Dalrymple’s Diaries Part II

by Theodore Dalrymple  (Feb. 2006)

Colmar is one of the most beautiful cities in France. It is astonishing how, for many centuries, builders whose architectural styles were very different were able nonetheless – by means of an unarticulated aesthetic instinct – to create a harmonious whole. Then along came the First World War and, hey presto, it suddenly became impossible for almost anything to be built in France (or indeed in most of Europe) that was not an atrocious and unmitigated eyesore. How do centuries of aesthetic understanding evaporate in what, in historical terms, is the batting of an eyelid?

Of course, one must not overestimate the importance of visual aesthetics alone. The version of Colmar that we see is a highly sanitised one, with distinctly latterday touches such as functioning sewerage systems and people who wash every day and therefore don’t smell and have no vermin about them. The water in the river is no longer the repository of offal from the local slaughterhouse or chemical waste from a nearby tannery, and you don’t any longer expect slops to be poured over you as you walk through the narrow, mediaeval cobbled streets: an experience, I imagine, that somewhat tempered the ecstasy with which one contemplated the harmony of the surrounding architecture. Still, I don’t see why sanitary advance and eyesore architecture have to go quite so closely hand in hand.


The most famous object in Colmar is the Issenheim Altarpiece, painted by someone the world knows as Matthias Grunewald, though whether anyone of that surname ever actually existed is doubtful. The altarpiece has had a colourful history, having been shifted hither and thither in the last century and a half as a pawn in the cultural politics of France and Germany in their struggle over the ownership of Alsace.

It was painted for the confraternity of St Anthony at Issenheim, an order that no longer exists and that once specialised in the care of the sick on religious pilgrimages in search of a cure. St Anthony had a disease named in his honour, St Anthony’s Fire, which was caused by the growth of a mould on damp rye, the consumption of which gave rise to ergotism. Ergot produced a powerful constriction of the peripheral arteries that was agonisingly painful. Gangrenous extremities had to be amputated (without anaesthetic, of course, and no doubt in conditions of the utmost filth); ergotism also caused dramatic visual hallucinations that led people to behave in bizarre ways. These hallucinatory experiences have sometimes been used to explain the extravagant fantasies in Netherlandish or German paintings of the Temptation of St Anthony, such as one of the panels of the Issenheim altarpiece, and by extension to argue for the mind-expanding properties of psychotropic and pschedelic drugs (it is the same argument that De Quincey used in favour of opium in The Confessions of an English Opium Eater). Thus self-indulgence is given a patina of intellectual and aesthetic enquiry.

I don’t think it necessary for people to have had drug-induced visual hallucinations for them to be able to imagine monsters, or indeed anything else; but even if one or other of the painters such as Grunewald, Bosch or Breughel had experienced them, it is inconceivable that they should have produced their work while still under their influence, when they needed the utmost eye-hand co-ordination as well as self-consciousness. I don’t know of any serious work of art that is directly attributable to the consumption of psychotropic or psychedelic drugs. Thus there is nothing to be said, from the mind-expansion point of view, for repeated use of these drugs.

I insist upon this, because I came to adulthood in the decade when the young were invited to tune in, turn on and drop out. Extravagant claims were made for the beneficial effects, both personal and social, of various illicit drugs; but when I compare these claims today with the devastation caused by the mass use of these drugs, especially by the poor in rich societies, among whom I have spent so much of my professional life, I feel something approaching rage. It has given me an biding hatred of intellectual frivolity.


This isn’t the same as being against pleasure, of course, and we seek out an excellent restaurant for dinner. It is of the old bourgeois kind, with soft furnishings to absorb the noise and without piped music. The bareness of modern restaurant décor is designed to maximise noise and minimise thought and intimacy.

Still, we can’t help listening to the conversation at the next table. They are well-heeled people used to dining expensively. There isn’t a single word spoken between about the situation, which is to say the riots that are still taking place all over France. First they speak of food, which is to the French what the weather is to the English. Then they speak of their personal affairs: divorces, wicked step-children and the like. It all seems a strong confirmation of Dr Johnson’s famous dictum, that public affairs vex no man.

As it happens, there are a few car burnings in Colmar that night, within walking distance of where we drink our most excellent Alsacian wine. Needless to say, they take part in streets of which Le Corbusier would have been proud (though he wouldn’t necessarily have liked to live in them).

Three young arsonists are brought to court the following day and asked by the judge why they had set to three cars, destroying them. Did they not realise that the owners of the cars were people hardly better off than themselves? (This is an odd question, in a way. Would it have been better, more morally acceptable, if they had burnt three cars belonging to the rich? If so, does that not entail the corollary that all wealth is ill-gotten and ought to be expropriated, if not destroyed? This way of thinking is quite widespread among the guilty liberals. I was once, in the wake of some riots in the city in which I lived, on the radio with a woman who was to become a government minister under Mr Blair. ‘The tragedy of these riots,’ she said, ‘is that they are destroying the area in which the rioters themselves live’  – or what Afrikaners, in the days of apartheid, used to call, with regard to the blacks rioting in the townships, ‘fouling their own nest.’ ‘So you think it would be better I they came and rioted in your area, do you?’ I asked her. Needless to say, this was not a question deemed worthy of an answer. She had said what she said only to establish the depth of her own compassion, not to enunciate a truth.)

