We Are All to Blame – or Is It the Others?

by Theodore Dalrymple (May 2013)

When, many years ago, I started regularly to review books for profit and pleasure (my profit and pleasure, that is), I thought it would be fun to write destructive reviews of bad books. I was beguiled into this idea by having read Macaulay’s eviscerating essay-review, which I found delightful, of a three-volume biography of Lord Burleigh:

Compared with the labour of reading through these volumes, all other labour, the labour of thieves on the treadmill, of children in factories, of negroes in sugar plantations, is an agreeable recreation. There was, it is said, a criminal in Italy, who was suffered to make his choice between Guicciardini and the galleys. He chose the history. But the war of Pisa was too much for him. He changed his mind, and went to the oar.

(Guicciardini was a contemporary of Machiavelli and wrote a history of Italy.)

I soon revised my opinion, however, because I found that I preferred to praise rather than to bury. In part this was because reading bad books was a waste of time by comparison with reading good ones. And the thought occurred to me that the authors even of bad books had devoted a lot of their lives to them, and therefore that adverse criticism would pain them. Hence I began insensibly to accentuate the positive, at least toward the end of the review, so that the author, if he ever saw what I had written, would be left with the taste of honey rather than of wormwood and gall, without my having in any way encouraged the public to go out and buy the wretched book. Only if I thought a book was bad (and bad in an important way) because of outright dishonesty did I write anything destructive. Once, for example, I read a short work by a famous man who claimed to have written it in three days, no doubt to impress us with the fecundity of his genius. The book was very bad and I said that I was surprised that it took him that long. He replied with the fury of the self-important eminent who regard criticism of others in much the same way as summer holidaymakers in the north of Scotland regard the attention of the midges, that is to say very, very annoying but not dangerous.

I make these remarks prefatory to my reflections on a book I read recently, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, by James Lasdun. This book is an account of the e-mail persecution of the author by a student of creative writing whom he had briefly taught, who fell in love with him and then turned against him when it became clear to her that he was not going to transform her fantasy into reality.

Lasdun lives in Upstate New York, but grew up in England. In the course of his book, which is quite short and easily read at a single sitting, there is a moving account of his relationship with his father, moving because it is full of sincere and unforced filial piety – a quality much to be treasured at a time when it is taken almost as the sine qua non of sensitivity that offspring should reprehend their parents.

Lasdun’s father was clearly a powerful figure, so powerful in fact that Lasdun junior, on his own admission, still has difficulty in making aesthetic judgments of his own, at least where the visual arts are concerned, a sphere on which his father had very strong opinions indeed.

Lasdun’s father, Denys Lasdun, was a famous architect in his day: perhaps the most famous in Britain. He was also, in my opinion, one of the worst; indeed, I doubt whether a worse, or at any rate a much worse, has ever lived (to design uglier buildings than his would be a stimulant to the imagination worthy of a prize competition). That he had a strong and sensitive aesthetic sense makes his actual productions all the worse and to me all the more incomprehensible. He was enamoured of concrete as a material and his designs were as dehumanising as any dictator’s decree. And yet his son’s evident respect and love for him suggests a man of many qualities. When good men do bad things – and dehumanising cities with hideous concrete buildings is bad – one suspects a generalised or epidemic spiritual sickness, in the loose meaning of the term. Architects of Denys Lasdun’s times mistook destruction for creation.

Architects are not entitled to the same indulgence as the writers of bad books because bad books are easily avoided, consigned undisturbed to the remoter shelves of libraries, whereas bad buildings obtrude on passers-by and create an obligation on future ages, either to maintain or to replace them. Bad buildings are to the eye what passively-breathed smoke is to the lungs of the non-smoker: something noxious and unwanted but inescapable. An author has a right to his badness, but not an architect.

It is true, of course, that there is no universal agreement about Denys Lasdun’s buildings: but I suspect that those who claim to like them are applying extra-aesthetic considerations (such as that they were at the cutting edge in the way that Lister was at the cutting edge of the surgery of his time) and indulge also in an architectural variant of Macbeth’s logic: that past architectural crimes are so heinous that one has to continue them or admit them.

Nor does Denys Lasdun’s probity, testified to movingly by his son, improve matters, rather the reverse. The son says that his father was not motivated either by the desire for fame or money, rather by the desire for the perfection of the work, and that his father’s example had given him as a kind of artistic conscience in his own chosen field of literature. But a man who can build the worst and most inhuman of buildings with purity of heart appals me more than one who does so for mere lucre: for while the desire for the latter is comprehensible to us all (which of us, after all, has never been tempted?), the former builds from a pure and undiluted failure of taste, ability and understanding. And since architecture is an inherently social art, requiring clients or patrons for its transformation from concept to actual building, its failure is a social or at least a collective failure. An author, by conrtast, can write a bad book by his own unaided efforts.

