the insanity of the libertarian who argues that the taboo against incest must go; or the lesser and more problematical issues of "rented wombs"--women who bear children of men not their husbands as an act of generosity; or of the discontinuation of customs (say of creches on courthouse squares) because they disturb the sensibilities of unbelievers or threaten the perfect institutional secularity of the state.
These issues may surely be reasonably debated. But Will makes his case (on these and other issues) in full awareness of the tension between the claims of institutions and of the hungry self. Virtue, as his title implies, is the reasoned balancing of those competing claims, and his columns (probably most of the 128 "meditations," as he calls them) seek to penetrate that dangerous sense of doing God's will without having looked steadily into the questionable social and human consequences of government regulation, civil rights, or sexual emancipation.
While he dismantles much bogus "happiness," he also finds beatitude in ordinary life--in places which would seem barren to the sentimentalist. Indeed, he is an emphatic champion of the maligned professional politician and of the delights of quotidian politics. He shows us obscure men and organizations that improve the human lot by "minute particulars," as Blake puts it. But his affirmations come after close rational scrutiny: "The fool shall not enter into Heaven let him be ever so Holy."
Of course the problem for a satiric moralist is how to get behind the defenses. He will never be read unless he can subvert sham happiness by making his own intrusion seem jollier than the deception it displaces. Here Will reveals enormous resourcefulness. At times he joins the enemy (before bombing him). For example, in stalking the fatuous side of feminism--the issue of whether a husband can ever be said to "rape" his own wife--he legitimizes everyone's shamefaced prurience with a dispensation from the pope of high sensibility:
"When Henry James examined letters pertaining to Byron's incest, he exlaimed (happily): 'Nauseating, perhaps, but how quite, quite inexpressibly significant.' It is significant that the Salem case is, to say no more, gamy."
Thereupon his glee broadens to place the case firmly in the larger meanings of marriage.
His hauteur in the face of sleaziness is magnificent:
"I am thoroughly married, so I followed the legal fracas between Lee Marvin and Michelle Triola Marvin with the detachment of an anthropologist observing primitives. Never mind the deepest mystery of the matter, the question of what charm either person ever saw in the other. . . ."
Or the Mark Twain hyperbolic deadpan in his comment on Barbara Walters' stupefaction at Donny and Marie Osmond:
"Would they, Walters asked, consider premarital sex? No, said he. No, said she. . . . Walters waited for the qualifying clauses; sought them; then surrendered to astonishment.
"Walters has a veteran journalist's worldliness and could cover the General Ressurrection with an air of having seen it before. But she seemed never to have seen the likes of the Osmonds."
Or his examination of Hamilton Jordan's reported misbehavior in a bar:
"It is arrogant for a powerful person to be scruffy and boorish in order to advertise his exemption from little conventions and courtesies. Besides, Jordan's comportment reinforces the growing belief that many of the most important people in the Administration, including the most important person, are out of their depth as well as out of their element."
In these gambits, Will compensates with wit and formally perfected writing for distress at losing faith that this is the best of possible worlds.
He nearly always sweetens his analyses with humor, but there is another, more important strategy. He makes his reader recognize as his own the penetration of hokum passing as morality or policy. Everyone, he generously implies, really can distinguish between truth and cant, sentimentality and charity. The reader therefore is never insulted, but made a collaborator and flattered to be expected to participate in the breadth of civilization Will ascribes to him. In his repeated attacks on the rationalizations of abortion, d,etente, or pornography, Will looks closely at the language, exercising the skills he acquired at Oxford under his tutor who "endured, without solace of distraction, my attempts at philosophy, and responded with stoical courtesy: 'If I understand what you are trying to say. . . .' "
Will's standard seems to be not only clarity of language but of performance. De Gaulle, Solzhenitsyn, Pope John Paul II, recurrent heroes, are so because they enact their historic roles with massive conviction. By contrast, gauche and self-conscious amateurs like Jimmy Carter earn his passionate scorn.
When, therefore, he sets his ironies aside, he can shrivel and eclipse the wistful, wishful fantasy of a Cyrus Vance who "describes President Carter and Brezhnev as men who 'have similar dreams and aspirations about the most fundamental issues.' " Will takes a different tone:
"Obviously Solzhenitsyn is widely read and his conclusions are widely resisted in nations slumbering in the faith that the U.S.S.R. is 'just like any other state.' It is not. It is not even a classic despotism. It has the implacable dynamism of a state permanently waging war on human nature, pulverizing and impoverishing civil society to satisfy militarist ravenousness. It is founded on a pseudoscience, enveloped in a pseudoreality of ideology and sustained by terror and lies."
Such prophetic utterance clears the mind wonderfully.
The collection works as a book because it displays a coherent world-view focused on important materials. Inevitably a column in a magazine or newspaper is read in haste and quickly forgotten. As a book the richness and integrity of learning and the resourcefulness of style sustain interest long after the dithering politician has left the scene or a shabby court case has been decided. It is hard to imagine that an intelligent liberal would not prefer to suffer Will's derision than to read pieties by his opposite number--whoever that might be. As Samuel Johnson grudgingly said of the metaphysical poets, "To write on their plan, it was at least necessary to read and to think." Even Will's victims will grant him that much.