52 of 85 people found the following review helpful
A dissenting view,
This review is from: Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality (Hardcover)From the start: I don't like the Doctor (I think he probably was a good doctor, but I do wonder sometimes when I read what he was really thinking when he was talking to patients), I don't think he writes clearly, and I am surprised that so many take him seriously as a philosopher. For example, his views on linguistics don't, I think, warrant his being regarded as an equal of Pinker, who is a real, deep, virtuoso experimenter and thinker, whether or not you agree with him (and who writes with a light elegance and humour that the plodding Doctor never achieves). Yet Dalrymple's views seem to be considered as a proper academic contribution to the field, rather than a commentary; this I find strange, though I may have missed his exhaustive book on linguistic theory somewhere. Adulation for him pours from the great and good (obviously mostly of the wide right) and even Lynn Truss considers his writing to be sublime, an extraordinary view of his congested and baroque sentences, which often conceals banal views, and requires at least this reader to go over his paragraph-length sentences to extract the sense. Try these for purple puffery:
`The idea that those who certifiably suffer are victims has a further undesirable corollary, namely that assistance should be rendered according to need and not according to desert. Again, at first sight, this seems compassionate, for it avoids the need to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving, a distinction that can easily be made in a harsh or censorious fashion or spirit, and moreover can be mistaken even made with genuine compassion and goodwill.' [p.199]
...but he never gets to the `but', which I presume would be something like: `however, really clever doctors like myself CAN make the distinction, and I know because I saw this spineless manipulative behaviour in many of my patients in prison, but it didn't fool me, no sir'. But `rendered'? `Desert'? It may be my illiteracy, but I'd be surprised if `desert' (ie what is deserved) has been used in this sense since about 1900. This isn't sublime, it's plodding and affected, and his prose is commensurately impenetrable (as he would no doubt say, and probably did somewhere, probably about Steven Pinker). Lots of doctors of his generation write like this, and they probably use silly words and byzantine sentence construction to compensate for existential anxiety that they may no longer be the most respected profession (compare John Riddington Young, The Hospital Revolution, 2008, which has very similar writing - heavy on irony and superior `cleverness', almost devoid of humour [ASIN:1844545954 The Hospital Revolution: Doctors Reveal the Crisis Engulfing Britain's Health Service]).
The difficulties of penetrating this linguistic fug mean that the underlying views are always a bit hidden, and when you do manage to uncover them, they aren't always so pleasant (but he would consider me an unreconstructed 1960s sentimental socialist). This time he conflates romanticism, sentiment, sentimentality and liberalism and in about 200 pompous pages consigns all of them to the garbage-heap of history and thought, a brave move. To Dalrymple there's nothing that isn't sentimental. The tired stuff on communal sentimentality (roadside shrines) and victimhood (impact statements and another 50 meandering pages) is aired for the umpteenth time; I agree these are genuinely toxic to the point of nausea, but they are remarkable phenomena, worthy of analysis and not simple dismissal; most of the examples he tears into are from the popular press, or fodder from WH Smith (why does he bother?) Take on someone your own size, Theo. His broad-brush view is that all of this signals terminal moral decline, and happened because 1960s liberals felt that teaching grammar was unnecessary. I exaggerate, but not that much. However, it puzzles me why it is then that the `let it all hang out' sentimentality seems to have waited some 30 years before hitting us full on in the early 1990s. He is on dangerous ground arguing that Holocaust studies are based on sentimentality (some may be, but they don't invalidate the pursuit), and he is wrong to contend that history teaches only about death and conflict (yep, both sentimental). He doesn't like universal education programmes in Africa, because nasty people with unpleasant motives have been in charge of them (true, but again most people wouldn't consider that to invalidate the principle). When he finishes with that argument he moves to a wholly unrelated one, declaring that peasants first need to understand free markets (there's a surprise) before aspiring to literacy; sentimental liberals might argue that education about economics might be quite a good thing. I clearly don't get it.
