Theodore Dalrymple is best known as a chronicler of British decline. A retired doctor and psychiatrist, he has written more books than most of us have had hot meals, but his most successful, Life At the Bottom and Our Culture, What’s Left Of It, addressed the degeneration of Britain’s underclass and the decadence of its elites.
This sort of writing divides opinion, as, of course, it is meant to. Leftists find it patronising and moralistic. Even conservatives can find it excessively grim. I have sometimes thought that Dalrymple’s doctorly diagnostic skills, with his unwavering focus on lower-class dysfunction and crime and upper-class self-indulgence, address symptoms more then causes of our social ailments.
Still, his writing his hard-nosed, and vivid, and erudite, and also more eclectic than many would imagine. A well-travelled man with an insatiable curiosity, Dalrymple has worked in Rhodesia, South Africa, Tanzania and Guatemala. He has smuggled books into communist Eastern Europe and infiltrated Kim Jong-Il’s totalitarian fiefdom. Now, late in his career, he is musing on the broadest questions of life.
The Terror of Existence, co-written with Kenneth Francis, is a book of essays that reflect on literature that might be called “existential.” Francis is a believer and Dalrymple is not, which makes for a curious literary dynamic. The essays by Francis are more urgent and impassioned, pulsating with the energy of evangelism. The essays by Dalrymple are more meditative, searching for consolation in a silent universe.
Francis’ essays suffer more from muddled thinking. A piece on Solzhenitsyn veers into a little ode to Vladimir Putin. Conservatives who chafe against the liberal order have a tendency to look for heroes elsewhere, but it makes no sense to contrast Russian virtue with Western vice if one’s key example of American evil is its liberal attitude towards abortion. Which country has one of the highest abortion rates in the world? Yes, Russia.
Francis’ essays on books he dislikes are excessively and crudely polemical. I am no more of a fan of The Catcher in the Rye than he is, but I do not think promiscuous references to Marx and Gramsci illuminate its flaws. He is far more enjoyable and interesting when he writes about books he likes. His essay on Poe is very good indeed, with a surprising and striking twist in its tail.
Dalrymple leaves his politics out of the book. His prose is chattier than normal – filled with bracketed asides – but compelling and insightful. He is right in calling Camus’ The Stranger overrated, though I hope this bad experience with the French absurdist did not turn him away from the far superior novels The Plague and The Fall. His essay on Swift’s “disillusionment that is never quite complete…for it would be complete the imperfections of the world would simply be accepted” is a gem.
I went into the book with a question: throughout Dalrymple’s varied life, which has exposed him to so many of the horrors of the world, what values keep him going? He has his loved ones, of course, and his material comforts, and those of us who have them must treasure them, but what ideals ease his mind when existential doubts begin to question his faith in the goodness of life?
Not those of religion. His essay on Matthew Arnold makes it clear that he respects faith without possessing it. Art is up there. In a nice piece on Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ he reflects on how the poem “reconciles us to our condition, as only art can do.” Still, in that Arnold essay he casts doubt on poet’s argument that culture could replace religion in the minds of men. Ultimately, in a piece on Shakespeare, he writes:
“Hamlet, and by extension all of humanity, has a mystery, a mystery who heart, after many years of examination of patients, I am not any nearer myself to plucking out.
Furthermore, I would not care to pluck it out if I could.”
“Life must go on,” he writes elsewhere, “After my death the greengrocer must still open his doors and sell cabbages.”
Conservative non-believers, like Dalrymple, and like myself, must grant that religious conservatives, like Francis, have a more powerful message. Moral laws are absolute, in their worldview, and demand obedience. Worldly suffering is trivial compared to eternal life. Our relativism, doubts and reconciliations are far less compelling. Yet we must still take our stand. As Dalrymple writes, “The human mind, like Nature, abhors a vacuum, and prefers vicious nonsense to nothing at all.”