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26 July 1999

They dance; I take the dog for a walk

Southern Europeans seem to enjoy themselves more than northerners, who regard even pleasure as a dut

By Theodore Dalrymple

According to Bentham, all pleasures are created equal, and poetry is not superior in any way to shove- halfpenny. What is true of individuals must be true, in this instance, of whole societies: so there can be nothing to choose between the various ways in which populations take their pleasure.

With the increased emphasis in the last few decades on individual rights, and the decline in the force of religious and social restraints on behaviour, the search for personal pleasure has increased in scope, urgency and determination. The English, for example, are no longer a nation that takes it pleasures sadly: on the contrary, they have become a nation that takes its pleasures loudly. For myself, I do not find the spectacle entirely pleasing.

The phenomenon is not unique to England but has occurred throughout the western world, particularly in the Protestant countries that have traditionally mistrusted the pleasures of the flesh. A visit to Amsterdam, for example, should be sufficient to convince anyone that the search for earthly delights now knows scarcely any bounds. Only the wilder shores of necrophilia are as yet forbidden: and it cannot be very long before the walls of the mortuary come tumbling down.

I have noticed, however, that there are two fundamentally different and opposed kinds of hedonism: the northern and the southern, or the Baltic and the Mediterranean. The latter type is unselfconscious and is an organic outgrowth of the conditions – climatic, geographical, cultural – in which it flourishes. In the south people are hedonistic because it would not occur to them to be otherwise. The hedonism of the north, by contrast, is self-conscious and ideological, a deliberate reaction to past puritanical restraints. Northern hedonism puts two fingers up to mama and papa, without whose disapproval none of the pleasure-seeking would be worthwhile. Southern hedonism, on the other hand, sees pleasure as an end in itself. It represents continuity with tradition, rather than a breaking of it.

Fleshly pleasure does not come easily to northerners: they have to work hard to achieve it. Anyone who has seen a German pornographic film (widely available on televisions in hotels throughout the world) will know what I mean. Here sex seems more a duty, or even an engineering problem, than a sensual pleasure. The supposed eroticism is unconvincing. Such films are the sexual equivalent of Emile Coue’s self-hypnotising slogan of the 1920s: every day, in every way, I feel better and better. Every day, in every way, says German pornography, we’re having more and more fun. The trouble is that we’re not: on the contrary, we are more miserable than ever.

Anyone who observes young Britons having a good time cannot help but hear the same false note. Their abandoned pursuit of pleasure is not carefree, but anxious. One Saturday night recently I went to Chester for a concert and watched the revelry in the streets. They were not the young of the underclass, but people with money to spend. It seemed that none of them could laugh without shrieking or speak without yelling: it was as if they were trying, by outward signs of grace such as vomiting and falling over, to convince each other that they were having a marvellous time. There was a definite strain in the air.

The grossness of their behaviour was also obvious and deliberate, a reaction to what would once have counted as decorum. They swigged beer from bottles, dropped litter within a few feet of litter bins, staggered about with complete disregard for other pedestrians and made the ancient streets echo with the sound of their raucous, though unconvincing, laughter. Since they had an inalienable right to seek pleasure, and since it is universally agreed that restraint is the enemy of all pleasure, it followed that the less restrained they were, the more pleasure they were having.

Pleasure taken in this spirit, however, is almost indistinguishable from duty, though duty that serves no good or useful purpose. This is hedonism as hard work; and it is not surprising that such hedonism is often accompanied by puritanical impulses that make themselves felt in other directions: for example, with regard to smoking or in the phenomenon of political correctness. It is no accident (as the Marxists used to say) that political correctness should flourish most in those countries in which libertinism has become an ideology; or that in countries in which the literary use of foul language is taken as a sign of liberation from stifling convention, certain words and thoughts are simply not allowed to be expressed. For what is political correctness except an attempt to purify the human heart by making unworthy thoughts literally inexpressible?

