Theodore Dalrymple: An Appreciation

It is impossible to know what writing from our own time will survive hundreds of years from now, to take its place among the representative artifacts by which later eras get to know us. No doubt some work of real quality survives by accident (as several books of Livy survived only in one southern Italian monastery for nine centuries), while other work never receives the fame it deserves. Still, if I were allowed to choose what writing from our time would be saved and read far into the future, shining a light for posterity upon our contemporary situation, I would have to include many essays by Theodore Dalrymple.

A former doctor at a prison and an inner-city hospital, his original claim to fame seems to have been the essays he published anonymously (“Theodore Dalrymple” is in fact a pen name; his real name is Anthony Daniels), describing the situation of those living in what he calls the ‘underclass’ of England. These give a view of the sort of life led by so many of the poorest people in English society. Dalrymple’s perspective here is unusual: his theme is the devastating impact that left-wing policies and thinking have had on the poor. The point is not that left-wing policies fail to provide the poorest people with enough to eat or with adequate shelter, but rather that the culture created by left-wing thinking has dissolved restraints upon individual whim, and that this creates a uniquely brutal and miserable world. Having spent years working in Africa (inter alia), Dalrymple is able to compare conditions in England to his experiences there: “nothing I saw – neither the poverty nor the overt oppression – ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live that I see daily in England… the worst poverty is in England – and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul.”

This is one central idea that runs through a portion of his work, and I have begun with it because it brought about a shift in my thinking of a sort I have only known on one other occasion (in the course of my undergraduate education). Before reading Dalrymple, I was inclined towards the same view of the motivations behind conservatism as many on the left: it was a matter of not caring about other people, for example, by supporting right-wing economic policies as the result of greed. Such ad hominem arguments are difficult to apply to Dalrymple, since he has devoted more time and energy to the poor that most people, and as a doctor could easily have made more money in more pleasant circumstances. But more importantly, Dalrymple shows in a particularly vivid manner that there are reasons behind many conservative positions, reasons that I (like most of those on the left) had never imagined before reading his work.

For example, before reading Dalrymple, I had never seen the interest or urgency in studying the family as an institution. However, as one reads about how the family has effectively evaporated at the bottom of society, and discovers what this means for children growing up there – well, the importance of the family as an institution begins to look rather more important. Perhaps the best way to express the view is by analogy to the left, for both left and right are focused on the adverse consequences of new forms of freedom (a theme I considered in a post a couple weeks ago on a new book by Patrick Deneen). People on the left are concerned with the effects that free markets can have upon the poor; those on the right are concerned with the effects that a freedom from social norms can have upon the poor. In the nineteenth century, Engels and Mayhew brought attention to the former problem, and Dalrymple has made implicit comparisons between these two and himself: just as they drew attention to the reality of the condition of the poor – a reality of which very many were no doubt aware, but which was kept out of public discussion partly because of a reluctance to acknowledge what was going on – so too does Dalrymple do something similar.

Adequate deliberation requires that people speak frankly about even the most difficult or distasteful matters. One of the many virtues of Dalrymple’s writing – and not only on poverty – is his readiness to bring clearly into focus realities that many would prefer not to see, and not to think about, at all. This is not a man to be restrained by the pieties of our age, and as a result, one finds repeatedly that he has had his eye on important issues long before most others. Some example of his bracing frankness can be found in this piece on the homeless, or this piece on Paris, which certainly accords with some of what I saw in my months in that city, though pretty much nobody else seems to have written about it back then, or this piece on the elder Le Pen, or this piece on the Ray Honeyford affair, or these reflections on Islam – and if you want an example of Dalrymple’s ability to drive a point home, read this piece on the case of Anna Climbie.

The place to start with Dalrymple is with Life at the Bottom, a collection of essays. Three other collections are the logical next step: Our Culture, What’s Left of It, Not With a Bang But a Whimper, and Anything Goes (many – perhaps all – of the essays in these volumes are available for free online, but these books are so good, you’ll want to own them); there are many other excellent titles, including Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality, a full length book whose conclusion is alone worth the price. The collections of essays do include many pieces in which Dalrymple describes the condition of the English underclass, using examples from his practice as a doctor, but they include a great deal more. I would summarise Dalrymple’s work not as a chronicle of underclass life, but rather as a defense of the life of the mind. The failures of the intellectuals, he thinks, are a crucial cause of the grim lives of his lower-class patients, and with this view goes a focus on the importance of ideas in determining the course of human life. Accordingly, when we find Dalrymple writing about literature or architecture or art, it is not as complete a departure from his other subject matter as it might at first seem to be.

