Simon Leys: AN EMPIRE OF UGLINESS (extract from The Hall of Uselessness, 2013)

An Empire of Ugliness (from The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays, pp 31-42)   EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY literature developed the new literary genre of the epistolary novel; I wonder if it would not be legitimate for me to propose now a new form of book review, the epistolary criticism, in which arguments are developed through an exchange of letters between the reviewer and the author of the book under examination. Or perhaps I should not try to disguise the fact: what follows is not much of a book review. But then, what is being reviewed is not much of a book either.

Ian Buruma on Simon Leys

We live in an age of hyperbole. Plumbers are now called ‘sanitation engineers’; waiters  have become ‘food and beverage attendants,’ barbers devote themselves to the cultivation of  ’creative coiffure stylism’, garbage collectors are turned into ‘solid-waste disposal officers’ – and Christopher Hitchens’ own little piece of solid waste is called  ‘a book’  (The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, London and New York: Verso, 1995).

In the latter’s case, the use of this euphemism achieved one substantial result: the thing in question could be dignified with fully fledged book reviews in otherwise reputable magazines and journals; in fact, this is how I was first exposed to it. The New York Review of Books published a fairly considerate, earnest and detailed account of its contents, granting it pride of place in its issue of 11 July 1996. The article in question prompted me to send the following letter to this respected literary journal, which duly published it on 19 September:

Bashing an elderly nun under an obscene label does not seem to be a particularly brave or stylish thing to do. Besides, it appears that the attacks which are being directed at Mother Teresa all boil down to one single crime of hers: she endeavours to be a Christian, in the most literal sense of the word – which is (and always was, and will always remain) a most improper and unacceptable undertaking in this world. Indeed, consider her sins:

1. She occasionally accepts the hospitality of crooks, millionaires and criminals. But it is hard to see why, as a Christian, she should be more choosy in this respect than her Master, whose bad frequentations were notorious and shocked all the Hitchenses of his time. 

2. Instead of providing efficient and hygienic services to the sick and dying destitutes, she merely offers them her care and her love. When I am on my deathbed, I think I should prefer to have one of her sisters by my side, rather than a modern social worker. 

3. She secretly baptises the dying. The material act of baptism consists in shedding a few drops of water on the head of a person, while mumbling a dozen simple ritual words. Either you believe in the spiritual effect of this gesture – and then you should dearly wish for it – or you do not believe in it, and the gesture is as innocent and well-meaningly innocuous as chasing a fly away with a wave of the hand. If a cannibal who happens to love you presents you with his most cherished possession – a magic crocodile tooth that should protect you forever – will you indignantly reject his gift for being primitive and superstitious, or will you gratefully accept it as a generous mark of sincere concern and affection?

Jesus was spat upon – but not by journalists, as there were none in his time. It is now Mother Teresa’s privilege to experience this particular updating of her Master’s predicament.

Mr. Hitchens replied at great length to this letter. His rejoinder, which was published in the New York Review of Books of 19 December, made essentially the following points:

1. Mother Teresa contradicted herself, on the one hand, by declaring (to the Ladies Home Journal) that her friend Princess Diana would be “better off when free of her marriage,” while on the other hand she advised the Irish to vote against the right to remarry after divorce.

2. He re-emphasised once more the fact that Mother Teresa had visited the Duvaliers in Haiti and accepted money from the notorious financial swindler Charles Keating, who had been convicted of defrauding hundreds of “small and humble savers.” 

3. He repeated his accusation that Mother Teresa attempts to proselytise the dying   by surreptitiously baptising them. (How can you proselytise the comatose and the dying? He does not explain.)

4. He found no traces in the Gospels of Hitchenses being shocked by Jesus’  unconventional behaviour.

5. He asks in what way the title of his book can be read as an obscenity.

These various points will be dealt with in a moment: at the time, I merely wrote a brief reply, which was published by the New York Review of Books in its issue of 9 January 1997:

If Mr. Hitchens were to write an essay on His Holiness the Dalai Lama, being a competent journalist, he would no doubt first acquaint himself with Buddhism in general and with Tibetan Buddhism in particular. On the subject of Mother Teresa, however, he does not seem to have felt the need to acquire much information on her spiritual motivations – his book contains remarkable howlers on elementary aspects of Christianity (and even now, in the latest ammunition he drew from the Ladies Home Journal, he displayed a complete ignorance of the position of the Catholic Church on the issues of marriage, divorce and remarriage).

