The Devil's Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West
by michael walsh
encounter books, 280 pages, $23.99
If Michael Walsh’s account of the rise of the “Unholy Left” in The Devil’s Pleasure Palace is to be believed, the playbook for the contemporary fragmentation of American values was drawn up in Frankfurt by neo-Marxian philosophers in the years between the two World Wars. That the Frankfurt School—a social, political, and philosophical movement of thought that sired what would later be called “Critical Theory”—was founded by thinkers devoted to the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl as much as they were to Hegelian dialectics escapes Walsh’s notice. The oversight is a representative shortcoming of this conceptually promising but ultimately uneven book.
The main target in Walsh’s critical crosshairs is the catechism of left-wing liberalism and its deleterious effects on American culture. Walsh, an accomplished music critic (the title, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, is taken from an early Schubert opera), is vastly well-read and his book is a reference-heavy “Theory of Everything” experience. The goal is multifaceted: to track the destructive heart and moral bankruptcy of Critical Theory and to situate it within the post-lapserian battle between good and evil, which Walsh terms “humanity’s journey, of roads taken and not taken, and about the choices we make.”
Walsh proceeds to stitch together a dramatic theory of Critical Theory, and his sporadic account of the protagonists—mainly, Adorno and Marcuse—is delivered with animated bluster. Several of these philosophers evacuated from Germany in the early 1930’s and began to infiltrate American universities. They first “appeared to be relatively harmless, nutty professor refugees” who taught “tolerance for lofty ideals.” But Walsh sets out to expose them as scheming “liars,” fired by a satanic “rage.” Of course, this makes for titillating reading. Americans love conspiracy theories, and Walsh provides one that is fittingly “meta”: a critique of an insidiousness critique pedaled by a retrograde school of theory for “the ruination of Man and his consignment to Hell.”
The question is, though, is this an accurate account? For this reviewer, if there is a case to be made, Walsh does not make it.
Walsh’s polemic is not without insight or wit. His “literary argument” highlights the philosophical and theological value of art—how art, because it attends to human drama most astutely, “is the gift from God, the sole medium of truth.” To this end, Walsh makes copious references to artistic texts (both high and low) to illuminate his disputes.
Too often, however, Walsh lets allusion do the work of argument in his intertextuality, and the incessant over-referencing reads like a classic “search and destroy.” Midway in the book, we encounter a sequence typical of Walsh’s approach. In his attempt to connect the values of Critical Theory to the politics of modern totalitarian regimes, Walsh moves from Mozart to Stoker’s Dracula to HBO’s True Blood to Polanski’s Chinatown to Doris Lessing to Marcus Aurelius to CS Lewis to HP Lovecraft to Saul Alinsky in three dizzying pages. The objective behind Walsh’s saturation of examples is to demonstrate local instances in both art and history of an unfolding “ur-Narrative”; but the goal is not achieved. For the left, “the good-enough must always be the enemy of the perfect,” and this impossibility becomes the basis of its “entire system.” But such a depiction—in this case of the battle between ideology and legitimate “dogma”—becomes obscured by an overabundance of examples whose relationship to one another is sometimes forced. Far from servicing or sustaining a credible thesis, the net effect of Walsh’s method is to impede and clutter the argument. The book can be largely characterized by this kind of gluttonous and a-systematic approach and suffers significantly because of it.
But the fatal flaw is one that is more basic and frustrating. The reader is hungry for insights about the proposed cult of Critical Theory and why it might be intellectually and spiritually subversive. But it’s not until we are well into the first half of the text that we get any meaningful description of Critical Theory; and when we do it’s a largely protracted and reductive account. Walsh assesses the Frankfurt School as an “antagonist to what we might characterize as heroic Judeo-Christian Western culture.” He frames “Critical Theory adherents” as a “criminal organization” with the primary goal of “attaining power” so as to “amass wealth”—charlatans “no more intellectual than Faust after his wager with Mephistopheles.”
Still, Walsh is clearly onto something in The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, and there is fruit on this tree. He astutely observes that the “cultural philosophy of the Frankfurt School” was not an outgrowth of Western thought, but rather “aberrational in that it was profoundly anti-religious as well as anti-human.” Liberalism reigns in the academy, and the philosophical locations that undergird Critical Theory have much to do with this. But there are also many in the academy who see, for reasons perhaps different than Walsh’s, gaps in contemporary “liberal” orthodoxies that sustain academic culture in the West—starting, of course, with contested versions of “liberalism” and how liberalism itself was created by a tradition that was both radically religious and humanist. There are versions of Christianity (liberal Protestantism for one) that embrace more protean approaches to religious phenomena, approaches that today often make use of Critical Theory. Even the “conservative” Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, observed in a later work that “The Spirit is empowered to utter a fresh and central answer to every situation,” a statement that relies, it can be argued, on a floating signifier. This is to say that there are many “liberals” in the academy who are as radically theist as Walsh, and to suggest a false equation between liberalism and atheism is neither credible nor productive.
The virtue of Critical Theory is that it annihilates and destroys precisely because it bears witness to human nature that annihilates and destroys. However, Critical Theory is also riddled with fault lines. It is frequently dim, both theologically and anthropologically, and is less articulate about what inspires the violence that exists underneath its blanket critique of human social structures. Critical Theory, in short, too often deconstructs without reconstructing, a central critique that is missing from Walsh’s wholesale vilification. Critical Theory is especially toxic when its discovery of relativism and turn to the subject become prescriptive, which—and this is Walsh’s implicit and too-buried premise—it usually does. Critical Theory too often “fetishizes” social ruptures and makes too little room for hope—for atonement, reconciliation, and justice, to name a few.
Walsh’s chest-beating indictment of Critical Theory and its war on humanity recalls David Foster Wallace’s famous observation from his 2005 essay “Host” and highlights “precisely the kind of relativism that cultural conservatives decry, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which ‘the truth’ is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda.” Of course, truth is not simply a matter of perspective—and this where a more robust turn to the Catholic Intellectual tradition (instead of American Enlightenment Religion which Walsh more often invokes) would help his project. Another set of European thinkers, for instance, Henri de Lubac or St. John Paul II—both of whom were so well-versed in exposing the philosophical poverty of the relativized subject—would invigorate Walsh’s critique and anchor it to more stable philosophical ground. As it stands, however, this book does not deliver on the bold promise of its title. This is unfortunate because such a book needs to be written.
Michael P. Murphy, author of A Theology of Criticism: Balthasar, Postmodernism, and the Catholic Imagination (Oxford), directs the Catholic studies program at Loyola University Chicago.