Magazine | April 19, 2010, Issue

Dark Continent

The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism, by Theodore Dalrymple (Encounter, 163 pp., $23.95)

Many books have now been written about Europe’s malaise, most making similar observations, but Dr. Theodore Dalrymple has two great gifts and an advantage. His gifts are his prose style — effortlessly fluent yet never affected — and his keen powers of observation. His advantage is his experience of life.

Having trained as a psychiatrist, Dr. Dalrymple practiced medicine in such countries as Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and South Africa before returning to Birmingham to spend a long career treating patients in slum hospitals and inner-city prisons. While many have written about Europe’s underclass, few could claim literally to have examined so much of it.

Dr. Dalrymple now turns his attention to Europe’s demographic decline, its aging population, its bureaucratization, and its tolerance of intolerance among its Muslim immigrants. The title of The New Vichy Syndrome is oblique, for nowhere does he quite state what the old Vichy syndrome was, or how it might be distinguished from the new, or how either explains the surrender of European intellectuals to barbarism. Nor does he argue that they have surrendered to barbarism, more that they have succumbed to purposelessness, anxiety, sublimation, and self-doubt. Indeed he makes explicit the point that, far from being barbarous, Europeans are by comparison with most of the world — and with their own forebears — extremely wealthy and their life expectancy high. I suspect his publishers wore him out with their insistence that “barbarism” and “syndrome” polled well with the sales force. If so, my sympathies — as the author of a book titled Menace in Europe, I know just how that happens.

A more apt (if uglier) title would have been “The European Miserablist Syndrome,” for this is really his subject, and, as usual, he brings to it literacy and authority. By “miserablist,” he means the view of European history in which all of Europe’s cultural and historical achievements are discounted while its failings and catastrophes are magnified. He traces this view, as most do, to the two great wars and to Europe’s consequent loss of faith, prestige, confidence, power, and influence. This is a story that includes that of Vichy France. It also antedates and dwarfs it. As Dalrymple remarks, “The case of Germany hardly needs comment.”

It is easy, he notes, to construct a history of Europe that is no more than a catalogue of horrors, but both simplistic and dangerous. Dangerous, because such a history gives rise to collective pathological shame, which in turn gives rise to unwillingness to defend that which is noble and brilliant in European tradition. It is, he argues, manifestly absurd to argue that Europe is “nothing but” its wars and failures: “I don’t see how anyone can walk around Paris, say, or Venice, or Rome . . . and see only crime or folly, and no achievement.” (He suggests that my own opinion of Europe is a miserablist one, and that I am among those guilty of seeing “nothing but” fratricide in European history. This is not at all my view, but my esteem for Dr. Dalrymple is such that I am prepared to believe the fault must be mine for not being more clear.)

From pathological shame blooms neurosis, and Western Europe, he argues, is in a neurotic condition, “smug and anxious” at once, veering between “complacency and despond.” A meticulous writer and trained psychiatrist such as he would not use the word neurotic carelessly. Neuroses are mental disorders characterized by anxiety and avoidant behavior, distressing to the patient but representing no fundamental break from reality. In modern psychiatry the idea of neurosis has been replaced by the concepts of anxiety disorder, mood disorder, sexual disorder, and somatoform disorder, and in a sense, The New Vichy Syndrome may be read as a taxonomy of these conditions in modern Europe.

#page# “There is something rotten in the state of Europe,” he writes, in allusion to literature’s most celebrated neurotic. Europe’s anxiety disorder has an analogue in the hypochondriac’s: “as if they had a secret sickness that had not yet made itself manifest by obvious symptoms or signs, but that was nevertheless eating them away at their vital parts.”

The etiology of this neuroticism is complex. To a degree, its roots are in narcissism. “For good or ill,” Dr. Dalrymple notes correctly, “God is dead in Europe.” Such are the psychic defenses of all human beings that this premise rarely leads, emotionally, where it obviously goes: to the conclusion that one’s life is entirely unimportant. Instead, “individuals still think of themselves as being uniquely important” — the primitive narcissistic posture — “but without the countervailing humility of considering themselves to have a duty toward the author of their being.” Thus the frantic pursuit of the life “lived to the full,” which has in practice been translated to “consuming as much as possible” and “having as many extreme experiences as possible.” These pursuits conceal the aching but unconscious fear of utter emptiness. The problem — as is inevitable in all quests for narcissistic supply — is that no amount of consumption or extreme experience can satisfy for long.

