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By Theodore Dalrymple

The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.

Oh, to be in England

Theodore Dalrymple
What’s Wrong with Twinkling Buttocks?
Summer 2003

A crude culture makes a coarse people, and private refinement cannot long survive public excess. There is a Gresham’s law of culture as well as of money: the bad drives out the good, unless the good is defended.

In no country has the process of vulgarization gone further than in Britain: in this, at least, we lead the world. A nation famed not so long ago for the restraint of its manners is now notorious for the coarseness of its appetites and its unbridled and antisocial attempts to satisfy them. The mass drunkenness seen on weekends in the center of every British town and city, rendering them unendurable to even minimally civilized people, goes hand in hand with the appallingly crude, violent, and shallow relations between the sexes. Britain’s mass bastardy is not a sign of an increase in the authenticity of our human relations but a natural consequence of the unbridled hedonism that leads in short order to chaos and misery, especially among the poor. Take restraint away, and violent discord follows.

Curiously enough, the revolution in British manners did not come about through any volcanic eruption from below: on the contrary, it was the intellectual wing of the elite that kicked against the traces. It is still doing so, though there are very few traces left to kick against.

For example, the boundless prurience of the British press concerning the private lives of public figures, especially politicians, has an ideological aim: to subvert the very concept and deny the possibility of virtue, and therefore of the necessity for restraint. If every person who tries to defend virtue is revealed to have feet of clay (as which of us does not?) or to have indulged at some time in his life in the vice that is the opposite of the virtue he calls for, then virtue itself is exposed as nothing but hypocrisy: and we may therefore all behave exactly as we choose. The loss of the religious understanding of the human condition—that Man is a fallen creature for whom virtue is necessary but never fully attainable—is a loss, not a gain, in true sophistication. The secular substitute—the belief in the perfection of life on earth by the endless extension of a choice of pleasures—is not merely callow by comparison but much less realistic in its understanding of human nature.

It is in the arts and literary pages of our newspapers that the elite’s continuing demand for the erosion of restraint, and its unreflective antinomianism, is most clearly on view. Take for example the June 8 arts section of the Observer, Britain’s most prestigious liberal Sunday paper. The section’s two most important and eye-catching articles celebrated pop singer Marilyn Manson and writer Glen Duncan.

Of the pop singer, the Observer’s critic wrote: “Marilyn Manson’s ability to shock has swung like a pendulum in a high wind. . . . He was really scary at first, when [he] burst out of [his] native Florida and declared war on all Middle America holds dear. Manson spun convincing tales of smoking exhumed bones for kicks. . . . But . . . Manson’s autobiography revealed a smart, funny man—even if he did enjoy covering hearing-impaired groupies in raw meat for sexual sport. He turned into an artist, rather than the incarnation of evil. Church groups still picketed his gigs, which often echoed Nazi rallies (they still do). But any fool could see that Manson was making a valid point about rock ‘n’ roll gigs and mass behavior, as well as flirting with fascist style.”

The author of this review—who fastidiously balks at using the word “deaf” for the hearing-impaired but appears not to mind too much if they are exploited for perverted sexual gratification—takes pains to let the reader know that she is not so unsophisticated, naive, and, well, Middle American, as to find the whole spectacle disgusting: for example, by objecting to the adoption of the name of a sadistic multiple killer for trivial publicity purposes. To have responded in such a way would have been to lose caste, to side with the gawky, earnest Christians, rather than with the secular devil worshipers—though the determination to be shocked by nothing, to object to nothing, is itself, of course, a convention. It seems beyond the critic’s range of imagination or sympathy that people who actually fought against fascism and risked their lives and lost their compatriots in doing so, or who suffered under fascism’s yoke, might find the concept of flirtation with fascist style not only offensive but a cause of real despair in the last years of their lives. Fascism is not fashion.

