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August 20, 2004

Anthony Daniels extols the Bourgeois

Posted by Anthony Daniels

Intellectuals have long derided the bourgeoisie; they have turned the word bourgeois into a term of abuse. Anthony Daniels argues that those who have suffered as a result of these attacks are not the bourgeois but the poor. It is precisely the derided bourgeois virtues - thrift, honesty, reliability, respectability, solidity, respect for learning, willingness to postpone gratification, politeness – which the poor require in order to escape their predicament. It is time for intellectuals to put their own selfish bohemian desires aside and to extol the bourgeois virtues.

The other day, I was flicking through some books that we were packing up for our forthcoming removal, when I happened on a poem by the French poet, Paul Eluard. Here is my rough translation:

Of course I hate the rule of the bourgeois
The rule of cops and priests
But even more I hate the man who doesn't hate it as I hate it
With all his heart.

I spit in the face of the man smaller than nature
Who does not prefer [this poem] to all my others.

Charming! And utterly insincere, of course. Eluard was a fellow-traveller of one of the most repressive police states in history, Stalin's Russia. He therefore had no objection in principal to the reign of flics and pretres (provided that the priests preached dialectical materialism). Moreover, the photograph of him on the cover of the book shows him to be a smooth-faced, purse-lipped bourgeois himself; his countenance is definitely not that of a horny-handed labourer.

I suppose it was only in the Twentieth Century that the threat to spit in someone's face unless he agreed with one should be taken as a poetic utterance. But, on the other side of the Channel, our very own D H Lawrence was expressing not very dissimilar views:

How beastly the bourgeois is
Especially the male of the species –
Lawrence, more attractable to fascism than to communism, then goes on to enumerate all the faults, or even the crimes, of the bourgeois. He is clean and tidy outside, but he is a whited sepulchre, who spends his life on trivial pursuit like golf. When it comes to the real business of life, such as new emotion or moral difficulty, he is nonplussed, and collapses like a balloon without air. He is like a fungus, worm-eaten and parasitic on the detritus of a past civilisation, 'sucking life out of the dead leaves of greater life than his own'. What a pity, says our lyricist, that the bourgeois 'can’t all be kicked over… and left to melt back, swiftly, into the soil of England'. In other words, what a pity the bourgeoisie can’t be killed en masse and turned into fertiliser. This is Eric Hobsbawm in blank verse.

The problem is that the bourgeoisie itself, certainly in this country, thoroughly absorbed the poses and prejudices of Eluard and Lawrence. Every time I see a youth of the bourgeoisie, dressed in jeans that have been carefully 'stressed' and torn, to make the wearer look a little like an urchin (though, of course, much cleaner), I think of this curious self-hating state of mind. It irritates me not only because it is a terrible insult to the genuinely poor of the world, who spend their lives struggling to earn enough to buy clothes without holes, but because it is horribly hypocritical. Just deprive the wearer of pre-torn jeans of his hot running water, and see how he squeals! So oddly enough, the bourgeoisie has, at least in some instances, become precisely what its critics said it always was, hypocritical and insincere to its fingertips.

So prevalent is the Eluard-Lawrence view of the matter that the very word bourgeois has become a term of abuse, with all the connotations of How Beastly the Bourgeois Is. To say of someone that he is bourgeois is to accuse him of bovine complacency and self-contentment. There is no divine spark in the bourgeois, as there is – by implication – in the accuser. As for bourgeois democracy, it is a mere simulacrum of the real thing, just as bourgeois justice is a sham by comparison with the more spontaneous, direct kind. The bourgeois, moreover, is indifferent, to aesthetics, having no appreciation of art.

This all strikes me as distinctly odd, because it is so obviously, patently and transparently untrue. But instead of trying to refute what is not worth refuting, let us ask what is preferred to the leadership of the bourgeoisie?

There are three possibilities. The first is the leadership of the aristocracy, but one has only to utter the word in the Twenty-First Century to know that it is utterly impossible. The young princes nearest in line to the throne are more concerned to portray themselves as good proles than to claim an inheritance going back, however shakily, a thousand years.

