We are forever lectured to respect “diversity” and remain open-minded in the face of difference, but it’s likewise reassuring to know we occasionally resonate with kinship. My brother and I come from the same place but have followed variant, sometimes parallel trajectories. To a surprising degree, my assumptions are his: “And what I assume you shall assume.” We share a rare temperamental compatibility, at least most of the time.
Often I feel the same about Theodore Dalrymple, at least as I know him in print, and this is particularly true of his essay in the August edition of the New English Review, “Of Death and Transfiguration.” He starts with observations on the Internet and the ease with which it permits relationships, both rewarding and irksome, and quietly turns to a meditation on mortality, the human body and the sacred. Each sentence reads like a digression, yet the whole coheres, and the reader is reminded that he is in the company of an adult who has learned something from his experience:
“We have to live as if some things were sacred, for if we do not we become savages, or rather beings without limits. We cannot (or at least ought not) to condone necrophilia, for example, merely because no one is harmed by it, because the body on which it is practised is inanimate and has neither interests nor wishes, and is therefore not the kind of being that can give or withhold consent.
“The precise boundaries of the sacred are always disputable, but we cannot do without an awareness of the sacred, even when we know that sacredness is not a natural quality, that it is not just ‘there’ in the way that natural qualities such as weight and density are, that it does not inhere as a natural quality of anything, that it is imposed upon the world by us in a way that other qualities are not. And that is part of the reason why a purely scientific attitude to life is both undesirable and impossible.”
Dalrymple cites Samuel Johnson several times in his essay – another elective affinity – and he reminded me of a conversation Boswell reported:
“I mentioned that I was afraid I put into my journal too many little incidents. Johnson: "There is nothing, Sir, too little for a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.”