The “any fool” of the last sentence is a subtle form of intellectual snobbery and flattery, intended to suck the reader into the charmed circle of the sophisticated, disabused intellectual elite, the knowing and the cognoscenti who have moved beyond moral judgment and principles, who are not deceived by mere appearances, do not condemn according to outmoded ways of thought, and are therefore unmoved by such trifling (and oppressive) considerations as public decency. It does not occur to the writer—nor would it matter to her if it did—that in the audience in which fascism was flirted with there might not have been any fools but many fools, those who failed to see the ironically playful “valid” point behind the flirtation and would embrace fascism without irony. Not long ago, a newspaper asked me to attend a “concert” to report on a group whose main selling point was that they urinated and vomited over their audience, as well as abused it constantly by calling every member of it “motherfucker” countless times. Thousands attended the “concert”—in fact, a reverberating wall of deafening, discordant electronic noise punctuated by the chanting of obscenities—among whom were hundreds of children as young as six. For these unfortunate children, this was not nostalgie de la boue; this was total immersion in the boue itself, the boue in which they lived and breathed and took their cultural being, the boue from which it is highly unlikely that they would now ever crawl. Any fool could see that this was not a suitable spectacle for children, but many fools—their parents—didn’t.

The Observer’s interview with the author Glen Duncan was entitled DARK, SATANIC THRILLS, and the interviewer found herself “pleasantly shocked” by the sadomasochism of Duncan’s work—any other kind of shock than the pleasant being strictly infra dig for one of her caste, of course. “[He] has ventured even further into the dark wood of sexual violence and cruelty” than another author of sadomasochistic literature, Mary Gaitskill—praise indeed, since Gaitskill has been critically acclaimed for “her unflinching flirting with taboo” (oh, how flirtatious they are, our literati, drawn to taboo as flies to dung), “her clear-eyed use of seamy detail.” There is nothing finer for extending human freedom, maturity, and self-knowledge than a bit of seamy detail, of course: though naturally, you can never be quite unflinching enough, nor the detail sufficiently seamy.

Not, of course, that Mr. Duncan’s graphic depiction of sadomasochistic practices is prurient or sensationalist; heaven protect us for so “grossly reductive” a thought: “though”—let us be quite frank, for mature people can face any truth—“it is an excellent selling point for the publishers.” The sexual scenes, “not for the fainthearted” (such as those who, for example, do not think that fascism is a fit subject for merely stylistic treatment), have a serious philosophical import and not a merely commercial one. As the author put it to the interviewer, no doubt to establish beyond doubt his reputation as a serious thinker: “Weird shit happens and I wanted the narrator to have to figure out how to live even in the light of that.” The sexual scenes are not gratuitous, therefore, much less publicity stunts—nor of course are they the result of human choice (weird shit isn’t chosen: it just happens; it is inevitable)—but they raise important metaphysical questions about the boundaries of the permissible.

When exactly did this downward cultural spiral begin, this loss of tact and refinement and understanding that some things should not be said or directly represented? When did we no longer appreciate that to dignify certain modes of behavior, manners, and ways of being with artistic representation was implicitly to glorify and promote them? There is, as Adam Smith said, a deal of ruin in a nation: and this truth applies as much to a nation’s culture as to its economy. The work of cultural destruction, while often swifter, easier, and more self-conscious than that of construction, is not the work of a moment. Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day.

In 1914, for example, Bernard Shaw caused a sensation by giving Eliza Doolittle the words “Not bloody likely!” to utter on the London stage. Of course, the sensation that this now-innocuous, even innocent exclamation created depended wholly for its effect upon the convention that it flouted: but those who were outraged by it (and who have generally been regarded as ridiculous in subsequent accounts of the incident) instinctively understood that sensation doesn’t strike in the same place twice, and that anyone wanting to create an equivalent in the future would have to go far beyond “Not bloody likely.” A logic and a convention of convention-breaking was established, so that within a few decades it was difficult to produce any sensation at all except by the most extreme means.

If there was a single event in our recent cultural history that established literal-minded crudity as the ideal of artistic endeavor, however, it was the celebrated 1960 trial of Penguin Books for the publication of an obscene book, the unexpurgated version of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The trial posed the question of whether cultural tact and restraint would crumble in the absence of legal sanctions. For, as the much derided prosecutor in the case, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, understood only too well, and specifically advised the government of the day, if the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover went legally unchallenged, or if the case were lost, it would in effect be the end of the law of obscenity. To adapt slightly Dostoyevsky’s famous dictum about the moral consequences of the nonexistence of God, if Lady Chatterley’s Lover were published, everything could be published.