In this respect, his strong and vehement distaste for Mother Teresa reminds me of the indignation of the patron in a restaurant who, having been served caviar on toast, complained that the jam had a funny taste of fish. The point is essential, but it deserves a development which would require more space and more time than can be afforded me here and now. (However, I am working on a review of his book, which I shall gladly forward to him once it comes out in print.)

Finally, Mr. Hitchens asked me to explain what made me say that The Missionary Position is an obscene title. His question, without doubt, bears the same imprint of sincerity and good faith that characterised his entire book. Therefore, I owe him an equally sincere and straightforward answer: my knowledge of colloquial English being rather poor, I had to check the meaning of this enigmatic title in The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1993, two volumes – the only definition of the expression can be found in Vol. I, p. 1,794). But Mr. Hitchens, having no need for such a tool in the exercise of his trade, probably does not possess a copy of it. It will therefore be a relief for his readers to learn that his unfortunate choice of a title was totally innocent: when he chose these words, how could he possibly have guessed what they actually meant?

A few days after the publication of this rejoinder, I received a personal letter from Mr. Hitchens. In this private communication – which was naturally most amiable and good-humoured – Mr. Hitchens informed me of his address, so as to enable me to send him the book review, which I had rather recklessly committed myself to write (I say “recklessly,” considering my innate and invincible indolence). Besides, he was keen to learn which exactly were the howlers I had hinted at in my rejoinder. He also informed me that he possessed a copy of The Oxford English Dictionary: he furthermore suggested that, should I peruse it, I would learn that there is a world of difference between an obscenity (which I had so flippantly accused him of) and the normal use of witty double entendre, which, he suggested, normally characterises his subtle and tactful writing.

Finally, for my entertainment, he attached to his letter a rather funny newspaper clipping (from the Washington Times) regarding a miraculous event that had recently taken place in the Bongo Coffee Shop in Nashville, Tennessee: a customer had found a likeness of Mother Teresa appearing in his breakfast cinnamon bun, which the manager of the shop  subsequently enshrined in purple velvet, to be displayed to the pious veneration of the large crowds that soon came flocking to the lucky café. To this intriguing piece of news, Mr. Hitchens appended the comment: “Whatever may be the problems of unbelief, one would not exchange them for the problems of faith.” Courtesy naturally commanded a prompt acknowledgement of his letter. I immediately sent him the following reply:

Dear Mr. Hitchens,

Thank you for your letter. Now that I have your address, I shall certainly be able to send you the review, as promised – but it may still take a little while: I am a slow writer. Regarding your insistence that the title of your book – when applied to an 86-year-old nun who serves the poor and made a vow of chastity nearly 70 years ago – cannot be read as an obscenity: if a schoolboy draws on the blackboard a cartoon of his teacher copulating with a goat, one may feel irritated by his immature prank, but at the same time, one must grudgingly acknowledge his spirited irreverence. If, however, this same schoolboy eventually insists tearfully that he did not do anything, that he did not mean to be cheeky, that he merely meant to draw an honest and plain zoology assignment, he simply cancels the only merit one could ever have credited him with. Forgive my frankness: in a way, your original offensiveness was more respectable than your present glosses and disclaimers.

Thank you for the newspaper clipping you sent me. I found it very amusing and will add it to my rich collection. But I would question the soundness of the distinction you make between “the problems of unbelief” and “the problems of faith.” I am afraid you did not draw the demarcation line in the right spot. People who share Mother Teresa’s faith are not likely to discover her face in cinnamon buns (or if they do, they would have a good laugh). When a man ceases to believe in God (as Chesterton said), the problem is not that he starts to believe in nothing, but that he will believe in anything. He may not believe that Christ is alive, but then he will believe that Elvis Presley is.

