La vie française de Dalrymple

From the Wanderlust interview


Maria-Antonietta the shepherdess torn to pieces

Leys turns wolf and eats Macchiocchi for breakfast

Sometimes Marxist baloney requires to be countered — and vigorously

Simon Leys, writes Dalrymple,

conveyed his authority—moral and literary—from the first sentence of everything he wrote. He never descended into obscurity and could say the most serious things with a light touch and in the simplest language.

He was a mild-mannered, restrained and courteous man,

as remote from self-advertisement or self-promotion

as it is possible to be, yet he once unaccountably found himself on television, on a talk show called Apostrophes. He was pitted against a conceited Maoist by the name of Maria-Antonietta Macchiocchi, a journalist-politician who had briefly visited China for the Gramsci-founded newspaper L’Unità. Speaking not a word of the language and knowing almost nothing about the country, she had been led by the nose by her guides. Her ignorance did not prevent her from publishing Dalla Cina (1971; 433 pages), which on the subject of the Cultural Revolution was, Dalrymple notes,

full of gushing sentiment. Because of the ideology she espoused, she was utterly credulous and foolish. She believed she was witnessing a dream come true — when she was in the midst of a nightmare involving scores of millions of people and the total destruction of much that was precious. In terms of deaths, the Cultural Revolution was not as bad as the Great Leap Forward, but it was bad enough.

The immensely learned China scholar Leys — who among many other things, produced an outstanding translation of the Confucian Analects — was outraged by people like Macchiocchi and their abominable ideas

because he loved the people and civilisation of China.

Leys rightly regarded Macchiocchi and her kind as

frivolous and ignorant, fundamentally uninterested in that of which they wrote, and using China as a tool in the resolution of their trivial personal psychodramas.

Macchiocchi: mammouth de la bêtise

On the TV show, the presenter asked Macchiocchi to speak first. She prattled about her life having been one of chastity and of devotion: the saints were wedded to God, she to the People. And she would redeem the People; she positively immolated herself day and night for the People.

Rot of such egregiousness, says Dalrymple, was too much for Leys, who remarked:

Je pense que les idiots disent des idioties, c’est comme les pommiers produisent des pommes. C’est dans la nature, c’est normal.

Une certaine idée de la Chine

Leys made clear that what he was saying was nothing personal, it was just that he had to take a stand against all the frivolous idiocies that had been written about Mao and Maoism by Western intellectuals. He had this to say about Macchiocchi’s 433 pages of drivel:

Le problème c’est qu’il y ait des lecteurs pour les prendre au sérieux et là évidemment se trouve le problème qui mériterait d’être analysé. Prenons le cas de Mme Macciocchi par exemple. Je n’ai rien contre Mme Macciocchi personnellement, je n’ai jamais eu le plaisir de faire sa connaissance. Quand je parle de Mme Macciocchi, je parle d’une certaine idée de la Chine, je parle de son œuvre, pas de sa personne. Son ouvrage De la Chine, c’est — ce qu’on peut dire de plus charitable, c’est que c’est d’une stupidité totale, parce que si on ne l’accusait pas d’être stupide, il faudrait dire que c’est une escroquerie.

It was as devastating as Leys’ comment on Malraux, Barthes and and all the other frauds who thought they had grasped the essence of China:

Ces mammouths de la bêtise qui n’en finissent pas, depuis un quart de siècle, d’étirer leurs pondéreuses caravanes sur les rayons des librairies.

Leys’ ferocious television onslaught on Macchiocchi was, of course, richly earned and necessary, for as Dalrymple observes,

any Chinese who had lived and suffered through those terrible years would suffer a second time if he read the praise lavished on his tormentors by those who were so easily duped by the régime’s flattery machine. Macchiocchi deserved what she got.

A sad fate

Macchiocchi, Dalrymple explains,

never fully recovered from the humiliation that she suffered on that night because Leys was so obviously a man of integrity, intellectual quality, and attachment to the truth that she must have known that what he said was both true and justified.

