Dalrymple has written before of his father’s unlikeability, and now in New English Review he describes with openness and in detail the discomfort he feels in noticing his own similarities to the man. As merely a character profile of another – of anyone – it is extremely well done.
But of course it is more than that. His father’s character traits provide a departure point for a rumination on destiny, free will and the nature of criticism:
The critic can, and indeed must (for such is his function), elucidate the beauties and deficiencies of a work of art, make manifest its deeper meanings, and so forth. He does so using evidence and rational argument, and obviously believes his interpretations to be true, or at any rate more true than any other; I have a whole shelf of books on Hamlet, for example, the authors of which have exercised much ingenuity and even brilliance in producing, and which they must have believed advanced knowledge. But in the end, the critic produces no argument or evidence that compels assent. Though you throw subjectivism out with a pitchfork, yet it always returns.
Dogmatism is the reaction of those who want to know best but suspect that the metaphysical foundations of their supposed knowledge are shaky. Ambiguity disturbs them: how can there be rational criticism, for example, founded on argument and evidence, when at the same time there is no disputing taste? The solution to the tension is to stand behind a stockade of indubitable truth.
For such people, the search for certainty is much more important than the search for truth.