Cometh the Hour of the Cold Shower

Walking in my town in England recently, I passed a lady in the early forties who had dyed her hair in the colours of the Ukrainian flag: corn yellow at the front and sky blue at the back.

I wondered whether the demand for hair dye of these colours had increased of late; I had already been impressed by the speed with which the market economy had produced Ukrainian flags, as well as bunting and heart-shaped objects in the Ukrainian colours, in response to the sudden demand for them. Could an entirely dirigiste economy have reacted with such fleetness of foot? If you had asked me a few months ago where I could procure a Ukrainian flag, I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea.

I have never known such a spontaneous outpouring of sympathy for a foreign nation before and am not quite sure how to estimate its depth. My own views on the Ukrainian situation are deeply conventional: I believe that Russia under Vladimir Putin, and possibly under his successor, threatens the peace of Europe, which it believes it must subjugate or bend to its will in order to feel secure. One of Putin’s apologists on state television, asked where Russia’s true borders lay, replied “At the Pas de Calais.”

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The contortions of the Russian mind on this subject are beyond my capacity to unravel. They are like those of a criminal who blames all his bad conduct on an unfortunate past. His past may indeed have been unfortunate, but analysis (not psychoanalysis) is usually sufficient to demonstrate to everyone except himself that he has been an important contributor to his own misfortune, having always taken a path that leads to disaster. Indeed, someone once said of Russia that all its roads lead to disaster, and there are individual people like that too.

But to return to the popular outpouring of sympathy for Ukraine. Naturally, the question arises as to how deep or abiding this sympathy is and what it really means. I suppose that if I were a Ukrainian refugee I would at first be greatly moved by the blue and yellow ribbon on the door of our local vicarage (home of the vicar who wants to remove the pews from the church and replace them with plastic chairs and tables, and who converted part of an ancient churchyard into a carpark), and perhaps even by some of the pronouncements of Western politicians. The reception of Ukrainian refugees has been genuinely warm in many places, though our less intellectual journals have revelled in stories of the alienation of the affections of the male member of a welcoming couple and subsequent elopement with the young attractive refugee.

I suspect that sympathy for Ukraine and Ukrainians is rather typical of our emotional lives nowadays: our emotions are both intense and superficial and are like gusts of wind rushing through a cornfield. This is not to say that they are unimportant or insignificant, for they affect public policy, usually in a deleterious way.

For example, how deep is our commitment to the preservation of the environment or to so-called ecology? People have, or claim to have, cuddly feelings towards the surface of the earth, which they worship with a kind of pagan reverence. They may eschew meat and animal products, cycle wherever they can, and even suspend wind-chimes in their garden, but all of these things actually impose very little sacrifice on them, albeit that vegetarian or vegan food takes time to prepare, and all are perfectly compatible with normal everyday lives in our society. However, I doubt how far they would be willing to forgo such comforts as heating and warm water in order to reduce their own consumption of energy.

No doubt they would argue that personal sacrifices mean little unless accompanied by similar sacrifices by millions of others: this is the modern equivalent of St Augustine’s desire to be chaste, but not just yet. It also reveals a lust for power, the desire to impose a will on other people—of course for their own good which they are too blind to see for themselves.

At a literary gathering recently, a middle-class intellectual lady piped up about it being two minutes to midnight as far as the climate was concerned. This was met with applause that was half-joyful, as if the end of the world were a consummation devoutly to be wished. I said that I thought that concern for the environment would dissipate with the first cold shower, and this remark was greeted with a little nervous laughter, as subversive truths are often greeted.

The point about unheated showers was not entirely frivolous. A gentleman in the audience replied that during the war people had put up with unheated water and British houses had been cold and draughty long afterwards. Indeed so: I remember as a student removing the ice that had formed on the inside of my bedroom window. The point is, however, that such living conditions would be considered not just uncomfortable nowadays, but an infringement of human rights. To the extent that the human soul can change, it had changed, and physical comfort, if not luxury, has become almost the summum bonum of human existence. What is tolerable in one age is intolerable in another.

According to a rather good book by an Italian anthropologist, Stefano Boni, the desire for comfort is a much-underestimated factor in the explanation of our current economic and cultural conjuncture. In fact, it is rarely noticed at all, as is the desire to avoid boredom (my view is that the prevalence of the means of entertainment is one of the biggest causes of boredom, but that, as Kipling’s Mrs Hawksbee would have said, is another story).          

