Tuesday, July 13, 2010

* Kvetch-22

Note:  As U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, former Yale president, Kingman Brewster, Jr., arranged for Christopher Hitchens to begin the long journey toward American citizenship, which culminated in 2007 with a ceremony arranged at the Jefferson Memorial.


"Sarcasm I now see to be, in general, the language of the Devil; for which reason I have, long since, as good as renounced it."

Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (1833-1834), book II, ch. IV


Chrisopher Hitchens's autobiography, Hitch-22, ends with Hitch's quandry: Uncertainty is the only certainty in life and yet, like his father ( "the Commander" ), Mr. Hitchens hopes to act as if he knows "what he is supposed to be doing." (kindle p.7491, large print)

I came away from this reading as I came away from reading Hitchens's god  is not Great [sic] with a sense of the emptiness and vanity of wit.

For all of Oscar Wilde's quotability, the hubris of his aphoristic brilliance (like the hubris of Hitchens's scalpelizing wit which cuts out any opponent's heart or entrails in the blink of a subordinate clause) leaves me feeling empty and lonely, as lonely as the prison cell in which the source of that aphoristic brilliance ended his days.

There are SOME certainties in life, Christopher.

One is, genetic fate (aka biological determinism):

      If your father died after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer, don't turn your own esophagus into a 40-year incinerator for tobacco smoke ----and brag about it,  even to the point of choosing a smoke-enclouded self-portrait for your autobiography's cover. (In the middle of my reading of his memoir, the news item came across the wires that Mr. Hitchens, sadly,  was suspending his book tour because he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and was to undergo chemotherapy.)

Another is the dissociating quality of sarcasm:

     Carlisle's quote (Sarcasm I now see to be, in general, the language of the Devil; for which reason I have, long since, as good as renounced it.) says it metaphorically: Sarcasm separates you from your self (a Hell with you as Satan), makes you a kind of performer always in search of a reaction from a sought-after audience: A literary device Hitchens uses in his autobiography is the two selves of Chris/Christopher with which he has Janused the last half century.

Some times that audience is found  through employing scintillating scarcasm [sic] (Freudian slip?) and other times by carnalizing one's youthful attractiveness, which Hitchens slyly allows that he once possessed in his pre-portly incarnation.

The exhaustion I feel after reading Hitchens's book is not merely the exhaustion of one of modest intelligence trying to keep up with someone of brilliant intelligence; it is the exhaustion of one giddy on the empty high of  a hubris which looks down its nose at anyone who doesn't meet its self-inflating standards:
     Kissinger, Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter (all frauds) and ---in    the end --- even his friends, Edward Said and Susan Sontag.

Gargantuan appetites for food, drink, knowledge, experience: all of these Mr. Hitchens possesses. Yet I feel empty at the end of reading his autobiography, despite gorging myself on  these nourishments vicariously in devouring the record of Hitchens's provocative life.

The one time in the book when Mr. Hitchens does not turn his narrative into a prose necklace of  dropped names, sexual, intellectual, idealistic, epicurean and hedonistic  adventures, is in his hymn to a young American soldier who was killed in Iraq, having enlisted to fight in the war after being inspired by Hitchens's essays.

More of this calm writer I would like to read.


From Hitch-22:

I began this highly selective narrative by citing Auden on the unadvisability of being born in the first place  - - a view from which he quickly waltzed to Plan B: make the most of the dance (or, as Dorothy Parker elsewhere phrased it , "You might as well live"). In better moments I prefer the lyrical stoicism of my friend and ally Richard Dawkins, who never loses his sense of wonder at the sheer unlikelihood of having briefly "made it" on a planet where crude extinction has held such sway, and where the chance of being conceived, let alone safely delivered, is so infinitesimal. (kindle, p. 7459-62, large print)

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