Category Archives: sentimentality

The perpetual temptation not to see

Dalrymple writes that in Max Frisch’s 1953 play Biedermann und die Brandstifter (The Firebugs or The Fire Raisers), a town is subject to a rash of arson attacks. Everyone is terrified by the prospect of more. The action takes place in the home of Herr Biedermann,

a rich bourgeois who makes his money from the manufacture and sale of fake hair restorative. Two dubious characters, Schmitz and Eisenring, take up residence in Herr Biedermann’s attic. He does not want them there, but is too cowardly and pusillanimous to evict them.


they make it clear to Herr Biedermann that they are the arsonists of whom the town is afraid. They move drums of petrol into the attic; they ask Herr Biedermann for help with the fuse with which they are going to light the fire; they even ask him, successfully, for the matches with which to start it. Throughout the preparation of the fire, Herr Biedermann—though he hates, fears and despises Schmitz and Eisenring, and again through cowardice and pusillanimity—refuses to accept the evidence before his eyes.

Eisenring explains Schmitz’s uncouth behaviour

by his unhappy childhood, and Herr Biedermann, through sentimentality rather than from real sympathy, feels unable to answer.

The compromise with evil

He invites the two interlopers to

a dinner of goose stuffed with chestnuts (before accepting the invitation, Eisenring makes sure there is to be red cabbage also), and though the two are complete ruffians, they insist that the best silver, including finger-bowls, be laid on a damask tablecloth.

After dinner,

they burn the house down, and the final scene takes place in Hell, where Herr Biedermann and his wife protest their innocence.


lived through the Nazi takeover of Germany, but saw it from the German-speaking fringe. He is writing not just about the Nazi era: his play is about the perpetual temptation not to see, and then to compromise with evil.

Eisenring tells Herr Biedermann the secret of his success (but still Herr Biedermann disguises the truth from himself):

  • Joking is the third best method of hoodwinking people.
  • The second best is sentimentality. The kind of stuff [Schmitz] goes in for—an orphanage, and so on.
  • But the best and safest method—in my opinion—is to tell the plain unvarnished truth. Oddly enough. No one believes it.

Noble savagery

The late Henry Vincent: protest against injustice

Moral grandiosity and exhibitionism are the occupational hazards of intellectuals

The attitude of many intellectuals towards crime (which almost never affects them personally) is distinguished, writes Dalrymple, by

a mixture of sentimentality and intellectual pride.

On the one hand, there is

reluctance to believe that ordinary people can behave very badly.

On the other, there is the belief that

it is the function of the intellectual to uncover the underlying ‘reality’ of phenomena. (If he is not for that, what is he for?) It represents a loss of caste to express the man-in-the-street’s horror at, or revulsion against, crime.


has to become not really crime, but something altogether more noble, which it takes nobility and intelligence or acuity on the part of the intellectual to recognise. People don’t steal or rob because they want something and think it is the easiest way to get it; they are uttering a protest against injustice.

Godless people in the grip of sentimentality hold up their ikon

Dalrymple writes:

In a country in which sentimentality has so powerful a grip, no one could criticise the late Jo Cox’s ‘commission on loneliness’ without appearing heartless.


was already a secular saint: she had spent much of her career in a senior position in Oxfam, the antipoverty ‘charity’ whose largest contributor by far is the British government and which derives by far the greater part of its funds from public bodies. Her husband worked in another such ‘charity’ whose largest donor by far was also the British government.

Glib and oily art

Dalrymple notes that the increasing tendency in the West to express emotion in public

undermines the ability to distinguish genuine from bogus feeling.

He describes the modern age as one of

reverberating hollowness. We no longer accept the implicit.

It makes people

exhibitionistic. It sets up an arms race in which people have to express themselves more and more extravagantly in order to persuade others, and perhaps themselves, that they feel anything.

King Lear, Dalrymple reminds us,

is about the difference between real and bogus emotion. The two wicked daughters are able easily to deceive the king with extravagant expressions of love that they do not feel, but Cordelia refuses to ‘use that glib and oily art’.

Lear learns too late that

words and emotion are not necessarily connected in simple fashion.

