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By Theodore Dalrymple

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

City Journal

Theodore Dalrymple
A Taste for Danger
When you’ve seen anarchy, you properly value civilization.
Summer 1998

On a recent visit to New York, I stepped from the remarkably rich and elegant world of Madison Avenue into a photographic exhibition entitled Requiem at the Newseum. The stores, galleries, and boutiques of the Upper East Side had given me great pleasure; but the contemplation of silk ties, no matter how beautifully designed and exquisitely made, bores me after a while, and I begin to suffer acutely from nostalgie de la boue. I have explored the dark underside of life for too long to remain contented with its sunny uplands for more than a few hours at a time.

Requiem was an exhibition of photographs of the Vietnam War taken by photographers who were themselves killed in it. This gave the exhibition a special poignancy: some of the pictures were printed from the photographers' last roll of film or were even of the last thing they saw before their death. It would have taken a strange kind of intellectual obtuseness or emotional unresponsiveness not to have reacted deeply to these photographs of bravery, cowardice, cruelty, torture, pain, treachery, comradeship, terror, death, destruction, and inconsolable grief—all in a landscape of unequaled beauty that had long been home to a delicate and refined civilization. We see, inter alia, an aircrew chief weeping after a failed mission in which his comrades were killed; a woman being interrogated by having her head held under the water of a river, her interrogator gripping her by the hair; a failed attempt at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of a wounded infantryman; the silhouette of a dead soldier being hoisted aboard a helicopter. And we read the last message received from a Cambodian photographer working for the AP, as the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh: "I alone in post office. . . . I have so numerous stories to cover. . . . I feel rather trembling. . . . Maybe last cable today and forever."

The first pictures in the exhibition, however, were of the Indochinese landscape before the war had extended to every part of it. I doubt that there is a more serene landscape anywhere in the world, and I count myself fortunate to have traveled through it several years after the ending of the war, when the serenity—superficially, at least—had returned. Vietnam was then emerging from its isolation, but visitors were still few. I had the imperial tombs at Hue entirely to myself-not another person in sight or, more important still, within earshot-and I can hardly expect ever again to experience such complete tranquility. The architecture, the gardens, and the landscape were in the most perfect harmony, to be appreciated fully only in silence and solitude.

Of course, hundreds of thousands of people had been killed that I might enjoy my little aesthetic epiphany. I had, unwittingly, taken advantage of a window of opportunity to experience it, for soon afterward, no doubt, the tour buses would start to arrive, with all the ugliness and despoliation that mass tourism entails. There is no contest between Confucius and Coca-Cola. Meanwhile, to the north, the people of puritanical Hanoi had begun to partake of the joys of frivolity for the first time in nearly half a century. Private market stalls had just been permitted, dance halls had opened, and ice cream was available again. To see the innocent pleasure people took in these small things, after so grim a period of history, was moving indeed; but I knew that, in the not distant future, the growth of the tender green shoots of a consumer society would render impossible the kind of quasi-mystical experience that Hue had offered me.

I recalled a passage in Mary McCarthy's book Hanoi, written at the height of the conflict in 1968, when she visited that city. Miss McCarthy had a conversation with the prime minister of North Vietnam, Pham Van Dong, about the quality (her emphasis) of Vietnamese life. "Material scarcity," she wrote, "is regarded as a piece of good luck. . . . He [Pham Van Dong] spoke of our automobile-TV culture as of something distastefully gross and heavy; Vietnamese ethics are permeated with ideas of lightness and swift pliability: bamboo, bicycles, sandals, straw. . . . With a full-lipped contempt . . . he rejected the notion of a socialist consumer society." It did not occur to Miss McCarthy, who perceived and reported such wonders in Hanoi as the triumph of socialism over acne, to ask at whose behest, or on what moral authority, Pham Van Dong rejected consumer society.

Much as I feel a tension between my own aesthetic and cultural tastes and the preferences of vast numbers of people, I do not conclude, as Miss McCarthy did, that the solution lies in the political dictatorship of a small, like-minded minority. The answer to mass vulgarity is not the rule of snobbery or a forcible return to the world of straw and sandal; but it nevertheless remains a matter of sorrow to me that, with the opportunity for individual participation in the glories of our culture greater than ever before in all our history, the meretricious, the vulgar, and the downright hideous should triumph so easily, should find so eager a reception in the minds of men.

It is strange, perhaps, to speak of aesthetics in the context of an exhibition of photographs of the Vietnam War, but even when the photographs move on from the serene landscape of Indochina to the terrible events of war, it is obvious that the photographers were aesthetes of a kind. With death and terror all around them, they yet had a mind to the composition of their pictures. For their photographs were not just taken unselfconsciously but were composed, often brilliantly so. A camera pointed at random, even in the fiercest of action, would not have produced these shattering images.

