The Lizards

by Theodore Dalrymple (September 2018)


Boy Bitten by a Lizard, Caravaggio, 1593-94

 
On the terrace of my house towards the South of France, small lizards hunt their food, mainly small insects. They themselves have their enemies and are therefore very nervous, fleeing my approach, not knowing that I wish them well. Some of them take refuge in cracks in the stone walls of the house, their heads later slowly peeking out afterwards to see whether it is safe now for them to emerge.
 
The lizards are of different species. The members of one these species, bright green and not very numerous, that lives mainly in the bushes and is, at ten inches long, by far the largest of them, is so shy that it is hard to catch more than a glimpse at any one time.
 
I feel mildly guilty or inadequate at not knowing the names of the various species and have long intended to buy a book that would enable me to name them, which is rather odd because the ability to do so would not by itself add anything real or substantial to my understanding of the world. It would be the illusion of knowledge rather than knowledge itself, unless I were to use that ability as the beginning of a deeper comprehension of lizard life.
 
These small creatures move with an astonishing rapidity and while I could no doubt capture them if I had a mind to do so, their speed, at least by the time they are adult, would make capture difficult. What is their infant mortality rate, I wonder; do ten, or a hundred, or a thousand, have to be born for one to survive to adulthood? Are the lizards that I observe on my terrace an elite, the survivors of a ferocious struggle that winnows out the unfit, the biological equivalent of Schumpeter’s creative destruction?
 
Certainly there is a time of year when the lizards seem far less preoccupied with the external dangers that surround them and more preoccupied with their relative status among themselves. They chase one another across the terrace oblivious to the proximity of large and potentially threatening creatures such as I.
 
I have noticed that the larger lizard always chases the smaller, the latter giving ground and running away, often only to return and try again to take possession of the ground, to be chased once more from the field. I presume (though I do not actually know) that all this has something to do with what Darwin called sexual selection, that the triumphant lizard is the one that gets the girl, so to speak. The victor has proved his worthiness to be a mate by his larger size and superior aggression, though whether he has achieved his larger size by simply having survived longer, or by being a better and more determined hunter, I do not know. I suppose that there is someone who does know the answer to this question; if so, it must have taken years of patient and ingenious research to establish the answer. If the answer is not known, how would you devise a method for finding it out?
 
Sometimes the lizards appear actually to fight. In these contests, the larger lizard again always has the upper hand, or rather leg. It wraps itself around the smaller and seems to crush it; it bites the smaller with every appearance of viciousness. It is possible, I suppose, that what I take to be a fight is actually copulation, with sadomasochistic undertones, and the chasing that precedes it a kind of foreplay. If so, in the lizard world at least, no most definitely does not mean, or is not taken by males to mean, no.
 
Just outside our kitchen we have come to recognise a small lizard that has lost its tail and has paralysed back legs. It can drag itself with surprising speed over the ground with just its front legs. Its tail is in the process of growing back, but for the moment it is merely a pointed black stump. We have come to look on it as a friend, and we think of ourselves as its protector. We rejoice whenever we see it capture and eat an ant. It is strange how we speak of it a poor little fellow, worthy of our sympathy. Do lizards really suffer? We even imagine that it is aware of our benevolence towards it.
 
Yesterday, it was caught by a larger, able-bodied lizard and appeared to be losing a serious fight with it. Its struggle was hopeless; it was completely in the power of the larger creature.
 
I decided, in the name of fairness and justice, to intervene. The larger animal was so intent on achieving victory, whatever that might have consisted of, that he was oblivious of my approach. In normal times, he would have scarpered; but even with my shadow obliterating the sun, he did not apprehend the danger. His whole attention was fixed on his handicapped conspecific.
 
I bent over and flicked him far away, releasing the smaller lizard with paralysed legs. He ran, or dragged himself, off in the opposite direction. Thus I interfered with the course of nature, whatever it might otherwise have been. 
 
