Tag Archives: our culture what’s left of it

Book Review: Our Culture, What’s Left of It

The prospect of reviewing anything by a man of Theodore Dalrymple’s Brobdingnagian intellect is about as appealing to me as skinny-dipping in Lake Vostok. But I’m going to take a stab at it anyway – reviewing, not skinny-dipping – in the hopes that I can inspire one of you to buy this most gloriously electrifying book: Our Culture, What’s Left of It.

41Wq6gH5iVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Dalrymple, by the way, is the nom de plume of Englishman Anthony Daniels, a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist. His years of medical practice, in locales as varied as Zimbabwe and London’s East End, are the substratum of many (if not all) of his essays. This means, in the first place, that his writing is married to a wealth of gritty, hands-on experience. Consequently, and in the second place, he has little use for “good intentions unadulterated by any grasp of reality.”

Which brings me to my little caveat emptor: readers will find Dalrymple to be consistently and infuriatingly logical. Which, of course, sucks, if you happen to be of the liberal progressive mindset.

In these twenty six essays – touching on everything from Macbeth to Marilynn Manson to sexual enlightenment and modern art – Dalrymple’s target is the increasing debasement of Western culture, and more specifically, the ideas that precipitate this debasement. It is, by turns, a poignant and blistering read. Dalrymple is hardly what you might call a happy camper, which will lead some to dismiss him as a misanthropic curmudgeon. He isn’t. Love and honest-to-God concern for mankind is what drives him to write as he does. He merely takes a dim view of the moral and aesthetic garbage chute we seem to be sliding down.

A taste of Dalrymple at his Dalrympliest:

The problem of upholding virtue and denouncing vice without appearing priggish, killjoy, bigoted, and narrow-minded has become so acute that intellectuals are now inclined either to deny that there is a distinction between the two or to invert their value. There is no higher word of praise in the art critic’s vocabulary, for example, than ‘transgressive,’ as if transgression were in itself good, regardless of what is being transgressed. Likewise, to break a taboo is to be a hero, irrespective of the content of the taboo. Who is more contemned than he who clings stubbornly to old moral insights?

I had to laugh at one description of the book as “incisive yet undogmatic” – an intended compliment, but one I doubt Dalrymple would appreciate. Dogma (contrary to all the wisdom of our postmodern seers) is no four-letter word, and to be dogmatic about something (the truth, for example) is not necessarily a sin. No teacher worth his salt is undogmatic. Dalrymple knows this. Pussy-footing around isn’t the name of his game. Assertion, with authority and conviction, is.

Every piece in this book is worth your time and consideration, but you’ll want to pay special attention to –

  • “The Frivolity of Evil”
  • “The Goddess of Domestic Tribulations”
  • “Why Shakespeare Is For All Time”
  • “What’s Wrong With Twinkling Buttocks?” (worth the price of the book all by itself)
  • “How – And How Not – To Love Mankind”
  • “Trash, Violence, and Versace – But Is It Art?”
  • “Don’t Legalize Drugs”
  • “All Sex, All the Time”

For what it may be worth, I loved this book so much that my kids will have to read it before I let them leave the house.

And no, I don’t have any kids at the moment. It’s called planning ahead.

On the Bookshelf XXV

book_shelf_11

Our Culture, What’s Left of It by Theodore Dalrymple
“Holy epic essays, Batman!” This book is tremendous. It’s going to be required reading for each of my kids before they leave the house. (What’s that? Of course I don’t have kids yet. Just planning ahead here.)
Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen
One of the finest books I’ve ever read – which is why I’m reading it again. I figure it deserves that kind of attention at least once a year. You can check out the review I wrote awhile back, but you’d be better off just buying the book and reading it yourself. Everybody should. If I had my way, everybody would.
Collected Works by Arthur Machen
Lovecraft led me here, and for that I am truly grateful. Machen is a genius.
The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought by Marlynne Robinson
“Whether rescuing Calvinism and its creator Jean Cauvin from the repressive ‘puritan’ stereotype, or considering how the McGuffey readers were inspired by Midwestern abolitionists, or the divide between the Bible and Darwinism, Robinson repeatedly sends her reader back to the primary texts that are central to the development of American culture but little read or acknowledged today.” I’m on binge here with this kind of thing, in case you haven’t noticed. First Bradbury, then Dalrymple, now Robinson. And it ain’t even February yet, so my brain my very well go blooie.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Loved the story the first time through, and wanted to visit it a second time. If you enjoy sophisticated science fiction, tales of the apocalypse, or just long for the days when vampires used to be scary, this book is a gem.

What’s on your bookshelf right now?

A Reputation for Intolerance

“All this is necessary for evil to triumph, said Burke, is for good men to do nothing; and most good men nowadays can be relied upon to do precisely that. Where a reputation for intolerance is more feared than a reputation for vice itself, all manner of evil may be expected to flourish.”

– Theodore Dalrymple, Our Culture, What’s Left of It

Hubris, Fences, and Fools

It’s good to pause every now and then to appreciate the genius of a great essayist. And Dr. Theodore Dalrymple is a great essayist. This, from the preface to Our Culture, What’s Left of It:

… critics of social institutions and traditions, 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, or criticism from the standpoint of utopian first principals, is capable of doing much – indeed devastating – harm. No man is so brilliant that he can work out everything for himself, so that the wisdom of ages has nothing useful to tell him. To imagine otherwise is to indulge in the most egotistical of hubris.

Another great essayist? G.K. Chesterton. This, from “The Drift from Domesticity”:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principal; a principal which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody.  And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

Connections. One of the greatest joys to be had in reading.