How could anyone witness these scenes-of scattered corpses, of interrogation under torture by suspension of a suspect upside down, of mortally wounded men dying in the mud, even of a woman correspondent, Dickey Chapelle, being given the last rites after she had stepped on a landmine and her neck had been ripped open by a piece of shrapnel, her head lying in a shining pool of her own blood-how could anyone witness them and still worry about composition? Is this not evidence of a defective sensibility, of an almost psychopathic indifference to human suffering?

No. In a small way, on a scale nothing like that in Requiem, I, too, have witnessed scenes of horror in far-flung places: a church in Monrovia, for example, in which 600 people taking refuge from the civil war were heartlessly slaughtered by the troops of the dictator, and where the silhouettes of the victims' bodies were still visible in the dried blood on the floor; or of the corpses of poor Peruvians in Ayacucho, murdered by the Shining Path guerrillas to discourage other Peruvians from voting as they had just done. The flesh of their faces had been flayed from their skulls, leaving their eerily translucent eyeballs naked and exposed—and I, too, took photographs, while worrying about the angle, the light, the composition.

I was consumed by the need to communicate to others what I had seen for myself, and a bad, uncomposed photograph would never be published. My aesthetic concerns, therefore, were not a sign of any lack of feeling on my part, but on the contrary, of my strength of feeling and character—that, at any rate, is what I told myself. Certainly, the desire to inform the world about suffering distances the informer emotionally from that suffering, even his own, but not in the way that a psychopathic perpetrator distances himself from his victims, and not for the same purposes. The photographer of catastrophe is more akin to the doctor, who does not suffer a moral collapse every time he encounters a tragedy:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

It is only the sentimentalist who imagines that the profundity of a person's response to tragedy is proportional to the length, volume, or shrillness of his lamentation.

But human motives are rarely pure and never simple. One hundred and thirty-five photographers are known to have been killed in the Vietnam War, 41 of them from countries in which they could easily have lived in peace, prosperity, and perfect honor, without having exposed themselves to the trauma or dangers of war. They knew the risks they ran (as how could they not have known?), and many of them returned for further tours of duty knowing that death was no distant possibility. But away from the war, they grew restless, bored, and dissatisfied. I do not think that a desire to inform their fellow citizens of what was happening, laudable though it was, can be the whole explanation of their extraordinary, almost suicidal, conduct.

These photographers hated the war, but they loved it too: for it gave meaning to their lives or at the very least provided a temporary relief from those nagging questions about the meaning of life that even the most complacent of us sometimes ask. Doctor Johnson kicked a stone to establish the reality, which Bishop Berkeley had questioned, of the external world; these photographers established that there was more to life than dull domestic routine by going to war. Vietnam was big enough for the largest ego to lose itself in; it was big enough to give purpose to the most aimless of lives.

I understand this frame of mind only too well: I know the incomparable attractions of danger. Of course, I have never had myself strapped to the wings of an aircraft in a combat zone, as one of the photographers represented in this exhibition did, the better to furnish idle readers back home with a startling photograph of an air raid. But for an ordinary and respectable son of the English middle classes, with a proper profession, I have put myself in the way of a few unusual situations: I have been sought by the South African secret police for having disregarded the laws of apartheid; I have seen the inside of a Balkan police station from the point of view of someone under arrest; I have been deported from Honduras to Nicaragua as a communist; I have made myself the target of Salvadoran guerrillas for having given a ride to government soldiers; I have been clandestine in East Timor; I have traveled through several civil wars. There are few exhilarations greater than being completely beyond the reach of anyone who might help you—provided of course that the dangerous situation has been freely chosen and not imposed and that there is somewhere safe to return to when the excitement has either worn off or become overwhelming. Even with these provisos, however, I am only describing what I myself have experienced: I do not prescribe what others ought to experience. And I am happy to acknowledge that, by the standards of many, my tastes are peculiar, even perverse.

Not surprisingly, I have found my frequent returns to the workaday world of mortgages, regular hours, and supermarket shopping less than wholly pleasurable. And when, having returned from a country in which half the population has been displaced and the infrastructure entirely destroyed, I hear complaints about the difficulty of finding taxis in the rain or delays in delivery of the mail, I am apt to grow disdainful. The problem with having lived too long or too frequently in dangerous situations is that one ceases to care very much about the actual content of the existence one is so anxious to preserve. Danger absolves one of the need to deal with a hundred quotidian problems or to make a thousand little choices, each one unimportant. Danger simplifies existence and therefore—again when chosen, not imposed—comes as a relief from many anxieties.

