Our Culture, What’s Left Of It: The Mandarins And The Masses, by Theodore Dalrymple
In many ways, I can imagine the way that the author would sound if one were interacting with him. He sounds like a somewhat elderly and somewhat cranky person who would have a lot of strong opinions and who would greatly bemoan the way things were and point to ways in which life was superior in the past. Just because I know plenty of people who say such things does not mean that such people are necessarily wrong. One of the advantages of living a long time is having at least the potential for experience across a broad area of time, where one can see the interaction between cultural and moral superiority in the past and between technological superiority in the present. Reading this book (especially the last chapter “After Empire”) gives a chilling discussion, free of racist ideology or multiculturalist cant, on how it is that civilizations decline all the faster when cultural elites join the barbarians at the gate instead of making a brave last stand for the culture that grants them a privileged position in the first place. And what is going on in the UK is certainly something that can provide a lesson for other societies not as far along in the process of corruption.
This book of a bit more than 300 pages is divided into two sections and quite a few small chapters that illustrate various points about the UK and its empire past and present. The author begins with a discussion of arts and letters (I), which include smaller chapters on the frivolity of evil, the way that some people have a taste for danger, the importance of Shakespeare, the problems with writers like Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence who raged against the culture of their time without providing a better replacement, how to and how not to love mankind, various neglected geniuses and dystopian imaginations, and the question of what art is in the first place. After this the author shifts to society and politics (II) with chapters on such areas as what we have to lose, why Havana is going to seed, the uses of corruption, criminal malnutrition, sex, drugs, and childhood, what happens when Islam breaks down, Paris’ barbarian problem, and why Zimbabwe fell apart as it did after empire. The author mixes reading and textual analysis with a great deal of personal observation and trenchant criticism of the way things are.
There is a deep degree of poignancy one gains from reading a book like this. The author was a longtime doctor who managed to turn his cynicism about the state of society into research about what was going on and how that society was going wrong. Quite honestly, some of what he has to say are pretty shocking. He has a particularly pointed comment about the way that Princess Di was both built up and torn down in ways that were unkind, even as she failed to act as the author believes that royals should. The book is full of odd observations, like the relationship between the desire for intimacy on the part of single parents and the rise of an uneducated class of young person who has to leave home early for being surplus to requirements, a general drain on resources, and targets for abuse by nonrelatives in the household. These are definitely problems that extend beyond the UK. So too there is the issue with people simply not being raised to feed themselves correctly, to the point where drug abuse and a general lack of knowledge lead to chronic malnutrition among lower classes. The author reminds us too that if we are to be truly compassionate, our compassion must be for people and not merely for categories.