Purge the puritans

Marcus Walker regrets the new age of joylessness

Sounding Board

Well thank heavens that’s over — that fit of neo-puritanism which overtakes the country every January. This year the normal soullessness of Dry January has been made even drier by the aridness of Veganuary — a rare word, whose reality cannot possibly be as grim as its construction.

“I judge a man by one thing,” said Isaac Foot, Liberal MP and father of Michael Foot. “Which side would he have liked his ancestors to fight on at Marston Moor?”

Well, so do I — and January is a good month on which to base that judgment. Not that the other months are much better. Puritanism is on the march, my friends, as it has marched at various, repeated, always tedious, and often dangerous points of history. It is an eternal battle, crystallised, in our culture, by the fight between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads, but could just as easily have been defined by the suppression of the cult of Isis in Rome, the rise of the Abbasids, the Gregorian reforms of the twelfth century, or the Prohibition era in the US. “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” is one which cuts across cultures and eras.

Now historians of each will no doubt jump up and call this unfair — even our home-grown Puritans are undergoing a revisionist revolution with attempts to claim the black-suited forbidders of Christmas for the cause of levity and sexual pleasure. Revision notwithstanding, there is undeniably a strain of human psychology which treats pleasure as something to be wary of.

This is my beef with Dry January and its more miserable barely pronounceable fellow-traveller. It’s about cutting out pleasure. If your concern is that you’re drinking too much, going cold turkey for a month is not the solution — cutting it out or cutting it down, is. If eating meat is destroying the planet, a month’s performative fast isn’t going to change a thing. Neither is a solitary month going dramatically to improve your health, not unless it’s part of a wholesale lifestyle change, in which case we’re discussing something else entirely.

No, what we have just witnessed is a performative act of self-denial. Now hold on, I hear you say, you’re a priest. What about Lent? What about the 2,000 years of Christian fasting and abstention?

There is a significant difference, albeit one which has often been ignored by Christians as we go through our periodic bouts of puritanism. For Christians creation is good and to be enjoyed. Christ turned water into wine “when they were all well drunk” and made wine the ritual focus of the worship of him at the Eucharist; he said that he came that we may have life and have it in abundance. Pleasure, rightly enjoyed, is good. Which is why laying it aside as a sacrifice (on Friday, the day on which Christ died, or in anticipation of Holy Week) is a struggle and a willing offering to God. It is choosing to lay aside the things you enjoy in order, at the end of that season, to take them back and revel in them. 

For the puritan, you shouldn’t have been enjoying them in the first place: there is something unwholesome about the pleasure we take from wine or meat.

This is the lurking menace behind the whole creeping neo-puritanism which is rising in Western culture. While Dry January (etc.) is mercifully only self-inflicted and self-imposed, it is part of a wider cultural narrative, whose joylessness and suspicion of pleasure has a dangerously missionary feel to it. We see it in universities, we see it in workplaces, we see it on our television sets. 

Our neo-puritan age doesn’t just internalise its joy-hating: like all good puritans, it looks outwards at an impure world and wants to transform it. Take the desire to police thought and speech which has spilled out of universities into the real world with terrifying speed.

Take also the campaign to treat people vaping in the same way that we treat smokers. While the NHS says, “The risks of passive smoking with conventional cigarettes do not apply to e-cigs,” e-cigarettes tend to banned wherever cigarettes are banned and vapers consigned to the freezing cold alongside those smoking the very things they have probably just quit. 

This is literally the opposite of any rational policy designed to wean smokers off cigarettes — because this is not rational behaviour. It’s hard to avoid the impression that this is the frustration of those who are outraged not at the risk to health but at the prospect of pleasure.

So what can the Cavalier-inclined readers of The Critic do? Rejoice in the world we have been given to enjoy and the fruits thereof, and the next time we take a glass of wine remember the words of Roger Scruton, whose death has left the anti-puritan resistance bereft of its spiritual leader:

That first sip of a fine wine stirs, as it makes its way downward, the rooted sense of my incarnation. I know that I am flesh, the by-product of bodily processes which are being brought to a heightened life by the drink that settles within me.

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