Be this all as it may, I still find James Lasdun’s filial piety (an ancient but now uncommon virtue) exemplary, and wish only that I could feel and express it myself. ALAS, I CANNOT.

His memoir of being persecuted by e-mail is well worth the reading because it illustrates a modern vice as well as an ancient virtue, or at least a modern way of putting a vice into action: persecution by e-mail and internet being the dark side, or a dark side, of the so-called information age.  By the end of the book one trembles: for what happened to James Lasdun could EASILY happen to any of us. Each of us is but the press of the send button away from vicious denunciation, character assassination and the destruction of our reputation. This applies almost as much to private individuals as to public figures, and it is perhaps surprising that it is not more frequent than it appears to be. Perhaps it is just that even an evil requires time to gain momentum.

Lasdun’s persecutor not only altered his Wikipedia entry, but wrote calumnies about him on Amazon and other sites (admittedly a hazard faced only by those who put themselves before the public in some way). These calumnies could be and were removed in time, but e-mails to his employers accusing him of things that were both inherently unlikely and difficult to disprove were far more serious, and could have been done to anyone. Lasdun stood accused of the kind of ‘crimes’ which always besmirch in the modern world – racism, sexism, harassment etc. – and which he himself had previously believed ought to be extirpated by administrative regulation. He found that proving a negative, even within the confines of his own mind, was not easy.

None of us is totally immune to the idea that there is no smoke without fire and unless we assume that the world is full of people of motiveless malignity (to quote Coleridge’s inapt characterisation of Iago, for Iago has one of the most common, pervasive and long-enduring motives in the whole of the human repertoire), we are inclined to believe that every denunciation or calumny must contain a grain of truth – to mix slightly the smoke and fire metaphor. Yes, there must be a grain of truth in all that smoke. 

Indeed, Lasdun himself almost believed it himself, of the very calumnies that have made his life a misery for three or more years. He calls himself a man of impeccably liberal views – is it only liberals who think of their own views as impeccable? – and as such wondered to what extent his persecutor’s (perhaps a neologism, persecutrix would be in order in this context) complaints against him might be justified. In fact, there is not a shadow of justification, or even plausible reason, for them if his account of his own conduct is true: they are obviously the product of a wilfully unbalanced mind, a mind that has delighted to unbalance itself. It is strange how the author’s certainties about some things, namely the impeccable nature of his equally unquestionable liberal views, lead to a strange lack of confidence about his own rightness in the face of outrageous persecution.

I once suffered to a very minor degree the kind of persecution that Lasdun suffered. I had written an article displeasing to an active pressure group and soon found myself not only inundated by offensive messages but the object of efforts to have me fired from the institutions in which I worked. This persecution lasted only a few days, not years like Lasdun’s, but it was very unpleasant while it lasted and I will neither mention the subject here nor return to it another time, for fear of stirring up the hornets’ nest again. (Yet another metaphor, I am afraid: between smoke, fire, grains of truth and hornets’ nests, it seems that we live in a hazardous world). This is not very courageous of me, no doubt, but I do not care enough about the subject to endure any suffering because of my opinions about it – which, I have to confess, might not be impeccable in the sense of being indisputably true. And unlike the persecution of Lasdun, the persecution of me was at least rational: it was obviously directed at getting me never to repeat my views in public, and it worked. I have not been persecuted since. 

Perhaps the most alarming thing about Lasdun’s account is his complete impotence in the face of his persecutor. The police agree that she is in breach of the law, but not to a sufficient degree to make it worthwhile to prosecute her. (Here one is inclined to ask, Worthwhile for whom? He who fails to prosecute the Dane never gets rid of the need for someone to pay the Danegeld.) No doubt Lasdun could resort to the civil rather than the criminal law, but like most citizens he has insufficient means to do so and the result in practice would probably be nil in any case. He is, in a word, defenceless, at least without resorting himself to criminal means. One feels a rising sense of outrage on his behalf as the story proceeds, and also increasing anxiety.

The question that a memoir such as this cannot possibly answer (and this is not criticism of it) is whether persecution of the kind suffered by the author is on the rise. Inclined as I am to pessimism, I suspect that it is; for as the reactions to the death of Mrs Thatcher showed, people now seem not to feel the need to control their anger in the name of decorum and decency. Indeed, I suspect that you could ask a hundred people in the street how they valued decorum, and a goodly percentage of them would not know what it is and would not value it if they did. And where there is no decorum, no holding back, why should persecution of individuals not rise when the means to persecute are so readily available?  

Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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