Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 990

Buckley, generally viewed as an ideologist for his long-standing and occasionally quixotic defense of conservatism on principle, in Overdrive defines ideology itself as “a hierarchy of values.” Such a definition explains the apparent absence of any ideology in Overdrive, where the concerns are chiefly about ethical and ontological questions. The author’s well-known public persona, put forward rambunctiously over the years, however, impelled critics to view Overdrive as no more than a vehicle for the author’s image. Initial disclaimers of harboring the least resentment toward Buckley routinely dissolved into parodies of both the man and his style. In reverse counterpart to the boy who cried “Wolf!” too often, Buckley had in the past cried “Sunshine!” so often that even when he was submerged in a gathering darkness, his most eloquent defender, Norman Podhoretz, chided him for showing “all light and no shadow.”

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Grounded more deeply than the glitter of Buckley’s life are the two recurring themes in Overdrive: “right reason” and ghosts. Right reason is Buckley’s translation of the medieval Latin recta ratio, whose meaning combines intellectual integrity and simple ethics. Perhaps the unique paradox of Buckley is that his version of intellectual integrity—to which he holds fiercely—is primarily an ethical matter, only secondarily an intellectual matter, and scarcely an academic matter, since it must be manifested through a real application. In fact, Buckley’s wry report on how he preserved his dignity in the face of a hostile audience at Vassar College is perhaps his best example of right reason at work and triumphant. The genesis of right reason goes back to his close-knit family and the Millbrook School, an experience forming the heart of the book.

As for ghosts, Buckley’s most important is Whittaker Chambers. Chambers is no doubt a troubled ghost, but Buckley does not allow himself to entertain the possibility that Chambers perjured himself. His Chambers is a soft-spoken, infinitely weary, benign shade who visits only Buckley’s writing desk. By contrast, Harry Elmlark, the late newspaperman, has so robust a personality that Buckley speaks over his ashes as if Elmlark were alive.

It was no coincidence that the week chosen for the framework of the autobiography, in addition to being a relatively quiet one, was the week in which Buckley was deciding whether to contribute a commentary for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s television production of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945, 1959). Indeed, the “haunting” novel is primarily about decay and death, particularly in the thirteen-hour videotaped version that Buckley watched in a marathon session that week. Buckley, who knew Waugh (another ghost returning), explains his commentary as an intended counterbalance to what he perceived as the production’s anti-Catholicism, in accordance with Waugh’s dictum that the novel was “about God,” not the “fools” who misinterpret Him.

Brushed repeatedly by death, Buckley keeps refocusing on life, which abounds in small pleasures “whose resonances have been insufficiently sung.” This ordinary-extraordinary week brings the news that a friend, the harpsichordist Fernando Valenti, is terminally ill of cancer. Buckley draws a poignant contrast between Valenti’s enfeeblement and the vibrancy of the music he created. Then Buckley comes home to find his newly arrived houseguest, David Niven, still vivacious and irrepressible (as captured in a Buckley vignette) but already having “a most fearful time controlling his voice.” (The fact that Niven was then suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, known at the time of publication, is left out.)

Other guests arrive, one of whom has a bad back. For the first time, Buckley— still vital, active, taking hare-brained moonlight sails in midwinter—casually remarks, “I have chronic sinusitis, Dupuyter’s contracture, and skin cancer, so I suggest that we [the back-sufferer and Buckley] devote three minutes to our several physical complaints, and then shift to sublime subjects, like David’s and my books.” The ambassador to France soon drops in, which leads to the recollection of a practical joke of gargantuan proportions. It is characteristic that an elaborate practical joke directly follows the book’s darkest moment. Buckley’s summing-up, however, makes it clear that he is not denying death, particularly in this work.

As the week ends, he muses over his closest peer, Bill Rickenbacker, and the theme of right reason returns. Rickenbacker has an inventory of accomplishments similar to Buckley’s: “linguist, writer, economic analyst, humorist, pianist, and pilot.” Unlike Buckley, however, this friend never “merchandised” his talents, preferring to live on a farm, issue pastoral letters, and never make any money. Buckley thinks about this road not taken, which might easily have been his:Self-pleasure is heady stuff, but isn’t it . . . antisocial, in the grave sense of deciding not to share? . . . Some pleasures cannot be shared, but must one [not] seek to share those that can, which includes insight into right reason?

Emerging from this week, Buckley locates the source of a quotation that has been nagging at him and quotes it in full. The passage begins concretely, but concludes, “A great nothingness was before him, a great nothingness that was Something, a great nothingness that was All; and in the warm freedom from the tangible he knew his Savior and was absorbed by Him.” Responding to it, Buckley exclaims, “But the radiance of the whole thing cries out, and the great mysterious dilemma is made plain.” The same evening, he visits a lifelong friend who has just had a stroke. Home from the depressing visit (and it is typical of Buckley that sadness must be surmised indirectly, from the vigor of his reaction against it), he drinks in the unexpected arrival of his son Christopher, who “brings into the room freshness, affection, and informality.” In the unedited welter of material that this typical yet watershed week has thrown at him, life predominated over death. For all that has gone well (and the emphasis is Buckley’s), “we are obliged to be grateful. To be otherwise is wrong reason.”

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Critical Context