At one point in his little tract (page 66), Mr. Hitchens observes that Mother Teresa “must necessarily admit to being disqualified by inexperience” when she chooses “to speak on matters such as sexuality and reproduction.” Nowadays a similar criticism is also often made of the Pope – once I even came across an intriguing variation on that theme: according to one particularly inspired critic, the pontiff’s alleged incompetence in these matters was to be ascribed to his being merely “an old Polish bachelor.” I have still not grasped in what way the fact of hailing from Poland should constitute a specific disability for someone who has to adjudicate on the issues of sexual morality.

By Mr. Hitchens’s logic, only a cow should be truly qualified to run a dairy farm. Still, the notion that it is generally unwise to make pronouncements in areas that lie outside one’s expertise remains a sound principle. I only wish that Mr. Hitchens himself would abide by it. In the very first chapter of his pamphlet, before fully launching into his diatribe against Mother Teresa, Mr. Hitchens makes a fantastic reference to an episode in the life of Jesus Christ, which exposes an ignorance that is so staggering, it simply takes your breath away. In this new Gospel according-to-Christopher, Jesus himself once broke a costly box of unguent on his own feet. (Presumably in homage to himself – another instance of his notorious sense of self-importance?) At this point, the innocent reader is positively hit by a sudden fit of dizziness and rubs his eyes in disbelief. 

How should I describe this feeling? Imagine a new book, a critical essay on – let us say – some fundamental aspects of Western cultural history; the book in question is attracting much attention; it is controversial and has already provoked earnest debate. Yet, on the first page, you come across this statement: the Trojan horse was a famous stratagem invented by Joan of Arc at the siege of Orléans. Mr. Hitchens goes on to blame Mother Teresa for not doing what she never intended to do in the first instance; and he finds it scandalous that she is doing precisely what she originally vowed to do. Yet she had stated her purpose with blinding clarity: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

The problem is: he takes it for granted that Mother Teresa should be some sort of philanthropist, whose aim in life is to distribute financial grants among the needy and to provide them with efficient social services and up-to-date medical care.

Mother Teresa is not a philanthropist. She is a Christian. A philanthropist is a person who has a fondness for anthropoids. A Christian is a person who loves Christ. Nay, this latter definition is still too bold (by its standard I myself would stand in great danger of being found abysmally wanting); the best definition was probably the one provided 1,900 years ago by a cool observer – a sceptical Roman bureaucrat, an official from the colonial service reporting to his superiors in Rome on the latest antics of some troublesome Jewish natives under his administration: these people were squabbling “about a dead man called Jesus, whom Paul declares to be alive.”

This weird belief that a dead man called Jesus is still alive should command all the deeds and all the thoughts of a Christian. It is the key to understanding Mother Teresa’s vocation. Surely it is not mere prejudice if we distrust music criticism written by the deaf, or art criticism written by the blind; and to assess literary works, you need to be literate. In the realm of the spirit, there is such a thing as spiritual literacy.


Make no mistake here: I am not claiming some sort of monopoly over enlightenment that should be the exclusive preserve of Christians – far from it. Spiritual illiterates are to be found everywhere; actually, we form quite a crowd every Sunday in church! Since Mr. Hitchens found the Christianity of Mother Teresa mystifying and abhorrent, would he have more luck with a Hindu saint? I happen to have encountered one and was struck by the fact that his message was quite similar, though put in a different language. I met him in the pages of an obscure and long-forgotten book, dating back to the beginning of this century. The passage is long, but deserves to be quoted in full as I believe it to be directly relevant to the very heart of our discussion. The narrator, D.G. Mukerji, returning home to India after a long stay in the United States, describes his visit to the sage:

On the floor were seated two young ladies, an old gentleman, their father, and a young monk in yellow, crouching before the Master, as though bowed by his sanctity. The Holy One bade me be seated. “I am glad,” he said, “that thy feet pain thee. That will start the easing of the pain in thy soul.” . . . He turned to the others. “What was I talking about? . . . I remember: the hospital which is a punishment for doing good.”

“How could that be, my Lord?” questioned the old gentleman.

