Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Amis on Hitchens: Something's amiss and that's the hitch

Regardless of his sexuality and sexual orientation/ preferences (I neither know nor care what they are) Martin Amis's love for his friend Christopher Hitchens, as evident in his recent article about Hitchens in the Guardian, seems to consist more of eros than philia or storge. Why else would a grown man indulge in the literary equivalent of performing fellatio -- that other (and more literal) form of oral gratification -- on another grown man in full view of the whole world? And if this trope offends you, I am sorry. I can't think of any other metaphor that might more aptly describe such wanton idolatry as the kind found in this article, of which the following sentence is a sterling example.
 Everyone is unique – but Christopher is preternatural.
Preternatural? I mean, I do think Hitchens's wit is rare and at times outstanding, but preternatural?

Preternatural is the rationalist's supernatural. Amis might as well have gone all out and said "Christopher is supernatural" except that Hitchens might have frowned upon such absurdly banal characterization of his god-like non-godliness. (Being, as he is: a staunch 'antitheist', of serious scientific temper, a purveyor of rhetorical sound-bites to less articulate but equally impassioned atheists, of which "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence" is an excellent example, as Amis proclaims.) The epithet preternatural, I am sure, gives Hitchens that warm fuzzy feeling deep down inside that we all long for -- an assurance that, after all this trouble we've taken to explain ourselves to the world, someone out there actually gets it. Someone out there actually understands us and appreciates our true worth. This is how we all long to immortalize ourselves; being called preternatural is the crowning glory of our lives.

What kind of obsequious sycophancy is this? And shouldn't the individual at the receiving end (who, we are told, shuns the human "desire to worship and obey") shudder with disgust at such cloying adulation and that too from a peer, a friend? Contrast that with us plebeians, who, when asked about a gifted friend with exceptional talent in some field, usually use 2 words to describe him: great guy. But perhaps professional writers -- especially professors of creative writing like Amis -- need to slavishly lavish in excess of 4000 words (and while they're at it, frequently quote from Nabokov) on their object of worship. When such writers draw on their love for a friend and whip out all the tools of their craft, it seems as though no other skill is more important than the one in which the exalted one excels, and no other person a better exponent of that art than the one being deified. In this case the skill deals with being the excoriating über-critic -- one whose métier is defined as the continuous perfection of the art of the extempore epigram, and mastery over its application to disparaging, deriding and insulting people. And in this case the deified one may be seen as a modern day Wilde-meets-Socrates, only meaner, ruder, but less profound, and with hubris oozing out of his ears. What basis such hubris, you might ask. At first glance it seems as though his hubris doesn't need a basis, since it appears to be more of a premise than a conclusion. It is suggestive of the possibility that it determines his existence, in a Cartesian sort of way: "I exude hubris, therefore I am." Or is his hubris somewhat closely linked to being a successful career contrarian (in terms of correlation if not causation)? But hold that thought. Amis goes through much trouble to clarify that Hitchens is better understood as a 'natural rebel' than as an 'autocontrarian'.

Christopher is bored by the epithet contrarian, which has been trailing him around for a quarter of a century. What he is, in any case, is an autocontrarian: he seeks, not only the most difficult position, but the most difficult position for Christopher Hitchens. Hardly anyone agrees with him on Iraq (yet hardly anyone is keen to debate him on it). We think also of his support for Ralph Nader, his collusion with the impeachment process of the loathed Bill Clinton (who, in Christopher's new book, The Quotable Hitchens, occupies more space than any other subject), and his support for Bush-Cheney in 2004. Christopher often suffers for his isolations; this is widely sensed, and strongly contributes to his magnetism. He is in his own person the drama, as we watch the lithe contortions of a self-shackling Houdini. Could this be the crux of his charisma – that Christopher, ultimately, is locked in argument with the Hitch? Still, "contrarian" is looking shopworn. And if there must be an epithet, or what the press likes to call a (single-word) "narrative", then I can suggest a refinement: Christopher is one of nature's rebels. By which I mean that he has no automatic respect for anybody or anything.
This is the way to spot a rebel: they give no deference or even civility to their supposed superiors (that goes without saying); they also give no deference or even civility to their demonstrable inferiors. 

