Writer’s Desk: Have No Fear

Christopher_Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens (Fri Tanke, 2008)

In the speech that he gave accepting the Christopher Hitchens award, George Packer noted how he and Hitch didn’t always get along and actually disagreed quite violently on the Iraq War. Hitch thought it was a noble cause, while Packer (as covered in his incredible book The Assassin’s Gate) knew from on-the-ground reporting that it was a disaster. Nevertheless, their friendship persisted:

We would say rude things about each other in print, and then we’d exchange tentatively regretful emails without yielding an inch, and then we’d meet for a drink and the whole thing would go unmentioned, and somehow there was more warmth between us than before. Exchanging barbs was a way of bonding with Christopher…

Packer went on to talk about Hitch’s bravery and freedom from fear:

Fear breeds self-censorship, and self-censorship is more insidious than the state-imposed kind, because it’s a surer way of killing the impulse to think, which requires an unfettered mind. A writer can still write while hiding from the thought police. But a writer who carries the thought police around in his head, who always feels compelled to ask: Can I say this? Do I have a right? Is my terminology correct? Will my allies get angry? Will it help my enemies? Could it get me ratioed on Twitter?—that writer’s words will soon become lifeless. A writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade…

Telling how things appear to you, and in the way that feels most right for you and your voice, is the only way to write.

A scared writer is a terrible writer.

Writer’s Desk: Write Like You Speak

Christopher Hitchens (Fri Tanke, 2008)

In one of his last pieces for Vanity Fair before cancer stole him from us, Christopher Hitchens wrote about the loss of his voice and how he advised writers to not just read but listen to their words:

I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice…

Quote of the Day: Hitch’s Humbug

christmasshoppingEvery holiday season, words reliably flow from columnists’ keyboards about good will toward men, “this holiday season…,” and whatnot. We are also treated to an ever-increasing barrage of manufactured outrage over the supposed “War on Christmas.”

It’s the time of year for American Christians, already swaddled by a culture and government that cheerfully stomps all over the Establishment Clause, to kvetch about how their holiday has supposedly been stripped of its religious intent and symbolism.

Back in 2005, before this annual flurry of fury had even reached the apotheosis of silliness—Starbucks Christmas cups, and so on—the late, great Christopher Hitchens penned one of his many columns about the tawdry consumerist spectacle and oppressive state-religion aspect of Christmas: “…it was exactly this paganism and corruption that led Oliver Cromwell—my own favorite Protestant fundamentalist—to ban the celebration of Christmas altogether.”

Hitch delivers a further response to the outrage that erupts whenever some municipality decides that they should actually respect the Constitution—not to mention all of their non-Christian constituents—by not erecting Christian displays on public land with public money:

… there are millions of well-appointed buildings all across the United States, most of them tax-exempt and some of them receiving state subventions, where anyone can go at any time and celebrate miraculous births and pregnant virgins all day and all night if they so desire. These places are known as “churches,” and they can also force passersby to look at the displays and billboards they erect and to give ear to the bells that they ring. In addition, they can count on numberless radio and TV stations to beam their stuff all through the ether.

It’s not precisely an argument for banning Christmas ala Cromwell. But it is a healthy reminder that freedom of religion in today’s America doesn’t always include freedom from religion.

The Art of Drinking and Writing: Amis / Hitchens Edition

everydaydrinking1A couple items of note from Christopher Buckley’s essay on “Booze as Muse” … and other temptations and illusions of the lit’ry kind, in which he quotes from his departed friend Christopher Buckley’s introduction to Kingsley Amis’s deathless book, Everyday Drinking:

…the “Muse of Booze,” as Christopher Hitchens calls Mr. Amis … gives us recipes for Paul Fussell’s Milk Punch (“to be drunk immediately on rising, in lieu of eating breakfast”) and Evelyn Waugh’s Noonday Reviver (“1 hefty shot gin, 1 bottle Guinness, ginger beer … I should think two doses is the limit”).

Also:

[Hitchens] and I once had a weekday lunch that began at 1 p.m. and ended at 11:30 p.m. I spent the next three weeks begging to be euthanized; he went home and wrote a dissertation on Orwell. Christopher himself was a muse of booze, though dipsography and fancy cocktails were not his thing. Christopher was a straightforward whiskey and martini man…

“Alcohol makes other people less tedious,” he writes, “and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing.”

 

Reader’s Corner: George Orwell and ‘The Thinginess of Life’

As part of the effort over the past several years by various publishers to ensure the longevity of George Orwell, this past August a collection of some eleven of his diaries was released, with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens. Barry Gewen’s New York Times review doesn’t make it sound like the most engaging of reading, advising readers to take Hitch’s faint praise (notable from such an Orwell fan) to heart. In other words, there are a lot of things in these diaries that many people put in their diaries which aren’t meant to thrill the public (lists of animals spotted, far too much information about chickens).

But the review gives Gewen a chance to consider the many contradictions and attractions of Orwell’s writings, namely, his attention to the quotidian details of the everyday, the “thinginess of life.” This focus on grounded realities—as well as his natural aversion to authority—made Orwell healthily suspicious of abstractions and “isms.” Although a patriot, he despised much of the systems that constituted England: “Insofar as patriotism was equated with God, King and Country or, worse, the preservation of the British Empire, he was against it.” Gewen further notes:

What patriotism meant to Orwell was the ordinary things of his English life — heavy coins, stamp collecting, dart games, an irrational spelling system. In the essay “Notes on Nationalism,” a companion piece to “England Your England,” he said: “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life.” It was around this same time that he wrote essays in praise of pubs, cricket, even (outlandishly) English cooking. He would lay down his life not for the grandiose abstractions preached by politicians and the clergy but for gardening and warm beer.

In other words, a patriot for humanity, and not a flag.

 

 

 

Quote of the Day: Martin Amis

 

Martin Amis, barbed-pen satirist of the modern era and boon companion of the late Christopher Hitchens (with whom he shared a sharp impatience with lazy thinking), has taken it on the chin from the press and the literati in his home country of England for years now. Hard to say why, perhaps it was that habit of speaking his mind. But in any case, when Amis decamped from London to Brooklyn to set up home there with his (American) wife, the sniping started all over again.

In The New Republic, Amis — whose newest novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, comes out August 21 — has a few things to say on the cult of the author and the attribution of false statements:

Backed up by lavish misquotes together with satirical impersonations … the impression given was that I was leaving because of a vicious hatred of my native land and because I could no longer bear the well-aimed barbs of patriotic journalists.

“I wish I weren’t English”: Of all the fake tags affixed to my name, this is the one I greet with the deepest moan of inanition. I suggest that the remark—and its equivalent in any language or any alphabet—is unutterable by anyone whose IQ reaches double figures. “I wish I weren’t North Korean” might make a bit of sense, assuming the existence of a North Korean sufficiently well-informed and intrepid to give voice to it. Otherwise and elsewhere, the sentiment is inconceivably null. And to say it of England—the country of Dickens, George Eliot, Blake, Milton, and, yes, William Shakespeare—isn’t even perverse. It is merely whimsical.