My tastes are neither as uncommon nor extreme as might at first appear. I have met many people far more avid for the thrill of danger than I. For them, danger is like a drug to which tolerance has developed, so that they require ever larger doses to experience the same effect. I remember an American photographer in San Salvador—at a time when bombs exploded daily in the city, when Uzi-wielding men of dubious appearance guarded every store, every playground, and every middle-class home, and when the final assault by the guerrillas on the mountainside was expected at any moment-who told me that he was bored by the tameness of the city, that he longed for the real action of napalm and firefights such as happened in the countryside. He was only at inner peace in the midst of bullets, he said. He loved the country, but his commitment to it was only war-deep: if peace, alas, were to break out, he would have to find another conflict to photograph.

An extreme and terminal case, no doubt, but I encounter milder forms of the malady every day. Untold numbers of my patients, with every opportunity to lead quiet, useful, and tolerably prosperous lives, choose instead the path of complication and, if not of violence and physical danger exactly, at least of drama and excitement, leading to sleepless nights and financial loss. They break up marriages, form disastrous liaisons, chase Chimeras, and behave in ways that predictably will end in disaster. Like moths to the flame, they court catastrophe. As many have told me, they prefer disaster to boredom.

Those who are not satisfied with their work, or who have no intellectual or cultural interests, and whose coarse emotions have undergone refinement neither by education nor by adherence to civilized custom, are particularly liable to seek out the compensatory complications of domestic disorder and disarray. The perpetually unemployed, for example, lead a crude and frequently violent version of the life portrayed in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Like French aristocrats under the ancien regime, they are—thanks to Social Security—under no compulsion to earn a living; and with time hanging heavy on their hands, their personal relationships are their only diversion. These relationships are therefore both intense and shallow, for there is never any mutual interest in them deeper than the avoidance of the ever-encroaching ennui.

The pattern of human self-destruction is confined to no social class or group, however. A distinguished and in many ways admirable Russian writer of the late nineteenth century, V.G. Korolenko, once wrote that Man is born for happiness as a bird for flight: to which one is inclined to add, yes, if mice are born for heroism. It would be difficult, in fact, to summarize human nature more inaccurately. Yet social theorists often suppose that human beings have a clear idea what it is they want from life, and behave moreover as if they were rational calculating machines designed to procure it. How many people does each of us know (present company excepted) who claim to seek happiness but freely choose paths inevitably leading to misery?

The photographers represented in Requiem were surely both terrified and enthralled, appalled and exhilarated, exhausted and energized, by what they saw and did. Just as the man who fights iniquity is seldom wholly satisfied by its defeat (for what is there for him to do thereafter?), so the anti-war propagandist-as each of these photographers must be accounted-comes to love his ostensible enemy as himself. Like Richard III, he would lament this weak piping time of peace and hate the idle pleasures of these days. For him, peace and peace of mind not merely fail to be synonymous, but are almost antonyms.

I learned early in my life that, if people are offered the opportunity of tranquility, they often reject it and choose torment instead. My own parents chose to live in the most abject conflictual misery and created for themselves a kind of hell on a small domestic scale, as if acting in an unscripted play by Strindberg. There was no reason external to themselves why they should not have been happy; reasonably prosperous, they lived under as benign a government as they could have wished for. Though they lived together, they addressed not a single word to one another in my presence during the 18 years I spent in their house, though we ate at least one meal a day together; once, as a child, I was awakened in the night by the raised voice of my mother exclaiming to my father, "You're a wicked, wicked man." Those are the only words I ever heard pass between them. It was like a bolt of lightning on a dark night: dazzling but unilluminating. For the rest, their silences were highly nuanced, expressing resentment, aggression, injured innocence, exasperation, moral superiority, and all the other dishonest little emotions of which the human mind is capable. They continued their absurd, self-dramatizing civil war to the end of my father's life: on his deathbed, my father, by then long separated from my mother, said to me, "Tell her she can come if she wants to," to which my mother's reply was, "Tell him I'll come if he asks me." They stuck to their principles and never did meet: for what is mere death by comparison to a lifelong quarrel?

For a long time I pitied myself: had any child ever been as miserable as I? I felt the deepest, most sincere compassion for myself. Then gradually it began to dawn on me that the education I had received had liberated me from any need or excuse to repeat the sordid triviality of my parents' personal lives. One's past is not one's destiny, and it is self-serving to pretend that it is. If henceforth I were miserable, it would be my own fault: and I vowed never to waste my substance on petty domestic conflict.

