Culture » May 14, 2001
Writers in the Public Sphere
By Christopher Hitchens
358 pages, $25
It has been my amazing and good luck to have a job at this magazine with the expansive title of “culture editor.” I get paid to investigate the ongoing ramifications of an ancient proposition, probably best stated by Percy Shelley, that goes like this: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
Keeping track of such legislation is great fun, but it’s not quite as easy as chalking up food safety to The Jungle or the end of slavery to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. For one, sometimes (though not always) the best of the unacknowledged legislators prefer to stay that way, ostensibly wanting only to deliver the goods of a great story or memorable song. Likewise, you’ve got to watch out for those energetic fakes who, forever bathing in righteousness and self-acknowledgment, tend to disqualify themselves from any hope of unacknowledgement.
Besides, the very mettle of Shelley’s defense of poetry often seems in doubt. For every vindicated political artist like Vaclav Havel, history offers countless more forgotten and persecuted geniuses. “The sword, as we have reason to know, is often much mightier than the pen,” writes Christopher Hitchens in the foreword to Unacknowledged Legislation, his new essay collection. But Hitchens, who is famously unburdened by superstition, does have one profound faith: “Every tank, as Brecht said, has a crucial flaw. Its driver. Suppose that driver has read something good lately, or has a decent song or poem in his head …”
While there is no substitute for political action and organizing, those occasional and splendid triumphs (great and small) do get their inspiration and cultural momentum–and very worthwhileness in the first place–from somewhere. Unacknowledged Legislation is the work of an entertaining and humane writer carefully locating that somewhere–for “properly understood and appreciated, literature need never collide with, or recoil from, the agora.” Hitchens finds it in the caustic verse of Dorothy Parker and the dangerous wit of Oscar Wilde; in the sailing stories of Patrick O’Brian and the kiddie tales of Roald Dahl; in Gore Vidal’s historical sweep and Arthur Conan Doyle’s airtight deductions. And of course, he also finds it in the real world, most obviously with the case of Salman Rushdie.
This book of essays, sometimes very funny and sometimes very moving, ought to dispel an endlessly promulgated and stupid myth about Hitchens, that of the loose cannon, the wicked fop only out to win attention and notoriety by flaying the random whipping boy–or even whipping nun! Why else would he give a book a frightful title like The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice? (Because she wasn’t all she’s cracked up to be, and it’s a justly hilarious title.) Or “rat out” on his colleague Sidney Blumenthal for spreading lies about a certain White House intern? (Because the president’s men aren’t supposed to get away with it, even if they are old chums.) Or devote two extremely long and assiduously documented articles in Harper’s Magazine amassing the legal case against that eminent philosopher-king, Henry Kissinger? (Because, not incidentally, he is a war criminal.) But in the lazy world of received opinion and unfailing servitude to power, these parentheticals–rooted in actual principles, imagine that–simply do not compute.
Alas, much in Unacknowledged Legislation will not compute either, not to that abject pack who habitually check their flank for an approving cue. In fact the book’s contents haven’t computed already, as all of these essays have appeared before in sundry magazines and journals. It’s the herd’s loss. Here’s Hitchens, in an aside to a warm tribute to Dorothy Parker: “Mr. Benchley once observed that the joy of being a Vanity Fair contributor was this: you could write about any subject you liked, no matter how outrageous, as long as you said it in evening clothes. (I have devoted my professional life to the emulation of this fine line.)” And so he has. Hitchens can speak clearly and with velvety aplomb to any reader, at least any reader not willfully wedded to prejudice and conventional wisdom.
