Friday, December 16, 2011

On Hitchens

--Not Congo Related--

Even his games were intimidating. Re-titling Shakespeare plays as Ludlum thrillers: The Elsinore Vacillation, the Dunsinane Reforestation, The Rialto Sanction, etc.

So naturally, coming up, he was the guy you wanted to get into the ring with. I got the chance myself, briefly. He had come to Middletown, Ct., to give a talk--on what I forget--and after his speech I rose shakily on undergraduate legs to challenge him on some minor point. (This was ages before Iraq.) Me: "I have a question for you, Mr. Hitchens, but I'm afraid you'll take it as a bit belligerent." Hitchens: "I wouldn't worry about that." Me: "That's just it. I'm afraid you'll enjoy it too much."

Gratifying chuckles from the audience. But it was the chesire of a smile emanating from Hitchens that I basked on for weeks.

His topics--Kissinger, God, Mother Teresa, the British royalty--always struck me as woefully undeserving of his talents. We all felt that way about Kissinger, though it was good to have the case made so concisely. But lascivious troll that he was, Kissinger was embedded in an entire social and ideological system, and it was the system that needed working over. Excising Kissinger from his environment made him seem at once too big and too little for the accusations Hitchens leveled against him.

And what was it about the mildly objectionable that so reliably got Hitchens' goat?  The mother superior turned out to be a bit of a huckster? No surprise there: real saints seldom garner much press coverage. Princess Diana? Pretty, and pretty dull--hardly worth the indignation she summoned out of him. I sometimes wondered if there wasn't a hidden source of rage within the man that found a safe release in smashing these Hamilton Collection figurines. God knows he had reason enough for anger.

And the fervor of his atheism! What was that about? Hearing him go on about the meretricious guarantees of religion was like watching a tenth grader scramble atop a lunch table in the school cafeteria to announce the death of Santa Claus. His treatment of religion was not the only time I felt Hitchens' instinctive Manicheanism get in the way of his asking the better questions. Relax, I wanted to tell him. Chill out. Other villages, other gods.

But when you needed vitriol--and when didn't we?--could anyone do better? On Falwell: "Give the man an enema and you could bury him in a matchbox." On W: "He is lucky to be governor of Texas. He is unusually incurious, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated, and apparently quite proud of all these things." On Kissinger: "A good liar must have a good memory. Kissinger is a stupendous liar with a remarkable memory." On Reagan: "This was a man never short of a cheap jibe or the sort of falsehood that would, however laughable, buy him some time." On Obama's receiving the Nobel Peace Prize: "It is like giving someone an Oscar in the hope that it would encourage them to make a decent motion picture." On the rhetoric of our chattering classes: "The disquieting thing about newscaster-babble or editorial-speak is its ready availability as a serf idiom, a vernacular of deference. 'Mr. Secretary, are we any nearer to bringing about a dialogue in this process?'"

No doubt sentences like these are being reread tonight all over the English speaking world.

He revered Orwell--or so he told us. I never quite believed it. Not from someone of whom it was said early in life that the least likely thing ever to come out of his mouth was: "I don't care how rich you are, I'm not going to your party!" At some level, he might have wanted Orwell's empathy for ordinary people and capacity for self-denial, but only in the way Augustine wanted chastity.

The comparison's a challenging one for Hitchens, in any case. If Orwell was right about the three big things, what big things was Hitchens right about? Islamofascism? The jury's not looking so likely to convict these days. Bill Clinton? Oy. The Royal Family? Oy again. What could we nominate as Hitchens' equivalent to Politics and the English Language, or even Shooting an Elephant? Hitchens' quandary was to be born a polemicist when the great questions of the age turned out to be technocratic. How ensure universal access to health care? How reverse global warming? How end global poverty? These are fights better waged in specialist policy journals than in the Partisan Review, and better fought with statistics than dialectic.

If he wasn't Orwell, still less was he Wilde--another figure to whom he is sometimes compared. (And the fact that he is compared to both ought to put an end to the idea that he is much like either.) Yes, he was witty, like Wilde, and like Wilde he enjoyed occasionally epateying his hosts. But Wilde was wiser and more capacious than the Dorian Grey-like character that has come to dominate our picture of him. Try to imagine Dorian Grey writing the Little Matchstick Girl. You can't. You can't imagine Hitchens writing it either, not because of a want of talent, but because he had too strong a disdain for sentimentality to risk its dangers, which for a writer are the only ones worth courting. [1]

Perhaps Mencken is the apt comparison. Up to the end, when you'd have thought he had more pressing business, Hitchens maintained a fierce interest in the headlines. Mencken, too, was a newspaper guy through and through, with a talent for skewering the fundies and a disdain for convention. Mencken was problematic on some of the big issues, too, and like Hitchens not wholly admirable. But he's remembered today for having made the right enemies--ours--and for having cut them down so effectively.

Hitchens famously declared himself indifferent to Diana's death. She was every bit as gaudy and sentimental as he said she was, and in the scheme of things her death touched no universal chords. But the truth is that for an hour or two we felt sad--or most of us did, anyway. She had life in her, and it turns out that vitality is what draws our love. Hitchens had vitality in spades, and it's why I'll miss him. RIP, Mr. Hitchens.

[1] Update (1/17): OK, this is embarrassing. Wilde didn't write Matchstick Girl, Hans Christian Andersen did. Wilde did write a number of other fables and short stories in the bittersweet mode, such as The Birthday of the Infanta, so I think the larger point is still valid. But still. Shows to go you what happens when you don't double check with google before opining away.

1 comment:

  1. I think you make an important criticism with his focus on topics that would seem beneath his abilities, but his defense of atheism was fully worthy of his attention. Everyone has seen the studies, but I'll restate the findings here: atheists are the most reviled demographic in America - more than Muslims, transsexuals, Hispanic people, anything. (Just watch the youtube clips of Richard Dawkins reading his hate mail.) What's more, our political culture is so deeply grounded in Christianity that the debate is usually how much of a role the Bible ought to have in public policy, not whether it should even have one. Finally, he was writing most of the anti-religious essays during the right-wing revival, Jerry Falwell's glory days, and then in the wake of the "clash of civilizations" punditry following 9/11. So to me, it's an entirely laudable axe to grind.

    A note on Orwell: I don't think Hitchens ever ascribed to himself Orwell's foresight or impact. In fact, the "three big things" didn't matter so much to him. That was the outcome of Orwell's work, but Hitchens admired the process: freedom from totalitarianism, and utter courage in expressing contrarian thought. In that regard I think he followed Orwell as well as anyone could hope to.

    [A note, Dave: every few days your website goes down for a few hours. It's happened twice this week... I'm note sure if you're aware of this problem, so I thought I'd let you know here.]