It was the time of the Vietnam War. Pictures such as those displayed in Requiem seemed to uncritical and arrogant youth to unmask the falseness, the hypocrisy, the hidden but always underlying violence of Western civilization. It was the time of the Glaswegian psychiatrist R.D. Laing, according to whom only the insane were sane in an insane world, while the sane were truly insane. The family was the means by which society passed on and perpetuated its collective madness; and the Cambridge social anthropologist Edmund Leach famously said in a series of lectures on the BBC that the nuclear family was responsible not for some of, but for all of the misery of human existence. (Pol Pot was but a few years away.)

For obvious reasons, I was not entirely well-disposed to family life or to the supposed joys of bourgeois existence, and therefore swallowed some of the nonsense whole. Like the photographers, I was only too desirous of escaping what I supposed to be the source of my personal dissatisfactions. But not for very long: for I soon came to realize that the peculiarities of my personal upbringing were not a reliable prism through which to judge the world. The only thing worse than having a family, I discovered, is not having a family. My rejection of bourgeois virtues as mean-spirited and antithetical to real human development could not long survive contact with situations in which those virtues were entirely absent; and a rejection of everything associated with one's childhood is not so much an escape from that childhood as an imprisonment by it.

It was in Africa that I first discovered that the bourgeois virtues are not only desirable but often heroic. I was working in a hospital in what was then still Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. I was still of the callow—and fundamentally lazy—youthful opinion that nothing in the world could change until everything changed, in which case a social system would arise in which it would be no longer necessary for anyone to be good. The head nurse on the ward in which I worked, a black woman, invited me to her home in the township for a meal. At that time and in that place, social contact between blacks and whites was unusual, though not actually illegal.

She was a splendid, kindly, hardworking woman. She lived in a township in which there were thousands of tiny, identical, prefabricated bungalows, the size of huts. The level of violence in the township was very great: on Saturday night, the floors of the emergency department of my hospital were slippery with still-flowing blood.

In this unpromising environment, I discovered, the nurse had created an extremely comfortable and even pretty home for herself and her aging mother. Her tiny patch of land was like a bower; the inside of her house was immaculately clean, tidy, and well—though cheaply—furnished. I would never laugh again at the taste of people of limited means to make a comfortable home for themselves.

Looking around me in the township, I began to see that the spotlessly clean white uniform in which she appeared every day in the hospital represented not an absurd fetish, not the brutal imposition of alien cultural standards upon African life, but a noble triumph of the human spirit—as, indeed, did her tenderly cared-for home. By comparison with her struggle to maintain herself in decency, my former rejection of bourgeois proprieties and respectability seemed to me ever afterward to be shallow, trivial, and adolescent. Until then, I had assumed, along with most of my generation unacquainted with real hardship, that a scruffy appearance was a sign of spiritual election, representing a rejection of the superficiality and materialism of bourgeois life. Ever since then, however, I have not been able to witness the voluntary adoption of torn, worn out, and tattered clothes—at least in public—by those in a position to dress otherwise without a feeling of deep disgust. Far from being a sign of solidarity with the poor, it is a perverse mockery of them; it is spitting on the graves of our ancestors, who struggled so hard, so long, and so bitterly that we might be warm, clean, well-fed, and leisured enough to enjoy the better things in life.

To base one's rejection of what exists—and hence one's prescription for a better world—upon the petty frustrations of one's youth, as surely many middle-class radicals have done, is profoundly egotistical. Unless consciously rejected, this impulse leads to a tendency throughout life to judge the rightness or wrongness of policies by one's personal emotional response to them, as if emotion were an infallible guide. Only connect, was E.M. Forster's enigmatic injunction to his readers at the end of Howard's End: to which I should prefer the injunction Only compare. One's supposed sufferings are then not so great after all and give no special insight into the world as it is or as it should be.

But the overestimation of the importance of one's emotional responses is very widespread. It could be seen in the comment book available to vistors to the Requiem exhibition. Most of the visitors who wrote more than a word or two imagined that their personal responses to the pictures were sufficient for them to pass judgment on the war itself, indeed on all war. It seemed to occur to none of them that the justness or otherwise of the war could not be judged by the pictures alone, and that they needed a lot more information to make this judgment—for if such photographs had been published of Allied soldiers and civilians during the Second World War, they might, in the absence of any other information, be taken as evidence of the wrongness of resistance to Nazism.

It is not surprising that emotion untutored by thought results in nearly contentless blather, in which—ironically enough—genuine emotion itself cannot be adequately expressed. "What hurts so much," wrote one person who had visited the exhibition, "is that we humans keep doing this war/killing thing. We must hammer our guns into Plows and STUDY Peace." There were pages and pages of this kind of sentiment, which aimed to combine thought with emotion and missed both. The comment of an Italian stood out like a beacon of truth in this murk of dishonesty: "É molto emocionante. Se non fosse la guerra, che cosa farebbero i reporter?"

Very moving. If it weren't for war, what would journalists do?

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