I have been reading Theodore Dalrymple since his first and I think best book, Life at the Bottom. Dalrymple’s style of irony worked best when he wrote as a prison doctor reflecting on his patient’s self-deception, since the gentility of his bourgeois diction contrasted with the degeneracy of his underclass subjects in a way that was both amusing and instructive. When Dalrymple retired, moved to France, and began to write about bourgeois culture and the petty vexations of his bourgeois life, this style of irony worked less well, and has sometimes lapsed, I fear, into a degree of cranky pomposity.
But many of the articles he now publishes at Taki’s Magazine are worth reading, and the article that appeared this morning is one of them. His subject is, as usual, a petty vexation of his bourgeois life, namely a loudly complaining woman with whom he was trapped on a train from the south of France. Dalrymple tells us that the woman was at first a source of irritation, since he was attempting to read, but that he accommodated himself to her loud and ceaseless grousing by resolving to make it the subject of an article.
For as Dalrymple says near the end of the article that he did, in fact, write:
“Writing helps one to endure what might otherwise be unendurable . . . . the knowledge that you are going to write about something unpleasant puts a screen between yourself and your own experience.”
This is exactly right, for I daresay most writing is undertaken as revenge. Apart from a certain facility with words, the writer’s greatest needs are to be constantly rankled by life, and to endure the pain of this rankling by anticipating the pleasure of written revenge. Written revenge is by no means limited to mockery, satire and vituperation, for genial and generous words will often serve to settle the score.
I known that thinking I will post it on the Orthosphere helps me endure many inanities and indignities that would otherwise drive me to drink.
Dalrymple fails to note his kinship with the obstreperous woman on the train, but the truth is that he is every bit as much of a public complainer as she is. That he does it with greater art cannot disguise this. Nor can the fact that his complaints appear in print and hers are broadcast to all within earshot of her hotly vibrating larynx. She takes her revenge on the world in loud vituperations; he takes his in mordant scribbling.
And I am able to endure the likes of both of them by rubbing my hands, cracking my knuckles, and anticipating my revenge.