(Swans - January 2, 2012) Within four days in mid December 2011, Christopher Hitchens, Kim Jong-il, and Václav Havel all died.
At the end of my comments, I list articles on (or involving) Christopher Hitchens by five well known left-wing writers: Alexander Cockburn, Norman Finkelstein, Michael Parenti, Louis Proyect, and Scott Hamilton, and added the obituary by Graydon Carter in the January 2012 issue of Vanity Fair.
Since Kim Jong-il and Václav Havel are mentioned in some of these articles, I have also listed a commentary on Havel by Louis Proyect, which has the additional feature of including characterizations of Cockburn and Parenti as well as other left-wing writers not cited here.
As soon as Christopher Hitchens died, a great mass of commentary gushed out of the media spigots, and the most pressurized blasts came from the left. Clearly, Hitchens was a focal point of the American intelligentsia. Why was Hitchens so controversial?
Hitchens was a quick-witted, highly-educated English transplant whose shamelessly provocative attacks, characterizations, and pronouncements were successfully parlayed into a media-darling career. He could shred ideological opponents verbally or in print and get well paid for it. During the ascendancy of neoliberalism (1970s-2000), Hitchens fired his artillery from the left, and he was generally seen as the intellectual heir of Gore Vidal.
The al Qaeda attack of 11 September 2001 had a profound effect on Hitchens, essentially shocking him out of his previous political persona, and causing him to ground both his reevaluated self image, and the reformed political views based on that self image, upon a deeper more irrational stratum of his psyche, what would have been called in earlier times "race consciousness."
Hitchens experienced the 9-11 attack as an existential threat from an alien race with an alien culture against not just the physical reality of the Western world he lived in, but its very form of consciousness, which is the psychic and intellectual framework upon which a word-spinner like Hitchens hangs his fabulous public-attention-snaring webs.
Hitchens's "turn to the right" (the quotes explained later) after 9-11 (advocating for the Iraq War in 2003, and the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004) shocked and angered his now-previous left-wing colleagues, many of whom had always been jealous of Hitchens's mainstream success.
Having observed for decades (and a few times been subjected to) jealousy in academia and professional science over success at public communications, I am attuned to its appearance in other fields of endeavor. Jealousy is irrational, and it is easily possible for a person who is more knowledgeable and expert in his field to become jealous of the recognition a less able colleague has gained. Any graduate student who has seen his work stolen and published by a professor can tell you about this.
So, Hitchens's political turnabout in 2001-2003, with his political vituperation now rained down upon former comrades, was experienced as both a betrayal and a vindication of previously suppressed jealousy.
Let me explain my earlier use of quotation marks (in: "turn to the right"). If we imagine Christopher Hitchens as being similar to Saul of Tarsus, a man considered to be fully formed in his self-conception and religious-political belief system, then we must seek an exterior cause or shock for a conversion: a complete disintegration of an existing personality, which is then reformed into an entirely new awareness and persona. For Saul of Tarsus, the zealous Pharisee who intensely persecuted the followers of Jesus Christ, conversion hit him as a blinding vision of Jesus Christ resurrected, somewhere along the road from Jerusalem to Damascus around the year 36, after which he became known as Saint Paul. For Christopher Hitchens, the vision was probably a television broadcast of the collapsing World Trade Center Towers. If the conversion was a result of an external shock then no quotation marks should be used for the phrase: turn to the right.
However, if Christopher Hitchens was a trickster, like Hermes of Greek mythology, or the Coyote and Raven figures of Native American folklore, or Loki of Norse mythology, or the very real Alcibiades of the Athenian Empire, or the boundary-crossing artists Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Robert Mapplethorpe, then the quotation marks would be used (as in: "turn to the right"). A trickster is inherently unpredictable; he can veer off in any direction at any time, usually a shocking change at a critical moment. If Hitchens was a trickster then no turn was predetermined, every turn should have been suspect, and any turn would have been possible. Hence, "turn to the right."
In his book Trickster Makes This World, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998) Lewis Hyde writes:
In short, trickster is a boundary-crosser. Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce... When someone's sense of honorable behavior has left him unable to act, trickster will appear to suggest an amoral action, something right/wrong that will get life going again. Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox.
I do not claim that Christopher Hitchens intentionally tried to be a trickster operating out of the Anglo-American intelligentsia, but that his personality and media careerism found their most effective combination, and achieved their greatest successes, by lurching from one provocation to the next, which characterized Hitchens's social impact as the work of trickster after the fact.
It seems impossible to be a serial provocateur without occasionally crossing the boundary into disreputable behavior, and Hitchens's critics have enumerated such transgressions in their articles on him.
