Kramnick's aim is radical indeed: he aspires to stand Burke on his formidable head, to make him nothing less than a Jacobin...



Kramnick's aim is radical indeed: he aspires to stand Burke on his formidable head, to make him nothing less than a Jacobin manquè. It is a daring venture to rescue Burke, the patron saint of modern conservatives, from himself, and Kramnick almost pulls it off. He proceeds by way of biography, peering into the deliberately obscured early life in Ireland and London and its unreconciled ""oedipal themes."" Happily, he doesn't leave Burke on the analyst's couch but follows through with a sensitive reading of the public record. What he finds is an ongoing clash--""ambivalence"" seems too mild a term--between Burke the apologist for the aristocracy and Burke the self-made man of vaunting ambition. The groveling self-deprecations of the Marquess of Rockingham's private secretary were matched by outbursts of bitter resentment toward the grandees who excelled by inheritance but not by merit or talents-men he sometimes saw as parasites. But Kramnick goes further, arguing that the demonic horrors Burke ascribed to the Jacobins (the violence of his tirades led some to speak of Burke's ""madness"") were sexually rooted. The Jacobins--English and French--were to Burke the ""impious parricides"" of the aristocratic order which in his mind was associated with the gentle, feminine affections. The clincher in this psycho-sexual study is Burke's famous and noticeably hysterical lament for Marie Antoinette, beset on all sides by licentious rabble intent on defiling noble chivalry. This passage is among the most memorable in Burke's writings, and Kramnick uses it to illustrate the convergence of many repressed themes in Burke's own life. The book does not, finally, manage to put Burke in the camp of Godwin, Paine, and Price. What Kramnick has accomplished is to bring to light the private anguish which gave rise to Burke's virulence, the personal fears of displacing his ""betters,"" and the considerable ground he shared with those he repudiated and reviled. It may be too much to claim, as Kramnick does, that Burke became the ""personification"" of the 18th-century shift from aristocratic to bourgeois order, but certainly he has added a new, turbulent dimension to the pessimism of Burke's philosophy.

Pub Date: July 27, 1977


Page Count: -

Publisher: Basic Books

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1977