Monday, April 25, 2011

Hitch Dentata

You may have seen the Martin Amis review of The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism. It's a eulogy before its time, an obituary-in-advance. In an age when illness is something we battle, when disease is something we wage war against, to countenance defeat is no more and no less than frank surrender; it's a brave gesture then, as well as a kind one, to offer a eulogy in advance, saying without saying "This is what we will be saying." Hitchens no doubt remains unconvinced that he will peer down from a writer's desk in Heaven with a stiff drink in his hand as his friends submit their eulogies and obituaries, so gifts like these are necessary, and, oddly, the work of mourning can be met with gratitude and appreciation (and even disputed).

Nevertheless, when I re-read the review more closely, I found myself put off by the Amisisms, and the way Amis shoulders his way into every anecdote and every argument with a "Who, me?" expression on his face. I can't help it. I feel like God must have felt when He looked down to see the first man innocently, but effectively, masturbating. It's that propulsive combination of innate technical proficiency with twitchy, repetitive self-satisfaction.

An Amisian paragraph is so often like an elaborate old hot air balloon constructed of intricately-wrought bindings and long mahogany planks, burnished bright and festooned with lacy quotations, but which simply won't sail; it can't get airborne no matter how much hot air - self-serious moralising and cheaply-earned political asides - you pump into it.

But back to the Hitch. The quotations I liked best were the ones that had prune-faced Amis reaching for the alka selzer.

Here are some indecorous quotes from the The Quotable Hitchens. "Ronald Reagan is doing to the country what he can no longer do to his wife." On the Chaucerian summoner-pardoner Jerry Falwell: "If you gave Falwell an enema, he'd be buried in a matchbox." On the political entrepreneur George Galloway: "Unkind nature, which could have made a perfectly good butt out of his face, has spoiled the whole effect by taking an asshole and studding it with ill-brushed fangs." The critic DW Harding wrote a famous essay called "Regulated Hatred". It was a study of Jane Austen. We grant that hatred is a stimulant; but it should not become an intoxicant.

Aesthetics is an unfurling, not bounded by temporality (as with nature) but by craft, the edges formed by the work and the workmanship (edges which may include time, timing, decay, decrepitude, the finite and the infinite, but always as meaning, as symbol, as structure that is not wholly explained by itself, etc.) These quotes from Hitchens unfurl in a typical, even familiar narrative fashion and yet they each end with a perfect detail, where the general and the universal collapse under the immense force of comic gravity into a single, impossibly dense detail. Nancy Reagan, and Ronald's shrimpy, limp member. The shrivelled sheath of a man so full of shit that he wouldn't even be a used condom if the shit were removed. And, taking a Burroughsian ass-face a step further into ecstatic body horror, Hitchens employs "studded", if not inviting then forcing the reader to think of bony nubs implanted into soft, wrinkled tissue, culminating in the final twist: if it isn't bad enough that you have teeth in your anus, you could at least make some effort to brush them properly?

One is reminded of a William Baziotes painting:

Hitchens, in the examples above, is excessive and lurid, but expressionistically exquisite. Amis makes much of "decorum" and relegates the "jokes and jibes" to the side in order to celebrate the "terse witticism", the "crystallisation", the "insight that leads the reader to a recurring question". Here are several:

"One reason to be a decided antiracist is the plain fact that 'race' is a construct with no scientific validity. DNA can tell you who you are, but not what you are."

On gay marriage: "This is an argument about the socialisation of homosexuality, not the homosexualisation of society. It demonstrates the spread of conservatism, not radicalism, among gays."

"[I]n America, your internationalism can and should be your patriotism."

"It is only those who hope to transform human beings who end up by burning them, like the waste product of a failed experiment."

"This has always been the central absurdity of 'moral', as opposed to 'political' censorship: If the stuff does indeed have a tendency to deprave and corrupt, why then the most depraved and corrupt person must be the censor who keeps a vigilant eye on it."

