To measure Mr. Buckley is to measure both language and media
Right Reason, by William F. Buckley Jr. New York: Doubleday & Co. 454 pp. $19.95. Everybody at some point during the hectic holidays has to retreat into his corner and escape. I remember a corner of our living room where, in the glow of the hearth, my father kept his reading matter. Many was the time I curled up next to the fire with a book, or, more often than not, it was the blue border of National Review that caught my eye. There I became exposed, as they say, to the English language through the kind of magisterial journalism that William F. Buckley Jr. has devoted his life to.
Since the early 1950s, when his monthly National Review was establishing itself as the voice of American conservativism, William F. Buckley Jr. has become a personality. The germ of his role, that of America's enfant terrible, was unmistakable in ``God and Man at Yale'' (1951), Buckley's account of his student days at Yale. But the title of his most recent book points beyond personality. According to the introduction, ``Right Reason'' refers to ratio recta, or ``order of nature, and the order engendered in human thought and action when they conform to it.'' Nice title, but does a book by Buckley deserve it?
It's just possible Buckley is overexposed. The New York Times covered the National Review's 30th birthday dinner; President and Mrs. Reagan were there. For Buckley's own 60th birthday, Richard Brookhiser, senior editor of National Review, has edited this book, which is a collection of recent articles, columns, speeches, and essays. It is the first such collection in seven years. Mr. Buckley was on Johnny Carson's ``Tonight'' show recently talking about the book. If you missed his latest widely syndicate d column, or his latest Blackford Oakes suspense novel (they always make the New York Times best-seller list, which says something about our times and Buckley's cunning), there's always Buckley's own TV show ``Firing Line,'' which has made his serpentine, flickering tongue a permanent feature on the cultural horizon.
Just how good is Buckley? Hard to tell. His mastery of many media, based as it is on his mastery of the English language, makes him unique.
Buckley is widely perceived to be a snob. The fitful and sometimes sustained views we get in his books of his limos and his yachts make some people jealous. Buckley's chosen musical instrument, the harpsichord, is of a piece with his other values, though he says that it was his ``attraction to the music of Bach'' that led him to the harpsichord.
Buckley's style is stylish. Buckley's English has a latinate dimension: a column is titled ``For Moderation in Osculation.'' Add to this Buckley's general concern for precision of definition. A column on New York's Gov. Mario Cuomo opens with a discussion of the meanings (from Webster's Third International, of course) of the word ``to pander.''
Add to the latinate vocabulary and the general concern for precision of definition Buckley's concern for logical rigor. As he writes, ``It is extremely difficult to get used to pristine conceptualization.''
Which means: it is extremely difficult to get used to Mr. Buckley, for he seems to embody the virtues of the sense of style he champions. Add to this his gestures. To faithful viewers of ``Firing Line,'' Buckley is known for his ability to lift one eyebrow independently of the other.
There are many beautiful pieces in ``Right Reason.'' Buckley has left a body of work -- which is far from complete; he's only 60, after all! -- whose characteristic tone derives from the ancient quality of pietas, love for country and family and God. His daily attention to the minutiae of the republic needs no documentation, nor does his religious integrity.
But readers may be surprised to hear that Buckley has written a moving memorial to John Lennon: ``Suddenly he seemed to walk tall. And it was in this posture that he was shot down. And perhaps his own experiences -- with drugs, with joyless sex, with enervating solipsism -- shrived him, and the generation that turned out to weep for him experienced something of that spiritual emancipation that comes to people who come to see things philosophically.''
Perhaps the piece with the most universal appeal closes the volume. It's called ``Aloise Steiner Buckley, R.I.P.'' It was written for the editor's column of National Review. In it, Buckley remembers his mother. It begins: ``She bore ten children, nine of whom have written for this journal [National Review] or worked for it, or both, and that earns her, I think, this half-acre of space normally devoted to those whose contributions are in the public mode.'' Women who bear such children definitely deserve public honors. The tone of this reminds one of very early Latin inscriptions to good wives and mothers. So does the tenderness that follows: ``There was no sensation to match the timbre of her pleasure on hearing from you when you called her on the telephone, or the vibration of her embrace when she laid eyes on you. Some things truly are unique.''
In terms one can apply to his prose, Buckley has written of his chosen instrument: ``The sound of an individual note of the harpsichord does not, if you are measuring decibels, increase measurably by pounding on it. Dynamic effects are therefore the consequence of balance: of rhythm and timing, of delicate releases, of notes properly held. The pleasure taken from hearing someone with these requisite skills performing on a fine instrument is the pleasure of petit point.''
We can be grateful that Buckley's first chosen instrument is the English language. May he continue to flourish, and to write well, into his seventh decade.
Tom D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.