A number of his essays on high culture serve as a sort of appetizer, introductions that whet the appetite for more. Before reading this essay on Doctor Johnson, I had certainly heard of the man, but had little idea of what he was about, and certainly had never felt moved to read him, as I did after reading Dalrymple. Another essay introduces the Marquis de Custine, a French aristocrat who in 1843 wrote a work of real insight on Russia that Dalrymple compares to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Another compares the painting of Mary Cassatt to that of Joan Miro, and in doing so, seems to me to point to the heart of what happened to the West in the 20th century. Yet another is a sort of eulogy to his friend, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer who was hanged by the Nigerian government.

Not all of Dalrymple’s essay are appreciative, however. Sometimes he turns a critical eye upon certain of the best-regarded intellectuals of our time, and the criticism tends to be devastating. A favourite of mine is a piece in which Dalrymple brings his experience as a prison doctor to bear on Stephen Pinker’s book, The Language Instinct. We are not only given good reason to deny the truth of the book’s central theory (why doesn’t Pinker practise what he preaches in his own book?), but we are also presented with a criticism on another, perhaps deeper, level, for Dalrymple considers a likely reason for the popularity of Pinker’s theory: it provides for its adherents a feel-good solidarity with the downtrodden. This, too, Dalrymple undermines, for he shows how the consequences of Pinker in practice are regressive, keeping those at the bottom in their place – indeed, imprisoning them in the world into which they were born. (Pinker has apparently tried to answer Dalrymple, though I can’t seem to find this answer online. Anyone?) Dalrymple’s criticism of Virginia Woolf is also well worth reading, as is his piece on Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a devastating essay written two years before criticising Coates suddenly became cool. Also excellent is Dalrymple’s take on the New Atheists – though not himself religious, he nevertheless writes with sympathy about religion (Sam Harris wrote a brief response to Dalrymple, though it seems to me ineffective as regards the main issue). And speaking of religion, I found this book review by Dalrymple particularly thought-provoking in its reflection on the enthusiasm of so many left-wing intellectuals for murderous dictators.

Dalrymple has also written a number of travel books. The best of these, in my opinion, impinges on politics: in The Wilder Shores of Marx, Dalrymple travels to Albania, North Korea, Romania, Vietnam and Cuba shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The result is a valuable series of pictures of, and reflections on, life under Marxism, including a number of memorable (and chilling) scenes. Dalrymple’s father was a Marxist, but it seems that the son failed to inherit from his father an enthusiasm for that most notorious philosopher of the left. From time to time, Marx pops up elsewhere in Dalrymple’s writing, as this or that aspect of Marxist dogma is shown to founder on the rocks of real life. Apart from the travel book, this essay is perhaps his most sustained reflection on Marx.

Dalrymple’s other travel books include Zanzibar to Timbuktu, in which he travels across Africa using only transport available to the locals; Coups and Cocaine, his first book, which covers travels in South America (I’m still reading this one as I write); Fool or Physician, a memoir of his early career in such places as Rhodesia, South Africa, London and the Gilbert Islands; and Monrovia, Mon Amour, about Liberia. This last book contains a scene that sticks out in my memory, when Dalrymple visits the local warlord Prince Johnson. He takes care to do so in the morning, for in the morning Johnson tends not to be so drunk as later on, and is thus less likely to kill people. (“The weekend before I visited him, I was told he had killed seven people; I met someone whose brother had been killed by him on a night when he shot sixteen others; and I heard about his biggest bag, as it were, thirty-two in a night. He was an insomniac, and prowled the darkness with his AK-47.”) All these books are well worth a read, sometimes for the insight one view one gets on some aspect of, say, Africa, or of life on remote Pacific islands, and sometimes for the simple pleasure of reading Dalrymple.

For however great may be the insight he gives on this matter or that, still he writes so well, and so often with such sparkling humour, that I often find myself returning to essays I digested long ago, simply for the pleasure of reading them again. Dalrymple is a master of that ironic wit that seems to be peculiar to England; my favourite examples come when he plays on the well-known words of others. I believe it is in The Wilder Shores of Marx that he observes that in the late 80’s, a spectre was haunting Eastern Europe – the spectre of liberty. Elsewhere, we find a piece titled “Nasty, British and Short,” and I never forgot his comments on Tony Blair’s resignation speech: “he asked his audience to believe that he had always done what he thought was right. He would have been nearer the mark had he said that he always thought that what was right was whatever he had done.”

