Theodore Dalrymple on the joy of seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary — in gooseberries, for example, even in human beings
In my line of work, it is rather hard to think of reasons to be cheerful. On the contrary, it requires quite a lot of concentrated intellectual effort: one has the sensation of scraping the bottom of one’s skull for thoughts that just aren’t there. Of course, since lamentation about the state of the world is one of life’s unfailing pleasures, the world is a greater source of satisfaction than ever. Another consolation is that most people are not nearly as miserable as they ought to be, or would be if they saw their own lives in a clear light. I meet more than 1,000 people a year who have tried to do away with themselves, and the wonder is not that they should be so many but that they should be so few. Reasons to be cheerful? Is that reasons for me to be cheerful, or reasons for one, that is to say for humanity in general, to be cheerful?
Thanks to the fact that I write, my life is satisfactory: I can inhabit gloom and live in joy. When something unpleasant happens to me, provided only that is potentially of literary use, my first thought is ‘How best can I describe this?’ I thereby distance myself from my own displeasure or irritation. As I tell my patients, much to their surprise — for it is not a fashionable view — it is far more important to be able to lose yourself than to find yourself. I feel an inexpressible joy when patients use the English language creatively, if not always correctly according to the strictest canons. For all that it has changed, England is still the land of Dickens, and our people are still capable of the verbal inventiveness and felicities of Mrs Gamp or Mrs Gummidge. Only the other day, for example, a patient complained to me that there was a financial crisis, though, like Mrs Gradgrind and the pain somewhere in the room, he could not positively say that he had got it. He was able to add that a lot of money had been spent, until it could be spent no more; but more than that he could not say.
Then again, a man who came to interview me for a publication the other day pointed out that I was never bored. I hadn’t thought of that before, but it’s true: I’m never bored. I’m appalled, horrified, angered, but never bored. The world appears to me so infinite in its variety that many lifetimes could not exhaust its interest. So long as you can still be surprised, you have something to be thankful for (that is one of the reasons why the false knowingness of street credibility is so destructive of true happiness).
A few years ago, I went to an exhibition of Spanish still lifes at the National Gallery, and was taken aback, as were all visitors, by the paintings of Sanchez Cotan, of whom I (and I suspect the great majority of visitors) had previously known nothing. His paintings of fruit and vegetables, suspended in a parabola in an open stone window, were among the most moving that I have ever seen; and never again have I looked at vegetables and fruit in the prosaic way I did before. Thanks to Sanchez Cotan, I can see great beauty in a leek or a cabbage, or even in a potato, to the great enrichment of my life. (I do not think it a coincidence that Sanchez Cotan was a monk.) Not long afterwards, I saw the paintings of the Dutchman, Adriaen Coorte, who specialised in the humble art of painting gooseberries. The translucence of this fruit now strikes me as so beautiful that I can gaze at them with intense pleasure, if not for hours (that would be an exaggeration), at least for minutes. I suspect that this reflectiveness is one of the consolations of age.
Again, subjects to which I previously gave no thought, and which I should lightly have dismissed as being of no great interest, can suddenly appear of enormous moment and fascination as the result of chance meetings. A few years ago I was attending a murder trial when I had the great good fortune to meet Dr Zakaria Erzinclioglu, who introduced himself with the memorable words, ‘I’m just a simple fly man.’ He was so self-deprecatingly humorous and ironic that one felt an immediate affection (and deep respect) for him. He was, in fact, the foremost forensic entomologist in the country, and it was upon his evidence that the whole trial turned. You can often tell the exact date of death of a corpse by the nature of the fauna that feast upon it; and while we waited to enter the courtroom, Dr Erzinclioglu brought out his graphs and tables, and showed me how, by measuring the maggots of various species, it was possible to arrive at the date of death of a corpse with an astonishing degree of certainty. Under his infectiously enthusiastic tuition, I came to believe that there was no more important or interesting study in the world, and wished only that my life had taken a different path many years ago. Nor has my interest ever quite subsided, and I have read several books on the subject since, including some by him. I discovered also that the simple fly man was a man of wide culture and broad sympathies, who wrote good prose. Alas, Dr Erzinclioglu died suddenly at a very early age, as I discovered one day from reading the obituary page in the Daily Telegraph. I was sad, of course, though I doubt that many men could face death more fulfilled by their lives than he had been; but my brief acquaintance with him reassured me that men of genuine worth, distinction and integrity still exist, and can succeed. And for this we all have reason to be cheerful.
No doubt I sometimes give the impression that I myself lead a thankless life. This is not true. The other day, a prisoner came up to me in the prison and thanked me for my help. I couldn’t remember what I had done for him and he reminded me. His thanks, which were obviously sincere, meant more to me than any more tangible reward could have done. There is no work more worthwhile than to help the defenceless, but you can’t help them if you sentimentalise them. All in all, my life is a rich one, and it is rich because the world is so much richer than my life can ever be. I don’t think I will lose interest in the world until the day I die, and my only regret is that I will not have long enough to learn much more than I have learnt. (Not long ago, I went to a wonderful exhibition in Paris of Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts, and regretted that I will never be reborn to become an Ethiopianist. How shallow, mean-spirited and unimaginative Evelyn Waugh’s condescending attitude to Ethiopia seemed, and still seems, to me, by the way.)
I try to enthuse my patients with the glory of the world, with indifferent success, I must admit. It is almost as if they wanted the world to be boring, to justify their own lack of interest in it. To be bored and disabused is taken by many people nowadays as a sign of spiritual election or superiority, as if the world does not quite come up to their exacting standards. With the right attitude, though, very small things, such as an inscription in a second-hand book, can kindle enthusiasm and joy. Recently, for example, I bought a little volume published in 1816, entitled The Danger of Premature Interment Proved from Many Remarkable Instances of People who Recovered after Being Laid out for Dead, and Others Entombed Alive, for Want of Being Properly Examined prior to Interment. A pencil inscription of the same era on the title page read, ‘Any person who delights in good cock-and-bull stories, here he will find them to his heart’s content.’ I love trying to imagine the person who wrote this brief message to posterity. So long as the world is inexhaustibly interesting, we have reason to be cheerful.