No wonder Dr Johnson is not in fashion

Engraving from James Barry’s portrait (1778-80)

An incomparably greater psychologist than Freud, having no axe to grind and no sect to found

Samuel Johnson, writes Dalrymple,

  • contrived to be a moralist without moralising
  • was humane and charitable without sentimentality

This is a contrast to today, Dalrymple points out, for

we prefer mental contortions, self-justifications, evasions, rationalisations, and all the other methods of avoiding the truth about ourselves, to Dr Johnson’s discomfiting clarity of mind.

Johnson had a gift, Dalrymple notes, for saying things that were

both startling and obvious. As he himself put it, we have more often to be reminded than informed.

Johnson’s prose style

would no doubt strike many people (if they read it) as formal—we prefer expletives and the demotic now.

The cultural triumph of psychobabble

Theresa May: the little ones shall experience distress no more

The British prime minister, Dalrymple reports, has

spotted an opportunity to demonstrate to her sentimental electorate how much she cares for even the least of them by announcing that she wants to put a mental health professional, i.e. form-filler, in every school.

There is, says Dalrymple, a new social contract:

I will listen to your shallow clichés about yourself if you will listen to mine.


compassion by proxy, at taxpayers’ expense, is typical of the behaviour of modern politicians, who need to show their electorates that they are not the heartless or ruthless ambitious nonentities that they might otherwise appear to be. An uncritically sentimental population is a perfect flock to be fleeced in this way, sheep for the shearing.

May’s project, Dalrymple points out,

is also typical of the process of simultaneous work creation and work avoidance that marks the modern state, a process that turns it into a trough from which many may feed.

Cómo el culto a la emoción pública está corroyendo nuestra sociedad

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 08.44.01Dalrymple escribe:

El sentimentalismo es una de esas cualidades que son más fáciles de identificar que de definir. Obviamente todos los diccionarios emplean las mismas características definitorias: un exceso de emociones falsas, sensibleras y sobrevaloradas si se las compara con la razón. Los grandes diccionarios, por ejemplo, el Oxford English Dictionary, son etimológicamente, aunque no psicológicamente, más exhaustivos que los pequeños. El OED señala que originalmente la palabra sentimental tenía connotaciones positivas: al hombre considerado sentimental desde mediados hasta finales del siglo XVIII, hoy en día se le hubiera llamado sensible y compasivo, lo contrario de un hombre bruto e insensible. El cambio de la connotación se inicia a comienzos del siglo siguiente, con los escritos de un poeta romántico y revolucionario, posteriormente convertido en conservador, llamado Robert Southey, en los que se pronunciaba despectivamente sobre Rousseau, y se completa a comienzos del siglo XX.

La definición anterior

omite una característica importante de la clase de sentimentalismo sobre la que quiero llamar la atención, a saber, su carácter público. Ya no basta con derramar una furtiva lágrima en privado por la muerte de la pequeña Nell; ahora es necesario hacerlo (eso o su equivalente moderno) a la vista del público. Sospecho, aunque no puedo demostrarlo, que en parte es consecuencia de vivir en un mundo, incluyendo el mundo mental, completamente saturado por productos de los medios de comunicación de masas. En un mundo así, todo lo que se hace o sucede en privado, en realidad no sucede, al menos en el sentido más completo. No es real en el sentido en que lo son los reality de la televisión.

La expresión pública de los sentimientos

tiene importantes consecuencias. En primer lugar exige una respuesta por parte de los que lo están presenciando. Esta respuesta debe ser de simpatía y apoyo, a menos que el testigo esté dispuesto a correr el riesgo de una confrontación con la persona sentimental y ser techado de insensible o incluso cruel. Por eso hay algo coercitivo o intimidatorio en la expresión pública del sentimentalismo. Debes unirte a él, al menos, abstenerte de criticarlo. Se ha creado una presión inflacionaria sobre este tipo de exhibiciones. No tiene mucho sentido hacer algo en público si nadie lo nota. Eso implica que se requieren unas demostraciones de sentimientos cada vez más extravagantes y se pretende competir con los demás y no pasar desapercibido. Las ofrendas florales son cada vez más grandes, la profundidad de los sentimientos se mide por el tamaño del ramo. Lo que cuenta es la vehemencia y la sonoridad de la demostración.