There are two points to this story. The first is that I had immediately infused moral meaning into the scene. The second is that it illustrates how easily attention to small affairs may lead to disregard of things much larger and more important.
 
However much I told myself that it was absurd to do so, I anthropomorphised the two lizards. When you see a little lizard’s head popping out of its sanctuary in a stone wall, it is difficult to not imagine it endowed with some kind of personality. As for the larger of the two lizards, I could not help thinking, ‘Why don’t you pick on someone your own size, you bully?’—as if lizards ought to fight by a saurian version of the Marquess of Queensbury Rules, and always give the other lizard a chance.
 
Of course, the infusion moral meaning in such a scene depends on at least a degree of affection for one of the protagonists. If, for example, I saw a large and a small scorpion engaged in a fight, I would think of what Henry Kissinger said of the Iran-Iraq war: it’s a pity that both of them can’t lose. (Actually, they both did—or at least, both the populations did.)
 
It is very difficult to think of the animate world without the idea of intention, with which we invest even lowly animals For example, the other day I rolled a largish stone over, under which there was an ants’ nest. There were almost as many eggs as ants, and sudden exposure to the sunlight galvanised the ants into frantic activity. Within a very short time they had managed to transport the eggs—all of them—under another nearby stone.
 
One could not witness this without ascribing intention or purpose to the ants: the ants were trying to save the eggs. Their co-ordination and determination were admirable. How they all knew precisely what to do is beyond me, though I do not go so far in my admiration as to say that I wished human society were as well-organised as that of ants. That is the wish of every totalitarian and I do not share it.
 
I do not think that there is anybody who does not ascribe intention to animate beings, so saturated with the idea of intention is our conscious thought. Even as a biology pupil, watching a mere amoeba moving away from a noxious chemical simulant, I ascribed intention to it in a way I should not have done to, say, the antics of metallic phosphorus thrown into water. However much we protest that the dung beetle is an automaton, we still say that it is trying to roll its dung while it fails to manage it.
 
Curiously enough, even militant evolutionists who are firmly against the notion of intention in Nature as a whole find it difficult altogether to avoid the language of intention, not merely in the case of animals, but in that of the process of evolution itself. They speak of evolution as if it was an active, thoughtful, purposive being with a personality. Evolutions tried this, prevented that or decreed the other, they say.
 
We are not entitled to conclude from this, however, that militant evolutionists really do imbue evolution with purpose or direction. We are often prisoners of our metaphors, as I once said to a man called Howard Marks, an Oxford-educated large-scale drug-smuggler and campaigner for the legalisation of cannabis. (‘That is a metaphor!’ he rejoined, to which I could only say, ‘Touché!’) Still, I think anthropomorphisation is a more or less ineradicable feature of human thought with regard to animals, however much we struggle against it.
 
As I stood over the lizards engaged on combat (if that is what it was), I could not but think of the famous lines from King Lear: As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods:/ They kill us for their sport. I was as a god to the lizards, did they but know it, but they paid me no heed because their minds, or whatever you call the processes in their central nervous system, were entirely absorbed in their tiny own affairs.
 
Was the whole situation not emblematic of the human condition? Most of us are so profoundly involved in our daily affairs that we are oblivious of the dark storm clouds that may be gathering around us. I worry about what to have for dinner on the evening before the stock market collapses and thereby impoverishes me. I fret at the insufficiency of salt in the soup but there is a fatal cancer growing in me. I rejoice at a sports result but tomorrow am to be killed in a road accident. I am reminded of the Romanian peasant saying that I once read somewhere (oddly enough, I think it was in the Times Literary Supplement): The whole village is on fire, but grandmother wants to finish combing her hair.
 