She lived with this knowledge for another 24 years, dying at the age of 85. You can, Dalrymple supposes,

endure such a humiliation when you are young (though it might deform your character if you are inclined to be so deformed), but you still have time to overcome it by later success. But to live the last quarter of a long life in the shadow of such a humiliation, one that nothing will now erase, is a sad fate indeed.

Barthes in Beijing

By a Western expert

Malraux and friends

Leys delivers the coup de grâce

Dalrymple bookshelves

From the Wanderlust interview

Courage in an evil cause

Dalrymple writes that English

is said to have the largest vocabulary of any language.

So in a way

it was an achievement on the part of Theresa May to have found exactly the wrong word to describe the Parsons Green bombing (2017), namely, to say that it was ‘cowardly’.

The attack, Dalrymple notes,

was not a cowardly action: it was evil as well as stupid, and many other things no doubt, but it was not cowardly. Planting a crude bomb does not require, perhaps, quite so much bravery as it does to blow yourself up, but no one with any imagination can suppose that placing a bomb in a public place is an undertaking for a coward, or that it requires no courage. On the contrary, it requires considerable courage to do such a thing; if it did not, it is probable that there would be many more bombs and terrorist attacks than there already are. To place a bomb like this, one must face the risk of premature explosion and mutilation, the risk of being set upon by witnesses, and the likelihood of being caught and spending years in prison. These are not risks that most of us would care to take.

Does it matter, Dalrymple asks,

if a word, uttered in the heat, or nearly in the heat, of the moment (though surely by now, May must have rehearsed in her mind what to say in the event of a terrorist outrage) is wrong? It would be impossible to estimate with certainty or exactitude the harm done by the misuse of words in these circumstances. But nevertheless there is an unpleasant corollary to May’s statement: if even part of what is wrong about leaving a bomb in Parsons Green station is that it is a cowardly thing to do, then a terrorist attack that is more direct, and hence less cowardly, must be better, from a moral perspective. Are we to admire terrorists who stare their victims in the face, or put themselves directly in self-harm’s way? Bravery in the promotion or defence of a bad cause does not make the cause better, or a heinous act any more praiseworthy.

Wild animal


Dalrymple recalls a story told by Vera Hegi in Les Captifs du Zoo (1942), which he summarises as follows:

One day a man gave an elephant in the zoo three bread rolls, into the last of which, from malignity, he insinuated a razor-blade. The elephant managed to remove the razor-blade with its trunk.

Well, Dalrymple has a story of his own. He writes:

In the prison in which I worked as a doctor, a man repeatedly tried to cut himself, sometimes dangerously. He was under the constant watch of two guards.


a prisoner slipped him a razor-blade embedded in a potato.

The prisoner managed to extract the razor-blade from the potato, and with the razor-blade,

he cut his throat.

Yes, says Dalrymple,

Man is definitely different from other animals.

Seek ye first the political kingdom

and all things shall be added unto you

So said Kwame Nkrumah, first president (1960-66) of independent Ghana, also winner (1962) of the Lenin Peace Prize.

Dalrymple writes that Nkrumah sought and found the political kingdom,

and within a few years his formerly prospering country was bankrupt, obliged to spend several decades trying to recover from his short reign.

Dalrymple points out that

within quite a range of circumstances, purely political action, however necessary it might sometimes be, does not produce the happy economic results expected of it. Prosperity for whole nations or large groups of people cannot simply be conjured by political fiat from a total economic product that already exists. The people themselves must have the attributes necessary to prosper; and no amount of political posturing by their leaders, whether they be self-appointed or democratically elected, will give them those attributes.

The latrines of Nîmes

Gare de Nîmes public toilets

The No. 1 annoyance in the Gard

For the purpose of micturition, Dalrymple decides to make use of the public conveniences at Nîmes railway station.

But he is greatly upset by the lavatories’ public-address system, because of the stationmaster’s insistence that rock-music bilge be relayed through it while gentlemen pass water. He asks:

Is modern man really so lacking in what my teachers used to call inner resources that he must be entertained while he urinates?