We all need a bit of self-indulgent spleen at times, for relaxation, and to reassure us that we are middle-aged and grumpy, but for truly scrumptiously erudite spleen Hitchens is unbeaten, for measured medical spleen read Raymond Tallis, and for the genuinely surprising, beautifully written, closely argued and wickedly iconoclastic stuff, Pinker beats them all. Dalrymple writes too much, too much of the same, and should now take a couple of years off to cool his heels, put his feet up, read Pinker's masterly The Blank Slate (start to finish, please, Theo, because it is magically complex, neither of the right nor the left, and is perfectly argued, whether or not you agree with it), and give up on Red Top frothing for a while. That should bring his blood pressure down a bit, which I do worry about, because I am a concerned citizen.
Tracked by 1 customer
Sort: Oldest first | Newest first
Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 7 Aug 2010 23:03:53 BDT
Post enlightenment says:
I have not yet read the book so this comment on Levy's prolix review is based on what I know of Dalrymple's other writing; the writing for which he garners very high praise (from those who are not of a liberal left leaning bien pensant persausion like Levy). In fact Levy and his ilk are a main target of Dalrymple. I fail to see what is linguistically fuggy about the sentence quoted. And where is the but he is supposed to get to? He would consider Levy an unreconstructed 1960s sentimental socialist and perhaps that is why Levy doesn't like this book. But the main point of this tetchy response to Levy's attack on my hero is to refer him to a wonderful essay Dalrymple wrote demolishing Pinker's book 'the language instinct'. It is either in 'Life at the Bottom' (the best writing about the underclass since Mayhew) or its successor collection of essays, 'Our culture what's left of it'. On one point I find myself in agreement with Levy; Dalrymple has earned the right to take a break from writing about the terminal decline of British morals, culture, education and behavior. He can write delightfully about other topics as his regular book review column in the British Medical Journal proves.
In reply to an earlier post on 16 Aug 2010 12:40:18 BDT
Colin Gibbons says:
I like your name, Post Enlightenment. From it I infer that possibly you have been influenced by Alistair MacIntyre's book 'After Virtue'. MacIntyre's thesis is that the so called 18th century Enlightenment was in truth nothing of the kind. Rather, it is to the 'Enlightenment's' understandable but mistaken rejection of Aristotlean ethical philosophy - characteristic of the writings of Hume and others - that the coming of our new Dark Age ultimately is traceable. Dalrymple's importance is as the most supremely gifted chronicler of the of the arrival this new period in our history. MacIntyre also explains the futility of debates about ethical issues with opponents such as Mr Levy, whose enlightened thinking leaves them with no foundation whatsoever for any of their beliefs other than their own emotions. Having no agreed basis of shared understanding, any ethical debate among enlightened, emotive folk must always into decline into mere tedious restatements of opposing first principles, whose opposition can never be resolved.
The only response I would make to Mr Levy's criticism is to say that if really he cannot understand the general admiration of Mr Dalrymple's qualities as a writer then his taste is barbarian.
In reply to an earlier post on 28 Oct 2010 17:19:16 BDT
Stephen F. Hayes says:
In fact, although Dalrymple still writes a column for the BMJ, he has retired and now lives in France. I can quite understand why liberal left people dislike his writing-because it exposes the falsehood of their philosophy. Dalrymple hits all the harder because he is an atheist who seems to have come to similar conclusions to the most right wing of Christian fundamentalists on many social issues by a process of pure reason and extensive observation. I think he is the best and most perceptive writer I know in English today.
Posted on 3 Mar 2011 18:53:47 GMT
Gregory Waggett says:
This is the sheerest nonsense.
Posted on 14 May 2011 00:24:45 BDT
Last edited by the author on 14 May 2011 00:25:10 BDT
Andrew J. Stidwill says:
The use of the word "desert" in the sense mentioned is also present in Christie Davies's book "The Strange Death of Moral Britain", (although I don't think this reviewer would like that book very much either).
Posted on 26 Jul 2011 08:14:42 BDT
Gary Fox says:
The use of 'desert' to mean 'reward' is seen frequently in the oft-used expression 'just deserts' - albeit almost always misspelled as 'just desserts'.
