The English writer has recently gained wide acclaim for his essays exposing England’s growing underclass culture, with its indolence, ignorance and violence. Just to name a few Americans, George Will, Peggy Noonan, Thomas Sowell, and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who named a Dalrymple essay “the best journal article of 2004”, have issued glowing praise.
He is often compared to George Orwell.
“…the Orwell of our time,” said the late Arts & Letters Daily editor Denis Dutton.
He “is every bit as important a writer as George Orwell,” says his former editor at City Journal, Myron Magnet, who has also called him “simply the best journalist in the English speaking world.”
“[P]robably the best essayist since George Orwell,” says an Amazon.com reviewer.
“I have no hesitation mentioning the two in the same breath,” says author David Pryce-Jones.
Unlike Orwell, Dalrymple has never fought in a civil war, but his foreign adventures rival anyone’s. This is a man who has been arrested as a spy in Gabon, been sought by the South African police for violating apartheid, visited the site of a civilian massacre by the government of Liberia (the outlines of the 600 dead bodies still visible in dried blood on the floor), concealed his status as a writer for fear of execution in Equatorial Guinea, infiltrated an English communist group in order to attend the World Youth Festival in North Korea, performed Shakespeare in Afghanistan in the presence of its crown prince, smuggled banned books to dissidents in Ceaucescu’s Romania, been arrested and struck with truncheons for photographing an anti-government demonstration in Albania, been surveilled by the Indonesian police in East Timor and crossed both Africa and South America using only public transportation. Few people have traveled as extensively or as courageously as Dalrymple, who has visited and written about scores of countries, on every continent except Antarctica.
As a political journalist, he detailed these experiences in articles for London’s Spectator magazine beginning in the 1980s and in six travel books published under his real name, Anthony Daniels. But he was also until recently a full-time doctor, both a physician and a psychiatrist. He served as a surgeon’s assistant for six months in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and practiced in a small village in Tanzania for two years, where he says he treated, among other cases, “children bitten by puff adders” and “adults mauled by leopards”. He also ran a psychiatric clinic in the Gilbert Islands (in the South Pacific) for three years and practiced for 15 years as a physician and psychiatrist at a prison and a slum hospital in England. In this latter capacity, he has interviewed thousands of perpetrators and victims of domestic violence, thousands of people who have attempted suicide, as well as would-be Islamic terrorists and countless rapists, murderers, drug addicts and thieves. He continues to serve as an expert witness in British murder trials.
Clearly, Dalrymple has realized the intellectual benefits of a medical career: speaking with a diverse group of people about their problems and learning to diagnose them dispassionately. This along with his epic world travels have given him the ability to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of a multitude of cultures, religions and governmental systems; an understanding of the comparative lives, problems and philosophies of the poor at home and abroad; a sufficient range of experience to distinguish personal traits from cultural characteristics in the observance of human behavior; and a unique vantage point from which to ponder the existence of evil.
But personal experience, vivid though it is, is not the only source of Dalrymple’s knowledge. He became a voracious reader of the classics of the Western canon at an absurdly early age, discovering the timeless wisdom of La Rochefoucauld at 12 and understanding all philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God by the age of 14. He became a doctor only under his father’s pressure, spending most of his time at medical school studying philosophy and literature. In particular, Dalrymple looks to writers like Shakespeare, Chekhov and Turgenev as reliable illustrators of eternal human nature. Magnet, a man well-connected in the English-speaking intellectual world, has said, “Tony is about the best-read person I know, and his reading, particularly of the literary greats, has given him a deep sense of how ideas form the social reality we live in, for good or ill.” Even during his sometimes arduous travels, he spends a good portion of his time reading classic accounts of local history and political issues. Whatever the subject, he always seems to have a literary reference close at hand.
Dalrymple’s writing marries personal experience, profound reflection and timeless wisdom to produce a body of thought that is deeply suspicious of contemporary intellectual fashions. Taken as a whole, his work details the ways in which, for well over a century now, Western intellectuals have been concerned not with identifying truth but with abolishing traditional social limits on individual behavior in order to achieve complete personal license. In so doing, they have placed the new authority of reason over and above that of religion, social convention, tradition and etiquette, which constrain individual behavior and thus must be destroyed — as they mostly have been in Dalrymple’s native England. But the intellectuals’ use of reason is not in good faith. They exploit reason in a form of philosophical disputatiousness that excuses almost all possible forms of anti-social behavior. Thus, academic thought embraces increasingly complex and absurd theory, which replaces simple, unbiased observation. You have to be smart to believe a lot of stupid modern ideas.
