All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor.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 narrator of All Quiet on the Western Front, the famous, semi-autobiographical novel of the First World War by Erich Maria Remarque (1898 – 1970), states that by 1918 war had come to seem so perpetual, so inescapable a fact of existence, that it was just another cause of death, “like cancer or tuberculosis or influenza or dysentery.” As to the latter, the German soldiers were so accustomed to it by the end of the war that they thought it was not worth pulling up their trousers; and the shirt tails of their Russian prisoners of war were stained with blood.

There are several hospital scenes in the book. Near the beginning a soldier in the narrator’s company, called Kemmerich, has been wounded. His companions visit him in the clearing station where he suffers phantom limb pain:

“How’s it going, then Franz,” asks Kropp.

Kemmerich’s head drops back. “OK, I suppose. It’s just that my damned foot hurts so much.”

We glance at his bed-cover. His leg is under a wire frame, which makes the coverlet bulge upwards. I kick Müller on the shin, because he would be quite capable of telling Kemmerich what the orderly told us before we came in; Kemmerich no longer has a foot. His leg has been amputated.

Nevertheless, his life has not been saved; he is clearly dying. He is so close to death, in fact, that his companions have already forgotten what he looked like when he was healthy. Müller is interested in his excellent boots for which, unlike Müller, he no longer has a use. Müller is not callous or unprincipled; he would never dream of taking the boots if Kemmerich still had a use for them; but Müller is anxious that the ward orderlies will appropriate them first if he does not preempt them. The war strips away all superfluous refinement of feeling, turns everyone into a raw utilitarian and makes survival the highest good.

Towards the end of the book the narrator is wounded and is sent to a hospital run by Catholic nuns. He is so exasperated by the sound of their prayers that he throws a bottle at the wall and it smashes. One of the other patients owns up to this breach of discipline because he bears a certificate of head injury saying that his behaviour might become erratic and is therefore to be excused.

When patients in the hospital are certain to die they are taken to the Death Room which, however, is not large enough to contain them all. New wounded arrive constantly:

Our room gets two blinded soldiers. One of them is very young, a musician. The nurses never use knives when they feed him; he’s already grabbed one once out of the nurse’s hand. In spite of these precautions, something still happens. The sister who is feeding him one evening is called away, and leaves the plate and fork on the side table while she is gone. He gropes across for the fork, gets hold of it and rams it with all his force into his chest, then grabs a shoe and hammers on the shaft as hard as he can.

Doctors are not heroes to the narrator; “there may be good ones,” he says sceptically, but many of them simply do the military’s bidding and, as in George Grosz’s famous picture, declare the crippled and the skeletal to be A1, that is, “Fit for active service.”

How many of us have the strength to resist the pressure of authority?

A Modern Macchu Picchu

At Salisbury Review, Dalrymple writes of a building in Peru that has been favorably compared to Macchu Picchu and been deemed “the best new building in the world”, when it very clearly is not. He takes particular umbrage at the statement by one of the building’s architects that, “For us, the enjoyment of architecture is the sense of weight being borne down or supported, the feeling of moving with the forces of gravity. It’s a very primal need.”

Does anyone arrive in Venice or see the Taj Mahal for the first time and say, ‘Oh, what a wonderful sense of weight being borne down or supported’? And could anything be a primal need, of all things, that is to say a need that precedes all other needs?

Shake your head bitterly by reading this

The Wealth Gap

At Taki’s Magazine, Dalrymple takes on the idea of economics as a zero-sum game:

There is one sense in which I may by definition increase poverty if I grow richer. Suppose my wealth increases faster than that of most of the people in the society in which I live. The people in that society are poorer, relative to me, than they were before, even if, in absolute terms, they are all richer than they were before. This is not the same as active impoverishment. But since poverty is now usually defined in relative and not absolute terms, poverty can increase even where no one, not a single person, is the poorer. By the same token, a society can grow richer as everyone in it becomes poorer. This is absurd.

Read it here

Bread and Circuses

“Every day, the Guardian newspaper publishes a list of eminent persons, or persons whom it considers eminent, most of them British, whose birthday happens to fall on that day,” says Dalrymple, writing at Salisbury Review. Would you be surprised to learn that, at least on the day Dalrymple analyzed the list, the majority were from the world of popular culture? By comparison, people of more serious and genuine accomplishment seem to be given short shrift.

Read it here

On a less serious note, can it really be the case that this is the first Dalrymple essay, out of thousands he has written since we started this blog, with “Bread and Circuses” in the title? Surprisingly, that seems to be the case.

Mercy or Injustice?

At City Journal, Dalrymple writes of the rather difficult case of Jacqueline Sauvage, a French woman who did nothing for decades as her husband violently abused her and sexually assaulted all three of their daughters but then finally, at the age of 70, shot him to death. She was convicted of murder but was then recently pardoned by outgoing French President Francois Hollande:

…her lawyers characterized the presidential pardon as “an extremely strong message sent to women who suffer domestic violence. It has become symbolic. It doesn’t mean that you must kill to survive but that you must do all that is possible not to reach that stage.”