"No automatic respect for anybody or anything." That immediately puts Hitchens above and beyond most of humanity. These boys are so into exclusivity! Indeed, Amis awards himself, his father and his friend the dubious distinction of being the only rebels he's ever known, before going on to extol their finer points i.e. their lack of civility to everybody other than those they consider to be their peers (which, again, is a very small and exclusive band of brothers, it seems).

Oh, and I almost forgot. Apropos of the "epithet contrarian" there's this whole business about seeking difficult positions. "He seeks not only the most difficult position but the most difficult position for Christopher Hitchens." Bravo! This sentence reflects the sheer genius of Martin Amis, since it sums up the essence of Christopher Hitchens in a single line. So there are those who seek positions, those who seek difficult positions, and those (or perhaps only one, in that class) who seek the most difficult position -- not for any old polemicist, but for Christopher Hitchens, the gold standard.

Perhaps that's what really irks me about Hitchens. You see, where I come from, we don't go about "seeking" positions on matters. Our positions find us -- sometimes spontaneously, at other times after due soul-searching, and they reflect who we are. If we are unclear about something, we open our minds, we explore, we ask, we learn the facts, we ponder, we converse. And we await the visitation of the position that is ours, via some kind of epiphany. When facts change, we subject those positions to stringent review and if necessary change our minds, as advised by Keynes. OK, granted that not everyone has the cojones to do the latter. Many just stick to positions they've already taken even in the face of new facts that clearly contradict those positions.

Of course, there are several other ways in which people approach matters of import. Some  just adopt positions of their intellectual gurus, since they either can't or won't develop one for themselves, on their own. Some others just find it convenient to sync with their peers. And many others take the position dictated by political correctness or expedience. I am not unduly bothered by any of these attitudes though I believe honesty requires that we ourselves organically evolve our positions, aligned with the natural grain of our own weltanschauung and outlook to life.

But this "seeking" of a position is different. It is dishonest in a profoundly fundamental way and I regard it with disdain. The disdain gives way to sheer contempt when that seeking is driven by the need to maximize the "difficulty" of the position.  This, to me, is the quintessence of intellectual delinquency -- to refute everybody and everything, and when challenged to explain oneself, take the thin grassy trail left untrodden by the muddied boots of everybody else's pronouncements. (Think 'The Road Not Taken' by Robert Frost.) There always is one; the trick is to find it and talk the walk, surprising or even shocking an unsuspecting audience with the succinct articulation of one's own unique, radically different point of view. This is exactly what seeking difficult positions entails. I know because when I was in my early teens, that's what I used to do. There was a kind of enigmatic heroism about doing it -- the kind of enigmatic heroism that would attract (or so I thought back then) the opposite sex or at least a mixed fan following. And the torment arising from the struggle within, of syncretic attempts to reconcile those varying difficult positions (over time contrarian positions are bound to result in contradictions and paradoxes, which rationalists hate as much as superstitious belief and blind faith) only served to enhance one's magnetism. But with Amis, Hitchens et al. it doesn't end there. There's the icing on the cake: the expression "the most difficult position for Christopher Hitchens" -- suggesting not only an unparalleled greatness but also the continuous effort to outdo that greatness every time. Ergo preternatural.

Sadly, it turns out that some juvenile intellectual delinquents just never grow up; on the contrary, they obsessively hone their compulsions to a fine art form, and then get fawned upon by fanboys. Perhaps this is because of their socially maladjusted adolescence and/ or major childhood insecurities that were never addressed. As happens with most nerds and others suffering from a sense of inadequacy or low self-esteem, they would then stick to small groups of their own kind -- a tight mutual admiration society of bright minds that are socially dysfunctional, to seek comfort in each others' miseries. Perhaps that, then, is whence the hubris develops, as a defensive mechanism against the mocking jeering social success of 'lesser' mortals.

If only that hubris were to be replaced by humility. If only that brilliant wit, that penchant for deliciously timed and executed riposte, that sharply articulated logic behind pithily framed cogent arguments, were put to constructive use in the service of humankind. Amis misses this angle completely, lost as he is in rapturous praise of 'the Hitch'. And that, then, is what's amiss in his glowing portrait of his buddy. And that, then, is the hitch in the maturing of a middle-aged terminally ill writer. The only redeeming point I see in his story is his ability to laugh at his condition. But that could also be because you least expect it of him. That's how contrarians are.

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