Arts & Books Books

A portrait of Western decadence that could do with more jokes

'Waiting For Godot' performed on stage during a photocall for the Edinburgh International Festival 2018 at The Lyceum Theatre (Getty)

This collection of cultural essays has some questionable claims

The Terror of Existence
By Theodore Dalrymple and Kenneth Francis,
New English Review Press, 157pp, £15.99/$19.99

It may be assumed that most readers of the Catholic Herald believe in the Christian religion and in both the teaching and authority of the Church. A collection of essays entitled The Terror of Existence may not therefore seem of much interest or appeal to those secure in their faith. This may be the case with non-believers too, for, while life may have its dark and frightening moments, existence as such isn’t terrifying to most of us. Or so I surmise.

The two authors, however, would have it otherwise. The book consists of 23 short essays mostly on novels, poems and plays. Some – Ecclesiastes and Waiting for Godot – are discussed by both; others not. Kenneth Francis is a theist, Theodore Dalrymple an atheist with a respect for traditional Christianity and a contempt for modern self-indulgence and sentimentality. Francis’s position is simple: “Without Christ, the whole world is chaos … and everything is meaningless.” Dalrymple, despite having strong opinions, is less dogmatic. One of the best of his essays is devoted to Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” and “the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” as the Sea of Faith is on the ebb. He sympathises with Arnold’s need to find a substitute for revealed religion.

Both write about Nietzsche’s assertion that “God is dead”, and both, as is common, misunderstand his “will to power”. Both recall Dostoevsky’s warning that without God everything is permitted – without, however, recognising that many with no religious faith have led virtuous and useful lives.

Perhaps, God being denied, the 20th century was indeed worse than any other. George Steiner, in the essay “In Bluebeard’s Castle”, argued compellingly that, when belief in an afterlife withered, the Nazi death camps made a reality of the hell which artists like Dante and Hieronymus Bosch had so vividly imagined and the Church had taught.

Yet it may be argued that Auschwitz and the Soviet Gulag were made possible by technological advances denied to previous generations, that the extermination of heretics was encouraged by churchmen in, for example, the Albigensian Crusade; that devout Christians and Muslims have bought, owned and sold slaves. Belief in an afterlife may offer consolation – it doesn’t necessarily make for virtue. Torture has been practised and justified by theists and atheists alike.

Writing about Eugène Ionesco and the Theatre of the Absurd, Francis refers to the scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four in which Winston is subjected to torture until he agrees with his torturer, O’Brien, that four fingers are really five. But this proves nothing about faith or belief or the nature of a godless world; merely that torture is effective. One might note that Christopher Small, in The Road to Miniluv, argued that though Orwell was exposing the horror of the modern totalitarian state, Big Brother might equally be God – and O’Brien the Inquisitor.

Both authors write about Waiting for Godot, with Francis complaining that Beckett “didn’t seem to have a grasp of sophisticated theology” because “he confers freedom of the will on his main characters in Godot, which contradicts his godless message”. Not being a theologian, I can’t say whether this indeed indicates such a lack of grasp, but might nevertheless remark that the existentialist position (disputed by determinist scientists) is that, in the absence of God, Man is condemned to freedom.

If both authors seem puzzled, even confused by Godot, this isn’t surprising. It isn’t surprising because neither remarks that the reason the play works and has held the stage now for almost 70 years is because it is, first, a fine piece of craftsmanship, the pace being admirably modulated, and second, because it is funny. As for any philosophy it may offer, the message that life is to be endured isn’t different from that which you may take from Ecclesiastes.

Humour is indeed something missing from these essays: no Chestertonian thought-inviting jokes and paradoxes here. Francis makes an extraordinary attack on The Catcher in the Rye. Is Salinger’s novel “a literary hoax, a kind of Leftist propaganda manifesto, manufactured to discredit traditional family values”? It is “devoid of wholesome values”, though “also quite bland and overrated”. This “bible of teenage angst and alienation” was “forced on innocent students by numerous public high-school Marxist teachers”.

This really is a bit outlandish. The Catcher didn’t have to be “forced on innocent students” – they grabbed at it because it was funny and they found it easy to relate to. Nevertheless, Francis is not surprised that the author of “this frequently censored, blasphemous, rebellious, violent, promiscuous, pro-smoking/drinking/lying book, became a recluse”. Never mind – Francis has more worthy heroes: Solzhenitsyn, fair enough, though one suspects that Francis’s admiration for that brave man who became a devout Christian is based on his rejection of “the decadent West”. And then there is the “Christian Russian leader Vladimir Putin”, praised for saying that many Euro/Atlantic countries are following the path to degradation. No doubt, no doubt; just as the disintegration of the Soviet Union was, in Putin’s view, “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”. It’s surprising that Francis, who is alert to the horrors of Marxism-Leninism wherever he can spot the beast, seems to have forgotten this.

Not all Christians meet with his approval however. He isn’t sure about the Jesuits who taught James Joyce. He became an atheist “who also read the Godless Schopenhauer and listened to Wagner”. Tut-tut.

So there’s much to disagree with in this book. Both authors rate low on charity. Dalrymple has a keener literary sensibility than his colleague, recognising, in his essay on Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade”, that “just as pessimism does not preclude humour … so Larkin’s poetry uplifts rather than depresses. It in some mysterious way which I cannot fully explain reconciles us to our condition, as only art can do.” Good, though such reconciliation may also be effected by roast beef, a bottle of claret and a good cigar.