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Book review: ‘In Praise of Folly’ by Theodore Dalrymple

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Scientists and engineers are among the famous figures whose shortcomings when they ventured outside their field of expertise are exposed in this series of essays.

E&T readers who are familiar with The Spectator magazine may remember Theodore Dalrymple’s revealing and witty column, based on his real-life experiences as a prison psychiatrist, which he authored for a number of years and of which I was quite a fan. I always started reading a new issue with that column, which made me think that Anthony Malcolm Daniels (Theodore Dalrymple is a nom de plume) belonged to that rare breed of top-rate physicians who were also acclaimed men of letters: Chekhov, Bulgakov, Maugham, Conan Doyle etc. That impression has been confirmed by Dalrymple’s numerous non-fiction books – superbly written, often controversial, and invariably funny – of which this is the latest.

‘In Praise of Folly: The Blind-Spots of Geniuses’ (Gibson Square, £9.99, ISBN 9781783341412) sees Dalrymple pondering (in his habitual ironic fashion) on the extraordinary ability of many great scientists, artists and writers to manifest abysmal ignorance, childish naivety, and/or plain stupidity in the areas of arts and knowledge other than those they were experts in. To put it bluntly, the book is about the geniuses’ unexpected eccentricities (or indeed ‘follies’) as seen by an expert (if somewhat facetious) psychiatrist.

In no chronological order, and with minimal narrative structure, Dalrymple lists and analyses the unlikely flaws of acclaimed surgeons and theologians, engineers, writers, scientists and military commanders. We learn of the unexpected cruelty to animals shown by the Reverend Stephen Hales (1677-1761) – botanist, chemist and engineer, the inventor of the ventilation system in Newgate Prison, which helped to considerably reduce the death rate from ‘gaol fever’, and the pioneer of blood-pressure measuring. We discover the multi-faceted 19th-century writer and artist Philip Henry Gosse, who was also the creator of the first indoor aquarium, but was nevertheless deluded enough to believe that marine animals – of all species – “were proof of the power and wisdom of God”. We are confronted with the totally illogical and utterly incomprehensible attraction of satirist Pelham George Wodehouse to the ideals of Marxism, Soviet-style communism and even Nazism.

What can I say? Even Homer sometimes nods.

Not willing to supply anymore spoilers (for the most distinctive feature of all the real-life characters featured the book is the sheer unexpectedness of their follies), I want to reserve the remainder of this review to Dalrymple’s inimitable writing style. The book is resplendent with delightful autobiographical (and, for the most part, beautifully self-deprecating) observations of the type: “I can spend hours reading the first paragraphs of a thousand books, no matter how recondite their subject matter. I even relish books with titles such as ‘A Brief History of Banking in Plaistow’ or ‘The Influence of Calvinism on Trade Unionism in Aberdeen’.”

Or: “The Editor of my first book told me that the famous publisher Jonathan Cape once said that there were only two things you need to know about publishing. The first is that books about Nelson never make a loss, the second that books about South America never make a profit. My first book was on South America...”

Well, fortunately for us all, ‘In Praise of Folly’ is not on South America. It is an intelligent and tongue-in-cheek  reminder to us all of the old truism that no one, including ourselves, is ever perfect! This book is going to make a profit, I am sure.

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