“Even thou, an old man, dost ask me that question also? Well – it all began one day about eleven years ago. I, who was meditating with a brother disciple under a big tree, decided to stop meditating and care for a man who had fallen sick by the roadside. He was a lean moneylender from Marwar and he had come to Benares to make a rich gift to some temple in order to have his way to Heaven paved in solid gold. Poor fellow, he did not know that all the flowery good deeds done to catch the eye of God will in the end become the bitter fruits of desire.

“I ministered to him until he recovered and could return to Marwar, to lend more money, I suppose. But the rascal did me an evil turn. He spread the news all along the way that if people fell sick near my big tree, I took care of them. So very soon, two more people came and fell sick at the pre-arranged place. What else could my brother disciple and I do, but care for them? Hardly had we cured them when we were pelted with more sick folk. It was a blinding shower. I saw in it all a terrible snare: beyond doubt, I felt, if I went on tending the sick, by and by I would lose sight of God.

“Pity can be a ghastly entanglement to those who do not discriminate, and there I stood, with a wall of sick men between me and God. I said to myself: ‘Like Hanuman, the monkey, leap over them and fling thyself upon the Infinite.’ But somehow I could not leap and I felt lame. Just at that juncture, a lay disciple of mine came to see me: he recognised my predicament and, good soul that he was, he at once got hold of a doctor and an architect and set to work to build the hospital.

Very strange though it seems, other illusions co-operated with that good man to help him—the moneylender, the first fellow I cured, sent an additional load of gold and built the day clinic. In six years the place was a solid home of delusion where men put their soul-evolution back by doing good. Shiva, Shiva!”

“But, Master, I notice that your own disciples, boys and young girls, work there?” I put in my question.

“Yes, like these two young ladies here, other young people come to me to serve God. Well,

youth suffers from a delusion that it can do good. But I have remedied that somewhat; I let them take care of the sick as long as their outlook on God remains vivid and untarnished, but the moment any of my disciples show signs of being caught in the routine of good works – like the scavenger’s cart that follows the routine of removing dirt every morning – I send that person off to our retreat in the Himalayas, there to meditate and purify his soul.

When he regains his God outlook to the fullest, if he wishes, I let him return to the hospital. Beware, beware: good can choke up a soul as much as evil.”

“But if someone does not do it, how will good be done?” questioned the old gentleman in a voice full of perplexity.

 “Live so,” replied the Master in a voice suddenly stern, “live so that by the sanctity of thy life all good will be performed involuntarily.”

Mother Teresa has occasionally hobnobbed with the wealthy, the powerful and the corrupt. In Mr. Hitchens’s eyes this is a cause for deepest scandal. In his indignation and obsessive denunciations, I wonder if he is not the victim of a common syndrome, which was best diagnosed in the ancient parable of “The Crow and the Phoenix.”

The phoenix is a rare and delicate bird, most fastidious in all its habits: it roosts only on the tallest branches of one certain species of tree, the lofty catalpa; it drinks nothing but the purest dewdrops; it eats nothing but the inner petals of precious orchids. Once, as the phoenix was circling above the forest at dusk, preparing to alight for the night on a tall catalpa, down below in the mud a crow that was busy gobbling up a rotten dead rat saw the shadow of the noble bird and lifting up its head screeched angrily at him: “Don’t you dare steal my dinner!”

Mr. Hitchens’s fierce indignation betrays a naïveté that is so touching, it almost brings tears to the eyes. Can he really believe that a person such as Mother Teresa is looking forward to eating dead rats in the company of millionaire vulgarians and tin-pot dictators? To be invited with the famous and the glamorous inside the palatial mansions of the criminally rich, or aboard their fabulous yachts, may perhaps present some seductive glitter to wretched mediocrities such as Mr. Hitchens or myself; but I doubt if it can hold much seduction for Mother Teresa. Not that I imagine her to be above all temptations. On the contrary: even the Prince of Angels was tempted and fell – but it was not for the dubious privilege of drinking an apéritif with “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Still (you will say), the fact remains that she has occasionally shared the repasts of disreputable characters. Why?

