Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Penny Press! Poor old Christopher Hitchens!

There's a pattern to these things, and the arc of it is as etched as the path of the sun. At some point almost everybody thinks they'll be the exception to the pattern ... but they never are. This particular pattern has no exceptions by which its rule is proven.

It starts with a large, genuine creative talent. Acting, musical composition or performance, and perhaps especially writing. At the start, the talent glows in equal measure that it burns, but there's an immunity to it at the beginning.

Then fame or the frequent doing of it wear away the immunity, and the burning becomes problematic. It's a hard thing to live every waking moment in unshielded contact with the fires of who you are. If you're lucky, you'll have learned along the way to blunt the burning with regular, disciplined work-habits. But even if you have, you'll yearn for the time when you could hold the fire and not be burned. You can't - that's reserved only for talent's infancy (regardless of your age when you come to it). But you yearn anyway.

So you turn to chemicals. Absinthe, opium, alcohol, tobacco ... anything that even vaguely approximates the rush you're yearning for. When you do this, you're invariably solaced by the long history of the talented doing so. That helps to avert the feeling of shame.

At first, you picture the chemicals of your choice as FUEL for your talent, as servants to it. You tell yourself that only through opium do you reach the ecstatic state needed for your vision. You ritually uncork a liquor bottle before sitting down at the typewriter. You smoke incessantly during a play's run. All the greats have done so, you mordantly observe (as one colleague succinctly put it once, "I'm a writer, so I drink.").

Then (not, keep in mind, 'often' ... we're talking about a pattern here, one as certain in its final stages as it is in its early ones) the chemicals take over. You're no longer drinking while you write, you're writing while you drink. And then you're NOT writing while you drink (you refer to this stage as 'taking notes' or 'making sketches,' but in reality, you've quietly shifted your hurried intervals of actual writing to your mornings or afternoons, although you still go through the motions in the evenings).

You'll still be writing - your work habits and your financial obligations will see to that. But you'll drift steadily further and further from your talent, and it (under the undiminished onslaught of your chemicals, which are steadily eroding your physical state) will slowly atrophy.

There are no exceptions to this pattern, though all you out there with talent are mentally thumbing the names of your candidates. You have the comments field to name them, but I warn you: it'll be unpleasant for you when I sledgehammer them. There are no exceptions to this pattern.

Consider the 20th century alone - F. Scott Fitzgerald smoked more tobacco in a day than many family farms grow in a month. Hemingway was drunk by one in the afternoon Monday through Friday, and those were what he referred to as his WORK days. Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Anthony Burgess, John Steinbeck, Doroty Parker, John O'Hara, Kurt Vonnegut, Eugene O'Neill, John Barth ... the list is long, of writers whose later works dribble off into artistic irrelevance, and that's just among the writers. And all because they turn to chemicals rather than face the fact that you're only young once.

The pattern holds for content, too. After all, these people DID all start with genuine talent, and that dies hard. Even wasted and trashed and hung over and at half-strength, they can still dazzle those of us who don't have talent. And more and more, as time goes on, they RELY on that gradient.

So the work keeps appearing, and the critics keep talking about it, and the devotees keep outdoing themselves explaining (i.e. apologizing for) it, and the acolytes make careers out of their increasing disillusionment.

You've probably all guessed by now that I'm leading up the Christopher Hitchens, right?

A double dose of the pattern, this time around.

In last week's London Review of Books, John Barrell reviews Hitchens' book "Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography" and leaves pretty much nothing but a bloody stain on the water when he's done.

Ordinarily, seeing somebody as pugnacious as Hitchens get so thoroughly walked around the park would be a thrilling, pleasant thing; in your mind, you'd be picturing both the envy of the reviewer and the forthcoming blistering response of the author.

But this is something quite different:

"... if any radical, misled by George Galloway's description of Hitchens as 'a drink-soaked former Trotskyite popinjay', should suggest that this book was written out of vanity, he would surely be mistaken. A vain man would have taken care to write a better book than this: more original, more accurate, less damaging to his own estimation of himself, less somniferously inert. The press release accompanying the book led me to expect something much livelier; Hitchens, it exclaims, 'marvels' at the forethought of Rights of Man, and 'revels' in its contentiousness. There is a bit of marveling and reveling here and there, but it is as routine as everything else in this book, which reads like the work of a tired man.
"Too tired, to begin with, to check his facts."

There follows a depressingly long list of factual errors Hitchens makes in what I'm certain was a tossed-off work (and, more importantly, a work dashed off in a crapulous morning, after an evening spent diligently MEANING to write but only drinking instead).

But the list of errors isn't the most depressing part. It gets worse:

"This is only a selection of the many errors in this book, and they are not trivial; they misrepresent matters of fact that are essential to an understanding of the context of Paine's writings, and it is in the course of Hitchens's attempt to describe that context that they occur. It is the more surprising to find these errors, as none of them occur in John Keane's biography of Paine (1995), on which Hitchens depends heavily - it must have been open on his desk as he was writing this book."