We all want, metaphorically-speaking, to finish combing our hair before the whole village burns down. The human mind is not capacious enough to take in everything in the world (and even things beyond the world, like asteroids) and ascribe to them an order of importance according to some objective scale of values. It may be necessary to see the larger picture, but it is also necessary to see all heaven in a grain of sand. There is no point in worrying over forces so overwhelming that one can do nothing about them and against whose operation one is wholly powerless. It does not flatter our self-importance to be as a fly to a wanton boy, but it has its consolations.
 
Where there is no power, there is no responsibility. Power without responsibility is the harlot’s prerogative, but responsibility without power is both the neurotic’s and the humbug’s charter.
 
To assume a responsibility where you have no power is to invite yourself to indulge in high-flown rhetoric which may be gratifying to yourself but does no good and is likely to do harm in so far as rhetoric is itself a factor in human affairs. Responsibility assumed without power promotes intellectual and emotional dishonesty because it results in a simulacrum of guilt which is not really guilt at all, but exhibitionism.
 
We cannot attend to everything in its order of importance according to an objective criterion, and even if we could it would be destructive of civilisation, which is composed of many things. No one could not possibly say that a good meal was more important than the halting of hostilities between warring nations, but does that mean that no one is entitled to enjoy a good meal until hostilities between nations and the million other evils that the world is heir to, each of them more important than a good meal, have been halted?
 
We need to steer a path between utter selfishness or self-absorption on the one hand, and utter self-abnegation or disdain for the small change of life on the other. Where and how the line should be drawn is always a matter of judgment. You can’t blame lizards for sometimes getting it wrong.




 


_____________________________
Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Grief and Other Stories from New English Review Press.

NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast
Comments
31 Aug 2018
Send an emailKirby Olson
I always read your essays first in this journal. I love reading about southern France, and also to read your perspective, which seems so Aristotelean (his father was a doctor). I first came across your name when I advertised through the MLA for anyone who wanted to invent a conservative answer to literary critical thought coming out of Michel Foucault and co. I got a curious document from a professor who was then at Lemoyne College, which I think is in Buffalo. He suggested your work. I then began reading it, and never quite knew what he meant. It didn't seem to me that you wrote about how to do literary criticism, but perhaps he had extrapolated something. The panel was of course turned down, but several of the people who applied became friends of mine. Would you say that you have a literary critical viewpoint? Did you somewhere write about this? Friedrich Hayek suggested in a paper somewhere that this is what the right had to do. That the conservatives had to find a juicy rejoinder to the monopoly on culture then enjoyed by the left and their socialist idiocracy. I have never known where to start, but I keep wondering if you do.

