Ivan R. Dee, 2005
The Doctor Is In
What a phenomenon Theodore Dalrymple is! There is no one else writing today quite like him. Liberals have fashioned a world in the image of their ignorance and naïveté, and he mocks it with unceasing brilliance and a unique gallows humor. Fighting this rearguard action, he reveals himself to be a man of immense culture and the widest experience. And like some Old Testament prophet, he cries Woe, Woe from a standpoint of absolute moral conviction. Doom may be closing in upon us all, but it will never extinguish his light.
A sense that he has perpetually been seeking evidence that things are for the worst in the worst of all possible worlds certainly infuses his work. From sparse clues he drops here and there in these essays, he seems to have been conditioned from childhood to take a low, indeed a tragic, view of human nature. His father was a lifelong Communist who nonetheless encouraged him to read widely; his mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany. These two outsiders were engaged more in a civil war "a kind of hell" than in a marriage. In their son¦s presence, they did not speak to each other. One night, he awoke when his mother was exclaiming, "You're a wicked, wicked man" these were the only words he ever heard pass between his parents. When he was about eleven, he says, he lined up for a ticket to a soccer match. A blind beggar with an accordion passed by, whereupon some young men drowned him out by turning up their radio, laughing loudly at his bewilderment.
Someone less intelligent might have settled for victimhood. Dalrymple instead has spent most of his working life as a doctor in a hospital and a prison, in a large industrial city that he doesn't identify but in fact is Birmingham, in the British Midlands. In this capacity he has dealt with murderers, perverts, and misfits, and with every sort of violence and sexual abuse, in particular the horrors customarily inflicted on local Muslim women. At times, and in order to continue testing reality, he has practiced medicine in such Third World countries as Zimbabwe and Tanzania. He has also made a point of visiting places of persecution and fear, including Castro¦s Cuba and Liberia, to see for himself mass graves and the negation of civilization.
"Men commit evil within the scope available to them." That, for him, is the inescapable brute fact about the human race, and wisdom consists in facing it and drawing the proper conclusions. Until the 20th century, it was generally accepted that civilization rested on restricting the scope available for evil, and that government, law, morality, taboos, and custom were all enrolled in that purpose. Dalrymple often praises Shakespeare because he demonstrates better than anyone else how the absence of restraint destroys the individual and the society.
What¦s different and novel now is that for more than a century intellectuals have been promoting the view that evil is a myth, and everything laboriously set in place to restrict man's innate capacity for evil has been wrong. This is nothing more than utopian fantasy, but it has been enough to unravel the time-honored truth that self-discipline is a necessary condition of freedom; and governments everywhere have consummated the wreckage by enacting laws that promote unrestrained behavior and by creating a welfare system to protect people from its economic consequences. The result is today's sexual chaos and moral swamp, the coarsening and vulgarization of life and all the arts. Dalrymple's heart goes out to the unfortunate people he attends to in his Birmingham hospital and prison because they have to pay for bad ideas imposed on them from above, and against which they are defenseless.
England has lately been afflicted by several events revealing the correspondence between bad ideas and bad behavior. Dalrymple relates in gruesome detail a couple of cases in which sexual perverts abused and murdered a number of young girls. The public's obsessive anger, he thinks, was really a reflection of the permissiveness they claim for themselves. At a lower level, the untimely death of the Princess of Wales bathed the country in childish sentimentality. In defiance of the facts, but in a manner characteristic of a society that has junked self-discipline, this aristocratic and royal embodiment of privilege instead was enshrined as the goddess of domestic tribulations.
The cultural war did not have to conclude in the victory of bad ideas. Dalrymple compares and contrasts the humane Turgenev with the inhuman Marx, and in another unusual pairing, he contrasts the creative Mary Cassatt to the destructive Joan Miró. In his classic account of a visit to czarist Russia, the French Marquis de Custine was well able to grasp the fundamentals of tyranny. The almost forgotten Austrian writer Stefan Zweig deserves to be revived because he did what he could to defend civilization.
But of course fashion has accelerated bad ideas almost unstoppably. One writer who did more than his fair share to coarsen manners is D. H. Lawrence from whom Dalrymple picks out some really absurd passages, which could only have been written by someone with no real human insight. It is no less courageous of him to confront the feminists and hack Virginia Woolf to pieces, pointing out her abuse of privilege, her resentments, and her blurring of all moral distinctions. This indictment includes the lapidary sentence, "She was nothing if not a great hater of all that had gone before her." Another slash-and-burn attack concentrates on the once-prestigious Royal Academy, which not long ago mounted an exhibition entitled "Sensation," whose purpose was simply to cause outrage with a sheep's carcass pickled in formaldehyde, a romanticized portrait of a notorious murderess, and the like. Those who defended the exhibition had the simple proposition that art exists to break taboos and so cannot be immoral. This amounts to saying that ugliness really is beautiful. Another lapidary pronouncement: "Intellectuals prove the purity of their political sentiment by the foulness of their productions."
Master of the arts of persuasion, Dalrymple writes a clear and considered prose that makes him formidable indeed. But going so deep against the grain, is he unnecessarily alarmist? Has something gone so really and irredeemably wrong with Western society as a whole, or has a gloomy temperament and much raw and frightening experience warped his judgment? Dalrymple's moral conviction redeems all such queries. Undoubtedly much future nastiness is to be expected, but these essays no less undoubtedly carry the underlying belief that sanity and civilization must win through in the end.