Enemies of Promise

by Henry on August 9, 2006

Scott McLemee’s column today is on a new collection of essays by George Scialabba. I’ll be getting the collection – everything by Scialabba that I’ve read I’ve enjoyed – but I want to take issue with Scialabba’s very interesting essay on Christopher Hitchens for N+1 last year. The burden of the piece is that Hitchens used to seem like a brilliant essayist when he agreed with Scialabba, but now seems anything but; less because of his disagreement than the manner of it, a form of argument which is, in Scialabba’s lapidary phrase, “a tempest of inaccuracy, illogic, and malice.” After having thought about it on and off over the last year, I think that this is right in broad outline, but it doesn’t get at the root of what’s wrong with Hitchens’ writing. Hitchens can be a brilliant stylist (less so today than he used to be, but even now a beautiful sentence occasionally pierces through the fog), but he doesn’t seem to me to be a political thinker. Which is to say that the political positions that he takes seem to me to be grounded more in a sensibility than in a coherent view of politics. This was as true when he was unambiguously on the left as it is now – his earlier essays are sometimes wonderful taken one by one, but they really don’t add up to a whole. Hitchens is notoriously fond of comparing himself to George Orwell, but the better comparison is with Orwell’s friend, Cyril Connolly. A bit of a waster, with a prose style to die for, but not much at all in the way of political nous.

{ 20 comments }

1

etat 08.09.06 at 2:19 pm

Ah, drive that stake in a bit further, willya?

2

Brendan 08.09.06 at 2:42 pm

Looking back at Hitchen’s old essays is a salutary lesson: much as I agree with much of them even now, there is a brittleness of tone, a lack of warmth, and (most obvious now that the scales have falled from my eyes) nothing remotely resembling a sense of humour. Don’t get me wrong. There is a sense of wit. Hitchens can be witty, and he can sometimes play vaguely amusing word games (bombing Afghanistan out of the stone age etc.). But his wit is like George Bernard Shaw’s at its worst: it is shallow, not deep. His aphorisms never really give you a new view of a subject. If you share the assumptions which motivate them, you will find them ‘funny’, if you don’t you won’t. Compared to Oscar Wilde’s similar apercus it’s all pretty trite stuff.

A sense of humour, in the broadest sense of the phrase, necessitates being able to laugh at oneself, and to have a broad sense of empathy and solidarity with one’s fellow human beings (apologise for the pomposity, but it seems justified in this context), a sense that at the end of the day we all have to pay our taxes and sometimes can’t programme the DVD and have been known to send important emails to the wrong person.

There’s none of this in Hitchens, and there never was. Even at his best, he never forgets that he is, after all, Christopher Hitchens. His denunciations do not even have a hint of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. It’s no wonder that he hates organised religion (and Christianity) so much: one suspects that the Biblical injunction: ‘Judge not lest you be judged’ means little to him.

In Hitchens world, the ‘judge yourself’ bit was always done way before the essay was started, and the judgement is always: ‘You know what, mate? You’re alright!!’. The judgement of others can then go on without interruption.

And the reason I think, that Hitchens has no real sense of humour, is symptomatic of an even deeper flaw: he has no real sense of psychology. One is told, in Hitchen’s essays, about how evil certain people are (Kissinger, Mother Theresa, Bush senior, Osama Bin Laden). One never learns anything about why they have (presumably) chosen to be so evil or how they ended up that way. In fact, one suspects that this is a question that doesn’t really interest Hitchens much. Asking questions about their psychology might lead to awkward (or emotionally difficult) questions about his psychology, and one suspects that Hitchens has spent a lot of time, and a lot of gin, avoiding these questions. The idea that people are influenced by their society, that people create themselves using the tools society presents to them: in other words, all the discoveries of the 20th century sociological (and Marxist!!!) tradition are alien to him. One suspects that the thought that if he had been born a poor desert Arab living in the Sudan he might think that Osama was OK all thing considering, has simply never occurred to him. I suspect he doesn’t think it matters where he could have been born. He would still, after all, be Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchen’s case is a great example, perhaps the best available, of how far you can get by simply ignoring Socrates’ injunction to Know Thyself. Hitchens doesn’t know himself, he doesn’t want to, and perhaps he’s right to be worried what he might find out if he did.

Hitchens’ work is first rate journalism, but journalism per se can never be literature (as Orwell’s work certainly IS literature as well as being journalism). This suggests that like most journalism (but unlike literature, presumably) his work will not last. In two hundred years time when the names of George Bush and Tony Blair are largely forgotten, his work might be read by cultural historians to illustrate ‘what people thought’ but I suspect that’s as far as it will go. Yeats wrote: ‘Out of the quarrel with others, we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.’. Hitchens only ever quarrels with others. His work is, therefore, rhetoric. Brilliant rhetoric, clever quick and sometimes amusing, but rhetoric still the same. And it always was.

3

John Quiggin 08.09.06 at 7:04 pm

Following up on Brendan, the thing I always disliked about Hitchens was his propensity to engage in intellectual vendetta.

Of course, this is a lot worse (in both political and purely literary terms) now that his vendettas are launched in the service of the great and powerful rather than against them. Language that works for a gadfly fails for an apologist. And, since he’s obviously aware of this at some level, this creates the need to pretend that his targets (including most people reading this, I guess) are much more powerful than they really are.

4

ralph 08.09.06 at 9:36 pm

Yup. Just, yup.

5

snuh 08.09.06 at 11:11 pm

if someone can find a way to order that scialabba book online, that would be good.

