Category Archives: civilisational collapse

Elaborated bilge, which no amount of mathematics can dispel

According to the New Scientist magazine, two of the signs of the collapse of civilisation are the election of Donald Trump and the vote on Brexit. Thus, writes Dalrymple, one of the things that stands between us and the collapse of civilisation ‘is the European Parliament and the European Commission. I thought I was pessimistic, but this takes pessimism to a stage well beyond even mine. If one of the only things standing between us and the new Dark Ages is the European Commission, then all I can say is that those new Dark Ages will be very dark indeed.’

Fuck off, humanity!

Tours Nuages, Nanterre. Emile Aillaud, 1977

Tours Nuages, Nanterre. Emile Aillaud, 1977

This is the message, writes Dalrymple, of modern French architects. Their work, he points out, is

some of the worst in the world.

Perhaps, he says,

the rejection of beauty as a goal by French architects accounts in part for the adoption as a style by so many of the young French of deliberate ugliness and self-mutilation. In a world of brutal ugliness over which you have no control, you might as well admit defeat and join in.

He notes that while the worst of modern culture originates in England, it has in the rest of Europe

spread rapidly.

What do we care about a fucking piano?

A still from footage taken in Phnom Penh after its fall in April 1975. A grand piano also features in Dalrymple's Monrovia Mon Amour, in the chapter describing a visit to the Centennial Hall. Dalrymple writes: 'Lying on the ground…was a Steinway grand piano (the only one in the country…), its legs sawn off. The body of the piano, still gleaming black and in perfect condition, was in direct contact with the floor, while the three sawn legs were strewn about….A long-contemplated but long-frustrated revenge upon a whole alien civilization…. simmering rage and envy….Michel took photos of the stricken instrument….How long…before some post-modernist composer has a pianist not play the instrument but, in front of the audience, saw off its legs, to the craven applause of critics afraid to be thought stupid or reactionary?….We felt we had secured something of a scoop….We returned to the Olympic Hotel….There we found two…British photographers….I described to them…the destruction of the piano….’What do we care about a fucking piano?’ one of them said….I despaired then of my own country.'

A still from footage shot in Phnom Penh, April 1975. A piano also features in Dalrymple’s Monrovia Mon Amour, in a passage about a visit to the Centennial Hall. Dalrymple writes: ‘Lying on the ground was a Steinway grand piano (the only one in the country), its legs sawn off. The body of the piano, still gleaming black and in perfect condition, was in direct contact with the floor, while the three sawn legs were strewn about. A long-contemplated but long-frustrated revenge upon a whole alien civilisation… Simmering rage and envy. Michel took photos of the stricken instrument. How long before some post-modernist composer has a pianist not play the instrument but, in front of the audience, saw off its legs, to the craven applause of critics afraid to be thought stupid or reactionary? We felt we had secured something of a scoop. We returned to the Olympic Hotel. There we found two British photographers. I described to them…the destruction of the piano….’What do we care about a fucking piano?’ one of them said. I despaired then of my own country.’

Zweig’s descent from bliss to torment

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.25.31The main themes of the writings of Stefan Zweig are, Dalrymple explains,

  • the part that passion plays in human life. The need for control and the need for expression are in constant tension; any attempt to resolve the contradictions of our existence by dogmatic reference to a simple doctrine (and, compared with life, all doctrines are simple) will end in monomania and barbarism.
  • the destruction of civilisation by political dogma, exemplified by the wars that destroyed Zweig’s world and led him to suicide.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.27.32Having grown up in a world

where it was possible to live happily as so free an agent, Zweig found himself plunged into a world where it became impossible, where men had to organize to resist evil so that any freedom at all might be enjoyed.

In such a world,

Zweig’s refusal to commit to any collective institution or endeavour appeared feeble and parasitic.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.28.44Early in life,

by cultivating the acquaintance of prostitutes, pimps, and others on the margins of society, he learned about the lower depths, from whose ugly reality his status as a child of the haute bourgeoisie had sheltered him.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.31.29War

smashed the old world that Zweig so esteemed.

He saw the storm clouds gathering over his native Austria earlier than many. But other German exiles criticized him for being insufficiently vociferous in denouncing the Nazis.

Hitler in Vienna

The messenger of misery comes to Vienna

It is true that he joined no anti-Nazi groups and hardly raised his voice against the Nazi horror. As a free man, he did not want the Nazis to be able to dictate his mode of expression—even if it were in opposition to them. The insufficiency of this fastidiousness at such a conjuncture needs little emphasis.

But Zweig felt

that strident denunciation would grant the Nazis a victory of sorts. And—like many intellectuals who overestimate the importance that the intellect plays in history and in life—Zweig viewed the Nazis as beneath contempt. Their doctrine and world outlook being so obviously ridiculous and morally odious, why waste time refuting them?

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.39.37The nearest he came to denouncing the Nazis

was in one of his brilliant historical studies, published in 1936: The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin.

Of course, it was not so easy to dismiss the Nazis.

The contempt of a fastidious aesthete would not defeat them: far sterner measures were necessary. But Zweig, born in the pre-ideological age, did not want to live in a world where the only alternative to one ideology was what he thought would be a counter-ideology.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.54.57Dalrymple doubts that the modern world would have pleased Zweig.

The shrillness of our ideological debates, the emotional shallowness, the vulgarity of our culture, would have appalled him.

