Near the beginning of Simon Leys’s marvelous collection of essays is an odd polemic between the author and the late Christopher Hitchens, fought out in these very pages. Leys takes Hitchens to task for attacking Mother Teresa in a book entitled The Missionary Position. He writes: “Bashing an elderly nun under an obscene label does not seem to be a particularly brave or stylish thing to do.” Hitchens replies: What do you mean, obscene? You know perfectly well, answers Leys. And so on and on.
What interested me about this exchange was not the relative merits of the arguments put forth by two writers who had at least one thing in common—a love of George Orwell and G.K. Chesterton, possibly for the same reasons, to which I shall return a little later. The most interesting thing, to me, was the anecdote related by Leys at the end of his account, about sitting in an Australian café minding his own business while a radio is blaring musical and spoken pap in the background. By chance, the program switched to a Mozart clarinet quintet, for a moment turning the café “into an antechamber of Paradise.” People fell silent, there were looks of bafflement, and then, “to the huge relief of all,” one customer “stood up, walked straight to the radio,” turned the knob to another station, and “restored at once the more congenial noises, which everyone could again comfortably ignore.”
Leys describes this event as a kind of epiphany. He is sure that philistinism does not result from the lack of knowledge. The customer who could not abide hearing Mozart’s music recognized its beauty. Indeed, he did what he did precisely for that reason. The desire to destroy beauty, according to Leys, applies not just to aesthetics but as much, if not more, to ethics: “The need to bring down to our own wretched level, to deface, to deride and debunk any splendour that is towering above us, is probably the saddest urge of human nature.”
I’m not sure whether the deeds of Mother Teresa can really be compared usefully to Mozart’s music. An alternative explanation for the behavior of the man in the café might be that he disliked Mozart’s music out of class resentment. The “philistines” wouldn’t put up with something they associated with people who might sneer at their lack of refinement. Perhaps. In fact, there is no way of knowing what really went through the man’s head. But the idea that art, ethics, and matters of the spirit, including religious faith, come from the same place is central to Leys’s concerns. All his essays, about André Gide or Evelyn Waugh no less than the art of Chinese calligraphy, revolve around this.
Leys once described in these pages the destruction of the old walls and gates of Beijing in the 1950s and …