Thursday, February 22, 2018

On Reading, Writing, and Theodore Dalrymple

In the few months since I've started writing here again I have also read a great deal more of. . . well, there seems no decorous way of referring to writing published exclusively on the internet. Surely not the vulgar digital content, or banal web writing. Perhaps it is a sign. At any rate I've read a great deal more of it than the nearly nil I read in the first year after moving into our new house and staying home with our daughter full time. The writing has brought me more pleasure than I thought, the reading less so.

The writing, though laborious, is a near pure pleasure, excepting those frustrating moments of editing when I must part with a beloved phrase (which I will of course forget about by the next hour) and when I simply cannot decide just what exactly I am saying. Writing is as pure an exercise of unrestrained liberty as one can imagine, with the myriad possibilities only delimited by the prudence of my conscience and aesthetic sense, which occasionally speak through the wisdom of my wife.

One limitation that has always frustrated me though, is my reluctance to let what I write cause grievous offense to someone I know, thus risking our peaceful relation. Since I write much, though not chiefly, about my experiences, I have many essays that will go unpublished for a while, presuming I have at age thirty-two some plenty of years left. On the other hand—the use of this correlative that I surely use too much because of my Classical background brings to my mind this time an anecdote: one of the first errors in my writing which my wife corrected was an instance of saying on the one hand several times in a row. My defense remains that the article was ghost-written by one of the Hekatonkheires of Greek myth (Centimanes in Latin), a few of whose heads and hands moonlight while he guards Tartaros.

Anyway, on the other hand, that act of self-censorship has no doubt reformed the character of a querulous and often petty man. If I had written as a teen or college student, it probably would have resembled this ghastly piece—ghastly in content and style—on Jordan Peterson. Reading such pieces saddens me because I cannot help assume either that the person has been bought out or is deeply troubled. Worse, it seems to me that writing would invariably reform one's character. How can you write and not make use of the seemingly infinite opportunities for reflection and self-examination? The process has pricked my conscience more times than I could ever remember. I have written some unkind and uninformed things that never saw the light of day because the sight of them displeased and embarrassed me. Not fully, of course, am I reformed, and writing has precipitated a few new occasions for poor behavior.

It is a cheap pleasure of mine to refer to a piece I've written and, even more so, to have the excuse to re-state my case. I too especially enjoy the tactful praise of liberal friends, "I love your movie reviews."  How amused I am also when someone refers approvingly to something I have written, but has clearly only read the opening paragraph, which was meant in irony. They really do mean well but can't bring themselves to run the full course. Their error is similar in spirit to one that recurred among my Latin students when I would for one reason or another truncate a portion of a passage for an exam: how often I found it translated on a test anyway! Clearly it appeared by the inspiration of the Muses, or perhaps some as-of-yet unnamed goddess of the internet.

Truly, though, writing has been a healthful pleasure both on account of the good change it has precipitated, even in failure, and the kindness and generosity of friends, family, and readers who have supported my meager talents and overlooked my errors.

I wish I could say that reading has brought me such pleasure of late. More often than not I feel preached to, lectured, or chicaned. Everybody, so it seems, is hocking his ideology or his personality. They lust after my clicks, likes, follows, and subscribes, to use the terms of their cheap currency. They pander to what they hope are my weaknesses. There is precious little that is all honest, good, and necessary. Even people of apparent good character and sound mind nonetheless seem desperate to cash in on their virtues. This is perhaps inevitable and even good, for I certainly should not like the opposite situation, in which ideas are compelled, suppressed, or absent, or virtues bring people unnecessary suffering. Perhaps it is a Golden Age of Discourse. To me it feels gilded and cheap. It seems that there is no self-censorship. Everything must be said so that it can be repeated, therefore it is short, overstated, lacking in explication, and, usually, crude.

The only prominent author who seems exempt from this cheapening, and I think fully so,  is Theodore Dalrymple. Perhaps his writing remains pristine because he does not write to sustain himself or perhaps he has by his uncommon learning, significant in both the sciences and humanities, and his uncommon experiences—of the bad and worse, both at home and abroad—tempered himself and his writing just so, but it seems to me he writes in as ideal a way as possible: reflecting humbly on life, with reason but also humanity, without the purpose of proving an ideology. For my part, I have surely not merited such commendations.

He is no publication's "go-to man" for any one idea, a fact which confuses casual readers. Watch with horror as he gets scorned on Taki-Mag for showing the slightest empathy, fondness, or respect for the non-Westerners he has met in his travels. Some years ago he was swarmed with rabid libertarians for his review in The New Criterion where he had the temerity to criticize Ayn Rand. When he wrote for Pajamas Media, it seems patently so that the prose was above the heads of the readers. City Journal, Salisbury Review, and the Law and Liberty Site each pick up parts of his work to the delight of their readers, but it is perhaps unsurprising that thoughts varied, subtle, and restrained do not find a perfect home in an age characterized by, to borrow from his many inimitable artful joinings, incontinent public confession. Rather than esteem (I have in mind here Latin's diligo: select, pick, single out, love, value, esteem, approve, aspire to, appreciate) someone who in true conservative fashion considers a matter alongside life's many others, the right prefers the company of loudmouth single-minded ideologues, usually evangelists of soft-headed religion and gaudy business.

It seems beyond wishful thinking to hope that the hearts and minds of the left will ever find room for Dr. Dalrymple since, despite his work for the poor and wretched—experience oddly but consistently in short supply among the poor's most tender-hearted and self-appointed advocates—he will not sign their prescriptions for remedies that he, with regrets, finds do more harm than good. Rather than be seen to trot with an independent thinker or risk having its conscience pricked, the left, it seems, would rather exchange platitudes with the peddlers of righteous cliche-ridden activism in a morass that Dalrymple's words describe best: an orgy of sentimentality.

I have probably made Dr. Dalrymple, who has for many years written prolifically and been respected with many well-reviewed books long in print and been often sought after as a speaker or expert, seem less famous and dear to his readers than he is. Surely too his critics betoken his notoriety. I have probably brought down his status to put it within my reach. I am frank in admitting he has been and remains a great influence.

How fortunate are all his readers, though, that he continues to share his wisdom in such a vigorous yet civilized manner. In its moderation and proportion, both in style and content, his is the prose of this age in which I feel most at home, and for that I am grateful, as I am for all things good and beautiful.

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