Las demostraciones públicas de sentimentalismo

no sólo coaccionan a los observadores casuales arrastrándolos a un fétido pantano emocional, sino que, cuando son suficientemente fuertes o generalizadas, empiezan a a afectar a las políticas públicas. Como veremos, el sentimentalismo permite a los gobiernos hacer concesiones al público en vez de afrontar los problemas de una manera racional aunque impopular o controvertida.

The British Zeitgeist

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 08.56.56It is one, writes Dalrymple, of

sentimental moralising combined with the utmost cynicism, where the government’s pretended concern for the public welfare coexists with the most elementary dereliction. There is an absence of any kind of idealism that is a necessary precondition of probity, so that bad faith prevails almost everywhere.

The British State

sees itself as an engineer of souls, concerning itself with what people think, feel, and say—as well as with trying to change their freely chosen habits—rather than with performing its inescapable duty: that of preserving the peace and ensuring that citizens may go about their lawful business in confidence and safety. It is more concerned that young men should not smoke cigarettes in prison or make silly jokes to policemen than that they should not attack and permanently maim their elders and betters.

One definition of decadence, he writes, is

the concentration on the gratifyingly imaginary to the disregard of the disconcertingly real.

No one who knows Britain, says Dalrymple, could doubt that it has very serious problems.

  • Its public services—which consume a vast proportion of the national wealth—are not only inefficient but beyond amelioration by the expenditure of yet more money
  • Its population is abysmally educated, to the extent that that there is not even a well-educated élite
  • An often criminally minded population has been indoctrinated with shallow and gimcrack notions—for example, about social justice—that render it unfit to compete in an increasingly competitive world

Dalrymple warns that such

unpleasant realities cannot be indefinitely disguised.

Blair: dishonesty and dishonour

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 09.52.04

Lack of character plus moral grandiosity, a lethal combination

The grandiose are found out by reality, and left squirming

Tony Blair, writes Dalrymple, exhibits

the most frivolous earnestness. He is given to gushes of cheap moral enthusiasm — cheap, that is, for him, not for others who have to pay for it.

Blair has been

exposed as the frog in Æsop’s fable that puffs and puffs himself up in an attempt to prove himself as big as the cow, until he explodes. But we cannot blame him entirely. He is one of us, the new Britons. The least we can do is to put some teddy-bears by the railings outside his home to help him come to terms with his humiliation.

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 09.50.34Britain, Dalrymple reminds us, is

of very slight account, with a population increasingly unable to distinguish the trivial from the important and the virtual from the real. It has over several decades undergone profound social and psychological changes, of which Blair is both a symptom and an accelerating cause.

When moral grandiosity meets lack of character,

no good can result. Grandiosity and lack of character are two sides of the same coin. When someone believes that he is born with Original Virtue, he comes to believe that all his opinions, all his ends and all his actions are pure, moral and right. He is able to change from moment to moment, and to act in a completely unscrupulous manner. He may act in contradictory ways and change his opinions to their very opposites, but the purity of motive remains when everything else has disappeared.

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 09.19.39Such a person

can have no honour, for honour implies a loyalty to a fixed standard, even or especially when it is not in that person’s immediate or instrumental interest to uphold it.

The lack of character

derives also from the elevation of sensibility over sense and of personal opinion over personal probity. Purity of sentiment and opinion become the whole of virtue, and the louder one expresses it the better the person is; morality is not a discipline and an abjuration but an opportunity to shine in front of one’s peers.

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 10.23.23Needless to say,

purity of sentiment and opinion are not incompatible with our old and trusted friend, the thirst for power, a combination which naturally enough results in a bullying sentimentality and a self-righteous lack of scruple.

The desire to be

both policeman and lady almoner, General Patton and Gandhi, Rambo and Elizabeth Fry, is not conducive to clear thinking or clear policy.

