[Paleopsych] LAT: Pinpointing civilization's shortcomings
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Mon May 30 22:18:14 UTC 2005
Pinpointing civilization's shortcomings
Pinpointing civilization's shortcomings
Our Culture, What's Left of It The Mandarins and the Masses Theodore
Dalrymple Ivan R. Dee: 344 pp., $27.50
By Anthony Day
Special to The Times
May 27, 2005
In his new book of essays on political, social and artistic aspects of
modern life, Theodore Dalrymple falls upon his victims with singular
ferocity, raging against modern British life in general and Labor
Prime Minister Tony Blair in particular, as well as multiculturalism,
the welfare state, modern art (Joan Miro and contemporary British art
especially), D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.
What? Mrs. Woolf a menace to civilization? Yes indeed, Dalrymple
contends in "Our Culture, What's Left of It."
Were Woolf around today, he writes, "she would at least have had the
satisfaction of observing that her cast of mind -- shallow, dishonest,
resentful, envious, snobbish, self-absorbed, trivial, philistine, and
ultimately brutal -- had triumphed among the elites of the Western
Was the Bloomsbury circle really so powerful? Dalrymple, a physician
who works in British prisons and inner-city hospitals, believes it
was, and that the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" are
novelists, playwrights, film directors, journalists, artists and even
pop singers under the influence of "outdated or defunct ideas of
economists and social philosophers."
Woolf's primal error, Dalrymple argues, was to confuse the domineering
English male to whom she objected in the early 1930s with Adolf
Hitler, who was even then threatening English liberty.
In one essay he improbably juxtaposes writer Ivan Turgenev and
political philosopher Karl Marx. Both, he notes, were born in 1818 and
died in 1883; both attended Berlin University at overlapping times and
were affected by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and
his dialectic method of reasoning (thesis, antithesis, synthesis);
both were in Brussels at the outbreak of the 1848 revolution, and both
were spied upon by the secret police. Each had an illegitimate child,
each lived and died in exile.
The point of his comparison? The aloof and difficult Marx claimed to
know the common people, but it was the gentle Turgenev who really did,
as his sympathetic writings about Russian serfs and other members of
the lower classes prove.
This is not a new idea about Marx, but Dalrymple writes as if it were
and hammers it relentlessly, slashing away at Marx as he does at
Woolf. And poor Turgenev, who does not need Marx as a foil to be
celebrated for his compassion and wisdom.
By this point in his essays, Dalrymple has revealed that his mother
fled to England to escape the Nazis, a fact that may help to explain
his contempt for "elitists" like Woolf, who were safe in their languid
upper-class self-absorption. He also discloses that his father was "a
Communist by conviction." That may account for Dalrymple's zeal for
annihilation, which he demonstrates toward his intellectual opponents.
It resembles nothing so much as one communist intellectual's accusing
another of misunderstanding the true Marxian faith. And perhaps that
is behind Dalrymple's posture as implacable reactionary.
He plays the part well. He believes that "an oppositional attitude
toward traditional social rules is what wins the modern intellectual
his spurs, in the eyes of other intellectuals.... What is good for the
bohemian sooner or later becomes good for the unskilled worker, the
unemployed, the welfare recipient -- the very people most in need of
boundaries to make their lives tolerable or allow them hope of
improvement." And the result, he argues, is "moral, spiritual and
emotional squalor, engendering fleeting pleasures and prolonged
Dalrymple protests that not all criticism of social conventions is
wrong, but that critics, "including writers of imaginative literature,
should always be aware that civilization needs conservation at least
as much as it needs change ... and that immoderate criticism ... is
capable of doing much, indeed devastating, harm."
Dalrymple's conservative credentials are impeccable. Most of the
essays in this collection are drawn from the City Journal, the
publication of the Manhattan Institute of New York, for which he is a
contributing editor. His previous collection of essays, "Life at the
Bottom," was widely praised. And he has written for the London
Spectator for more than a dozen years. Readers who enjoy those sorts
of publications will be enthralled with these essays.
But just as Marx should not be rejected altogether, neither should
non-conservatives reject everything Dalrymple has to say. Having
worked in the Muslim world and among Muslim immigrants in Britain, he
has some provocative ideas about the conflict between Islam and the
West. He passionately denounces the frequent cruel treatment of Muslim
women by Muslim men and argues that modern Muslims must "either
abandon their cherished religion or ... remain forever in the rear of
human technical advance."
And surely one need not be a right-wing reactionary to find
objectionable the appearance of the punk rocker, in all his
skin-pierced glory, who is pictured on the dust jacket of "Our
Culture, What's Left of It."
Anthony Day, former editorial page editor of The Times, is a regular
contributor to Book Review.
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