In Praise of a Dying Trade

by Theodore Dalrymple (September 2013)

When the author visits a tobacco plantation in Virginia, he expends more pages on the care and cultivation of the plants than on the condition of the slaves, though he pronounces himself against slavery on grounds of principle. But the whole question is of no greater interest to him than the lunatic asylum of the town of Taunton, for example, or of the sewing-clubs established by the rich to assist the poor: the Peculiar Institution is for him just one among many. There is nothing to suggest an awareness of the cataclysm that was only four years off when the book was published.

There is surely an instructive lesson here. Alfred Pairpoint, to judge by his book, was an average man except, perhaps, in his determination to see his words, very ordinary as they were, between covers. His thoughts and feelings and prejudices were those of an ordinary man, neither particularly clever nor particularly stupid, neither outstandingly observant or penetrating, nor outstandingly blind or lacking in penetration. In this respect, he resembles most of us: and he had absolutely no conception or inkling that the most destructive war since the Napoleonic era was about to break out. Such blindness to the future seems to be the permanent condition of Mankind: and those few who, like Sir Isaac Newton, have seen a little further than others (perhaps as much by luck as by judgment, for where millions guess the future some must be right), are rarely attended to or their correct prognostications taken as the basis of action. Our ignorance of the future is not only our permanent burden but also the glory of our lives, for it makes our engagement with the world permanently necessary. If we knew everything our lives as conscious beings would be intolerable.

The very ordinariness of Alfred Pairpoint and his thoughts makes his conclusions about slavery all the more poignant. He has two pages of nineteen on the slavery question in his last chapter, where he writes:

And here, a propos of nothing except perhaps the present economic crisis, I cannot forebear from quoting the words of Daniel Webster that Alfred Pairpoint quotes on the subject of money:

It was written many years before publication, and both authors claim in the preface not to remember how it came about.

The story (which Stefan Zweig would have written better) consists of pre-suicide letters of a man to the great love of his life, a woman who, however, has married someone else, called Robert. The author of the suicide letters is a financier whose defalcations are about to be exposed. Hitherto greatly respected as an enormously rich man of great financial acumen, the source of his fortune is embezzlement of funds from a trust of which he is a trustee. He is reprieved at the last moment from the need to commit suicide when the beneficiary of the trust withdraws his demand for accounts and unwittingly gives him the chance to make good the losses.

The passage by which I was impressed was that in which the narrator claims to be in the process of curing Robert of his addiction. This passage shows that Conrad or Hueffer (or both) had a better instinctive grasp of the nature of addiction, including its pharmacology, than most addiction doctors.

However, the authors are aware that merely stopping the drug is not enough:

To comment on this essay, please click here.


If you have enjoyed this article and want to read more by Theodore Dalrymple, please click here.

Theodore Dalrymple is also a regular contributor to our blog, The Iconoclast. To see all his entries, please click here.