The Devil’s Pleasure Palace
The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West
By Michael Walsh
Encounter Books, 2015
280 pages, $18.86 (hardcover)
To order: amazon.com
Michael Walsh has been a writer, music critic and screenwriter in Hollywood. In other words, he knows the modern liberal Western culture. In this book, he collects those experiences into a diagnosis of what is ailing the West. But it is no abstract analysis; Walsh wants to focus instead on how deeper intellectual currents are reflected in the larger culture.
He recognizes that storytelling is key. Every society has heroes and villains, and the nature of their trials and triumphs, and the ideals for which they fight, are how culture is communicated and defined. Politics is only a reflection of culture, and intellectual developments are largely important only insofar as they can be reflected in, or change, the larger cultural currents.
And as the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson once observed, culture itself grows out of, and is derivative of, religion. The Christian story is, of course, the motivating story of the West and of America.
But Walsh wants to focus us on the contemporary rival to that story. It is not “secularism,” exactly, a term and condition that is not novel. Rather, the rival is another religious faith, something writer Rod Dreher has called “moral therapeutic deism,” where the god we worship is our own self.
For Walsh, this religion is the “Devil’s Pleasure Palace,” the creators of which are the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, whose explication of “Critical Theory,” Walsh argues, is a counterpoint to the Christian vision. This school of Marxist thought, was prominent in prewar Germany, but some members were refugees to the United States, where they continued their work into the 1960s; its most famous member here is Herbert Marcuse, called the “Father of the New Left.” Their thought was dense, as befitting German philosophers, but it was mostly a philosophy of the left. When loosed into postwar California, their work would have a mostly harmful effect in the United States.
Walsh is probably a bit too hard on the Frankfurt School, blinded as they were by the California sun and postwar American prosperity. Other factors, like the war itself, advancing technology, and lingering effects of the destruction of European society in the Great War, all played a part in unmooring the West. The school’s heirs, however, are another matter. The sex therapist and charlatan Wilhelm Reich and others vulgarized the Frankfurt School (and others such as Sigmund Freud) into a crude mix of anti-capitalist, anti-religious, “individualist” ideology.
In the place of the traditional elements of culture, the radicals of the 1960s and 1970s proposed the “liberated” individual, shorn of any duty to God, family or anything other than their own wills. Christians had seen this before. What the radicals proposed was nothing less than what the serpent proposed in Eden.
This “pleasure palace” is an inverse of the Christian vision (and hence, for that reason, Satanic). To succeed, it must dissolve not only the theological bases of Christianity, such as the value of suffering, the need for redemption and the call to charity. But the far left must also destroy the natural forms of society (preeminently the family), by which, through the application of reason, people can come to understand those theological bases. Accordingly, they must both be attacked, until reality itself is questioned as nothing more than a “social construct” or “tool of oppression.” The proponents of this ideology realized that pop culture was where to fight the battle in a disparate country like the United States, something that defenders of Western culture were slow to learn. For every The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson that tells the Christian story, there are a hundred sitcom episodes that mock religion and treat the traditional family as a punch line.
But, of course, as Walsh shows, such a counterreligion cannot ultimately succeed, because the pleasure palace is an illusion. In the modern world, the regimes that have tried to enact (for example, in various communist utopias) it have caused the death of millions.
In the modern West, the cost of our illusion, in abortion and euthanasia and divorce, is less obvious, but stark nonetheless.
As reports Walsh, who spent some time behind the Iron Curtain, such a society cannot hold since it is based on lies about the human person.
Walsh ranges widely across film, literature and especially music to show how this cultural conflict, which he calls a “New Cold War,” has appeared across our culture. The core of this coruscating jeremiad occurs in a chapter titled, “Of Eros and Thanatos.” These are the two great lures of the modern world. Eros is the driving force, and Thanatos (Death) is the great fear. It turns out that liberation is just as “dogmatic” as the religious views the freethinkers say they have left behind. What is important to the residents of the pleasure palace is not logic or reason, but to be on “the Right Side of History, surfing the Arc as it bends toward Justice.” Thus the silencing of opponents of the sexual revolution or those promoting religious virtue is a natural consequence of dogma, not the reasoned discourse promised by liberalism.
Though at times a breathless read, as Walsh runs at breakneck speed through the issues, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace is an essential read for those wanting an account of what is at stake in our current cultural situation.