Europeans, then, “are fearful of the future because they fear the past” and are desperate to secure material comfort, for it represents the purpose of their existence. So important is this to them that they “see children not as the inheritors of what they themselves inherited, as essential to the meaning of life, but as obstructions to the enjoyment of life, as a drain on resources, an obstacle to next year’s holiday in Bali or wherever it may be.”

Larger efforts to find transcendence in brief, meaningless, mortal lives have failed. Marxism has been discredited. Thus the rise of “small causes” — environmentalism, feminism, and anti-nationalism, too, in the form of enthusiasm for the European-integration project.

Patriotism in Europe has been discredited. Like most observers, Dalrymple locates this loss of confidence in World War I, which shattered the belief that European history was a form of natural blossoming toward a garden of peace, rationality, and material advance. Whether in fact the war was “senseless,” as commonly accepted, is immaterial. His analysis of the change of perspective on the war is particularly interesting. The assignment of the epithet “meaningless,” he notes, emerged after the war, not during it: “not as a direct and spontaneous consequence of the war, but as the result of intellectual reflection on its meaning.” It is, again, well known among psychiatrists that victims of trauma are best able to recover if able to assign meaning to the experience they have endured. To have retrospectively understood the war as “meaningless,” in other words, is to have adopted the psychological strategy least likely to lead to emotional recovery. If even the victorious countries concluded that the war had been meaningless, there was no hope whatever in the defeated countries of making a meaningful narrative of events, “no way of incorporating it into a memory that could be other than humiliating to national self-esteem.” We all know the consequences: “In Germany, disillusion bred a mad militarism; in Britain and France, a blind pacifism.” World War II then “destroyed European self-confidence once and for all.”

#page#Limitless guilt, he notes, is a form of grandiosity. It assures the guilty that “important, determining factors in the current situation of the world are traceable to them. If Africa is an abominable mess, it is because of what we, the former colonizing nations, did to it: ergo, we are still important. . . . It is better, at least for the amour propre, to be responsible for a lot of harm, indeed great evil, than not very much.”

There are limits to this kind of analysis. “Real motives,” he concedes, “as against declared ones, are always a matter of conjecture, and cannot finally be proved to have operated.” Nonetheless, only those lacking entirely in insight would fail to appreciate that there is often a grave disparity between real and declared motives, and that it is easier to see evidence of concealed motives in others than in oneself. For Germans, in his view, the key concealed motive is repression: “The Germans had an identity and a past that they badly needed to forget.” The French, par contre, had an identity they wished to assert. Having been reduced to secondary status in the world by virtue of their diminutive territory and population, the French sought to harness Germany’s sublimated energy. “France could appropriate the Wirtschaftswunder to remain of world importance, because the Germans, thanks to their recent history, would remain politically passive for a long time to come.”

Or so they hoped. As all psychiatrists know, the nature of the repressed is to return. Who in Europe, if they really thought about it, did not know all along that the Greeks were dishonest, irresponsible, and lazy? There is a world of pathos in the recent remarks of European MP Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, a German of Greek origin, who has of late been desperately seeking to negotiate a Greco-German rapprochement. “Germans owe their reputation as an import-exporter to the eurozone,” Chatzimarkakis said forlornly. As well he knows, and as well everyone knows, the Germans owe their real reputation to nothing of the sort, and all it took was a debt crisis for the Greeks to remind them of that. The moment Greek politicians began invoking the Nazis as an argument for debt relief, German newspapers rose splendidly to the bait: “We give you the money — you give us Corfu.” “Sell your islands, you backward Greeks.”

So much for transcendence. Dr. Dalrymple has no good solutions — none of us does, if we are honest — but at least he writes beautiful books, which is something.

Claire Berlinski is a journalist who lives in Istanbul. She is the author of Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too, and There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters.

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