Theodore Dalrymple’s November appearance in a half-hour interview on The New Culture Forum’s ‘So What You’re Saying is…’, hosted by Peter Whittle, is below. Thank you to our reader, David, who brought this excellent discussion to our attention. It is always refreshing to see and hear the good doctor expounding on his favorite topics at length.
Britain’s Vanishing Culture & Character
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Interesting interview, as always. I like what he said about tattoos representing a sort of “permanent present”. I’ve been fascinated by the rapid increase in tattoos, too – as in the rapid reversal of many other cultural taboos like premarital cohabitation and sex. Today one is seen as quite weird if they choose not to engage in them, whereas just say 40 years ago, they were frowned upon. As G.K. Chesterton said, “the act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice.”
With regard to tattoos, I decided to conduct my own experiment and started asking people what they mean. Apart from the few that are the results of drunken and impulsive decisions, most people were quite deliberate (and sober!) in the choice to get one. The tattoos usually have a deep and well-thought-out meaning for their wearers.
In the past, really only sailors had tattoos. Of all people in society, they had the least sense of permanence. Their home was the sea and there is nothing as changing as the sea and the myriads of ports a ship might visit about the world. There is meaninglessness in constant change, isn’t there? Tattoos might have been anchors of some sort for sailors. In the midst of all the change, they were a reminder of something permanent – like love and home.
He also mentioned politics as being a substitute source of meaning for a culture that has lost religious meaning and I couldn’t agree more. I wonder if the tattoos and obsession with politics are part of this same loss of meaning.
Back to the tattoos: in a culture that has lost the more permanent sources of meaning, like religion, people are starved for it. Unfortunately, in such a predicament, we will seek meaning in impermanent things, but we will never be satisfied. These things will not fill the god-shaped, meaning vacuum in the human heart. When one does stumble upon something that is truly, deeply meaningful, they struggle to hold on to it in a world that has seen the most rapid change in human history.
So, what do they do to hold onto meaning when they finally find it? They get a tattoo.
Start asking people what their tattoos mean. You might be shocked at how quickly they begin to sound positively poetic in their descriptions of them.
There’s the individuation aspect of it, but also, I think there is also a longing for permanence in a world that has lost belief in genuine, unchanging transcendence.
Love with a little “l” means more when one gets a tattoo to commemorate it, even if Love doesn’t really exist.
Bekah, years ago TD published an essay in the New Criterion on today’s bovine tattoo phenomenon. It’s called “Exposing Shallowness.” It’s a book review. It remains the greatest essay yet written against tattoos.
Thank you, JKE. I’ll take a look at it.