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Permanent Things: Toward the Recovery of a More Human Scale at the End of the Twentieth Century

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9780802838049: Permanent Things: Toward the Recovery of a More Human Scale at the End of the Twentieth Century
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Permanent Things reminds us that some of the century's most imaginative minds - G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and Evelyn Waugh - were profoundly at odds with the secularist spirit of the age, seeing progressive enlightenment as ushering in, not a millennium of perfect freedom, but a Waste Land whose inhabitants - Waugh's "vile bodies," Eliot's "hollow men," Lewis's "men without chests" - can find refuge from their boredom and anomie only in the ceaseless acquisition of things or in the consoling illusions of pseudo religions - "distracted from distraction by distraction," as Eliot memorably put it.
How does one explain the desolation of a world which, though richly endowed with material comforts, is mentally and spiritually impoverished? The essayists here are united, as were their subjects, by a need to try to answer this question. Modern man's poverty of spirit, visible alike in so much of his art and architecture, his literature and philosophy and political science, reflects his loss of any good reasons for living - his loss of the Permanent Things.
The Christian writers whose work is eloquently interpreted in this book repay our attention for at least two reasons. First is their ability to sharpen our awareness of what, by any previous civilized standards, must be called the abnormal condition of modern man. For all the writers treated in this book, it was never enough to simply capture the spiritual aridity of modern life. It was also necessary to speak of a moral order that may yet be restored by the expressive power and beauty of the written word.

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The essays in this collection are united in their affirmation of T. S. Eliot's "permanent things" and in their conviction that those "things" provide a basis for critical engagement with a generally decadent society. The essayists reflect on the work of a small group of twentieth-century writers who responded to the experience of chaos with an appeal to permanence: Eliot, G. K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Sayers, and C. S. Lewis. That canon means, not surprisingly, that the collection is critically (and sometimes crankily) conservative. It is an appreciative treatment of the authors in question, which, while assuming a celebratory response to the demise of Communism, is far from sanguine about the state of Western civilization. The book is an interesting contribution to an old debate about permanence and change that should serve as a pointer to some important twentieth-century authors whose art continues to enliven political discussion at the end of the century. Steve Schroeder

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