To read Zweig

is to learn what, through stupidity and evil, we progressively lost in the twentieth century.

Conservator of civilisation

Zweig in 1900

Zweig in 1900

The secondhand book dealer’s vital contribution

Dalrymple writes that in Buchmendel (1929), Stefan Zweig

indicates symbolically, and with great force, the destruction of cosmopolitan tolerance by the nationalist madness of the First World War in the fate of a single person.

Buchmendel

is a Jewish peddler of antiquarian books in Vienna. For many years before the outbreak of the war, he carried out his business in a Viennese café. Buchmendel lives for books; he has no other life. He is astonishingly learned, in the offbeat way of secondhand book dealers; every scholar in Vienna (the Vienna, recall, of Brahms, Freud, and Breuer, of Mahler and Klimt, of Schnitzler, Rilke, and Hofmannsthal) consults him on bibliographical matters.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 22.13.23Buchmendel is otherworldly.

His wants are few, his interest in money minimal. The café owner is happy to have as a customer a man consulted by so many eminent men, even though he consumes little and occupies a table all day. The café owner understands, as does everyone else, that Buchmendel is a contributor to, because he is a conservator of, civilisation, and being a civilised man himself, he is honored to welcome him.

But the war supervenes.

Buchmendel is arrested, because he has written to both London and Paris, asking why he has not received copies of bibliographical reviews. The military censors assume that this correspondence is a code for espionage: they can’t conceive that a man could concern himself with bibliography at such a time. The  authorities discover that Buchmendel, born in Russian Galicia, is not even an Austrian citizen. Interned in a camp for enemy aliens, he waits two years before the authorities realise that he is only what he seems, a book peddler.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 22.13.04On his release, Vienna has changed.

No longer the centre of an empire, it has become the impoverished capital of a monoglot rump state. Buchmendel’s café has changed hands; the new owner does not understand or welcome Buchmendel and ejects him. Buchmendel’s life has fallen apart, as has the civilisation to which he was a valuable contributor; now homeless, he soon dies of pneumonia.

Zweig makes it clear

that though Buchmendel was eccentric and his life one-dimensional, even stunted, he could offer his unique contribution to Viennese civilisation because no one cared about his nationality. His work and knowledge were vastly more important to his cosmopolitan customers than his membership in a collectivity.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 22.13.54No man was more sensitive than Zweig

to the destructive effects upon individual liberty of the demands of large or strident collectivities. He would have viewed with horror the cacophony of monomanias — sexual, racial, social, egalitarian — that marks the intellectual life of our societies, each monomaniac demanding legislative restriction on the freedom of others in the name of a supposed greater, collective good. His work was a prolonged (though muted and polite) protest at the balkanisation of our minds and sympathies.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 22.14.50

Postcards from Cheltenham

'Civilisations are not destroyed from without; they collapse from within. That collapse may be in slow motion, it may take decades, but it is collapse nonetheless. Cheltenham is as good a place as any to witness, if you really want to do so, barbarians inhabiting graceful ruins'

‘Civilisations are not destroyed from without; they collapse from within. That collapse may be in slow motion, it may take decades, but it is collapse nonetheless. Cheltenham is as good a place as any to witness, if you really want to do so, barbarians inhabiting graceful ruins.’

'Devoid of talent, ideas, or taste, but too arrogant to learn from past ages or to accommodate what he built to what was already there, the architect had only prepotency as the means by which to distinguish himself, as the bully has fear, and of that he made the maximum use. It was enough: once this single building had been erected, nothing mattered any more, for nothing anyone could do as an individual would be more destructive or aesthetically offensive'

‘Devoid of talent, ideas, or taste, but too arrogant to learn from past ages or to accommodate what he built to what was already there, the architect had only prepotency as the means by which to distinguish himself, as the bully has fear, and of that he made the maximum use. It was enough: once this single building had been erected, nothing mattered any more, for nothing anyone could do as an individual would be more destructive or aesthetically offensive.’

'An insurance company, no doubt having successfully bribed the local council for permission to do so, erected a gray concrete tower designed by an architect who, if there had been any justice in the world, would have had his eyes put out so that he never built anything as ugly again'

‘An insurance company, no doubt having successfully bribed the local council for permission to do so, erected a grey concrete tower designed by an architect who, if there had been any justice in the world, would have had his eyes put out so that he never built anything as ugly again.’

'There is no better vantage point to see the destruction of a civilisation by barbarian architects than Imperial Square in Cheltenham. This was, until the 1960s or early 1970s, a most elegant urban space, completely harmonious, a call to refinement'

‘There is no better vantage point to see the destruction of a civilisation by barbarian architects than Imperial Square in Cheltenham. This was, until the 1960s or early 1970s, a most elegant urban space, completely harmonious, a call to refinement.’

‘Why are the British now barbarians living in the ruins of a former civilization of which they are either wilfully ignorant or which they actively detest? Perhaps it is, at least in part, an effect of the architecture that for the last sixty years has been imposed upon them'

‘Why are the British now barbarians living in the ruins of a former civilisation of which they are either wilfully ignorant or which they actively detest? Perhaps it is, at least in part, an effect of the architecture that for the last sixty years has been imposed upon them.’

Eagle Tower (offices of Eagle Star insurance company), Cheltenham. 1968, Stone Thomas & Partners

Eagle Tower (offices of Eagle Star insurance company). 1968, Stone Thomas & Partners.