It is almost as if, in the north, there is a law of the conservation of prudishness: that it must attach itself to something or other, to thought if not to deed. The hedonism of the north is merely a mirror image of puritanism, in which the evaluative sign of fleshly pleasure has changed from minus to plus and what was once forbidden has now become compulsory. This accounts for its deliberate and self-conscious quality, for no one can be a puritan unselfconsciously.

In the south, by contrast, the importance of everyday pleasures is taken for granted. These pleasures are not a reaction to anything, but a cultural inheritance, part of the very fabric of life. For example, in the south children are inducted early into the joys of social eating, whereas in the north they are regarded as a nuisance at mealtimes. No doubt the weather is partly responsible for the difference between southern and northern hedonism: it is more natural to be at one’s ease in the warm sun than in the damp mist. The pattern of drinking in the south and the north also expresses the difference: in the south one drinks to enhance life, in the north to drown one’s sorrows. They drink twice as much alcohol per head in Italy as in Scotland, but there is more drunkenness in Scotland.

Now that we of the north have gone over to the pursuit of pleasures, it is difficult to recapture the intense sense of liberation that arrival in, say, Italy once gave people coming from an ascetic land. Greyness was replaced by colour, cloud by sun, dourness by gaiety, suet by spaghetti, beer by wine, cold by warmth, duty by enjoyment. As soon as one arrived, the thought “this is how life should be lived” ran through one’s head. Oddly enough, though, the sense of liberation did not last very long. The intense concentration on quotidian pleasures began, after a time, to be oppressive in its turn, symbolic of a life dedicated to appearances and therefore intrinsically superficial. To give serious attention to subtle differences in the quality of asparagus or other comestibles seemed unworthy. One began to long for the less obvious but nonetheless real pleasures of one’s own greyer land.

My wife, who is French, experienced a sense of liberation in reverse when she came to this country: at last, a nation in which people didn’t much care for appearances, in which even rich people were content to be uncomfortable and ill-dressed. No one was offended by bad food, was genuinely shocked by it or thought any the worse of anyone for serving it. She found a strange integrity in the indifference to luxury that she found among people who were by no means poor: it seemed to indicate a depth of character, a sense of proportion and the cultivation of more important virtues than those of her native land.

There is nothing whatever to be said in favour of the new northern hedonism, which combines the vice of superficiality with that of grossness. As Britain was once said by Dean Acheson to have lost an empire and found no role, so in adopting hedonism we have lost our virtues and gained new vices.

It is difficult to explain the charms of asceticism to people whose attitude to such pleasures is unequivocally positive: but the charms exist nonetheless.

I have several times faced the problem of explaining them abroad when, invited to a party, I have been asked to contribute an English song or do an English dance. I tell the assembled company that England is not really like that : we don’t dance and sing much in England, at least not in any way that will increase joy. How, they ask incredulously, do you enjoy yourself, then? It’s a difficult question to answer, but the strange fact is that I haven’t experienced my own life as having lacked enjoyment. I rack my brains and answer: “I like taking my dog for a walk.” This answer strikes the foreigners as completely mad and then I think, too late, that one of the greatest pleasures of England, unknown in more hedonistic climes, is irony.

Or was irony. But hedonism is the enemy of irony, because irony demands a certain detachment from oneself and the life around one, whereas hedonism demands that one’s senses should be at the centre of one’s attention. I need hardly say that there isn’t a lot of irony around these days.

I see the attractions of asceticism and those of Mediterranean hedonism but I see no attractions at all in the modern hedonism of the north. It is vulgar, it lacks sincerity and it has a hysterical or desperate quality, as if it fails to plug an existential gap. When I watch young Britons enjoy themselves, I cannot help but think of the Welsh preacher who, on being asked by one of the congregation whether it was permissible to have sex on Sundays, thought for a moment and replied: “Yes, so long as you don’t enjoy it.”

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