Category Archives: nostalgia

The good old days

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Dalrymple speaks (from 3:15) of his nostalgia for the Syria of Hafez al-Assad (pictured with friend), when it was still possible to understand who was massacring whom

A cultured utopia

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 09.06.41It is difficult, says Dalrymple, to see

what the French wanted a mandate in Syria for, other than to maintain their prestige and be generally important.

France and Britain ratted on the Arabs and between them

carved out territories that had no real meaning for their inhabitants but whose borders held for 100 years, which is said by some to be at the root of the present troubles. I don’t really believe it: I doubt that the Middle East would have become some kind of sandy Scandinavia if it had been left to its own devices.

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 08.48.18Joseph Kessel, in his 1926 book on Syria, argues that

the French made the mistake of changing their top administrators too often, so that by the time any of them began to grasp something about the country they made way for a replacement who knew nothing.

Dalrymple bought the 2014 Folio edition of En Syrie

because of the picture on its front, the photograph of a street in a still-Ottoman Damascus taken, I should imagine, about 1914, in the subtle shades of early colour postcards. It is a beautiful narrow street, leading (I think) to the Great Mosque in the distance.

Joseph Kessel

Joseph Kessel

It conveys

peace and a civilised existence. In the foreground a couple of men ride donkeys; in the middle distance are the only wheeled vehicles, a couple of calèches; the sun is overhead and the pedestrians cast long shadows, two of them walking with parasols. The architecture is pure Ottoman, with delicately-latticed mashrabiyas overhanging the unpaved road below. Life continues at a pleasingly slow pace.

The picture, says Dalrymple,

excites nostalgia for something that one has not even known and never existed; it provokes an almost dream-like state, a reverie of a life without politics and ideology, a cultured utopia, where there is an abundance of beauty and taste rather than of things, where people treat each other with ceremonial courtesy rather than in business-like fashion at best, and even the smallest and most ordinary of things are infused with a concern for aesthetics. A more fully human life.

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 08.55.27Dalrymple says that in his peregrinations,

I occasionally came across somewhere in which I thought, or rather preferred in my ignorance to imagine, there was such a life. All those places have since descended into chaos and massacre, with millions fled or displaced and the vilest doctrines propagated.

Kessel, who among many other things wrote a novel about Himmler’s charlatan doctor, was, says Dalrymple, a kind of

André Malraux minus the self-advertisement and dishonesty.

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Islamism is as nonsensical and malevolent as Marxism

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 21.13.10Islamism, writes Dalrymple,

is so stupid, preposterous, intellectually nugatory and appallingly catastrophic in its effects that it makes one almost nostalgic for the days of Marxism.

Almost.

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The classless society: of this earth only

At least Marxism

had a patina of rationality, and most of its adherents (in the West at any rate), while not averse to violence in the abstract, were willing to postpone the final, extremely violent apocalypse to some future date and did not believe that by blowing themselves up or cutting people’s throats they would ascend directly to the classless society or meet Marx in his pantheon.

You could be a martyr in the Marxist cause,

Richard Sorge was hanged in Japan in 1944. He became a Hero of the Soviet Union in 1964

Richard Sorge was hanged in Japan in 1944. He became a Hero of the Soviet Union in 1964

but only on the understanding that death was final. The best you could hope for was that, after the final victory of the proletarian revolution, you would have a postage stamp issued in your memory.

This does not have quite the same attraction as

an everlasting orgy in a cool desert oasis while everyone else is roasting eternally in Gehenna. (No bliss is quite complete without someone else’s agony.)

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The communist world of yesterday

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 23.19.29Και τώρα τι θα γένουμε χωρίς βαρβάρους.
Οι άνθρωποι αυτοί ήσαν μια κάποια λύσις.

Nostalgia has its own laws

Dalrymple is nostalgic for

something that I detested at the time and detest still, namely communism as it was practised in Eastern Europe. I sometimes wished it was still there so that I could experience the thrill of crossing the Iron Curtain.

Berlin Friedrichstraße station

Friedrichstraße

Self-indulgence

He recognises that this is

an entirely self-indulgent wish, for it pits my enjoyment of a relatively fleeting sensation against the prolonged suffering of millions of people.

Communists

were a kind of solution for us; the world they created was something near, bordering and threatening us, that was worse, far worse, than anything that we had, no matter what our dissatisfactions with what we had might have been.

BucharestNakedness

This was

snatched from us by communism’s unexpected collapse. We were left with our dissatisfactions naked and unadorned, without the consolation for them that the existence of communism not very far away offered us. The communists simplified the world for us.

Dalrymple misses the atmosphere of the communist days:

the dim lights, the unanimated streets, the absence of traffic, the smell of bad, adulterated fuel that polluted the air, the hushed voices, the echoing footfall, the grey dilapidation, the feeling of satisfaction if one found anything to eat, above all the frisson of fear that one was being watched and followed.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 00.12.46Prurience

For a young man

such as I – with an easy escape route, of course, for I do not pretend that my experience had anything to do, or bore any comparison with, that of the people actually living in those countries – the idea that I might be considered dangerous enough to be watched or followed was flattering, for in my own country I was of no account whatsoever.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 00.15.38Salacity

Then,

on the very brief occasions when one made human contact with someone in those benighted, oppressed lands, that were like flashes of lightning that illuminated for a second a black landscape, one sensed a person with an intensity of experience much deeper than one’s own, a person who lived on a philosophical plane, whose life had been stripped down to the essential: and whom, with foolish romanticism, one almost envied.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 00.21.16What did Dalrymple have

to set against their problems: an unhappy childhood, uncertainty about my career? Mere trifles by comparison with the peine forte et dure that was life in the Peoples’ Republics.

His enjoyment behind the Iron Curtain

was salacious, prurient and self-indulgent, with just enough of a grain of philosophy thrown in to assure myself that I had a higher purpose in thus enjoying myself.

Therefore Dalrymple does not claim for his nostalgia

any superior sensibility, much less a proper role in political thought or philosophy. In fact, I am rather ashamed of it, that I am capable of looking back on what was a terrible period for millions with something like affection.

 

Guts spilling out of a sheep’s open belly

It was dead, wasn’t it, Theodore?