With an unusual range for a lefty journo-academic–he refuses to bow to the dictates of specialization or expectation–his byline glides effortlessly from Vanity Fair to Dissent, where we find a plum essay on “Oscar Wilde’s Socialism.” Like Hitchens himself, both Wilde and socialism are often misunderstood. It is to Hitchens’ credit that he counters the common and superficial assessment of Wilde–for some strange reason, prevalent even among “earnest” progressives–as a charming but weak dandy with little politics of substance (even if he was a queer martyr). But no:
In The Soul of Man Under Socialism … [Wilde] had shown the Victorian attitude towards marriage as an exercise in the mean-spirited preservation of private property, as well as a manifestation of sexual repression and hypocritical continence. In The Importance of Being Earnest, the same polemical objective is pursued, but by satirical means. Absurd and hilarious dialogues about betrothal, inheritance, marriage settlements, and financial dispositions are the energy of the play. Everybody is supposed to marry for money and give up liberty; everybody is constrained to pretend that they are marrying for love or romance.
Again and again throughout Unacknowledged Legislation–his ruminations on Gore Vidal and George Orwell are good examples–Hitchens finds himself awestruck at this type of keen blend of aesthetic mastery and political concern. Unlike so many of his smug colleagues, Hitchens knows when he is confronted with a work of genius. And sometimes, this does entail setting aside certain nasty personal details of the authors involved; handily dispatching an ignorant attack on T.S. Eliot, Hitchens warns: “Hesitate once, hesitate twice, hesitate a hundred times before employing political standards as a device for the analysis and appreciation of poetry.”
But neither is Hitchens content to pretend that the republic of letters has no legislature; instead he seeks a constructive understanding. In a rich piece on the “thwarted fascist” Philip Larkin, Hitchens writes that the poet first won the affection of the British public not because of his rather disagreeable personal traits (which didn’t become public knowledge until much later), but because of his “attention to ordinariness, to quotidian suffering and to demotic humour. Decaying communities, old people’s homes, housing estates, clinics … he mapped these much better than most social democrats, and he found words for experience.” In grappling with flawed writers like this (Roald Dahl, Rudyard Kipling and H.L. Mencken are also among those represented), Hitchens shows himself to be a searching and even empathetic critic, admirably capable of what he argues for: “an authentic engagement with the sources of reaction.”
Crucially, however, Hitchens does not extend the same courtesy to other sorts of reactionaries, namely the dim or the plain irritating–those who, in short, fail to find adequate “words for experience.” And why be polite about it? Here he is on the grimly macho faux-utilitarianism of Connor Cruise O’Brien: “The Cruiser should be made to read [his] book, which would quite possibly be for the first time. Then he should be asked to eat it. Then he should agree, without sentimentality or sickly compassion, to make a utilitarian sacrifice for suffering humanity, and pitch himself over the side.” Or how about this, on the shoddy and overrated carpentry of Tom Wolfe: “The scene-shifters don’t even bother to ease themselves off-stage. They hang about, picking their noses and nudging each other to give warning of the action to come.” Or inevitably, the ghastly Norman Podhoretz, who “has always himself sought to ease the life of the book reviewer. He does this small but welcome favour by making all his faults crashingly apparent from the very first page.”
One objection: The scope of Unacknowledged Legislation is wide, but, as a fairly representative sample of Hitchens’ past decade of cultural writing, one cannot help but wonder how it is that his critical curiosity seems to desert him when it comes to women writers. We get substantive discussions of Dorothy Parker (positive) and Martha Nussbaum (negative), but that’s about it. I’m not a PC cop, but the consistency of this omission is pretty striking after sitting down to absorb some 35 essays. Straightaway, at least two very engaged fiction writers immediately come to mind who would have been ideal subjects. Carolyn Chute, the sharp and politically hard-to-pin-down chronicler of the Maine backwoods, seems a natural candidate for Hitchensian analysis. And his friend Susan Sontag, who, with varying degrees of acknowledgement, has made very public stands on behalf of the legislative artist in the past decade, seems conspicuously absent from the collection.
But Unacknowledged Legislation does not purport to be inclusive, and to complain otherwise would be to miss the point. The aggregate of these attractive essays amounts to a handbook on what otherwise might be a deadly dull topic: writerly engagement with the public sphere. Hitchens has a wonderful faith in the power of art–“our slight and sardonic hope.” And this is that rare breed of faith, one that has hard evidence of its secular miracles.
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Joe Knowles is a former culture editor for In These Times.
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