Friday, May 12, 2006

The Doctor and the Priest

Dr. Anthony Daniels, aka Theodore Dalrymple, about whom I have written enthusiastically, has published in the May issue of The New Criterion a review/essay titled “Reading R.S. Thomas,” which is precisely what I have been doing this week. The good doctor, now retired and living in France, once lived in North Wales, which was Thomas’ turf, both geographically and poetically. Daniels, the former prison doctor, and Thomas, the Anglican priest, share some of Swift's predisposition to saevo indignatio:

“R.S. Thomas’s hatred of modernity and all its works slides into bitter misanthropy and a severe limitation of human sympathy. He hates the sinner at least as much as the sin, or perhaps his nationalism is not so much the consequence of love of Wales as of hatred of the England that represents what he most hates.”

Thomas’ anger, however, his failure of compassion and empathy, even try Daniels’ indulgence. Daniels does something every sane man does periodically: He visits a cemetery, in this case the graveyard of the Church of St. Hywyn, in Aberdaron, where Thomas was vicar for 11 years. Daniels notes that Thomas, in his autobiography, “derides the tombstones of the dead as vainglorious, exhibitionist, pompous, and redundant.” So, Daniels takes a closer look at the 19th-century stones in Thomas’ old churchyard, with their heartbreaking inscriptions, and concludes. “Yet only a man without much common feeling could fail to be moved by some of the tombs in the very churchyard where he was the vicar for eleven years.”

Daniels goes a step further and, after reading the stone of a 13-year-old boy who died at sea in 1843, finds a newspaper account of the sinking of the unseaworthy Monk Steamer – something Thomas himself could easily have done. Daniels concludes:

“R.S. Thomas could not say of himself, Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto, ” then adds, “Yet it wouldn’t be true, either, that Thomas was unfeeling: on the contrary, he was deeply passionate. His response to the beauty of the world, of its creatures, is that of a mystic.”

Ostensibly, Daniels’ piece is a review of Collected Later Poems: 1988-2000, the work Thomas published in the years before his death in 2000. In fact, it’s a hybrid of travelogue, review and what I’ll call memoir for lack of a more precise term. In Thomas, Daniels seems to sense a kindred spirit, a man no stranger to self-division. Thomas was a priest, a lover of the natural world, especially his native landscape, and a poet of rare concision and exquisite beauty. But, Daniels notes, “Men did not live up to his standards. They ran after the transitory and failed to notice the eternal glory that surrounded them.”

We might say the same of Daniels, except for the modifier “eternal,” for he is a thoroughly secular moralist, a descendent of La Rochefoucauld, Samuel Johnson and Orwell the essayist. As a physician, he has sworn to “do no harm,” to render care as it is needed, yet he castigates the very people it was his job to care for – English prisoners and slum dwellers. Daniels, like Thomas, must often have acted out of an obligation to be professionally compassionate, all the while torn by the self-generating nature of so much human suffering. I intend none of this critically. Doctors and priests willingly assume impossible responsibilities, burdens far beyond most of us to bear.

At the end of the essay, Daniels recounts an argument he and his wife had while visiting Bangor, Wales. They were, he says, “shamed into reconciliation” after observing an old, almost-blind woman led into a shop by her middle-aged, mentally handicapped son. They obviously have little money. What will happen to the son, Daniels and his wife wonder, when the old woman dies?

“How vulgar, trifling, and stupid seems all the self-infliction of the world, when life is tragic enough, tragic in its very essence, without it.”

We must, of course, judge both men first as writers, as Daniels ultimately does with Thomas:

“Suddenly we see that Thomas’ misanthropy is disappointed love, not free-standing hatred, and that he feels passionate sympathy for his fellow-beings:

“`And courage shall give way
to despair and despair
to suffering, and suffering
shall end in death. But you
who are not free to choose
what you suffer can choose
your response.’”

1 comment:

Deogolwulf said...

The world could do with a few more persons like the good doctor.