Not Guilty by Llewelyn Powys

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

The life of Llewelyn Powys (1884 – 1939) was considerably shaped by tuberculosis. He had his first pulmonary haemorrhage in 1909 and went to a sanatorium in Davos and then to Kenya as a plantation manager in an unavailing attempt at a cure. Life in the sanatorium and in Kenya were the background of some of the stories in his first book, Ebony and Ivory, published in 1923.

Powys detested the Kenyan colonists, whom he saw as greedy philistine brutes. In one of the stories, a farm labourer is so badly treated by his employer, but has so little chance of escape, that he decides not to kill himself but simply to lie down and die – and he does, his corpse being burned as “Rubbish,” the title of the story. In another story, a young man just out to the colony starts out better and more refined than the other colonists but is gradually coarsened by them. He takes a local girl as a lover but contracts syphilis from her, so virulent that the doctor tells him that even salvarsan cannot help him. He takes a pistol and shoots himself in the head.

The story Not Guilty starts “No, I have never deceived a living man but, by Jove! I came near to doing so once.” As might be surmised, this turns out to be ironic.

The narrator is in a Swiss sanatorium for a cure of his relatively mild tuberculosis. There he meets a prosperous, slightly vulgar but very rich British boot manufacturer, whom he befriends, and whose beautiful young wife comes out to visit him. The manufacturer is very ill and close to death. The narrator and the wife are attracted to one another, and on one occasion find themselves alone, as they think, in the manufacturer’s bedroom, where they take the opportunity to make love. Suddenly, however, they realise they are not alone:

The doors leading on to the balcony were ajar and through the narrow open space I could see the end of my friend’s couch. Judge then of my horror on catching sight of one of the well-known brown boots! He had been there all the time and had doubtless been a witness of our illicit love! What were we to do?

The man’s wife decides to brazen it out; but on reaching the balcony realises that her husband is dead.

All the stories in the book are short and powerful, written with the greatest economy. Powys’ philosophy of life (his father was a clergyman, but he had no faith himself) is summarised in one of the stories and is clearly that of a man who had looked mortality in the face:

If, if our days in the garden of the earth are in reality so uncertain, if indeed as was made clear to me then, death cannot be gainsaid, then surely the secret of so sorry and insecure an existence must lie in detachment, for he who would lose his heart to a life so beset with tragedy had best have a care for his wits.

I suppose, when you come to think of it, that this is a little analogous to the doctor’s attitude to the human suffering with which he inevitably comes into contact. The introduction to this volume, which was written by Edward Shanks, says:

From these stories sensitive reader is not to expect anything but pain. But there is a pain in the realisation of truth which is a sort of ecstasy.

Victims and Conquerors: Prostitutes or clients, who holds the power?

For the last few years, Dalrymple has been participating in various discussions at the Institute of Art and Ideas’ annual festival “How the Light Gets In”, held in Hay-on-Wye in late May and early June. One such discussion this year was a debate on the nature of the relationship between prostitute and client, in which Dalrymple disagreed with the very premise of the topic. “It implies that human relations are that of the conqueror or of the victim and that there aren’t many degrees in between, there no other dimensions and so on…”

I believe free registration is required on their website to view the video, and I’m not sure how that will affect the embedded video below, but give it a try. The link is here.

Cover Clash

The news that a group of Muslims near Marseille have rented a private swimming pool to allow Muslim women to swim in so-called burkinis has caused some controversy in France, with some defending the arrangement based on the right of free association and others arguing that the dignity of women in France as well as concern over the balkanization of Muslims in Western society require restrictions on such private arrangements. At City Journal, Dalrymple says all sides have some good points and that the correct policy is not obvious:

Here, it seems to me, is an illustration of a general principle articulated by Edmund Burke: that political questions cannot be reduced to abstract reasoning. In another context, for example, the argument that private associations may do as they please so long as what they please is not against the law would be unanswerable. But in politics, context counts.

Arabs who kill are mentally ill; nothing to do with religion?

Dalrymple noticed that, after the recent stabbing in Russell Square, the media was reluctant to acknowledge and report any details on the background of the perpetrator. No real surprise, right?

The police have so far not found any evidence that the perpetrator had a link to any terrorist organisation, though one at least of the latter rejoiced on its website in the murder. I am perfectly prepared to believe that the crime was not terrorism: after all, such horrible incidents occurred before terrorism so preoccupied us, and will continue to occur after terrorism has ceased. The young man was said to have had ‘mental health issues,’ a loose phrase that encompasses everything from losing one’s temper to smoking cannabis…

Read the rest at Salisbury Review

The Symptoms of Pott’s Disease

Are the poor not real human beings? Of course they are, says Dalrymple. Why then do leftists like Eric Hobsbawm, supposed champion of the poor, say otherwise?

These words to me are chilling, all the more so when you realize that they were uttered by a man who, toward the end of his very long life, said that if the deaths of the 20 million people who died in the Soviet Union (it was probably many more) had brought about true socialism, then they would have been worth it.

