Category Archives: philistinism

Philistines v snobs

There naturally exist militant Philistines, writes Dalrymple,

the kind of people who think that any poem more complex or difficult to interpret than birthday card doggerel is too pretentious to be bothered with.

Of course, a tendency equal and opposite to such Philistinism is, he points out,

snobbery about the accessible, as if the accessible were necessarily trivial because it required no intermediary to explain it.

Jewelled prose disguising narcissistic rage

Dalrymple asks of Virginia Woolf:

Might the revelation by the war of the utter frivolity of her attitudinising have contributed to her decision to commit suicide? If the good life is a matter of judgment, the war proved that all her adult life she had none.

Yet he notes that had she survived to our time,

she would have had the satisfaction of observing that her cast of mind — shallow, dishonest, resentful, envious, snobbish, self-absorbed, trivial, philistine, brutal — had triumphed among the élites of the Western world.

Too far gone for Salvarsan

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 22.48.55Dalrymple notes that Llewelyn Powys

detested the Kenyan colonists, whom he saw as greedy philistine brutes.

In one of the stories in Ebony and Ivory (1923),

a farm labourer is so badly treated by his employer, but has so little chance of escape, that he decides not to kill himself but simply to lie down and die – and he does, his corpse being burned as ‘Rubbish’, the title of the story.

In another story,

a young man just out to the colony starts out better and more refined than the other colonists but is gradually coarsened by them. He takes a local girl as a lover but contracts syphilis from her, so virulent that the doctor tells him that even Salvarsan cannot help him. He takes a pistol and shoots himself in the head.

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Integrity in art

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 09.10.30L.S. Lowry, Dalrymple explains,

ploughed his own artistic field for years, decades, before he achieved recognition: and when such recognition came, it did not change his simple mode of life. He had a day job until his retirement at the age of sixty-five of a most unromantic and unartistic kind: he worked as a rent-collector for a property company in the days when tenants of tiny workers’ houses paid their rent weekly and in cash. He painted between collecting rents.

Lowry saw

in the bleak townscapes of the Industrial Revolution, and in the inhabitants of those townscapes, a subject worthy of artistic representation, as nobody had before: finding a beauty in them without in the least prettifying them, or without resort to sentimentality.

The Tate Gallery had a fine collection of Lowry’s work, but

for long refused to display any of it, mainly from a kind of snobbery. Lowry was utterly a provincial, he was allied to and influenced by no current of modern art, theoretical or practical, and (in the end) he was widely loved by people who otherwise had no artistic tastes. He was original in an original way. For a certain kind of aesthete, for whom the main attraction of the appreciation of beauty is to mark him off from the philistines, Lowry was all wrong.

Even worse,

Lowry did not care what anyone thought: he did what inner necessity dictated.

Ancoats Hospital Outpatients' Hall, 1952. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

Ancoats Hospital Outpatients’ Hall, 1952. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

 

The time of optimism

The optimists

The optimists

Dalrymple comes across a reference in the Guardian to Maoist groups in the West during the late 1960s, a time when, the newspaper says approvingly, many young people

threw themselves wholeheartedly into the leftwing politics of optimism.

This was, Dalrymple points out,

during that great time of optimism for the Chinese people that lasted several years,

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 08.40.43namely the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, in the course of which, Dalrymple points out,

unknown numbers of people were killed, but certainly hundreds of thousands at the least.

During the time of optimism many millions of people in China, Dalrymple reminds us, were

  • persecuted
  • publicly humiliated
  • tortured
  • Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 08.34.11hounded from their jobs
  • separated from their spouses
  • exiled
  • subjected to forced labour.

All this occurred

to the cheering sound of smashed cultural artifacts, demolished monuments,

and the

hosannas

of large sections of the Western Left.

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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.’

England, foul England

Discobolus, copy of fifth-century Greek original, Water Gardens, Hemel Hempstead. It was in private ownership and stood at Amersfoot Hall, Potten End, until acquired by the development corporation in 1960

Discobolus, copy of fifth-century Greek original. Water Gardens, Hemel Hempstead. The statue was in the possession of a private collector and stood at Amersfoot Hall, Potten End, until acquired at auction by the town’s development corporation in 1960

The British townscape has been coarsened to a degree unequalled in Europe

Dalrymple writes that the destruction of Britain’s urban patrimony,

and its replacement by modernist multi-story parking garages and office buildings, represent a lowering of every Briton’s quality of life.