Penguin Books had long wanted to publish Lawrence’s novel but decided to do so in 1960, because Parliament had changed the obscenity law the previous year. The law, whose stated purpose was to suppress pornography while protecting literature, retained more or less the previous definition of obscenity, as that which, taken as a whole, tended to corrupt and deprave. But for the first time the law contained a provision according to which the interests of art, literature, or science could override the goal of preventing depravity and corruption. Furthermore, the law allowed “expert” evidence to be called in defense of the artistic or literary merit of an allegedly obscene work. The timing of Penguin Books’ proposed publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover clearly suggests that the company knew the book could not be defended against the charge of obscenity; publication had to wait until Penguin could rely for the book’s defense upon the evidence of “expert,” that is to say elite, opinion. Among the expert witnesses was Roy Jenkins, later a liberal Home Secretary, who was one of the framers of the new law, whose effect turned out to be more the protection of pornography and the suppression of literature than the other way around—an effect that, in view of Jenkins’s later pronouncement that the permissive society was the civilized society, was exactly what the framers of the law desired but found inexpedient to acknowledge at the time.

The elite fell over itself to testify in the book’s favor during the trial, and the defense was able to produce a star-studded list of experts, including E. M. Forster and Rebecca West. It was undoubtedly assisted in its task by the maladroitness of the prosecutor, who seemed not to have noticed that society had changed since his upper-class youth, and who opened the case with such consummate pomposity that he became a figure of fun ever afterward and is still remembered—and remembered only—for what he said in his opening remarks to the jury: “You may think that one of the ways in which you can test this book . . . is to ask yourselves the question . . . would you approve of your young sons, young daughters—because girls can read as well as boys—reading this book? Is it a book you would leave lying about your house? Is it a book you would even wish your wife and servants to read?” The court, not surprisingly, erupted in laughter; and later, after the “not guilty” verdict, in a debate in the House of Lords on an unsuccessful motion to strengthen the law of obscenity, one of the noble Lords was reported to have replied to the question of whether he would mind if his daughter read Lady Chatterley’s Lover that he wouldn’t mind in the least, but he would mind very much if his gamekeeper read it.

Griffith-Jones was clumsily raising the possibility that what was harmless for some individuals might not be harmless for society as a whole, and that artists, writers, and intellectuals had a responsibility to consider what the effects of their work were likely to be: a debatable proposition, certainly, but not an inherently absurd one. But his case never recovered from his gaffe, and the fact that a mere gaffe could so have obscured the important question at issue illustrated the frivolity of mind that had already taken hold in British society.

In fact, the expert evidence was, in its way, just as absurd as Griffith-Jones’s opening remarks, and vastly more destructive in its effects. For example, when Helen Gardner, the eminent, cultivated, and very proper Cambridge don who had spent much of her life studying the metaphysical poets, was asked about Lawrence’s repeated if not incessant use of the word “fuck,” she (as well as other witnesses) implied that Lawrence had somehow managed to render the word less obscene and more refined by depriving it of its smutty connotations. In his closing address to the jury, Griffith-Jones—absurd, maligned, pompous as he was—proved much more realistic than the expert witnesses about the likely social consequences of weakening the taboo against bad language: “Miss Gardner said . . . ‘I think the very fact that this word is used so frequently in the book, with every subsequent use the original shock is diminished. . . . ’ I suppose that is put as mitigation for the use of this language. Is it? Or, if it be right, is it not a terrible thing to say, ‘It is all right, if we forget about the shock of using this language, if we use it sufficient times, no one will be shocked, everybody will be using it and it will be all right?’ Can you not apply the same test to everything? Filthy pictures, if you look at them a number of times, the shock, the effect will die out and so we can have everything flooded with filthy pictures!” Miss Gardner, but not Griffith-Jones, would have been surprised, had she been present in my consulting room four decades later, to hear a three-year-old child say to his mother, when thwarted in his attempts to destroy my telephone, “Well, fuck you!”

The witnesses grossly, and I suspect dishonestly, inflated Lawrence’s status as a writer to bolster the defense’s case, which was, in effect, but a stalking horse in their campaign for the removal of artistic limits and the erosion of the irksome restraints of civilization. Helen Gardner stated in her testimony that in assessing the literary value of a work, there were two considerations to be taken into account: what the author was trying to say and his success in saying it. On both counts, Lawrence fails, and fails dismally. No doubt it is remarkable that the son of a Nottinghamshire miner of that era should have written novels at all, which explains why he became the Bloomsbury group’s pet proletarian: but the rarity of a thing should not cloud our judgment as to its intellectual or aesthetic value. For example, Lawrence’s prose manages the difficult feat of being leaden and overwrought at the same time. I found the following passage by opening the book at random and pointing with my eyes shut to a place on the page: “She ran, and he saw nothing but the round wet head, the wet back leaning forward in flight, the rounded buttocks twinkling: a wonderful cowering female nakedness in flight.” Polonius would have exclaimed, “That’s good! ‘Twinkling buttocks’ is good.”