Dalrymple admits to

an aversion to rock music at the best of times. It seeps into the public space in the Western world as martial music and political propaganda seep into the North Korean public space (and all space in North Korea is public).

To be able to point Percy at the porcelain IN PEACE AND QUIET is surely a basic human right

The enveloping sound of the pop drivel irritates Dalrymple intensely. Having paid his 80 cents, he really feels he has

a right to urinate in silence.

Rock music, he says, is

a distraction, being both a noise and a source of æsthetic discomfort.

Looters at the ready

The threat of barbarism and mob rule

In conditions of anarchy, after, for instance, a hurricane,

a crude and violent order, based upon brute force and psychopathic ruthlessness, soon establishes itself, which regards philanthropy not as a friend but as an enemy and a threat.

While Dalrymple acknowledges that

all of us who were born with original sin (or whatever you want to call man’s fundamental natural flaws) are capable of savagery in the right circumstances,

he points out that by no means all of us

immediately lose our veneer of civilisation in conditions of adversity, however great. A veneer may be thin, but this makes it more, not less, precious, and its upkeep more, not less, important.

Looters, Dalrymple notes,

look bitter, angry, resentful, and vengeful as they go about what British burglars are inclined (in all seriousness) to call their ‘work’. The gangs are reported to have used racial taunts during their depredations. In all probability, the looters believe that, in removing as much as they can from stores, they are not so much stealing as performing acts of restitution or compensatory justice for wrongs received. They are not wronging the owners of the stores; on the contrary, the owners of the stores have wronged them over the years by restricting their access to the goods they covet and to which they believe they have a right. The hurricane has thus given them the opportunity to take justice into their own hands and settle old scores.

It is, he says,

a terrible indictment of all the efforts undertaken in recent years by government welfare programmes and institutions that practice affirmative action, such as universities, to ameliorate the condition of underclass blacks. It implies that the nihilistic alienation of the looters and gang members is as great as that to be found in Soweto at the height of the apartheid regime. Far from ameliorating the situation, then, the billions spent on welfare programmes, and the intellectual ingenuity expended on justifying the unjustifiable in the form of affirmative action, have resulted in a hatred that is bitter and widespread among those condescended to in this manner.

American justice

Joe Jones, 1933. Columbus Museum of Art. Dalrymple writes: ‘There were Communists among the American artists in the 1930s who probably would have become socialist realists à la Stalin, if (as was, in reality, impossible) the US had turned Communist; but in the US political context, theirs was an art of protest, not unjustified in itself but ill-assorted with their blindness to the incomparably worse horrors of Soviet Russia. The working-class, self-taught Jones painted his powerful work to protest lynchings and the continued existence of the Klu Klux Klan. This was perfectly justified; lynchings, though not numerous given the size of the US population, must have exerted an influence far beyond their statistical importance, not unlike Islamist terrorism today; yet even lynchings were a minor phenomenon compared with the mass executions and starvation synonymous with Communism from its inception. Despite his obvious and sincere sympathy for the impoverished and downtrodden, Jones could not imagine that anything was worse elsewhere—least of all in his imagined utopia-on-earth.’

In pursuit of an enemy to eliminate

Dalrymple writes: ‘Kazimir Malevich’s Red Cavalry [Russian Museum, St Petersburg] of 1932—the last year with any scope left for ambiguity in Soviet art before socialist realism was pronounced the one true style—was a response to increasing pressure on him, one of the originators of abstract painting, to return to figuration. It is still partly abstract, with kilim-like colored stripes representing land below a pale sky that shades upward into indigo; but over the land thunder 12 rows of schematic Red Cavalry, as though crossing the endless plains of central Russia. Nothing in the picture, however, indicates whether their cause is good or evil, whether the horsemen are heroic or vicious. Since all of Malevich’s other figurative paintings of the time show heads without faces—an oblique commentary on the Soviet dream of cloning communist Man socially, if not genetically—it is fair to conclude that the artist did not intend his Red Cavalry to be seen as wholly heroic—though one could interpret them that way if proceeding from the premise of their heroism.’