This leaves as contenders for leadership the bohemian intelligentsia and the proletariat. In fact, what we have is a strange mixture or amalgam: a proletarianised bohemian intelligentsia, that claims political allegiance with the proletariat, and that pretends to some of its tastes (for example football), that has a bohemian lifestyle and at the same time claims the economic advantages and privileges of a bourgeoisie.

From my perspective as a doctor to the poor, this is a terrible disaster. The traditional bourgeois virtues that would be of enormous assistance to the poor in escaping from their predicament – thrift, honesty, reliability, respectability, solidity, respect for learning, willingness to postpone gratification, politeness, and so forth – are the very virtues that the proletarianised bohemian intelligentsia have reacted so noisily, if not always sincerely, against. The result is that the poor have been deprived of any useful model to emulate, and have become not so much a class as a caste.

While I would be the first to admit that, in my own life, I have not always been the epitome of bourgeois virtue, so abominably dreadful is the life of the lowest caste in this country that I am prepared to forego certain minor personal liberties in order (with my peers) to set it some kind of example, for my liberties are trivial compared to its suffering. Furthermore I am prepared never to deride the bourgeois virtues it needs to escape from its misery, though I may in my personal life sometimes kick against the traces. On the contrary, at the present conjuncture it is the first duty of intellectuals to extol the bourgeois virtues to the heavens. How marvellous the bourgeois is!

Anthony Daniels is a doctor and writer.

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I have long admired Anthony Daniels brilliant travel writing. Good to see him on the web. The Bourgeois sure have a stout defender in Anthony Daniels.

Posted by: John Williams at August 21, 2004 07:24 PM

The earliest reference I know of spitting is from Diogenes (404 to 323 BC) - " In the rich man's house there is no place to spit but in his face".

Posted by: Mark Powley at August 23, 2004 01:46 AM

"I have long admired Anthony Daniels brilliant travel writing"

Are there no limits to the man :-)

Where can I find AD's travel writing?

Posted by: Cydonia at August 23, 2004 10:44 AM

Anthony Daniels' travel writings are mostly out of print, but available from many a good library. Starting with Fool or Physician, a memoir of a young idealist mugged by reality, and the excellent books on Guatemala (one of the best on the subject), communist countries (The Wilder Shores of Marx) and books on travelling through Africa, they are all a brilliant blend of trenchant observation of a marvellous array of individuals, many refusing to fit into even his own preconceptions (which are always honestly scrutinised by the author), hugely erudite reflection and rich experience.

Posted by: Oliver Conolly at August 28, 2004 02:14 PM

As with the more recent article on pointless self-expression, a reflexive contempt for the bourgeois is the sure sign of a adolescent mentality (though often found in those much much older than any adolescent)

Posted by: James McQueen at September 11, 2004 11:06 AM

i wanted to comment on the romancing opiates book. i used herion for two years, and i have to say that one man has finally got it right. you have full control over the addiction, it is nothing like what most addicts claim it to be. not once did i experience pain or suffering, you have to have a strong will, just as you need for any other habit. i think herion addicts are more actors than anything else.

Posted by: melissa at June 18, 2006 02:06 PM

I admire the writing of Mr. Daniels/Dalrymple, but must take exception to most of his characterizations of the Left. As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal/progressive I find his descriptions of what he imagines the state of mind of a leftist to be puzzling. To me they seem sociopathic rather than anything I associate with liberal mindset. Libertinism is not the same as liberty. Rights without responsibility inevitably lead to decay. The Left may have once been entranced with the notion that all self-expression is worthy regardless of the effects of one's actions on society, but that notion went out with the self indulgent hedonism of the 1970's.

Ah well, his essays are still a good read. Maybe while he is in France he will take some time to meet and speak to some actual liberals.

Posted by: Luther von Ruckerson at September 14, 2007 09:01 PM

I accept Mr. Daniels for its comments about the poems, but I don't think he knew what was going on in the time the author wrote his poem. It's true; we don't have to be too hard on the bourgeois, and some of them can be good and honest people. But, most of the time in history the bourgeois are the ones that only care about themselves and reject all the others. Yes, we still have many beast bourgeois in our society, and Mr. Lawrence makes a good point revealing us the beast side of the bourgeois

Posted by: Ketia at March 16, 2009 11:10 PM
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