2 Sep 2018
Kenneth Francis
The Great Doctor could write about paint drying and make it seem interesting. Wonderful.

3 Sep 2018
Send an emailRobert H. Harris, Jr.
Dear Dr. Dalrymple: Thomas Sowell, in one of his columns, suggested your Life at the Bottom as a vital book to read for an understanding of the pathologies of modern society. I ordered the book and have been grateful to Professor Sowell ever since. I now have almost all of your books, including your short stories, and have tracked down and read everything I’ve been able to find of yours on the Internet, including your essays in The New Criterion, New English Review and City Journal. Now it’s time for me to write and express my appreciation. I was only a few pages into Life at the Bottom when I realized that you had worked with the same sample of the human population with whom I had been working most of my career. Let me say at this point that I am (or was) a nephrologist, now retired. My exposure to those who live at the bottom was never as intense as yours, but it was nevertheless considerable. Members of the underclass usually abuse or neglect their own health, and one of the results, often enough, is renal failure, due to unmanaged diabetes, untreated hypertension, and self-administered intravenous drugs. I hope you won’t mind if I share a little of my own experience. I spent a large part of my career administering dialysis to patients with renal failure. As a medical student in the mid-1960s, I assisted with the first hemodialysis performed at the hospital where I trained, when dialysis machines were relatively primitive and the treatment was barely beyond the experimental stage. As a medical resident in 1970-72, I again assisted with dialysis treatments. The technologies were now much improved, to the point that patients could be kept alive for months or even a few years with thrice-weekly dialysis, but the cost was beyond anyone’s ability to afford. I sat in on committee meetings whose purpose was to decide which few uremic patients of the many in our clinic would be most suitable for being kept alive with chronic dialysis treatment. These judgments about how this costly resource would be allocated, about which patients would be selected to live and which to die, hinged to a disconcerting degree on the doctors’ and clinic staff’s subjective opinions about the relative value of one patient’s life compared with another. Was a young mother of three children worth more than an unmarried male schoolteacher? Was an experienced judge worth more than a young college student? Was a professor’s wife worth more than a bricklayer’s wife? How much should a conviction of armed robbery, or a record of having never been employed, or a history of alcoholism, count against a patient? Fast-forward to, say, the 1990s. The U.S. government (via Medicare) now reimburses the dialysis clinic for the long-term treatment of virtually any patient with end-stage renal disease. The treatment is now not only more effective and more physically tolerable; it’s free. All the patient has to do in order to stay alive is to show up at the appointed times thrice weekly. Your experiences, as described in your writings, would perhaps allow you to predict what dialysis clinics have observed. Astonishingly (that is, if one were to believe that humans behave rationally and in their own self-interest) often, patients neglect to show up – no matter how much they are advised, or educated, or instructed, or cajoled, or provided with free transportation – for their scheduled treatments. The dialysis clinic tries offering prizes and rewards to patients who show up for all their treatments in a month, but without much effect; some patients cannot be bribed to come in for what they seem to consider to be a nuisance. The dialysis clinic’s interest in the non-compliant patient is therapeutic, or course, but also financial. Medicare reimburses only for a treatment actually delivered; if the patient doesn’t show up, Medicare doesn’t pay, but the fixed operating costs of the dialysis center remain the same. As with a commercial airline, too many empty seats spell financial trouble. But there is a difference in the two situations. The potential plane traveler can decide not to fly, with disadvantages to the airline but not to himself. The dialysis patient, on the other hand, will get sick and eventually die without treatment. In actual experience (my experience, that is), he gets sick but does not die, at least not immediately. He shows up at the emergency room at 3 o’clock A.M., in pulmonary edema or with near-lethal hyperkalemia, or both. The nephrologist on duty and the dialysis team of nurses and technicians are summoned in and provide acute emergency dialysis. The patient ends up spending several days in the hospital, receiving “catch-up” treatments until he is again stable. Having participated in this vastly expensive and totally unnecessary experience countless times, I can say that no patient in my memory ever exhibited a particle of gratitude for our extra exertions on his behalf or ever apologized for his lack of cooperation with our efforts to keep him alive. None offered any explanation for his noncompliance or displayed any resolve or intention to be more compliant in the future. He never admitted either suicidal intent or the wish to permanently discontinue dialysis; he wanted to live, but wished the least possible infringement of the treatment on his life. The patient’s attitude was always apathy, resentment or hostility at any suggestion that he should take more responsibility for his well-being by simply showing up for his scheduled treatments. Efforts by doctors, nurses, social workers and psychologists to uncover any underlying social, financial, or mental health conditions that might underlie the non-compliance were uniformly met with the attitude that it was none of our business. I said that dialysis patients simply had to show up for their treatments, but that isn’t the entire truth. In order to be connected to the machine, they all must have some sort of vascular access – usually an arteriovenous fistula in one arm, or venous catheters in the upper chest. The patient must protect and keep clean these access sites in order to survive. Most do; but a sizable number exhibit a carelessness that borders on self-destruction, some using the dialysis access as a convenient site into which to inject illicit drugs with dirty needles. Belonging to a “compassionate” society, it is impossible for the dialysis providers to simply let the patient suffer the consequences of his own negligence. The dialysis patients are victims; that’s all that anyone needs to know. The providers have an absolute obligation to restore them and to keep them in the best possible health, regardless of the costs in effort and money, and regardless of how little interest the patients themselves show in their own well-being. Not surprisingly, the indifference and non-compliance of these patients has a distinct demoralizing effect on the dialysis staff, whose members must constantly struggle against cynicism and nihilism. I mentioned above that I have lent Life at the Bottom and your other books to my friends. Perhaps their reactions won’t surprise you. All say you are an excellent writer, and none of them argue with your facts, but in the end, they all wish to distance themselves from what they perceive as a gloomy overemphasis on the morbid aspects of society. They seem to say: I’m not denying it’s true, but no, I don’t want to know any more about it. Among other writers whom you’ve reviewed, I particularly enjoyed The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, of whom I’d never heard until I read your review of him. Thank heavens for the on-line market in used and out-of-print books – almost any author imaginable at the click of the mouse – which enabled me to readily obtain several of Zweig’s books. I also wish to salute you in particular for Romancing Opiates and agree with all you say. For many years I clung to the conventional view, namely that heroin addicts were helpless victims and that withdrawal was horrendously agonizing. I can’t recall exactly at what point in my career I finally began to wonder why it was that I never observed the classic heroin withdrawal syndrome, even though I treated many self-described heroin users. (On the other hand, I observed and treated many catastrophic and all-too-often fatal alcohol withdrawals). Your book confirmed and articulated what I had belatedly begun to conclude for myself. I could cite a long list of other of your writings I’ve appreciated, but hopefully you get the idea. I hope that you will be able to write many, many more essays and books, and that I will be able to read them all. Sincerely, Robert H. Harris, Jr. 1245 Mawyer Farm Lane Charlottesville, Virginia 22901 P.S. I don’t have your e-mail address, so am sending this as a Comment. I also am mailing a copy to the New English Review in Nashville, asking them to forward it to you.