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 10.28.26Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 10.20.38

‘Voor bralnationalisme voel ik niets’

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 23.02.48De conservatieve cultuurcriticus Theodore Dalrymple over nationalisme, zelfbeheersing en fatsoen. ‘Wij zijn beter dan jullie, en als jullie dat niet bevalt, hoepel dan vooral een end op’, daar voel ik niets voor.

Door het boekje dat u samen met Bart De Wever hebt gepubliceerd (Vrijheid en oprechtheid, 2011), wordt u in Vlaanderen sterk met de N-VA vereenzelvigd. Maar wat vindt u eigenlijk van nationalistische partijen?

Laat me eerst zeggen dat ik De Wever een van die zeldzame politici vind die althans gevoel voor humor hebben. Hij is ook erudieter dan ik van politici gewend ben, spreekt vier talen – dat verdient respect. Maar wat het nationalisme betreft: het hangt er helemaal van af wat men er precies onder verstaat. Het soort uitsluitende bralnationalisme à la ‘Wij hebben de bliksemafleider en de eierkoker en de sokophouder uitgevonden (lacht), wij zijn dus beter dan jullie, en als jullie dat niet bevalt, hoepel dan vooral een end op’, daar voel ik niets voor. Maar met patriottisme lijkt me niets mis.

Bart De Wever is een bewonderaar van de achttiende-eeuwse Ierse conservatief Edmund Burke. Schept dat een band?

Dat doet het inderdaad. Ik vind bij Burke met name het volgende zeer waardevol: het inzicht dat er niet zoiets bestaat als een bepaalde blauwdruk voor problemen die van tevoren kant en klaar gereedligt en die je maar hoeft toe te passen. En verder het besef dat wij onderdeel zijn van een stroom die het verleden met de toekomst verbindt, en dat we dus verantwoordelijkheden hebben tegenover zowel onze voorgangers als de mensen die na ons zullen komen. Dat besef van culturele continuïteit, en van het feit dat je als individu daar maar een heel klein deeltje van bent, dat je het meeste geërfd hebt, betekent anderzijds natuurlijk ook weer niet dat je het verleden slaafs moet navolgen. Burke was niet de soort conservatief die zei: alle verandering is uit den boze. Dat zou evident belachelijk zijn – en hoe zou ik, als arts, kunnen ontkennen dat er vooruitgang is, ik hoef alleen maar terug te denken aan de tijd dat we nog geen behoorlijke anesthetica hadden. Maar dat er ook zoiets bestaat als verandering ten kwade, of op zijn allerminst dat verandering behalve goede ook nadelige gevolgen kan hebben – ik vraag me weleens af of al die eeuwig enthousiaste hervormers van alles daar ooit bij stilstaan.

Grenzen trekken, en dan specifiek voor jezelf, met andere woorden zelfbeheersing, en zowel de noodzaak als het toenemend verdwijnen ervan in onze samenleving, is misschien wel hét grote thema van uw werk.

Dat zou je misschien zo kunnen zeggen, ja. Op de een of andere manier is het volgende idee overheersend geworden, en dan zeker in Groot-Brittannië: ‘Wie zijn impulsen moet bedwingen, gaat die verdringen, en verdringing is heel slecht, daar word je ziek van. Dus is het beter om je impulsen uit te leven, bij voorkeur onmiddellijk.’ Dat is, uiteraard, pertinent onwaar – het is bijvoorbeeld aangetoond dat mensen die bij relatief kleine ergernissen zichzelf al niet meer in de hand kunnen houden, juist méér last ondervinden van wat hen ergert dan mensen die zich gedragen en niet voor het minste of geringste in woede uitbarsten – wat sowieso ook een stuk prettiger is voor hun omgeving en dus voor de samenleving als geheel. Onmiddellijke driftbevrediging, althans het onvermogen om daar als de omstandigheden dat vereisen van af te zien, is slecht voor een mens. Het hedendaagse losgeslagen consumentisme is daar maar één voorbeeld van, maar ook de verruwing van de omgangsvormen, het verdwijnen van werkelijke empathie ten voordele van sentimentaliteit: het komt allemaal op hetzelfde neer. Ik pleit voor grotere weerbaarheid, en dus – dat vloeit er automatisch uit voort – meer fatsoen.