On the empty conservatism of Theodore Dalrymple

(Note: two readers defend Dalrymple.)

From an April 2006 entry, “Tolerance über alles and the death of British civilization”:

As is so often the case with Dalrymple’s writings, he relentlessly recounts horrific social ills in such a way as to plunge the reader into an abyss of cultural despair, rather than attempting to identify the principle of the social phenomena he’s describing, their moral and spiritual source. Such an examination might lead both author and reader to an understanding of the error that got society into this mess (and clear insight into a problem, even a terrible problem, is energizing rather than depressing), which in turn would suggest, at least in theory, a way out of the mess, namely the repudiation and reversal of the error. But no. The main thing for Dalrymple, a medical doctor who has abandoned his native England to live in France, is not diagnosis and cure, but indulgence in thoughts so black and searing that the closest equivalent I can think of is that ultimate literary nightmare, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.”

- end of initial entry -

Sage McLaughlin writes:

Having read about everything one can find by Theodore Dalrymple, I second what you say about the bleakness of his work, though it is often incisive and interesting. I think his problem is basically like that of practically every British conservative I’ve ever read—that desolating absence of God that robs them of any hope, or any real spiritual insight. In a podcast I heard some years back, Dalrymple and his (conservative) interviewer complained that in spite of the fact that they knew the basic problem was a spiritual one, they still could not bring themselves to any religious belief—he said he envied the faithful, but lamented, “I can’t, I just can’t.” The empiricism and anti-spiritualism of the British has made them an extremely depressing subject, because even those among them who acknowledge forthrightly and eloquently the desperate crisis of their society are themselves so spiritually barren, so psychologically cut off from the realm of immaterial things, that they have no real prescriptions to offer (Peter Hitchens, for all his faults, is an exception to this rule).

I’ve often had the thought that never in human history has there ever been a society which has written so much, so eloquently, and with such clear-eyed recognition concerning the facts of its own destruction. It is an absolutely awful sight: an entire people, whose principal achievement is their language, able to record with such acute brilliance and clarity, their own slow death by suicide. We can only hope that there will be, at some distant time in the future, real Western historians who can look aghast at the spectacle and wonder how it could have happened that way.

For the problems of Western Civilization are most keenly expressed, somehow, among the British, who perhaps have the furthest to fall. The thought haunts me daily.

Howard Sutherland writes:

My own reactions to reading Dalrymple are quite similar to Sage McLaughlin’s. It is depressing to read such incisive descriptions of pathologies entirely unaccompanied by any suggestions for treatment.

I can remember reading Dalrymple under his real name, Anthony Daniels, when we lived in England. He seemed already to be under a cloud then. I wonder if his gloom at being in failing Britain was in some way shaped by wondering if his parents had brought him to the right place, so to speak. Daniels’s father was Russian and his mother was a Jewish German who was forced to flee Nazi persecutions. Daniels’ detachment from the Englishmen-at-the-bottom he wrote about in the Spectator often struck me as extreme. Maybe that detachment came from feeling no real kinship with them, for indeed they were not his kin. I think, actually, that Daniels has now abandoned England altogether for France. I wonder if it is much of an improvement?

Sage mentions Peter Hitchens. He and his recently late brother Christopher had the interesting experience of learning, somewhat late in life, that instead of being entirely English, as they had always supposed, they had significant matrilineal Jewish ancestry as well. As far as I can tell that didn’t soften Christopher’s general hostility to Israel and Zionism; nor did it seem to soften Peter’s insistence on being as good an Anglican High Tory Englishman as it’s still possible to be in what England has become.

LA replies:

The Hitchens brothers had something like one quarter Jewish ancestry and they didn’t know anything about it when growing up. Jewishness was not part of their identity or formation. So why should learning about the Jewish part of their ancestry in middle age change their views?

Alan Levine writes:

I thoroughly agree that the Hitchens brothers being one-quarter Jewish is of little importance. But I am a mite skeptical of the claim that they never knew this until well into adulthood. Their mother’s family name was Levin, not exactly a typical “Anglo-Saxon” cognomen. I suspect that, as in a number of recent cases of politically involved Americans discovering some sort of Jewish identity, this was not news to them.

I have to note that my own parents told me that, in the ’40s and ’50s they occasionally encountered, outside NYC, people who thought that Levine was a French-Canadian name, but that variation on Levy is at least pronounced a little like a French name!