When John Henry Newman gave up the exquisite sophistication of a congenial life of scholarship among his peers in Oxford and joined the Catholic Church – a church of uneducated workers and poor Irish servants – he found himself burdened with prosaic parish duties in the intellectual backwaters of Birmingham. A snobbish monsignor took pity on what he believed to be his painful predicament and wrote him a letter, inviting him to come to Rome, where he would find a more cultured milieu.

Newman’s curt reply is well-known: “I have received your letter inviting me to preach in your church at Rome to ‘an audience more educated than could ever be the case in England.’ However, Birmingham people have souls: and I have neither taste nor talent for the sort of work which you cut out for me: and I beg to decline your offer.”

This is a reality which a reverse snobbery usually prevents us from perceiving (and which –  let us admit it – runs against all visible evidence), but it remains nevertheless true: just like the people of Birmingham, the wealthy, the powerful and the corrupt also have souls. Jesus knew this already. In Jericho, a man called Zacchaeus – the wealthiest crook in town, who was rightly detested and despised by all decent people – eagerly wanted to meet him. Being aware of this, Jesus invited himself into Zacchaeus’s house, to the latter’s delight. But this move provoked a scandal among the Pharisees and the Hitchenses. (The original text of the Gospel is traditionally translated as “the Pharisees and the Scribes.” We are following here an emendation that seems justified by modern exegesis.) All took it amiss. “He has gone in to lodge,” they said, “with one who is a sinner.” To which Jesus retorted: “He too is a son of Abraham. That is what the Son of Man has come for, to search out and save what was lost.”


Once – many years ago -a minuscule incident afforded me a deeply upsetting revelation. I was writing in a café; I had been sitting there for a couple of hours already, comfortably settled at a table with my books and papers. Like many lazy people, I enjoy a measure of hustle and bustle around me while I am supposed to work – it gives me an illusion of activity- and thus the surrounding din of conversations and calls did not disturb me in the least. The radio that had been blaring in a corner all morning could not bother me either: pop songs, stockmarket figures, muzak, horseracing reports, more pop songs, a lecture on foot-and-mouth disease in cows – whatever: this audio-pap kept dripping like lukewarm water from a leaky faucet and nobody was listening anyway.

Suddenly a miracle occurred. For a reason that will forever remain mysterious, this vulgar broadcasting routine gave way without transition (or, if there had been one, it escaped my attention) to the most sublime music: the first bars of Mozart’s clarinet quintet began to flow and with serene authority filled the entire space of the café, turning it at once into an antechamber of Paradise. But the other patrons who had been chatting, drinking, playing cards or reading newspapers were not deaf after all: this magical irruption of a voice from heaven provoked a general start among them- all faces turned round, frowning with puzzled concern. Yet, in a matter of seconds, to the huge relief of all, one customer resolutely stood up, walked straight to the radio, turned the tuning knob and cut off this disquieting intermède, switched to another station and restored at once the more congenial noises, which everyone could again comfortably ignore.

At that moment the realisation hit me – and has never left me since: true Philistines are not people who are incapable of recognising beauty; they recognise it all too well; they detect its presence anywhere, immediately, and with a flair as infallible as that of the most sensitive aesthete—but for them, it is in order to be able better to pounce upon it at once and to destroy it before it can gain a foothold in their universal empire of ugliness. Ignorance is not simply the absence of knowledge, obscurantism does not result from a dearth of light, bad taste is not merely a lack of good taste, stupidity is not a simple want of intelligence: all these are fiercely active forces, that angrily assert themselves on every occasion; they tolerate no challenge to their omnipresent rule.

In every department of human endeavour, inspired talent is an intolerable insult to mediocrity. If this is true in the realm of aesthetics, it is even more true in the world of ethics. More than artistic beauty, moral beauty seems to exasperate our sorry species. 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.


Jiǎ Yǐ Bǐng Dīng (2015) – Tribute to Professor Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans)

The View from the Bridge: Aspects of Culture. Simon Ley’s 1996 lectures on Learning, Reading, Writing and Going Abroad and Staying Home