Commentary Magazine


The Dragons of Expectation by Robert Conquest

The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History
by Robert Conquest
Norton. 272 pp. $24.95

In his famous 1951 essay on Leo Tolstoy, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin mined a fragmentary saying of the Greek poet Archilochus to create one of the most intriguing, if also sometimes misleading, dichotomies in the history of ideas.

“Hedgehogs” were those thinkers—Lucretius, Plato, Dante, Hegel, Dostoevsky—who were captives to a single large and all-embracing idea or concern. “Foxes,” on the other hand, were the elusive characters—Herodotus, Shakespeare, Montaigne—who entertained multifarious ideas, who saw many different principles and goods at work in the world, and were pleased to let them roam free rather than seeking to enclose them in the frame of a Big Picture. Hedgehogs were monists, foxes were pluralists, and the difference between them, as Berlin saw it, divided not only writers or thinkers but “human beings in general.”

We are right to approach such formulations with suspicion. As the wags say, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who don’t. But there is no doubt that Berlin’s dichotomy shed valuable light on Tolstoy in particular. He was, in Berlin’s analysis, a fox by nature who nevertheless believed in the necessity of being a hedgehog—a keen and subtle observer of the human condition who felt compelled to smother his insights and talents under a heavy blanket of big, unwieldy, mechanistic, and poorly thought-through conceptions of History. This contradiction—between what Tolstoy “believed about men and events, and what he thought he believed”—was finally debilitating; his inability to resolve the contradiction fatally undermined both his thought and his art.

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I dwell on the example of Tolstoy because it gives us a standard against which to estimate the achievement of Robert Conquest, not only in his present book but also in his remarkable career as a student of Soviet history. Such a comparison is grounded in something far more significant than both writers’ involvement in the bloody ground of the Russian past. For if there is one thing that is made clear in The Dragons of Expectation, it is that Robert Conquest is another of those foxes by nature, but one who was forced, by the circumstances of his times and by his subject matter, to function as something of a hedgehog. This may well be how he will be remembered; and remembered he surely will be.

Conquest’s name will forever be associated, rightly and honorably, with his patient, courageous, and relentless exposure of the depths of depravity to which the regime of Soviet Communism, and the ranks of its Western apologists, descended during the century just past. The massively detailed and unflinching vision of books like The Great Terror (1968), his definitive study of Stalin’s purges, and Harvest of Sorrow (1986), his equally definitive study of Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture, has only been confirmed and upheld by the flood of documents emerging out of the opening of Soviet archives to researchers in the last decade and a half.

One might have expected that a writer whose labors had been confined to such a grim life-task would have been mentally consumed by it. The title of Conquest’s Reflections on a Ravaged Century (1999) might suggest just such a condition—a hedgehog, and a haunted one at that. But, as he demonstrates in this new book—a witty, jaunty, humane, and thoroughly engaging collection of loosely connected essays—that is not at all the case. Allowing himself the freedom to stroll casually through a wide array of subjects, feeling under no compulsion to be definitive, he writes here as a man who has earned the right to express his opinions as he damned well pleases, and to be interested in whatever suits him.

There is little that does not suit him. Language, epistemology, liberalism, socialism, the cultural preconditions for democracy, the superiority of the Anglosphere, the abject failure of the UN and the EU, the “unteachable corners” of academia, the indispensable importance of art and the humanities, the horrors of professionalized literary appreciation, the recovery of form in modern poetry, the dangers of a cultural bureaucracy, the far frontiers of science—all these subjects are touched upon with the intelligence and confidence of a man who, like Archilochus’s fox, knows many things, and knows many of them in his bones. It is as if he were writing to show, defiantly, that not even the megalithic force of Soviet Communism was going to make him into a hedgehog.

In a sense, Conquest’s manner of discourse serves to model the kind of civilization he esteems—one that values individual idiosyncrasy and openness, and disdains fanaticism and monomania. But this is not to say that his work lacks consistent themes. Underlying all is a belief in the power of ideas, both for good and (perhaps especially) for ill, in human history.