11 Sep 2018
Send an emailKirby Olson
I looked up the professor's idea and found this in my email. I wrote to him and asked if I could send it to you. I still think a conservative literary criticism needs to be invented. Hayek says the same thing. However, no one has done it yet as far as I know. Miles Taylor Le Moyne College 1419 Salt Springs Road Syracuse NY 13214 (315) 445-4757 [email protected] “Towards a Conservative Literary Theory” Designating a literary text liberal or conservative may diminish the text by placing it in the service of an ideology existing outside the text and taking priority over it. That said, it is possible to evaluate literary works from the perspective of certain values—be they liberal or conservative—and by certain ways of seeing the world. The academy has, of course, elaborated a host of critical approaches grounded in leftist ideology. Underappreciated is the conservative intellectual tradition from which we might contest a leftist hegemony within critical discourse. Writing within the intellectual tradition of Burke and Hayek, Kirk and Scruton, the contemporary British essayist Theodore Dalrymple (working for years as a physician in British penal institutions) has developed an oeuvre of social criticism of the social pathologies of the British underclass. His published works include analyses of how the Romantic imagination has shaped our ambivalent approach to drug addiction, a travel book (Utopias Elsewhere) in which he visits and anatomizes communist states like Albania and North Korea, and innumerable reviews of art and literature, exploring always the ways that bohemian and/or leftist discourse often comes to shape the attitudes that keep the underclass miserable. In terms of critical theory, one of Dalrymple’s central premises is the way that modern culture effects a society of “permanently inflamed egos.” No phrase better describes the warring vulgarians of Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West. The barely civilized, violent brothers, Coleman and Valene, are a Pinteresque puzzle seen through the traditional liberal optics of literary criticism. Read as a dramatic exploration of the social pathologies so eloquently delineated in Dalrymple’s landmark book Life on the Bottom, the play becomes (however tentatively) the conservative literary text par excellent. Miles Taylor is associate professor of English and Theatre at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit institution in Syracuse NY, where he teaches courses in dramatic literature. He has published recently in Studies in English Literature, Renaissance and Reformation, and Exemplaria.


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