The recurring question is not, apparently, is it at all true, or does it mean what Hitchens seems to think it means, or how much has he chipped away as he carves the crystalline insight out of the lumpen rock of experience, but rather, according to Amis, "if this is so obviously true, and it is, why did we have to wait for Christopher to point it out to us?" Well it's not, it really isn't - and why wait for Christopher to point it out? Well, that can be answered: because Hitchens is a man who, for better and for worse, has spent his life pointing things out, with tremendous gusto, sometimes with hatred, and with a profound ear for rhythm and a sharp eye for image. Why should he now revert to the saggy agnosticism Amis wants him to accept, why should he settle for tepid moralising about how hatred "should not become an intoxicant", and steer clear of the jokes and jibes? Is it because he should now be "serious" - humbled, subdued, cautious, tempered? Nabokov, as quoted by Amis, said "Life is a great surprise. I don't see why death should not be an even greater one." The cosmic punchline that greets us after our last breath is probably not the sun's eventual explosion or man's return to "stellar fire", as Amis boringly has it, it's probably going to be a lot more like the toothy ass of death's face giving us our first breath in the afterlife.


Anonymous said...

If I am not mistaken, this article is the Foreward to the new book "The Quotable Hitchens, " which is due for release soon. Quotes were gathered from various Hitchens' sources and Amis wrote the Foreward. It's unfortunate that many people don't realize this because they have incorrectly assumed and manufactured false motives.

sw said...

Hi Anonymous! The article in question really doesn't seem like a foreword; it reads like a review and as I said (and as Amis suggests in the piece itself) like a eulogy or obituary-in-advance. But maybe it is a Foreword! In which case . . . well, I don't quite know. It doesn't seem to change much of what I say at all. And I can't quite tell if you are suggesting that I am one of the unfortunate souls who has incorrectly assumed and manufactured false motives, or if you are only are bemoaning this in general? Because they don't realise it's a foreword? In any case, I don't quite feel that I need to make any retractions at this point based on the information provided. But thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

Go to the Amazon site for "The Quotable Hitchens" and click on "Click to Look Inside." Amis' Foreward is right there starting out the same way as he did in the article. I was referring to all of the comments on the internet about the article--not you in particular. I just think the Guardian should have stated that it was a foreward because many people reasonably felt it was an obit.

sw said...

You're absolutely right that it is a Foreword (if we are to trust the "Click to Look Inside" function of amazon)! It's really peculiar and weird as a foreword - but I actually like it more as foreword, so thanks for pointing that out. The part that becomes a letter to Hitchens is, I think, still quite rubbish except as a sweet and quite witty reification of the weirdness of the situation: the publication of a book of quotations very likely towards the end of a man's life suggests rather awfully that Hitchens has nothing left of note to say, and Amis responds to this by writing a letter to Hitchens, in effect saying "You are still alive to read this." I like that.

Anonymous said...

Hitchens was not in charge of the book. If you continue to read the introduction, the book was compiled by a friend of Hitchens and it was agreed upon way before anyone knew Hitchens was ill. That's the good news. The foreward, however, was written after the illness was announced.

Daniel F said...

The print copy (of The Observer of course, because it was a Sunday) made it clear that this was an extract from Amis's forward. For some reason the online version made no reference to this, which I found slightly misleading, if only because I like to know if what I've read for free in my online newspaper and what I've paid money for on Amazon are in part the same thing. But on top of that, it changes the context a bit, though not the value any of your observations, "sw".

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to know that the print copy did make reference to the proper source. How many pages did the print copy use? The Foreward in the book is quite long.

Daniel F said...

The article in print was as it appeared online, quite long, but described as an "extract" from the foreword.

sw said...

Thanks for clarifying all that, Daniel F and Anonymous; I did look back at the online version, just to see if I had missed something, and didn't find evidence there that it was published elsewhere, as Daniel notes.

In any case, whilst it does change the context slightly, and would require some reconsideration of what I wrote, I believe it does not demand substantial revision of my post.