Tender is the Night and asabiyah


The Knife has just finished reading F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. The Great Gatsby it is not. You can see why the punchy, concise and brilliantly readable Gatsby is taught in schools, and Tender is the Night isn’t.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book, quite the opposite, but you have to stick with it, as it starts off like an upmarket soap set on the French Riviera. The story of a bizarre and failing marriage between a psychiatrist, Dick Diver, and his millionairess patient, it scoots around France, in particular, in the 1920’s. It’s not difficult to tell that it’s  autobiographical in some aspects, and that Fitzgerald had trouble finishing it.

Ultimately it is a study of worldly success, and eventual failure. Hubris and nemesis, in some ways. The last page has something of the devastating collapse and finality of Stendhal’s Scarlet and Black.

For The Knife however, it came across, surprisingly, as a study of lives lived without God. There is no real reference to belief – or the lack of it – but the looming emptiness it conveys is really pretty scary. The shallow complexities of wealth and self centredness are ruthlessly picked apart, though I’ve no idea if Fitzgerald intended this.

All of which brings me to a superb article by a premier British thinker: Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, in Standpoint magazine. Sacks primary topic is social cohesion in the UK, which sounds dull, but it isn’t. Sacks uses the concept of asabiyah, promulgated by a medieval islamic scholar (yes, really) Ibn Khaldun. He can explain it better than me:

Ibn Khaldun’s theory was that every urban civilisation becomes vulnerable when it grows decadent from within. People live in towns and get used to luxuries. The rich grow indolent, the poor resentful. There is a loss of asabiyah, a keyword for Khaldun. Nowadays we would probably translate it as “social cohesion”. People no longer think in terms of the common good. They are no longer willing to make sacrifices for one another. Essentially they lose the will to defend themselves. They then become easy prey for the desert dwellers, the people used to fighting to stay alive.

He goes on to quote Bertrand Russell:

What had happened in the great age of Greece happened again in Renaissance Italy. Traditional moral restraints disappeared, because they were seen to be associated with superstition; the liberation from fetters made individuals energetic and creative, producing a rare florescence of genius; but the anarchy and treachery which inevitably resulted from the decay of morals made Italians collectively impotent, and they fell, like the Greeks, under the domination of nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion.

And back to Sacks:

Russell’s description of Renaissance Italy fits precisely the postmodern, late capitalist West, with its urge to spend and its failure to save, its moral relativism and hyper-individualism, its political culture of rights without responsibilities, its aggressive secularism and resentment of any morality of self-restraint, and its failure to inculcate the habits of instinctual deferral that Sigmund Freud saw as the very basis of civilisation. Sayyid Qutb (an Al Qaeda guru) hated the West. Ibn Khaldun would have pitied the West. The pity is more serious than the hate.

Tender is the Night was published in 1934. Seventy seven years later, filtered through the mess of 9/11 and all the rest, the lack of asabiyah is more obvious than ever. Sacks’ article contains a few hopeful prescriptions. Read it.

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