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Citizen and scholar of the world: An interview with Dr. Theodore Dalrymple

By Bernard Chapin
web posted April 18, 2005

Dr. Theodore Dalrymple is one of the few writers who excels in practically every endeavor attempted and never descends into mediocrity, regardless of his subject matter. Along with being an established writer, he is also a psychiatrist. Currently, he is a Contributing Editor for City Journal where he generally writes a couple of essays per quarterly issue, one is entitled, "Oh, to be in England". Dr. Dalrymple is a frequent contributor to The New Criterion as well. He writes for a variety of publications including The Spectatorand the Daily Telegraph. Dr. Dalrymple has published numerous books such as Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass and Intelligent Person's Guide to Medicine. A new work, Our Culture, What's Left of It : The Mandarins and the Masses, is set to be released in May of 2005.

BC: Dr. Dalrymple, you've written several books, I wanted to ask you first about Life at the Bottom : The Worldview That Makes the Underclass .It involves descriptions of many of the patients with whom you have worked over the years. Has anyone ever remarked that it wasn't appropriate to mention patients in a non-clinical setting even if it's done anonymously?

TD: My descriptions of patients are mostly composite. They are stitched together so that they are not identifiable. Obviously, this means a degree of fictionalisation, though I feel I am absolutely true to the underlying realities I describe. The alternative to not using real words that come out of patients' mouths, however, is that readers should not have to face the social and psychological reality of what I am describing. As a matter of fact, and perhaps surprisingly, I have not been criticised on the grounds you indicate.

BC: How do you describe yourself to strangers? Do you state that you're a psychiatrist, a writer or both? At what point did you decide writing had to become a permanent part of your life?

TD: I try not to describe myself, but when I do, it is as a doctor. I always remember Chekhov's remark, that medicine was his lawful wedded wife, and literature was his mistress. When he tired of one, he flew to the other. I had always wanted to write, and as soon as I first set pen to paper, in 1983, I realised that I should continue to do so.

BC: Is there something intrinsic to medical training which inspires one to write? Many famous scribes went to medical school; Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Somerset Maugham being two prominent examples. Is their something in the profession that is conducive to composition?

TD: Doctors are in a very privileged position. They are told about more intimate details of peoples' lives than anyone else. The material of literature is given to them gratis. Moreover, their training encourages them to be observant, and interested in others yet dispassionate about them. It is difficult to conceive of a better training for an aspiring writer.

BC: I honestly have no idea as to how you can produce so voluminously and yet maintain such high quality in your work. What is your daily regimen? Do you devote a certain number of hours to writing? As you are still working as a doctor?

TD: I work quite hard, but my work is my pleasure. I have now retired from medical practice (actually about 5 days ago) though no doubt I shall keep my hand in. I write every day, not a set number of hours, and if a day goes by without having wirtten anything, I have a gnawing sense of guilt and dissatisfaction. I would happily spend the rest of my life reading.

BC: A person could read about a quarter of your work and still have no idea as to what your passions were not. History, politics, medicine, sociology, psychology, and literature certainly come to mind as being areas of expertise, but is there one discipline that intrigues you the most?

TD: Not really. I regret that I am not a real scholar, though: that for example I did not devote myself to something like the taxonomy of mosquitoes. That way, I would have added to the sum total of human knowledge, which I haven't despite my wide interests.

BC: I was speaking to a conservative commentator last year about England and I happened to mention you. He responded, "Yes, well you must understand that he works in a prison." How much do you believe that your observations and analysis need to be qualified in reference to the population you interact with? I personally regard treating over 10,000 patients in Birmingham, as giving one the right to make legitimate inferences about the underclass as a whole.

TD: I think your interlocutor was mistaken in thinking that my view was badly skewed by my having been a prison doctor. I am interested in what I regard as emblematic cases, or cases that shed a light on society as a whole, and I believe that I have done this more accurately than people like your interlocutor. I think it is perfectly possible for people to be blind about what is going on in their own society, sometimes because it is too painful to see it. I do not really much care for the term underclass, because there is no clear distinction between it and much of the rest of society. My guess is that your interlocutor did not really want to know what was going on. But would he walk the streets at night?

BC: How difficult is it to be a conservative in England today? An entirely different set of beliefs are required than those in America. As a non-European, the extent with which the continent accepts socialism reliably baffles me.

TD: The main difficulty is in finding institutions worthy of preservation, or that have not been distorted out of all preservation. We do not have socialism, we have the corporate state, in which the distinction between the private and public is eroded. I think we are actually nearer to fascism than socialism. I could give quite a few examples.

BC: Yes, is it probable that the eventual outcome of the European Union be fascism? Is it not the greatest experience with bureaucracy ever attempted?

TD:I think the outcome could have resemblance to fascism, though it will be more touchy-feely than boot in the face. You will not be allowed to say certain things allegedly to spare other people's feelings, but in reality it will preserve the corporatist power structure intact. It will be more Kafka than Nineteen Eighty-Four. I also think that it all might end in civil war, though the political classes in each European country present it as the sovereign remedy to war. Ultimately, two things are driving the union: unfulfilled megalomania, and the personal greed of politicians, for whom it represents a giant pension fund.

BC: Your father was a Marxist. How did his political preferences affect you? Was your early exposure to communism a healthy inoculation against buying into the socialist idea?

TD: I think children often react against the ideas of their parents. Perhaps if I had children, which I don't, they'd be Marxists. However, in my father's case, I was aided by the clear disjunction between his protestations of concern for humanity as a whole, and his inability to treat anyone as an equal.

BC: Here's a question everybody on this side of the pond would like to know, why are you choosing France for retirement exile? It certainly cannot be due to the tax rates.

TD: France is still in many ways a very pleasant country. Besides, my wife is French. France is twenty years behind Britain in social decomposition, and there is at least still a public commitment to intelligence and culture. The people are better mannered on the whole. The weather is better. I prefer Chirac to Blair: at least he knows he is an unprincipled unscrupulous ruthless villain, whereas Blair does not. I recognise that France is not paradise, but nowhere is. Finally, with regard to tax every Frenchman regards it as his patriotic duty to cheat the taxman. I will say no more.

BC: What is it you have enjoyed most about travel? Is there something in the human condition which makes the very act of seeing unknown places fulfilling? What country or region in the world do you hold as superior to all the others?

TD: I particularly love countries to which most people would give a wide berth. Countries that have experienced cataclysms seem to confront one in a very practical way, to the exclusion of extraneous matters, with the essential questions of human existence. Often, the worse the government, the better or at least the more interesting - the people. I felt I could always be happy somewhere else. That is why the Three Sisters ends with the exclamation "To Moscow! To Moscow!" But as Horace said 2000 years ago, they changed their skies, not their souls, who run across the sea.

I have no favourite region. I like almost everywhere except suburbia.

BC: Thank you for your time Doctor Dalrymple and we all hope that you continue to write every day despite your retirement.

Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at bchapafl@hotmail.com.


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