The Mountebank’s Mask

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Idling, as I so often seem to be these days, in a second-hand bookshop, I came across a book published in 1849 about Inigo Jones, the hero of a close friend of mine. One is interested in the heroes of one’s friends, and so I leafed through it. The book had once belonged to Major Inigo W Jones, Inigo’s descendent of the book’s era, to whom Van Dyck’s magnificent portrait of the great architect then still belonged.

Inigo Jones was not only a great architect but famous as a stage designer of masques, those strange and elaborate royal entertainments (costing the modern equivalent of nearly £1 million for a single night), half theatrical, half musical, wholly allegorical, that I think would probably bore us stiff, were it not that they would strike us as so bizarre. Ben Jonson wrote many but not all of them; and the text of one masque not written by him, The Mountebank’s Mask, the least boring by far, appears in this book.

This masque was once firmly attributed to John Marston (1576 – 1634), a writer of satiric plays who described his own writing as “lifting up his leg and pissing against the world,” an activity not unknown among writers to this day, and whose tomb carried the words Oblivioni sacrum. Marston’s last recorded literary act was trying to get his name removed from the title page of his own collected works. By then he had become a clergyman.

The Mountebank of the title is a quack, and the first part of the masque is taken up by some rather racy verses, and then a recitation of his prescriptions for various ills to which the flesh is heir:

If any Lady be sick of the Sullens, she knowes not where, let her
take a handfull of simples, I know not what, and use them I know
not how, applying them to the part grievde, I knowe not which, and
shee shall be well, I knowe not when.

I am not sure what the Sullens were in the early seventeenth century, but walk into any street today and you will see that they have become quite prevalent in the meantime, as have the Poutings. Mountebank, thou shouldst be living at this hour. England hath need of thee!

The Mountebank begins his address to King James and his courtiers as follows:

The greate Master of medicine. Aesculapius, preserve and prolong
the sanitie of these Royall and Princely Spectators. And if any here
present happen to be valetundinarie, the blessed finger of our
grand Master Paracelsus bee at hand for their speedie reparation.

Then the chorus breaks into song, as in an Indian film:

This powder doth preserve from fate;
This cures the Maleficiate;
Lost Maydenhead this doth restore,
And makes them Virgins as before.

Heers cure for tooth ache, feaver, lurdens,
Unlawfull and untimely burthens:
Diseases of all Sexe and Ages
This Medicine cures or els asswages.

I have receipts to cure the gowtye,
To keepe poxe in, or thrust them owte;
To coole hot bloods, cold bloods to warme.
Shall doe you good, if noe good, no harme.

The Mountebank takes up the song:

Is any deffe? Is any blinde?
Is any bound, or loose behind?
Is any fowle, that would be faire?
Would any Lady change her haire?
Does any dreame? Does any walke,
Or in his sleepe affrighted talke?
I come to cure what ere you feele,
Within, without, from head to heele.

The desire for a pill for every ill, then, is not new.

Mind-Reading and the Rule of Law

At the Library of Law and Liberty, Dalrymple writes about the recent murders committed by Satoshi Uematsu in Japan and Adel Kermiche in France. Uematsu, you may remember, stabbed 19 handicapped people to death, and Kermiche was one of the two jihadists who slit the throat of a priest in Normandy. Neither had a history of violence, although Kermiche had been arrested for trying to join the terrorists in Syria. How then could their crimes have been prevented?

These two cases show just how fallible are judgments of immediate or remote dangerousness. It is unlikely that the Japanese psychiatrists and the French examining magistrate were fools or negligent in any straightforward way. Instead both were prey to the ineradicable problem of the false positive and the false negative that, absent perfect discrimination, haunts even the best of scientific tests applied to humans. Inaccuracy will continue forever to bedevil predictions of human behavior (though, of course, perfectly predictable human behavior would lead to even worse horrors).

If this is the case, arbitrariness is now an important quality of criminal justice in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere, countries that pride themselves—falsely—on valuing the rule of law above all. I refer to the use of parole for prisoners, which depends so heavily on speculation on what prisoners might do if released.

Read the whole piece here

Houellebecq and Call

Both Michel Houellebecq and his sometime critic, the late Bernard Maris, killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo, have criticized the empty consumerism of the modern Western world. But whereas Maris sees it as a consequence of “the liberal or advertising part of it”, Dalrymple argues in a new piece at New English Review that Houellebecq knows better: humanity as a whole is to blame.

Read it here

Killing Time

Dalrymple reacts to the news of a man stabbing 19 handicapped people to death in Japan — and the academics and philosophers whose arguments underlie the murderer’s worldview:

It seems to me to be the mark of an adolescent to think, as the author of the passage cited above appears to think, that if you regard life as sacred, particularly but not exclusively human life, then you are morally prohibited from picking and eating a cabbage. Indeed, it requires many years of education and training to believe such a thing. A similar number of years, perhaps, as it took Satoshi Uematsu to come to the conclusion that the residents of the home whom he killed were better off dead from everyone’s point of view, and that it was incumbent upon him, on society’s behalf, to kill them.

Read the piece at Taki’s Magazine