The three young arsonists of Colmar are reported in the local newspaper as being unable, or unwilling, to answer the judge. Perhaps they really don’t know themselves why they did it: after all, which of us can say that all his actions are transparent to him?

Personally, I think the answer to the judge’s question is simple: television. They did what they did because they’d seen it on telly. This made me think of what a friend of mine, who is not a worshipper at the shrine of Liberty, once said. What we need, he remarked, is not so much freedom of information, as freedom from information.

Of course, he didn’t mean that he needed freedom from information, only that some people (such as the young arsonists of Colmar, for example) did. The problem comes in knowing who does and who does not need protection from information. This way madness lies.


In the hotel, which is named after Colbert, the man who first centralised the French state and economy, and who is still regarded as a hero in France for having done so, leaving a legacy that continues, we met a unique man: a Swiss who was domiciled in France for tax reasons.

Presumably, he was dissatisfied with low taxes and wanted to pay higher ones. There is no end to the oddness of humanity. I once had a patient who injected herself with blood that she took from an HIV positive friend of hers. She wanted the illness, too: why should her friend have all the attention?


We cross to Germany. This border, that once gave the world so much trouble, has now ceased to exist. We simply put our car on a little ferry that criss-crosses the Rhine, and drive off at the other bank. There is not a uniform in sight, and we show not so much as a piece of paper

However much the European Union may be a bureaucratic monster, unaccountable to anyone resembling a normal human being, and fundamentally a vast pension plan for ageing or burnt out politicians who cannot any longer face the inconveniences of having to be elected, one cannot help but applaud the elimination of borders – at least, insofar as one is a motorist travelling through several countries in a few days. And as one drives seamlessly into Germany from France, one also cannot help but wonder what it was all about, that seeming endless conflict that killed millions?

This isn’t to say that the French now love the Germans, very far from it. Sale boche is still a phrase in common use. As for the Germans, they want a European identity so that they can stop being German. This, of course, will deceive no one. But apart from being impossible, it is unnecessary. It seems to me that the Germans have faced up to their past as well as they could have done, and better than many others. The history of Germany is not just a prelude to Hitler. In my experience, it is not true either that the Germans have no sense of humour: they mock themselves more than the French, for example. When they are serious, though, they are very serious.


About a hundred and fifty miles into Germany, I begin to feel an almost existential anxiety. It has nothing to do with the fact that my mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1938. No: it is simply the fact that, ever since Basel, the six-lane highway has been a continual stream of traffic, much of it fifty-ton trucks thundering up and down without surcease. It is as busy at one in the morning as at nine in the morning. There are so many headlights that it is never completely dark. The traffic never stops – indeed, it continues for hundreds of miles into the Netherlands.

After a while, it gives you the jitters. Surely, you are about to be crushed like an insect between the trucks, which will not even notice what they have done to you, and contune their journey to Rotterdam, or wherever it is that they are going. The German economy may be in trouble, relatively speaking, which is to say sclerotic and slow-growing, but Germany is still the largest exporter of goods in the world; and driving to the Netherlands from Basel and Colmar, you see what that means, in concrete physical terms.

Seeing this immense flow of people and goods, sitting in a traffic jam between two cities at ten o’clock at night, one begins to wonder why Germany needs more economic growth. So that the traffic jams will be longer and composed of more expensive cars (but there already seem to be an infinite number of Mercedes and BMWs), so that there will be more trucks thundering – or rather, crawling – up and down the highway at three in the morning? So that the Germans will be able to consume even more of what already does not bring them more happiness than if they had only half of it? 

What is it all for? Perhaps further growth will give the Germans more choice. But choice of what? Sausages? They already have plenty. Television programmes? They have plenty of those too. Maybe they will have to work less hard, so that they can enjoy life instead: but this seems to me a little like the promise of the paperless office that technology was supposed to bring about. There has never been so much paper and paperwork.

Well, growth of the right sort might mean that there was less rather than more traffic, less rather than more physical hardware to cart around. Personally, I rather doubt it. I am reminded of the story of the Indian civil servant whose desk was piled high with files that were so old than no one ever looked at them, or ever would look at them. They were cluttering up the office terribly, and he asked his boss whether he could throw them away.

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘provided you copy them in triplicate.’

The only answer I can give to the engima of growth that brings no happiness is that the whole vast economic machine would break down without it: and if it broke down, we would all be very much unhappier. This isn’t an entirely satisfactory answer, but it’s the best I could manage while sitting in traffic somewhere near Karlsruhe.    

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