Posted on 18 Aug 2012 09:06:23 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 24 Aug 2012 08:37:18 BDT]
In reply to an earlier post on 19 Aug 2012 17:39:44 BDT
David Levy says:
Oh dear. Why the fury? We all enjoy a bit of rough-and-tumble vitriol at times. But why is proper argument and abuse indistinguishable in so much right-wing writing? (Scruton is a notable exception: he mostly makes a clear distinction; so did the much-missed Hitchens, and in fairness to the good doctor, he doesn't descend to the language that his purported supporters frequently wield.)
Evidently you don't like `studies', or at least the ones you don't like. The term can be irritating. But get over the irritation and move beyond it. I'm sure you don't believe that ground-breaking research revealing what happened in the Holocaust (or any other mass-murder programme) is invalidated by your reflex hatred of `studies', unless you want these acts to be uncovered and then ignored? Read the documents first, then decide whether or not they are valid. I'm happy to leave the `vainglorious', `craving', `hysterical whining', `liberal claptrap' stuff to you. (Incidentally, I'd be interested to hear the evidence on which you base your view that Irish studies are less valid even than Holocaust studies.)
Take a long-acting antiemetic, then read Steven Pinker's book, and you will see that beyond the title page, his thesis, reiterated many times, but from different standpoints, not just language acquisition, is almost the opposite of what you gleaned. Actually, the version I have has the important subtitle: The Modern Denial of Human Nature'. Pinker takes the very unliberal view that there is no blank slate (and certainly no `magical white environment'), we are mostly innately driven, and that social environment is a relatively small contributor to variation in most human traits. He is clear that attempts to further emphasise (and pour countless trillions into) the accepted `social model' aren't therefore likely to be of much use. This is why he is neither of the right nor the left (and he argues that point much more cogently than I can). But his balanced view naturally sits uneasily with the neoconservative approach espoused by Dalrymple. This seeks to blame and punish everyone alike: those whose innate drives have set them on the wrong track (recall his countless stories about the benighted folk he encountered in prison) and the social consensus for failing to correct the problem (which is what he means, I think, by sentimentality; recall that he widens his net that defines the slippery slope as beginning with the enlightenment, not just the post-war period: how could everyone have been so wrong for so long?). The right opposes everything - apart, of course from the market, but by the same token can only propose the market solution, which I think is a limited one.
The internet has given us extraordinary potential to summon up all manner of evidence that we barely imagined was even there (I have just finished a piece based on the verbatim transcript of a parliamentary Public Accounts Committee meeting that only a few years ago wouldn't have been accessible). That unprecedented accessibility could start moving us from the path of abuse and sloganizing - but it mostly hasn't. In the face of all this rich material waiting to be evaluated the right chooses the route of ever more focused and superficial stridency (hence pressing the epithet buttons that never fails to activate neoliberal pleasure centres). In the end, though, evidence, scholarship, persuasion, balance and peer-review will trump the transient gratification of name-calling. I can wait.
Posted on 14 Sep 2012 14:54:32 BDT
Just on style - you criticise the doctor's writing and in particular the length of his sentences in the following manner:
"Adulation for him pours from the great and good (obviously mostly of the wide right) and even Lynn Truss considers his writing to be sublime, an extraordinary view of his congested and baroque sentences, which often conceals banal views, and requires at least this reader to go over his paragraph-length sentences to extract the sense."
Congested and baroque indeed.... Are you familiar with the concept of irony?
In reply to an earlier post on 18 Sep 2012 23:51:14 BDT
David Levy says:
Yes, familiar, but it seems that like many Guardian writers, you're not. Kingsley Amis (quoted in Guardian Style):
The slightest and most banal coincidence or point of resemblance, or even just perceptible absence of one, unworthy of a single grunt of interest, gets called 'ironical'.
'Pot calling the kettle black', perhaps, 'just as bad as the person whose style you're criticising', or 'typical left-wing posturing', but not irony, because I wasn't, at least in that sentence, trying to emulate the good doctor's style. Arguably a bit long, perhaps, but I hope the sense is clear.
We might agree that the combination of congested prose, banal concepts and sententiousness is a particularly toxic mix for the reader. Unlike the doctor, I try to stick to only one of these at a time.