The radical humorlessness of this passage (apart from being typical) is indicative of a profound moral defect, insofar as a sense of humor requires a sense of proportion. Of course, as Somerset Maugham once noted, only a very mediocre writer is always at his best: but only a very bad writer is so often at his very considerable worst, as is Lawrence. The following passage relates to a conversation that the gamekeeper, Mellors, has with Lady Chatterley’s father, Sir Malcolm, after she has become pregnant by Mellors:

    Only when coffee was served, and the waiter had gone, Sir Malcolm lit a cigar and said, heartily: “Well, young man, and what about my daughter?” The grin flickered on Mellors’ face. “Well, Sir, and what about her?” “You’ve got a baby in her all right.” “I have that honour!” grinned Mellors. “Honour, by God!”, Sir Malcolm gave a little squirting laugh, and became Scotch and lewd. “Honour! How was the going, eh? Good, my boy, what!” “Good!” “I’ll bet it was! Hah-ha! My daughter, chip off the old block, what! I never went back on a good bit of fucking, myself. Though her mother, oh Holy Saints!” He rolled his eyes up to heaven. “But warmed her up, oh, you warmed her up, I can see that. Hah-ha! My blood in her! You set fire to her haystack all right.”

It would be difficult to find a worse, cruder, or more insensitive passage in the whole of English literature. It is startlingly unrealistic, of course (and Lawrence claims to be a realist): no father would speak of his own daughter in this men’s-locker-room manner, nor any widower of his deceased wife. It reduces human relationships to the lowest possible denominator: humans become no more than farmyard animals. And Lawrence approves of Sir Malcolm, wanting us to accept his view that he is superior, because more earthy and biological, to others of his social class.

Lawrence was an earnest, but not a serious, writer—if by serious we mean one whose outlook on life is intellectually or morally worthy of our consideration. Lawrence put a lot of himself into Mellors, who at one point in the book enunciates the essence of Lawrence’s philosophy, the summary of all his reflections on human existence, his final testament to the world: “I believe in something, I believe in being warm-hearted. I believe especially in being warm-hearted in love. I believe that if men could fuck with warm hearts and women took it warm-heartedly, everything would be all right.” The idea that social perfection is to be achieved through wonderfully sensual sexual relations between men and women is a fantasy unworthy of prolonged intellectual consideration. To call it adolescent tripe is to be unfair to many intelligent adolescents. The fact that so many eminent persons were willing to testify in court that Lawrence was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, worthy to be compared, say, with Conrad, is an indication of the elite’s loss of taste and judgment. Their imprimatur helped transform a bad writer and worse thinker into a major cultural influence: and his crude, egotistical literal-mindedness has been successively trumped ever since by yet cruder, more egotistical literal-mindedness.

Yet literal-mindedness is not honesty or fidelity to truth—far from it. For it is the whole experience of mankind that sexual life is always, and must always be, hidden by veils of varying degrees of opacity, if it is to be humanized into something beyond a mere animal function. What is inherently secretive, that is to say self-conscious and human, cannot be spoken of directly: the attempt leads only to crudity, not to truth. Bawdy is the tribute that our instinct pays to secrecy. If you go beyond bawdy and tear all the veils away, you get pornography and nothing else. In essence, therefore, Lawrence was a pornographer, though a dull one even in that dull genre.

There never was much demand, except from the elite, for relaxation of the law of censorship: indeed, until the law was relaxed, the public had shown a distinctly limited appetite for the works of D. H. Lawrence. But no sooner had the relaxation been legislated, and the book published, than one in four British households had acquired it. The genie was well and truly out of the bottle, the supply had created a demand, and the appetite grew with feeding.

It is, of course, a common prejudice that censorship is bad for art and therefore always unjustified: though, if this were so, mankind would have little in the way of an artistic heritage and we should now be living in an artistic golden age. But if we cannot censor, we can censure: and we should be tireless in saying that D. H. Lawrence and his deplorable and hackneyed progeny down to Marilyn Manson and Glen Duncan, with his “dark, satanic thrills,” darken the world rather than enlighten it.

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