Reflections of a Noble Savage
Gerry Dorrian goes cold turkey
What is Wrong with US?: Essays in Cultural Pathology, Eric Coombes & Theodore Dalrymple (eds.), Imprint Academic, 2016, reviewed by Gerry Dorrian
A drugs-worker in 2009, I posted Theodore Dalrymple’s Spectator article Withdrawal from heroin is a trivial matter on the staffroom noticeboard. This former prison doctor wrote something that we all knew to be true but heretical: heroin withdrawals are no worse than a common cold. I don’t think that a Spectator article was so well-received in a social care setting.
Now Dalrymple has co-edited What is Wrong with Us? Essays in Cultural Pathology, which presents twelve authoritative voices exploring the limits of counter-hegemonic critique. His essay on brutalist architecture would have had the socially conservative Labour voters in my 1970’s tower block roaring in agreement, even if we might have expressed ourselves less elegantly.
The co-editor, Eric Coombes, in his introductory essay, refers to a “technologico-Benthamite blight” that resulted in all acts being seen as morally equal. Bentham was indeed in favour of identifying the point in each individual situation where a pleasure becomes a vice using his “felicific calculus”. John Stuart Mill subsequently prioritised “pleasures derived from the higher faculties”. This sounds good but it enables education to be denied to outsiders.
A case in point: Michael Gove’s axing the History of Art A-level on the grounds of its “complex and specialist” exams will almost certainly reduce bright working-class kids’ chances of being exposed to art. Henceforth, the first priority will be showing things as they are, using random items surrounded by pseudo-descriptions which do to literacy what “art” does to semiotics.
For me, the heart of the book is Duke Maskell’s deconstruction of British values. Maskell cites the Beis Yaakov High School, which was placed in special measures by Ofsted. A follow-up report identified that teaching was of a consistently high standard, that students’ behaviour was “never less than impeccable”, that their social, moral, spiritual and cultural development was exceptional and that the leadership worked with “tireless determination”. Ofsted concluded Beis Yaakov was making “reasonable progress” towards special measures being lifted. The school’s crime seems to have been not complying with Establishment strategies to “institutionalise unbelief”, as Maskell puts it.
Maskell identifies the titular mores as “enlightenment values”, which matters because much of the Enlightenment was diverted early on towards the “noble savage” theme. This has been adumbrated since antiquity by rhetoricians identifying a less advanced culture in order to tease out the savagery within one’s own – think of Tacitus’ “they make a wilderness and call it peace” put in the mouth of Caledonian chieftain Calgacus. The term, however, debuted in Dryden’s 1670 The Conquest of Granada:
I am as free as nature first made man
Ere the base law of servitude began
While in wild woods the noble savage ran.
The noble savage ran the Enlightenment aground a century after Granada, in Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, where the philosophe reflects upon Captain Bougainville’s circumnavigatory memoir. Diderot focusses on Tahiti, where in his version of the memoir, Tahitians are happy and are free of education, of taboo class, and relate to each other in ways to rival Pornhub. It seems that Diderot that never got far enough in Bougainville’s memoir to read “I was mistaken…the inequality is cruel”, or he simply ignored it.
The die was cast. We now live according the Gramscian Establishment’s diverted Enlightenment values. I too was a teenage noble savage, then awakening to strategies to cruelly embed inequality, by asking why Glasgow’s Labour party and culture had a grand People’s Palace devoted to it. But many Labour voters were shoehorned into brutalist housing. Jews – most of them British – find themselves similarly un-nobled when they want to teach their culture in their schools. Muslims arguably survived being noble-savages longest, but moderates find themselves tarred en masse by Prevent when they try to practice and teach a faith that they were promised, by the same Establishment that went on to enact Prevent, would be welcomed in the UK.
Even large portions of UK working- and middle-classes were seen as noble savages, interesting in their own ways but dangerous once they started protesting against the denaturing of their cultures, especially at the ballot box. What is Wrong with Us came out not long after our vote to leave the EU and on the eve of the US Presidential Election, both occasions when electorates voted resoundingly against the political classes.
Dalrymple returns for a broadside on celebrity culture: all life is there but in depersonalised and disempowering archetypes surrounding its worshippers like a sinister cloud of witnesses, into whose lives consumers blend until they can’t tell where they end and those of the celebs begin. Excruciatingly banal reports of celeb exploits provide consumers with a range of approved templates for various situations so that they experience some agency in their choices but, ultimately, never rise from a herd-like existence. I mean consumers not in the monetary but the psychoanalytic sense: next time you see a picture of Kim Kardashian, look at her overall shape and you will see she that is an earth-goddess archetype to whose orbit all lesser celebs at some point gravitate.
My personal solution to all that is wrong with us was to detox from TV. In the absence of this immersive technology, the pull of peripherally-consumed celeb culture subsided. There was some discomfort involved, but it was no worse than a bad cold.
GERRY DORRIAN is a philosopher. He writes from Cambridge