This is nonsense, of course. The message, if anything, is precisely the opposite: you will not be treated too severely if you kill your violent husband, even if you have made no other efforts to avoid his violence. If you put up with it for long enough, in fact, you can kill him.

‘I had that drunken student in my taxi’

In Salisbury Review Dalrymple expands on his recent conversation about college students with a taxi driver:

I asked him what the town was like, whether – for example – it was quiet.
‘When the students are away,’ he said.
‘And when they’re here?’
‘It’s different.’
‘Are they nice, the students?’
‘They’re evil bastards.’

‘They can’t all be like that,’ I said.
‘About seventy per cent of them.’

The Red Flower by Vselevod Mikhailovic Garshin

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.

Only two authors, as far as I know, killed themselves by throwing themselves down a stairwell, and it is now disputed that one of them, Primo Levi, did so suicidally: rather, he fell. But there is no disputing that Vselevod Mikhailovic Garshin (1855 – 1888) did so with suicidal intent.

Garshin, known as the best Russian writer of short stories of the period before Chekhov reached his maturity, wanted to be a doctor but was not admitted to medical school. He joined the army as a private during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 and his first story, Four Days, was a fictionalised account of the wound he received in that war. He lies, semi-delirious, for four days on the battlefield, next to the decomposing body of the Turkish soldier whom he has killed with his bayonet, and whose bottle of water saves his life. Two details remind us that this is fiction, not autobiography. The “horrible grinning skull [of the dead Turk] with its everlasting smile” reminds the narrator that, as a medical student, he has often handled such skulls; and eventually the narrator’s leg is amputated. Garshin was never an amputee or a medical student, though he might easily have been both.

Almost certainly, though, he suffered severely from manic-depression. His most famous story, The Red Flower, again semi-autobiographical, is an account of a lunatic’s admission, progress and death in an asylum. I doubt there is a better account of mania in literature. The protagonist is so manically hyperactive that he constantly loses weight despite eating gargantuan meals; he has moments of insight that something is wrong with him, but they soon depart.

When he meets the doctor, the patient says to him:

I have this idea! When I discovered it I felt reborn. My senses have become more and more acute, my brain works as it never did formerly. What was once attained by a long process of reasoning I now know intuitively. I am an illustration of the great idea that space and time – are fictions. I live in all centuries. I live outside space, everywhere and nowhere…

The patient becomes seized with the idea that the evil in the world is concentrated in three red poppies that grow in the asylum garden – “they flourished on all innocent bloodshed, which is why they were so red” – and that it was his duty and destiny to rid the world of evil by plucking and uprooting them, thus eliminating their terrible emanations. But picking the flowers in the garden is not permitted, and the patient has cunningly to evade the attendants in order to carry out his grandiose and paranoid plan to rid the world of evil.

He dies of manic exhaustion (as used sometimes to happen), but with beatific contentment on his face because he has managed to uproot the last of the poppies, and therefore believes the world to have been purified.

Garshin had an immense reputation in his day though his output was small (only 20 stories). Now regarded as a minor writer, he nevertheless provided an illuminating insight into depressive thinking in his story A Night:

He imagined he saw all his life before him. He recalled a series of ugly and sombre pictures in which he was the principal figure. He recalled all that was worst in his life, turned it all over in his mind, but failed to find one clean or bright spot in it, and was convinced that none remained. “Not only none remained, but had never existed,” he added in self-correction.

The Red Cross pot calling the NHS kettle black

According to Dalrymple in the Salisbury Review, only 16 percent of the British Red Cross’s charity shop revenue actually ends up with the Red Cross, which then must pay its own expenses, of course.

…the question arises how the British Red Cross can raise so little money from its retail operations. After all, it receives most of its goods and a large part of its labour free of charge, and it pays reduced local taxes (a policy that should, of course, cease forthwith). It is a miracle of disorganisation, at least equal to anything seen in the National Health Service: I hesitate to call it by a name less morally neutral than disorganisation.

Read it here

Taxicab Confessions

In Taki’s Magazine Dalrymple comments on Meryl Streep’s recent imposition of her political opinions on the rest of us. He mentions his irritation at the attention given to actors’ opinions and the adolescent nature of President-elect Trump’s reply, and then points out a superior source of commentary: taxi drivers…

I was once in Singapore trying to catch a taxi. You cannot just hail a taxi on the street in Singapore, you have to go to a taxi stand. This I did, but still no taxi would stop for me. The taxis swept past me as if I did not exist. Then someone came and hailed a taxi about two feet to my right. A taxi stopped immediately and took him. Was this some kind of discrimination, in the politically correct sense of the word? No: When I stood two feet to the right of where I had been standing, a taxi stopped for me immediately.

I told the driver of my experience and he, Chinese without a great deal of English, replied, “Singapore velly, velly law.”

Have you read anything in the Financial Times, or any other serious newspaper, that so succinctly and accurately sums up a country or society?

Take another example, more recent. I was in an English university town where I took a taxi from the station to the university. We fell to talking, the driver and I, and to keep our conversation going I asked him whether the students were nice.

“No,” he said, “they’re evil bastards.”

This judgment was so spontaneous, so deeply felt, and so obviously the fruit of what sociologists call lived experience, that it could only have been true.