Category Archives: Theodore Dalrymple

Macron’s display of vulgarity

Dalrymple writes:

Emmanuel Macron’s vulgar and undignified conduct in the stadium in which the World Cup victory took place was no doubt intended to demonstrate that, contrary to the impression that he has so far given his countrymen (our builder in France calls him Napoléon IV), he is a human being, possessed of the same emotions and tastes as M. Dupont as he drinks his pression on the café terrace and as les jeunes on their outings to Les Halles. It won’t work for long.

Les Halles

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The only British politician of any substance, vision, or character

Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for North East Somerset and chairman of the European Research Group

A crashing bore actuated by burning hatred

Dalrymple writes that on the whole, the commentary evoked by the bicentenary of Karl Marx’s birth

obeyed the injunction not to speak ill of the dead, as if the passage of time and the deaths of millions in the name of the birthday boy did not somewhat attenuate the social imperative to mute one’s words.

Marx

believed that crises were inevitable until the advent of his utopia, in which such phenomena as private property, banks, and the bourgeoisie would cease to exist. In Marx’s vision, the ant would lie down with the anteater.

The combination, says Dalrymple,

of scathing criticism of the present and adolescent daydreaming is irresistible to quite a lot of people.

Dalrymple notes that Marx

was one of those people who love humanity and hate men. He was in most respects an unattractive figure, cocksure, domineering, intolerant, and hypocritical—though he had an undoubted charm in the domestic circle and was both very clever and intensely cultivated.

In his writing he was

a crashing bore with a brilliant turn of phrase. Burning hatred is never far from his prose, and gives it its spice. Nowhere is it clearer that hatred is by far the strongest of political emotions.

The anteater shall lie down with the ant

Looming economic collapse

There is the sense, writes Dalrymple, of

the approach of yet another economic crisis, as my late dog sensed the approach of a thunderstorm.

Perhaps, he says, the crisis to come

will be even greater and more devastating than the last, being the consequence of our almost universal imprudence and improvidence, and our determination to learn nothing from experience.

The West Overcliff Drive

Cumberland Clark (1862-1941)

The opening of a poem with this title by Cumberland Clark, identified by Dalrymple as the second-worst poet in the English language, reads:

Do you know the West Overcliff Drive?
If you don’t, there’s no doubt that you ought to.
With interest always alive,
It’s a place everyone should be brought to.

16 West Overcliff Drive

Wastrel Britishers of Jamaican extraction

These feckless people have had it easy, writes Dalrymple.

Doors were open to them, but they steadfastly refused to walk through them.

Instead they took to the life of what they conceived to be the immemorial Jamaican culture:

  • the getting of bastards
  • the smoking of cannabis
  • the collecting of social security
  • the wearing of gold chains
  • the driving at high speed with music thumping
  • the refusal of work

‘The white race is the cancer of human history’

Dalrymple comes across an article by Susan Sontag in the American quarterly Partisan Review. It reads in part:

Neither do I dare deride the turn toward the East (or more generally, to the wisdom of the nonwhite world) on the part of a tiny group of young people — however uninformed and jejune the adherence usually is. (But then nothing could be more ignorant than Fiedler’s insinuation that Oriental modes of thought are ‘feminine’ and ‘passive,’ which is the reason the demasculinised kids are drawn to them.) Why shouldn’t they look for wisdom elsewhere? If America is the culmination of Western white civilisation, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilisation. This is a painful truth; few of us want to go that far. It’s easier, much easier, to accuse the kids, to reproach them for being ‘non-participants in the past’ and ‘drop-outs from history.’ But it isn’t real history Fiedler is referring to with such solicitude. It’s just our history, which he claims is identical with ‘the tradition of the human,’ the tradition of ‘reason’ itself. Of course, it’s hard to assess life on this planet from a genuinely world-historical perspective; the effort induces vertigo and seems like an invitation to suicide. But from a world-historical perspective, that local history that some young people are repudiating (with their fondness for dirty words, their peyote, their macrobiotic rice, their Dadaist art, etc.) looks a good deal less pleasing and less self-evidently worthy of perpetuation. The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al., don’t redeem what this particular civilisation has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone — its ideologies and inventions — which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself. What the Mongol hordes threaten is far less frightening than the damage that western ‘Faustian’ man, with his idealism, his magnificent art, his sense of intellectual adventure, his world-devouring energies for conquest, has already done, and further threatens to do.