These thoughts hit Dalrymple like a fist in the face (perhaps an all too apt metaphor) when he returned to England from life overseas. In Africa, he had seen true poverty, but because survival there was an accomplishment of a sort, the people still retained their dignity and work ethic. To his surprise, he found that the lives of England’s slum-dwellers were “as saturated with arbitrary violence as that of the inhabitants of many a dictatorship”, with the difference being that in the West “the evil is freely chosen” rather than the product of government coercion. He determined that the decline of civility so long advocated by Western intellectuals had been embraced to disastrous effect by many segments of society and that the underclass were no longer victims of a lack of opportunity as in Dickens’ time but willing barbarians. At its root, Dalrymple’s work is a defense of civilization.
He chose the pseudonym Theodore Dalrymple in 1990 so that he could describe anonymously and in great detail the depravity he witnessed daily in England. In 1994, he began writing on these same themes for City Journal, which years later compiled many of his essays into the books Life at the Bottom and Our Culture, What’s Left of It (2001 and 2005, respectively), for which he is mostly known to American readers today. He has addressed the great issues of our age in many other books as well as essays of social commentary and arts criticism for publications like National Review, the Telegraph and The New Criterion.
What makes his work so persuasive is the use of real-world experiences to illustrate his arguments. If great literature identifies the universal in the particular, Dalrymple’s work meets at least this one condition for greatness. His analysis of the problems of the poor does not rest on dry statistical tables or mass media portrayals of their lives, but on a lifetime of direct personal contact. He has treated their gunshot wounds and lacerations. He has asked the reasons for their suicide attempts, car thefts, poor selections of lovers, heroin intake, and acts of murder – and judged their responses with both empathy and a healthy skepticism. He has explained to them the difference between unhappiness and depression; between hatred and insanity; between parenthood and the production of children; and between repetitive, self-destructive behavior and addiction.
His accounts of these interactions with his patients are often simultaneously heartbreaking and funny. A victim of domestic violence, asked by Dalrymple if her boyfriend hits her often, answers with seriousness, “No. Usually he head butts me.” An imprisoned murderer tells him, “I had to kill her, doctor, or I don’t know what I might have done.” A young lady explains the supposedly obvious repercussions her mother suffered when caught receiving welfare payments while working: “She had to quit working.”
One of the great joys in reading Dalrymple is in witnessing his ability to pinpoint the destructive ideas behind the most banal of statements, behaviors or events. Whereas philosophy is often regarded as incidental to daily life, he sees ideas as the motivating force behind the behavior of everyone. “I’ve never thought of intellectual life as only concerning the intelligentsia,” he has said.
The violent boyfriend mentioned above, he says, has imbibed wholesale the trendy notion that there are few acceptable limits to his behavior, and his girlfriend’s refusal to draw the obvious conclusions in her choice of men stems from a desire both to relieve her existential boredom via the creation of crises and to command modernity’s ultimate moral high ground of non-judgmentalism. The murderous prisoner adheres to “the hydraulic theory of human behavior”, the notion that people need to “let it out” rather than to engage in newly unfashionable self-restraint. The daughter of the welfare mother cannot imagine a duty to family or society to support oneself and one’s dependents through work.
But all of Dalrymple’s experiences and ideas would be unknown if not for the beauty with which he conveys them. He writes with an elegance that is undoubtedly born of both natural skill and the widest possible reading, and his linguistic facility testifies to the clarity of his thought. What a refreshing protest it makes against the unceasing modern praise of artistic and intellectual subtlety, too often an excuse for vagueness and sloppy thinking — to say nothing of the intentionally impenetrable and pseudo-scientific jargon of the academy.
Dalrymple’s writing “transcends journalism and achieves the quality of literature,” says his publisher, Ivan R. Dee.
“…the best doctor-writer since William Carlos Williams,” claims Noonan.
“….the finest literary and cultural critic, as well as the foremost social commentator, of our age,” praises Magnet.
Philosopher, physician, psychiatrist, world traveler, sociologist, journalist, critic. Dalrymple represents a unique combination of broad and provocative experience, deep education, sound judgment, and impressive literary skill – a kind of perfect storm of intellect. Far beyond the ubiquitous commentators on contemporary issues, his focus is timeless truth.
He “will be read for as long as people can read,” says Magnet.
Theodore Dalrymple is for all time.