Hitchens played the roles of historian, moralist, provocateur, political writer, social critic, literary stylist, and media personality. He never played any one of these roles to general satisfaction, but he consistently moved between them to sufficient commercial appreciation to maintain a more successful career than most of his critics, success here being defined in the conventional sense of celebrity and cash register receipts.
Some left-wing critics of Hitchens's post 9-11 success say that of course Hitchens would be seen, published, and paid more as a spokesman for American imperialism than as a left-wing critic of it, that his conventional so-called literary success was an artificiality produced more by his political prostitution, acting as a tout for American hegemony, than because of native talent and the inherent merit of his work. I think this criticism of Hitchens is too simplistic. It is hard to see him as a person American conservatism would metaphorically draw to its bosom unreservedly: the atheist for Bush?
As an individual he was flawed, but then who isn't? We outsiders cannot say what coping mechanism the private person Christopher Hitchens had devised to deal with whatever psychic wounds he carried within him. But we outsiders did observe that whatever that private self-image was, it was combined brilliantly with a very public careerism to keep Hitchens in a charged atmosphere and a stimulated intellectual state more often than most people experience. Was it all for endorphins? Maybe gin and cigarettes anesthetizing the post-endorphin let-downs?
The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my 'will to live' would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it's true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking. (From "Trial of the Will," Christopher Hitchens's last Vanity Fair column.)
Perhaps Christopher Hitchens was a human form afflicted with a colicky psyche: "Love me, I'm difficult; I hate you, you're happy."
Much of the left-wing commentary I have seen on Hitchens mirrors him in this way: it is primly factual in a querulous manner, or acidly humorous, and diminishes the images of its authors. Hitchens was the Prodigal Son of the Left, but he never successfully returned home, and after reading the commentaries on him by his former comrades, that home can seem smaller, more fragmented and less inspiring than was originally imprinted in memory.
Hitchens showed the left its edge at a crucial time. It was terribly disheartening to see so much (but not all!) of the American public fall in with the hysteria for the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. But now, a decade after Hitchens's most inglorious trick, his conversion to the right, we might do better to reflect on why those edges are so close and enclose so few, than to pick over Hitchens's bones seeking some satisfaction after the fact.
Why write, if not to inspire ourselves in the face of public indifference? People do not care what we believe, they only care about the conditions within which they live out their lives. How does our writing impact that?
My reflections on Hitchens as either Coyote or Saint Paul, respectively, led me to Shakespeare:
A pestilence on him for a mad rogue!
A' poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once.
This same skull, sir, was Yorick's skull, the King's jester.
[Takes the skull.]
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio:
a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.
He hath borne me on his back a thousand times.
And now how abhorred in my imagination it is!
My gorge rises at it.
Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.
Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs?
your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?
Not one now to mock your own grinning?
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. ...
Commentaries on Christopher Hitchens (and Václav Havel):
(How is each author here a historian, moralist, provocateur, political writer, social critic, literary stylist and media personality?)
"Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011"
by Louis Proyect
16 December 2011
"Farewell to C.H."
16 December 2011
by Alexander Cockburn
"Hitchens vs. a Higher Power?"
22 December 2011
by Norman Finkelstein
Debate: Hitchens vs. Parenti
18 April 2005
"Here is a debate held at Wesleyan University in 2005 between Christopher Hitchens and me. Hitchens went to his grave as a supporter of the Bush/Cheney venture. He supported Bush in 2004. His turn to the right (from weak leftish/center) won him the attention of all the mass media, especially Fox and the like, and lecture invitations at fat fees. Others of us were less enthralled about his anti-Islam warrior politics." -- Michael Parenti (23 December 2011)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MufGs0MQrPg (YouTube video)
"Christopher Hitchens and the end of triumphalism"
by Scott Hamilton
"Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011: In Memoriam"
by Graydon Carter
[The obituary in Vanity Fair]
"Václav Havel and the struggle for socialism in Czechoslovakia"
by Louis Proyect
20 December 2011
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About the Author
Manuel García, Jr. on Swans. He is a native of the upper upper west side barrio of the 1950s near Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City, and a graduate engineering physicist who specialized in the physics of fluids and electricity. He retired from a 29 year career as an experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first fifteen years of which were spent in underground nuclear testing. An avid reader with a taste for classics, and interested in the physics of nature and how natural phenomena can impact human activity, he has long been interested in non-fiction writing with a problem-solving purpose. García loves music and studies it, and his non-technical thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Jungian ideas. A father of both grown children and a school-age daughter, today García occupies himself primarily with managing his household and his young daughter's many educational activities. García's political writings are left wing and, along with his essays on science-and-society, they have appeared in a number of smaller Internet magazines since 2003, including Swans. Please visit his personal Blog at manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com. (back)