Dalrymple comments:

The question with assertions of this nature is whether they can ever correspond to any genuine feeling, or are but the manifestation of a straining after feeling. To me they have the authentic ring of humbug, which is the besetting sin of our age (which is not to say that it has existed or been prevalent in no other).

Hazlitt (‘On cant and hypocrisy’, London Weekly Review, 1828) tells us that

sincerity has to do with the connexion between our words and thoughts, and not between our belief and actions. The last constantly belie the strongest convictions and resolutions in the best of men; it is only the base and dishonest who give themselves credit with their tongue, for sentiments and opinions which in their hearts they disown.

To this, says Dalrymple,

he might have added feeling, for expressed feelings can be as divorced from true feelings as cant can be from true belief. The complexity of the human mind is such that we can easily disguise the divorce from ourselves and deny that it exists, the denial leading us to act as if the false were true.

Dalrymple does not believe that Sontag

thought or felt of herself as a cancerous cell, for such a sincere thought or feeling is really possible only to someone with a mental state akin to Cotard’s syndrome, the rare delusion that one is already (and deservedly) dead or putrefying: and people with Cotard’s syndrome do not write essays, not even for the Partisan Review.

He adds:

The grandiose moral exhibitionism of which the Sontag quotation is so notable an example serves another function in our moral economy: to divert the locus of our moral concern from the pettiness of our daily existences to the largest general problems facing the world.

It renders alien to us, he says, the Blakean thought (Jerusalem, f. 55, ll. 48–53, 60–6):

And many conversèd on these things as they labour’d at the furrow,
Saying: ‘It is better to prevent misery than to release from misery;
It is better to prevent error than to forgive the criminal.
Labour well the Minute Particulars: attend to the Little Ones;
And those who are in misery cannot remain so long,
If we do but our duty: labour well the teeming Earth.…
He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer;
For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organised Particulars,
And not in generalising Demonstrations of the Rational Power:
The Infinite alone resides in Definite and Determinate Identity.
Establishment of Truth depends on destruction of Falsehood continually,
On Circumcision, not on Virginity, O Reasoners of Albion!

North Korea is at one of the unpleasant edges of human possibility

Dalrymple writes:

I think it was Jean Améry who said that once you have been tortured you remain tortured. I do not mean to claim any kind of equivalence in the experience, but once you have been to North Korea, you never forget it, either—as, for example, you might forget whether or not you have ever been to Stevenage or Welwyn Garden City.

In 1989, Dalrymple embedded himself in a delegation to the World Festival of Youth and Students (run by the World Federation of Democratic Youth), which was then being held in Pyongyang. (He was neither a youth nor a student at the time.)

Ever since, he says,

I have been drawn to pictures of the Kim dynasty, whether of Kim the First, Second, or Third. There is a fascination to this horrible family that makes the Borgias seem like philanthropists. The Borgias certainly had better taste.

He adds:

You feel, as you look at pictures, that if only you stare long and hard enough at them, you will pluck out the heart of their mystery—an absurd notion, of course.

In his 1991 book The Wilder Shores of Marx: Journeys in a Vanishing World (also published as Utopias Elsewhere), Dalrymple observes closely some of his fellow delegates on that trip, commenting thus about a female cadre:

A young woman of clearly middle-class origin, who wore only black shapeless clothes and had owlish round spectacles, was shocked how people who called themselves caring could eat meat.

She was

a person of very definite opinions, including a rather poor one of the male sex in general: when she signed her name, she appended a cross to the ‘o’ it contained, to turn it into the biological symbol for female.