Conquest’s title is taken from a 19th-century translation of one of the Norse Eddas. The image of “dragons of expectation,” which in the original generate forces of apocalyptic destruction through the beating of their wings, suggests the process by which ideas can produce visions of radical transformation that in turn may lead to manias and dogmas. Although history is a story of contingencies, and the future is unpredictable, much depends, in Conquest’s settled view, on “whether the dragons of expectation can be cleared out of our mental skies.”

On these grounds, not surprisingly, Conquest is contemptuous of the French Enlightenment, and indeed of much of the Continental European contribution to Western political and social thought. He disposes of them in summary fashion, clearly enjoying himself. The French Revolution’s chief contributions to our culture, he posits, were “exciting generalities,” mass conscription, and the idea of the Nation, while the Germans gave the world the befuddling Hegel and all his impossible epigones, Marxist and otherwise. As a strong proponent of the sturdy Anglo-American tradition of “law and liberty,” Conquest finds very little to be said for its rivals. “Do the United States and the United Kingdom have anything much to learn,” he asks, “from the European political or politico-academic theories and practices of the last hundred years?” He answers the question briskly: “I think not.”

The folly of the intellectuals is another frequent preoccupation. Their addiction to general words and concepts has the effect, Conquest says, of turning these tools of thought into “brain blindfolds” and “mind-blockers,” obstructing understanding and stifling debate. He believes that, in our own post-Marxist, post-socialist climate, intellectual discourse is devolving toward “an increasingly irrational conformism,” defined almost entirely by attacks on the Anglo-American culture of law and liberty that “fail to advance anything in the way of positive alternatives, however doctrinaire or even debatable.” In a nice summation of Burkean wisdom, he cautions that “we should not countenance the inflation of [our society’s] real defects into rejection of the three-quarters open society and its proposed replacement by a phantom, untried and untrue.”

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All in all, The Dragons of Expectation abounds with good sense, and one can recommend it warmly. And yet—there is a certain something that one finds missing. In his hardheaded anti-metaphysical premises and his eschewal of “expectation,” Conquest sometimes seems to embrace a form of moderate humaneness that asks too much of humanity. For human beings are nourished and motivated not only by “the actual” but by projections of the ideal, and also by hope—not the same thing as expectation, but closely akin to it. It is precisely these qualities that distinguish human beings from the competition.

To put it another way, one can share entirely Conquest’s preference for the Anglo-American emphasis on concreteness, incrementalism, historical accretion, common law, muddling through, and all the rest. But those qualities are not the entirety of that tradition, and they exist in tension with other qualities, metaphysical and moral, that are precisely what has given meaning to the moderation. As in Berlin’s pluralism, so in Conquest, the question of the proper ends of life is never quite on the table for consideration—or when it is, there are more ends than there is table space.

One catches a glimpse of this in Conquest’s epilogue, which is curiously—foxily—a poem. Here is Conquest’s attempt to address “the immensities of the universe . . . the questions of cosmology and philosophy . . . of human love and death.” It is a fascinating blend of scientific and poetic imagery, a mélange of astronomical immensities, “seething quanta,” “unobserved arrhythmias,” a “sleet of atoms,” and so on. The overall picture is somehow lively and yet bleakly mechanistic and fatalistic, with vast spaces and fleeting temporalities that recall the famous terror of Pascal.

But then Conquest pauses to acknowledge, and to seem almost comforted by, the fact that impenetrable mysteries remain, for science does not go to the deepest places. “Concept cantilevers,” he writes, “somehow don’t solve/The bridging of the spidery gulf/Between the nerved senses and the self.” He even concedes that, in unguarded moments, “wisps of totality may take shape,/mini-moments smooth as chiseled stone . . . with all the undivine withdrawn.” Or, “faintly felt through the near alive,/The softest touch of a tendril of love/Too light for leaf or belief.”

In other words, the things that make life worth living. On these questions, Conquest warns us, “one can only speak as an individual.” If that were really true, though, why would he have written a poem about them, let alone one so reminiscent of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”? But, granting his dubious premise for the moment, one can certainly admire without qualification Robert Conquest’s determination to be a fox, even to the point of guarding from suspect generalization those “wisps of totality,” with “the undivine withdrawn.”

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About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.




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