Mr Boni doesn’t always make the necessary distinction between comfort and convenience: people are willing to forgo quality in food, for example, in exchange for the convenience of not having to prepare it, eventually losing the capacity, perhaps, to distinguish between foods of different quality. But his basic point is sound. It might be that it is only very recently in human history that great masses of people have lived in the kind of comfort that Louis XIV would have envied, albeit in somewhat less grand surroundings than his, but people become accustomed to comfort very quickly and experience its loss as a real trauma. This is not a situation from which politicians can ask great sacrifices in the name of a future and still hypothetical danger, let alone for an abstract principle. After all, present mirth hath present laughter, what’s to come is never sure: therefore, it is right to enjoy current comforts. After us, the deluge (perhaps).

So when the crowds gathered in Berlin in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine and said that they wouldn’t mind if Vladimir Putin turned off the gas supply, and that they would make do with cold showers, I was immediately sceptical. It is delightful to shout such slogans having recently had a hot shower, but in the middle of a Berlin winter I think a literal cold shower would act as a metaphorical one. People would skip washing and start to smell. This might be good for the deodorant industry, but as I know from some of my patients years ago, there comes a point in malodorousness beyond which no fragrance, as scents are now called, can do anything except make even worse. Of the effect of a gas shortage on industry and therefore on German prosperity, I need hardly speak; and if Mrs Merkel was not an actual agent of Putin’s, she might just as well have been, for she couldn’t have done any better as such.

The point, however, is that our population (in which I include myself, I do not claim to be very different from it) is soft. This is a sign of the advance of at least some aspects of civilisation, and I am far from believing that discomfort is good for you morally, as lifting weights is supposed to be good for the musculature. I remember the days when rugby pitches hardened by frost were deemed good for boys’ character, and I never really believed it as a matter of empirical observation.

However, people who have known little hardship are not apt for sacrifice of the type required by prolonged war or confrontation. I admit I may be wrong: I have been wrong before and will be wrong again. Perhaps, cometh the hour, cometh the people: but I don’t bet on it, and neither does Vladimir Putin.    

Anthony Daniels recently published Ramses: A Memoir (New English Review Press), under his pen-name Theodore Dalrymple.  Stefano Boni’s book Homo Comfort (published in Italian in 2014) has recently been translated into French, but not yet into English.


12 thoughts on “Cometh the Hour of the Cold Shower

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    A Siberian Summer can produce interesting odours in a crowded space and thus encourage walking for most medium sized cities had their hot water pumped for heating and bathing from the power station because hot water systems as we know them didn’t exist. The “State” would decree when Summertime began and the hot water would be turned off despite a raging blizzard outside. As with most State run systems anywhere there could be a heatwave, the State opined it was wintertime and so the apartment heating that couldn’t be regulated in the main for there were no valves on the “batteries” and everyone suffered again. Russian people are a hardy lot so it’s best never to underestimate them as did Hitler and before him, Napoleon.

  • Alistair says:

    Personally, I’m no great fan of Russia – but it seems to me that in recent history more “European” Armies have besieged the Russian capital more often than European capitals have been besieged by Russians. Yes, they besieged Berlin – but there was some provocation there as I remember. Just off the top of my head I would ask two questions –
    If Ukraine is the great highway for European armies to attack Moscow – should Russians wait until the next European army inevitably appears at the gates of Moscow, or should it consider a pre-emptive action to head them off?
    Should Russian leaders be decided by some sort of straw poll in NATO?

    I’m not convinced that the USA, European Union, The Ukraine are innocent victims in this war. In part my reasoning rests on the fact that the Mainstream Media seem totally pro-Ukraine – and they have never got anything right in the last ?twenty years. In my experience it is wise to believe the exact opposite of what’s in the media. Google the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    I agree with both comments. Somehow there’s something not quite right about that comedian running the Ukraine, he comes over as too much of a poser in my eyes. In my view he should have negotiated long ago with Putin, but he seems to keep ramping the whole thing up. The Russians will eventually get it right and that’ll be the end of him, and many ordinary Ukrainians I’d say !

  • Biggles says:

    Our problem is that ALL the players in the game are corrupt. So how do we peasants decide? As King John (allegedly) said; ‘At doomsday,friend, we shall see whose arse is blackest’.

  • Claude James says:

    And then all the ignorant people who had never had responsibility for other people’s lives under wartime conditions (or non-war ones either) insisted they were qualified to give their opinions about the performance of those who do have extreme responsibilities for others’ lives under the most difficult of conditions.
    And they say that education does more than embolden the stupid.

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    Paraphrasing Blaise Pascal, the desire to avoid boredom (by any available means) is evidence of a very human allergy to having to think over serious matters.

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    It appeared that the Russian attack would be successful because of air and artillery superiority and asymmetric war would not work to defeat them.
    However with control of gps, better artillery and antiaircraft weapons, things may end up with attrition and stalemate.
    Russia is not invincible.
    It lost a war of attrition in Afghanistan.
    The withdrawal began on 15 May 1988 and was completed by 15 February 1989. Soviet Forces had lost 14,453 troops during the conflict; Afghan Forces had lost 18,000 men. The Mujahideen lost approximately 75,000-90,000 men. Estimates of civilian deaths range from 850,000 to 1,500,000. Millions of Afghan citizens fled the country as refugees.