Dalrymple describes a couple of male delegates:

They were hard-faced communists, who dressed tough and cut their hair short so that their heads should appear as bony as possible. I overheard one of them describing a demonstration he had attended in England, in which there had also been a member of Amnesty International with a placard. ‘I went up to him and said, “I don’t believe in that bourgeois shit,” and he said, “Do you think political prisoners should be tortured and killed, then?” “Too fucking right, I do,” I said.’ The person to whom he related this charming little exchange laughed.

Dalrymple’s disgust cannot be disguised even in this propaganda film

What Dalrymple found frightening about the pair

was that their faces were contorted with hatred even as they laughed, and when they talked of killing political prisoners they meant it. They were members of a little communist groupuscule for whom Stalin was a god, not in spite of his crimes but because of them.

Dalrymple reports that the Scandinavian guests,

to my great admiration, unfurled two banners, one asking why Amnesty International was not permitted to investigate conditions in North Korea, and another expressing solidarity with the Chinese pro­-democracy students who had been massacred in Tiananmen Square. Later, when the Scandinavian marchers returned to the body of the stadium, scuffles broke out as security men tried to wrest the banners away. A few of the Scandinavians were punched and kicked.

When these scuffles broke out,

I overheard some of my fellow delegates, the hard-faced communists, express a willingness, indeed an anxiety, to join in – on the side of the North Koreans, ‘to beat the shit out of them.’

Discussing among themselves the Peking scene when the single student (since executed) stood in front of the column of tanks and held them up by moral force alone,

one of them remarked that if he had been the tank driver he would have driven ‘straight over the bastard and squashed him’. And his face showed that he meant what he said.

Dalrymple refuses to stand for the entry of the Eternal President and mouths a version of Luther’s Hier stehe ich und kann nicht anders! Gott helfe mir, Amen!

The foreigners, caught up in the atmosphere of hysterical self-abasement, stood up and applauded as if to save their lives. I am not by nature brave, or even unconventional, yet in the moment of Kim Il-sung’s entry I decided that I would not stand, not if everyone in the stadium should hurl abuse at me. I was so appalled by the sight and sound of 200,000 men and women worshipping a fellow mortal, abdicating their humanity, that I should rather have died than assent to this monstrous evil by standing (my mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany). There I sat; I could do no other. The terrible obedience of the crowd, uncoerced at least in the immediate sense, indicated the power of the régime, a power that seemed absolute and limitless, that had entered the very recesses of minds, that had eradicated any countervailing force.
Yet the power that was so strong Screen Shot 2015-07-11 at 09.53.35
was brittle. It would only have taken 10,000 people not to have stood up for Kim Il-sung when he entered the stadium – the omission of one small act of obedience – and his power and mystique would have snapped like a twig, to remain broken and irrecoverable. My refusal to stand was a feeble, isolated gesture; but a tiny crystal thrown into a sea of saturated solution can cause an immense precipitate, and one day such a thing will happen in North Korea and everyone, wise after the event, will marvel that it didn’t happen sooner.

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Jean Améry

What’s wrong with this picture?

Answer: It is not staged, but real — it offers a rare glimpse of reality. How does Dalrymple know? He explains: ‘The side-rail of the bed in which the patient lies is in terrible condition. Its white enamel and blue paint are as chipped, and the metal underneath as rusted, as they would have been in, say, Mauritania or the Central African Republic. If it had been a proper North Korean mise-en-scène, the bed-rail would have been gleaming. The chipped enamel and paint, and the rust, give the game away.’

The proliferation of perverted sub-ideologies

A picture of hate: anti-hate-speech protester, Lewes literary festival, November 2017, in Dr (Mme) Dalrymple’s classic photograph

A million monomanias now

The totalitarian impulse, writes Dalrymple,

did not die with the Soviet Union.

Rather, it

fractured into many different monomanias.

The desire for ideology, he points out,

did not die with the failure of Marxism.

On the contrary,

the desire found its fulfillment in a variety of strange sub-ideologies. Future historians will surely find one of the strangest of these to be that of strident transsexualism.