Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses by Theodore Dalrymple
In his plaintively titled new collection of essays, Our Culture, What's Left of It, Theodore Dalrymple, an English physician and journalist, writes, "The problem with upholding virtue and denouncing vice without appearing priggish, killjoy, bigoted, and narrow-minded has become so acute that intellectuals are now inclined either to deny that there is a distinction between the two or to invert their value." The intellectual villains he has in mind are D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Joan MirÃ³, and Karl Marx, each of whom gets strung out on the rack of Dalrymple's pithy prose.
The problem with Our Culture is that so many of these portraits turn out to be caricatures (one of Dalrymple's heroes is the 19th-century English cartoonist James Gillray). When he writes about Lawrence or Woolf, Dalrymple focuses exclusively on their worst books with nary a mention of their masterpieces, Women in Love and To the Lighthouse. Of course, Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover was a provocative, poorly written novel that unleashed an endless stream of smut, but the same could be said of James Joyce's vastly superior Ulysses. Can conservatism actively nurture aesthetic experimentation or is its role limited to passively preserving great works once they've entered the canon? Mr. Dalrymple hovers around this question, but he never adequately answers it.
When he writes more generally about the depravity of our time-teenage prostitution, serial killers, hooliganism-Dalrymple treats it as if it were a unique outgrowth of Western culture. He is more persuasive about the negative side effects of many so-called "humane" European social policies, but his intention seems to be more to arouse our indignation than encourage any thoughtful realignment of values. Moral pessimism may be a perfectly valid response to modernity, but too often Dalrymple's essays are dogged by the same intellectual complacency he is so quick to sniff out in others.
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This article appeared in the Winter 2005-2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books