Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses

Our Culture
By Theodore Dalrymple
Published May 25, 2005
Ivan R. Dee
ISBN-10: 1566636434
ISBN-13: 978-1566636438
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This is, quite simply, one of the great books of our time. Its 26 essays are each a gem, with insight and urbanity that make them individually enlightening and enjoyable to read. They address a variety of subjects — from art and literature to drugs and colonialism, from Shakespeare to rock singer Marilyn Manson — all with regard to the declining culture of the West. Like “Life at the Bottom”, this book is a collection of many of Dalrymple’s City Journal essays, and while the essays of that previous book were selected to testify to the increasingly debased lifestyle resulting from new Western ideas, this collection outlines in greater detail the intellectual sources of those ideas.

Dalrymple provides example after example of intellectuals who advocated the destruction of standards of behavior that had proven reliable and useful. “The Rage of Virginia Woolf” explains how she embraced a victimhood that justified the destruction of all social convention. Her rage was fed by a convenient distortion of historical fact that Dalrymple describes in “The Dystopian Imagination” as having made us ashamed of our own history so that we replace its teaching with “academic resentment studies, in which history is nothing but the backward projection of current grievances, real or imagined, used to justify and inflame resentment”. In “The Frivolity of Evil”, he explains how the consequent rejection of Western social convention has decreased civility and increased crime by teaching people that power is the sole guide to one’s actions. “Instead of one dictator… there are thousands, each the absolute ruler of his own little sphere, his power circumscribed by the power of another such as he.”

“All Sex, All the Time” is a tour de force in which Dalrymple details the ways in which academics like Alfred Kinsey and Havelock Ellis devoted themselves to the removal of all sexual constraints. In one of the most poignant moments of the book, Dalrymple recounts from his personal experience as a doctor how the resulting sexual revolution has thrown the relations between the sexes into chaos and caused mass illegitimacy that ruins the lives of generations. “How many times have I heard from my patients of their aching desire to settle down and live in a normal family, and yet who have no idea whatever how to achieve this goal that was once within the reach of almost everyone!”

“What’s Wrong With Twinkling Buttocks?” illustrates how D.H. Lawrence and his ilk’s arguments against basic standards of decency has caused our art to become ever more coarse and trivial, with obscenity replacing truth or beauty as a standard. Elsewhere, Dalrymple explains how political thinkers like Karl Marx and Fidel Castro valued ideas more than people and as a consequence generated ever more complex theories in support of ever more simplistic and abstract ideas — ideas that demanded the sweeping away of all existing political arrangements and which reached their inevitable conclusion in the horrors of the twentieth century.

Dalrymple is often criticized for failing to provide solutions, but throughout the book he holds up by comparison the ideas of other intellectuals and artists who advocated or represented higher standards. “How — and How Not — to Love Mankind” contrasts Karl Marx’s hatred for and lack of interest in basic humanity with his contemporary Ivan Turgenev, whose writing evinces great respect for the thoughts and feelings of individual people. Two essays compare the triviality and vacuity of the art of Joan Miro and modern shock artist Damien Hirst with that of Mary Cassatt and Pieter de Hooch. And lest anyone think Dalrymple a spoilsport, “Gillray’s Ungloomy Morality” asserts that, “You can have both fun and a moral standpoint.”

Above all, Dalrymple holds up Shakespeare as representing not only the epitome of truth and beauty but also the height of human self-knowledge, surpassing by far the latest advances in neuroscience, for example. “Why Shakespeare is For All Time” details the myriad ways in which “Macbeth” evokes universal human nature. “Sex and the Shakespeare Reader” and “All Sex, All the Time” demonstrate that his understanding of human sexual relations are far deeper than our own. The latter essay contains what is to me perhaps the greatest passage in the book, when Dalrymple quotes a Shakespearean sonnet and concludes:

“The subtlety of this understanding of the human heart, to say nothing of the beauty with which it is expressed, has never been excelled. Everything is there: the human need for deep companionship throughout life, the inevitability of compromise if such companionship is to last, and the acceptance of the inherent limitations of existence that is essential to happiness. Shakespeare’s view answers the needs of man as a physical, social, and spiritual being — and no one with the slightest acquaintance with his work could accuse him of being anti-sexual.”

Perhaps the penultimate essay in the collection is “What We Have to Lose”, a moving work which Dalrymple wrote shortly after September 11 and in which he describes the universal human tendency toward destruction. “Our intellectuals should realize that civilization is worth defending”, he says, and “the adversarial stance to tradition is not the beginning and end of wisdom and virtue. We have more to lose than they know.”

One thought on “Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses

  1. Glyn Morrow

    I am inspired by the various quotes from, and reviews of, Dalrymple`s books and essays to read more of his writing. However, I`m worried that, in making such seemingly sweeping statements as the above (in paragraph 4) he may be throwing out too many babies with the bathwater – eg. D.H. Lawrence and Joan Miro, for both of whom I have great admiration. I can`t remember very many, if any, occasions when Lawrence railed `against basic standards of decency` as such, though he was of course someone who was sceptical of much of what was considered `civilised` by his contempories. (He could in fact be rather prudishly puritanical at times, finding Ulysses `obscene` for example.) As a writer of fiction, I believe him to be one of the finest of the last century.


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