“YOUR LITERARY men, and your politicians, and . . . the whole clan of the enlightened among us, . . . have no respect for the wisdom of others,” grumbled Edmund Burke in 1790, “but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own”; and he added, “duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all their hopes in discovery.” Today, it is not only the literary avant-garde that is attracted to the idea of permanent revolution in both the artistic and the political field. There is scarcely a self-respecting left-wing writer who does not flaunt his revolutionary sentiments. Yet if the modern revolutionary tradition may be said to extend from the French Revolution of 1789, it is now nearly two hundred years old, so that commitment to artistic and political revolution is hardly new, but rather the shape of modern conformism. Perhaps it would not be too paradoxical to suggest that the abandonment of a revolutionary aim in the arts and politics might be the truly original and revolutionary position today. What concerns us here, however, is the widespread acceptance of revolution as “a good thing,” the emotional basis of this allegiance, and the strain of hubris to which it so often leads.
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