Dalrymple’s writing can also be magnificently concise. Go read this three-paragraph blog post on Jeremy Corbyn from two-and-a-half years ago. Not a sentence is wasted – scarcely a word – and we repeatedly find thought-provoking, double-edged formulations. For example: “he is a man of grinding and unnerving integrity;” “I think that he is a man of such probity that he would let the heavens fall so long as his version of social justice was done. Unfortunately, the heavens could fall, and they would fall on all of us…;” “he does not appear to be a man of erudition, culture or literary talent. That, of course, is a point in his favour, electorally-speaking…” I find more insight into the Corbyn situation in these brief paragraphs than in most much longer editorials (and note that back then Dalrymple was already denying that Corbyn was unelectable, a position held by few others at the time, though today few would say with confidence today that Corbyn will not be the next Prime Minister).

I have linked to many excellent essays in this post, but there are so many more, and at a certain point, one simply has to stop. However, I cannot resist including a few Dalrymple quotes, some to showcase his humour, some, his insight – and a couple just because he writes so well. I have limited myself to nine:

  • “I appear on Q & A with, inter alia, Germaine Greer. She is now notorious for having said that transsexual women are not the same as women, which seems to me a fairly innocuous proposition, but in our peculiar times the self-evident is dynamite in the way that satire is prophecy. ” (In “Diary” in the Spectator)
  • “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it: For the greater political correctness’ violation of common sense, the better—at least if its goal is power over men’s minds and conduct. In this sense it is like Communist propaganda of old: The greater the disparity between the claims of that propaganda and the everyday experience of those at whom it was directed, the greater the humiliation suffered by the latter, especially when they were obliged to repeat it, thus destroying their ability to resist, even in the secret corners of their heart.” (In “Two Forms of Mass Hysteria”)
  • “I caught an early flight recently and therefore stayed overnight at the airport hotel. Catching the lift to leave in the morning, the doors opened to reveal two beached human whales within. They gave the lie to the lift’s warning notice that it could fit eight people…. Across the male whale’s T-shirt was emblazoned a single word, ENGLAND, a superfluous message if ever there were one.” (In “Beached Whales in Bermuda Shorts”)
  • “The urban environment of Germany, whose towns and cities were once among the most beautiful in the world, second only to Italy’s, is now a wasteland of functional yet discordant modern architecture, soulless and incapable of inspiring anything but a vague existential unease, with a sense of impermanence and unreality that mere prosperity can do nothing to dispel. Well-stocked shops do not supply meaning or purpose.“ (In “The Specters Haunting Dresden” – as someone who has spent years in Germany, I can say what an insightful essay this is, in which Dalrymple’s eye for the telling detail or anecdote is on display)
  • “The sceptical, it turns out, are certainly not immune from the siren song of credulity. It is as if, exhausted by the mental effort of taking nothing on trust, they suddenly throw in the sponge and believe the most implausible nonsense that would not take in someone half as educated as they.” (In “Don’t Believe In Miracles”)
  • “Such is the fragility of the modern ego… of countless people brought up in our modern culture of ineffable self-importance, in which an insult is understood not as an inevitable human annoyance but as a wound that outweighs all the rest of one’s experience.” (In “The Suicide Bombers Among Us”)
  • “Nadine Gordimer had a voice whose timbre would have penetrated the best artillery-proof armor plating. On one occasion at the conference she condescendingly addressed a Ghanaian lady as ‘my sister Susan.’ ‘Actually, my name’s Gloria,’ said her sister Susan, but the great writer ignored this manifestation of pedantry and continued with what she was saying.” (In “The African Scene”)
  • “the rule of law requires a common cultural understanding, not -merely the means of repression to enforce a legal code. Once that basic cultural understanding is lost, all that remains is repression, effective or ineffective as the case may be, and experienced by many as alien and unjust. Nothing remains but conflict or surrender.” (In “Why Borders Matter”)
  • “I have talked to a lot of young Muslim critics of Western society, living in the West, and few of them were aware of the philosophical basis of Western achievement, which they believed to be merely materialist and founded on crude plunder, never having heard any other viewpoint.” (In “The Terrorists Among Us”)

Whether you’re on the left and want a better understanding of conservatism, or want better to understand the world we live in, or just want a good read, the essays of Theodore Dalrymple are indispensable – and they’re often not even 20 pages long. It is a rare writer who is willing to bring before his readers so much that others pass over in pious silence, and rarer still is the writer who can also provide the sort of original insight that we find in so many of Dalrymple’s essays. But someone who can do all this at the same time as producing writing that is a pleasure in itself to read – and often hilarious to boot – must be accounted a truly great writer. Dalrymple is certainly among the greatest essayists in the English language today, perhaps the very greatest.

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Author: Babbington

Citizen of the English-speaking world, resident of the German. Refugee from academia, writing a blog because, well, "in my heart there was a kind of fighting/That would not let me sleep."

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