    MLA Citation/Reference
    The Ukrainians have nowhere to go, so have no choice but to fight.
    Ronald Regan, a B film actor, won the cold war.
    Perhaps another actor, who busily is addressing all the friendly nations of the world for arms and support,
    will follow suit.
    After a few cold showers, the EU will discover its mojo and support him, or go under itself.

  • brandee says:

    Surely we can dismiss as absurd the throw away Russian line that its true western border is at the Pas de Calais. We quickly dismissed it when some nutty Russian once said that the eastern border should be well east of the Bering Strait after renegotiating the land sale with the US and reclaiming Alaska.
    Considering the long history of the Crimea as a Russian naval base then it, with a corridor of existing Russophile states, could easily be seen as a necessary part of Russia. When then will the UK, US, EU, start talking of a peace settlement?

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Some years ago I had to drive from Adelaide to Canberra in November. It was a particularly hot November. My cars A/C broke down. What a disaster! I remember my wife mopping my brow frequently with a wet towel and frequent stopping for a break. I don’t know how we got through it. And then I remembered, thirty odd years before (no A/C then) routinely driving from Brisbane to Townsville in summer and listening to the cricket on the radio.

  • RB says:

    Ukraine is doing the job mandated by history, hence all of the support. It has nothing to do with Zelensky, they might equally have you or I standing there and you would see the same cheer squad in the media. Putin won’t stop with Ukraine, he will push on to the adjoining 9 nations because he needs the demography to stop Russia’s slide into irrelevance and he knows that this is his last chance.
    Low childbirth has ramifications, army size being one of them.
    He is perfectly willing to risk war with Nato as he reads the west as degenerate and weak in the face of his nukes.
    Hope I am wrong.

  • Alistair says:

    And so as the global media (owned by the Davos oligarchs) tells us how bad Russia is, the Davos oligarchs have moved into the Ukraine and bought up vast areas of the global food basket.
    From Cori Bernardi this morning …
    Absolutely no conflict of interest here !!!!

    “NATO acting as a policeman for corporate interests?
    Behind each of these international exploiting companies there are completely different, mostly even more powerful companies that figure as motivated shareholders, but are also networked with the much-cited “military-industrial complex” of the United States of America. In this network, of course, NATO has been acting as the clumsy, executive tool. But in the economic-legal processes of property transfer of land, as described here, need to be operated with a little more finesse. The deceptive camouflage of these corporate raiders is called “participation in the free, global market”. “

  • Mohsen says:

    “. . . a criminal who blames all his bad conduct on an unfortunate past. His past may indeed have been unfortunate, but analysis (not psychoanalysis) is usually sufficient to demonstrate to everyone except himself that he has been an important contributor to his own misfortune, having always taken a path that leads to disaster. ”
    By blaming all his bad conduct on an unfortunate past he claims that his past—his unfortunate past—was what made and produce what he is today; to be the agent who, in an important way, contributes to his misfortune. That is what he means!!!
    About the argument you made against the vegetarians and vegans:
    It is you and people like you who actually use the word “sacrifice”; a vegan or vegetarian would not and should not claim he is sacrificing; he claims he’s doing what is right, and he is happy about his decision. You think just because you love meat and cannot continue living without consuming meat for a week, everyone else is like you.
    My guess is that you’re right about the “people with cuddly feelings towards the surface of the earth” not probably willing to forgo such comforts as heating and warm water. So what? I suppose in reaction to a vegan or a vegetarian who claims that by trying to be vegan or vegetarian he’s trying his best to reduce his role in the sufferings of animals, you would say, “ha ha! But you are not willing to forgo such comforts as heating and warm water. Your veganism and vegetarianism mean nothing since you don’t forgo those comforts”!!
    You say, they would argue “that personal sacrifices mean [for the preservation of the environment or the so-called ecology] little unless accompanied by similar sacrifices by millions of others”. Well, why don’t you say that that claim is inaccurate? What a pathetic equivalency mentioning St Augustine’s: they’re no equivalency: St Augustine doesn’t do anything to be chaste, but people with “cuddly feelings towards the surface of the earth’ are trying more or less to be chaste and not waiting for anyone else, though wishing others would join the effort.

    I don’t know whether there exists any vegetarian or vegan at all; I know there are some who claim to be such! If they do exist, they are for sure superior to other people: they understand and see that animals can suffer, feel pain, feel fear, fear death, love their offspring, cry, miss their parents. “Understanding and having sight” is better and superior to lack of understanding and being blind.

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