The unremitting tastelessness of British modernity

Britain’s townscape,

once civilised and gracious, has fallen prey to an ideological pincer movement:

  1. The rawest and shortest-sighted commercial interests demanded and won freedom to do whatever they wished with the inherited townscape, in the cheapest and most profitable way, so that harmonious assemblages of buildings centuries old suffered the most philistine and incongruous redevelopment that ruined them beyond hope of restoration.
  2. Birmingham

    Birmingham

    Radical reformers fanatically hated the architectural symbols of the past, merely because they were symbols of the past, whose despised élitist culture supposedly rested solely on exploitation, racism, slavery, and so forth. The official architect and town planner of the city in which I live wanted to pull down every single local building that dated from before the second half of the twentieth century, including entire Georgian streets and many masterpieces of the Victorian gothic revival. Fortunately, he retired when perhaps a tenth of the old buildings remained, the rest having been replaced by Le Corbusian leviathans so horrible and inhuman that many are scheduled for demolition less than 30 years after their erection. The Georgian spa city of Bath offers an even more startling example: in the 1950s, the city council wanted to raze it.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 09.23.10The utter destruction of the aesthetic quality of British life

The British are

barbarians camped out in the relics of an older and superior civilisation to whose beauties they are oblivious.

Irredeemable ugliness

Britain’s city centres are the site of

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Civic Centre, Plymouth

depressingly uniform chain stores without character or individuality, plate-glassed emporia hacked into the ground floors of historic buildings without regard to the original architecture.

This has deep social and economic consequences.

Where all is ugliness and indifference to aesthetic considerations, it is easy for behaviour to become ugly and crude and for collective municipal pride to evaporate. It seems not to matter how people conduct themselves: there is nothing to spoil. Attention to detail attenuates in an environment of generalised ugliness. What is the point of wiping a table, if the world around it is hideous?

L.S. Lowry and the philistinism of the Tate

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For a long time, writes Dalrymple, ‘the philistines of the Tate Gallery could barely bring
themselves to hang any of Lowry’s paintings on their walls’

Postcards from Folkestone

Folkestone, says Dalrymple, was a 'jewel of Victorian and Edwardian seaside building' with 'a beautiful Victorian wrought iron bandstand on the front'.

Dalrymple visits that onetime ‘jewel of Victorian and Edwardian seaside building’, Folkestone. A ‘beautiful Victorian wrought-iron bandstand’ still stands on the seafront.

Near to the bandstand has been erected an enclosed pavilion that, says Dalrymple, 'makes some kind of pastiche reference to the style of the bandstand but which is ugly beyond description'.  It 'obtrudes itself upon the retina so that the bandstand cannot be seen in its absence, as a pushy person continually interrupts a conversation to which he has nothing to contribute'.

The fouling of Folkestone: the bandstand is just visible on the horizon, centre right. To its east was erected in 1980 this octagonal structure apparently in the style of a pagoda, serving as the entrance to the Leas Cliff Hall. The original hall entrance, in the classical style, had been demolished. Dalrymple observes that the modern building ‘makes some kind of pastiche reference to the style of the bandstand’. It ‘obtrudes itself upon the retina so that the bandstand cannot be seen in its absence, as a pushy person continually interrupts a conversation to which he has nothing to contribute’.

Dalrymple asks whether this kind of built environment is the result of incompetence or of what he calls ‘ideological malice’. While acknowledging the difficulty in distinguishing between the two, he tends to the latter explanation.

Only this can explain why every prospect has been ruined by the strategic placement of something constructed in what might be called social-democratic style, the style that is incompatible with any other and which…pronounces a dog-in-the manger philosophy: if not everyone can live somewhere beautiful, no one will. For…it is much easier to destroy beauty or grace than to create it. To make all the world ugly was…an act of justice, even of restitution to those who had lived in ugliness all their lives….British architects of the second half of the last century were not incompetent if their goal was to bring about the destruction of an existent beauty that was unequally distributed. On the contrary, they were the most successful architects who ever lived.