LA replies:

Here’s a fuller but not clarifying account of the matter, from Wikipedia:

Hitchens was raised nominally Christian, and went to Christian boarding schools but from an early age declined to participate in communal prayers. Later in life, Hitchens discovered that he was of partially Jewish ancestry. According to Hitchens, when his brother Peter took his fiancée to meet their maternal grandmother, who was then in her 90s, she said of his fiancée, “She’s Jewish, isn’t she?” and then announced: “Well, I’ve got something to tell you. So are you.” Hitchens found out that his maternal grandmother, Dorothy Levin, was raised Jewish (Dorothy’s father and maternal grandfather had both been born Jewish, and Dorothy’s maternal grandmother—Hitchens’ matrilineal great-great-grandmother—was a convert to Judaism). Hitchens’ maternal grandfather converted to Judaism before marrying Dorothy Levin. Hitchens’ Jewish-born ancestors were immigrants from Eastern Europe (including Poland). In an article in the The Guardian on 14 April 2002, Hitchens stated that he could be considered Jewish because Jewish descent is matrilineal.
Rick Darby writes:

I’m glad we have Mark Steyn and Theodore Dalrymple. Wit and style are valuable in themselves. For that matter, even though Christopher Hitchens was wrong about almost everything, he was a throwback to a nearly vanished English literary culture that knew how to use words with devastating precision. Even fools who express themselves clearly and entertainingly raise the tone of public life in their way. [LA replies: I absolutely disagree with you on Hitchens. He did not raise the tone of public life. He poisoned public life. But one cannot account for differences of taste. One person will pick up on Hitchens’s supposed style, and not notice or be bothered by the incandescent hatred that poured from him; another will notice the hatred, be disturbed by it, and not notice or care about the supposed wit and style.]

Although each of these writers should be appreciated for their virtues, your frustration with them is understandable. Mark Steyn’s writing is like a fireworks show, spectacularly colorful but leaving nothing behind except a fading memory. Dalrymple is a polished essayist up to a point, but stops short of drawing any useful, mitigating inferences from his endless catalog of contemporary woes. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that he gets a twisted pleasure from recounting signs of the apocalypse. His writing is lazy; he can’t be bothered to think beyond clever pathology reports.

I keep returning to VFR because I know that, however depressing are many of the events and trends you cite, you continually suggest their deeper causes along with a philosophy of what it would take to overcome or at least ameliorate the evils of our time. Whether I agree or disagree with your answers, or find myself somewhere between agreement and dissent, thank goodness you offer alternative ideas instead of wallowing in misery.

Jonathan C. writes:

Theodore Dalrymple was crucial in my moving away from liberalism. His great asset is his personal experience with thousands of people in Britain’s underclass, in his role as a doctor and otherwise, and his willingness to speak with them quite frankly and try to understand them. Because of this immense wealth of firsthand experience and because he is very observant, he has painted a far more convincing case for the counterproductive, unintended consequences of seemingly compassionate liberal policies than anyone else I’ve ever read. In particular, his “Life at the Bottom” gives a very clear picture of how a struggle-free life on the dole combine with the message from elites that the underclass are helpless victims (“the rush from judgment”) to create an attitude of entitlement, and how that creates an attitude of resentment, and how that ends in pathological behavior. I was also struck by his contrast between the poor who have struggled to survive in third-world nations and are grateful for whatever they get, and the many first-world poor for whom gratitude is not even a concept, as in this classic article.

So for folks who are not yet convinced, Dalrymple provides powerful medicine. It is true that he does not provide a solution, nor does he talk about the deeper metaphysical roots of the modernist condition, and he may not be aware of them. But he forced me to take the first step: to recognize that there is a problem in the first place, and that the problem is immense. In my experience, going from modernist to reactionary thinking is a real paradigm shift (an often overused term but proper here) that takes many difficult steps, and Dalrymple can be a powerful help with the first step, though not the later ones.

December 30

Timothy A. writes:

It’s good to see VFR continuing to subject to critical analysis atheists like C. Hitchens, Dalrymple, and Derbyshire. No diagnosis of the problems facing the West is possible without reference to the decline in belief, and any solution to these problems must necessarily be grounded in a rebirth of Christian belief in the West. As they used to say, if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem. Hitchens, Dalrymple, Derbyshire (and lesser “conservative” atheists) are part of the problem.

Neil Parille writes:

I found this critique of Hitchen’s book quite good.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 28, 2011 12:42 PM | Send

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