6

aaron 08.10.06 at 12:03 am

Henry, have you ever read the book Fooled By Randomness?

7

Matt 08.10.06 at 12:22 am

Yup, well said.

8

Green 08.10.06 at 3:48 am

Well said, Brendan. Now that you mention it, that lack of self reflection in Hitchens’ writing really stands out.

What replaces it seems to be performing the role of “Christopher Hitchens” that he has created for himself – for example, labouring to create a witty line or a brilliant phrase, even when it might be more effective, because less ostentatious, not to do so – because, hey, that’s what “Christopher Hitchens” does…

9

Brendan 08.10.06 at 5:45 am

Just reading up no Connelly, especially The Enemies of Promise. One of his aphorisms:
‘”Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be read once.” ‘

By this standard, what Hitchens writes (to repeat) is journalism, not literature. Whether one agrees with it or not, there is never any point in rereading anything he has written.

10

Ben A 08.10.06 at 9:05 am

Hitchens used to seem like a brilliant essayist when he agreed with Scialabba, but now seems anything but

I realize that this statement isn’t meant to be funny, but it of course is. Hitchens remains what he has always been: witty, dogmatic, and exceptionally ungenerous to his ideological opponents. When he attacked mother Teresa, Scialabba was fine, not so when he polemicizes against the geostrategy of Naomi Klein. Puzzling.

Likewise puzzling is what it means to be motivated by “a sensibility not a politics.” Does Katha Politt have a politics on this model? Does Charles Krauthammer? Or must one only read polemics by Michael Waltzer?

11

astrongmaybe 08.10.06 at 11:36 am

Spot-on, Brendan. At his best, Hitchens, both in print and in person, has an undeniable and (still) impressive élan, but his public persona can be pretty charmless. I saw him chair a discussion about “Revolution” at the New York Public Library a few months ago and thought he behaved quite badly towards Giaconda Bella, a Nicaraguan writer on the panel. His opening words were “Well, Giaconda brings out the gallant in me…” then he treated her throughout like a caricature of a 50s boss to his secretary, sort of “don’t worry your pretty little head about all this.” He topped this off with some seriously sycophantic smarming to Adam Michnik, also on the panel. Both of them were glowing with self-satisfaction. (The star of the show turned out to be a Hungarian named G.M.Tamas, who was self-deprecating and funny and interesting on the topic.) Stefan Collini had a good essay, “’No Bullshit’ Bullshit”, in the London Review of Books a couple of years back, where he pointed out the familiar English style of Hitchens’ decline:

“The sight of Hitchens view-hallooing across the fields in pursuit of some particularly dislikable quarry has been among the most exhilarating experiences of literary journalism during the last two decades. He’s courageous, fast, tireless and certainly not squeamish about being in at the kill. But after reading this and some of his other recent writings, I begin to imagine that, encountering him, still glowing and red-faced from the pleasures of the chase, in the tap-room of the local inn afterwards, one might begin to see a resemblance not to Trotsky and other members of the European revolutionary intelligentsia whom he once admired, nor to the sophisticated columnists and political commentators of the East Coast among whom he now practises his trade, but to other red-coated, red-faced riders increasingly comfortable in their prejudices and their Englishness – to Kingsley Amis, pop-eyed, spluttering and splenetic; to Philip Larkin, farcing away at the expense of all bien pensants; to Robert Conquest and a hundred other ‘I told you so’s. They would be good company, up to a point, but their brand of saloon-bar finality is only a quick sharpener away from philistinism, and I would be sorry to think of one of the essayists I have most enjoyed reading in recent decades turning into a no-two-ways-about-it-let’s-face-it bore.”
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v25/n02/coll01_.html

12

Brendan 08.10.06 at 1:19 pm

astrongmaybe

Yeah I didn’t point it out, but it’s pretty obvious from the way he writes and acts that Hitchens is what used to be termed a ‘male chauvinist pig’ (I don’t know whether he still does it, but he used to always refer to woman as ‘ladies’. As in ‘Ladies, I don’t think you understand …’etc.).

This makes his alleged deep concern for women’s rights under the Taliban etc. more than a little perplexing.

13

Seth Edenbaum 08.10.06 at 6:04 pm

Henry F. describes Hitchens as a writer not of ideas but of sensibility. Brendan responds by describing Hitchens’ sensibility as shallow and brittle. There’s a disagreement there if anyone wants to focus on it.
Sensibility preceding intellect as it does, I’ll side with Brendan.

And I’m glad to see someone on this site referring to psychology and the art of self-awareness

14

PersonFromPorlock 08.10.06 at 6:05 pm

Goodness, all this intellectual farting around when what you really want to say is “May Hitchins-the-Apostate’s loins wither and his bones be filled with molten lead.”

15

Walt 08.10.06 at 9:06 pm

Sorry about using all the big words, personfromporlock. We’ll try to cut it out for your sake.

16

s.e. 08.10.06 at 10:11 pm

“intellectual farting around”
“the art of self-awareness”

guilty as charged

17

engels 08.10.06 at 10:48 pm

but even now a beautiful sentence occasionally pierces through the fog

Can you please give an example? (A genuine request.)

18

engels 08.11.06 at 12:38 pm

One beautiful sentence. Henry? Anybody?

19

Kevin Donoghue 08.14.06 at 4:13 pm

Engels,

In an earlier thread, admirers of Hitchens mentioned their favourites:

http://crookedtimber.org/2005/06/08/fascinating-hitchens/

I’ve never been able to see what the fuss is about.

20

engels 08.14.06 at 11:04 pm

Thanks, Kevin. I’ll have a look.

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