There follows ... well, there follows enough instances of what Barrell diplomatically refers to as "the same selection of facts in the same order" to make something worse than deterioration of talent readily apparent.

Still, all this could still somehow be spleen on Barrell's part. It looks damning on its face, but we here at Stevereads haven't read the Hitchens book in question, so it's at least possible.

But the proof is and always will be in the pudding, and there's a big rancid puddle of said pudding in the latest Vanity Fair. There's a Hitchens piece there about why women aren't generally funny.

In case you think I'm being mean, the thing is titled "Why Women Aren't Funny," and as far as I can tell, it isn't a gag. I suspect that, for various reasons associated with the pattern, Hitchens is no longer capable of a prolonged piece of tongue-in-cheek satire.

No, the piece is tossed off and thus embarrassingly revealing, and what it says about Hitchens' attitudes toward women doesn't exactly make you envy his wife.

'Women' is undoubtedly too strong a word here. Chattel, children, chumps, even chimpanzees, yes, but 'women' implies some baseline parity with men - and that's nowhere in evidence in this embarrassing piece of screed.

Screed masquerading as benevolent toleration, yes certainly ... the essay fairly drips with benevolence. Those nutty, zany women! The deserve no less!

Why, just listen to how GIVING Hitchens is:

"Humor is part of the armor-plate with which to resist what is already farcical enough. (Perhaps not by coincidence, battered as they are by motherfucking nature, men tend to refer to life itself as a bitch.) Whereas women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is."

Isn't that the truth, huh guys? (in case you missed it, that 'motherfucking' was a little joke for you, bro's ... the little ladies, lost in their dreamy little world, won't catch it, bless their little hearts) God forbid we even hint that perhaps, just maybe, there's an outside chance women are far better acquainted with 'motherfucking nature' than any man ever could be.

One suspects that either of Hitchens' wives might already know that life is a 'sordid mess' - especially if life at all resembles the Hitchens apartment the morning after a night of hard writing, with the endless ashtrays to empty and the countless empty bottles to bag.

But then, cleaning up after a night of hard writing is only a side-job to the main job Mrs. Hitchens - and every other woman - holds down:

"For women, reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing. Apart from giving them a very different attitude toward filth and embarrassment, it also imbues them with the kind of seriousness and solemnity at which men can only goggle."

Yes, men goggle. We goggle all the time at the breathtaking seriousness of the baby-bags among us. Of course, that leaves us with very little to tell the hundreds of women we personally know who DON'T view a-birthin' as the sum and essence of their reason for being on Earth ... but hey, each of Hitchens' wives successfully whelped, so at least we're not talking about anybody important.

In point of fact, there are some women who find a pole star in their lives quite without bearing children. And, it bears pointing out, there are young mothers of my acquaintance (say hello, milady Galadriel!) who, though they love their broods, still are they not totally summarized by that happy fact.

But then, there are lots and lots of women who are funny as all Hell, so arguing from any kind of reality-based approach here is probably pointless. The point is, in fact, one we've already covered: after enough deterioration, the talented chemical-addict can't just toss off sterling pieces anymore. The rot starts to show everywhere, even in the trifles.

So we're leaning toward believing Barrell's sad tale of skimming and cribbing. And we're sorry about that. Hitchens once wielded a pen dipped in fire, and the loss of it leaves the literary landscape a little barer.

So, dear wayward Christopher - should you read this entry, perhaps you'll pause and take stock. A hint that you're approaching rock-bottom can be found in this patronizing, sexist little Vanity Fair rant of yours. In it, you write a line that only somebody in dire straits would even conceive:

"Though ask yourself, was Dorothy Parker ever really funny?"

Oh my. Oh dear.


JC said...

hitch on chicks

Kevin Caron said...

Yes, it must be their fixation with child birth and rearing that makes women less funny.

Couldn't have anything to do with the fact that men want women to be funnier than them about as much as they want them to be taller, stronger, or smarter (ah, but women have all the power! They have "the whole male world at their mercy", right? Right?).

When I was 12 or 13, I remember telling my best friend that the perfect girl for me would be pretty, smart, and have a great sense of humor. He looked at me in a mix of distaste and disbelief. "Sense of humor? You mean, like she'll be sitting around cracking jokes?" He grudgingly gave me that it could be an asset if she dug my jokes, but still...

Joke was on him, I guess - twenty years later, he's miserable, and my crazy wife continues to crack me up.

steve said...

what we really need here is the viewpoint of a woman ....

Sebastian? Care to share?

S. said...

Thanks, Steve. Well, I don't know about all of this 'funny' business, but I think it's a damn funny idea to get involved with the 'fair sex' to begin with. I'm the first one in line for a good old roaring laugh-out at the expense of another fellow's ill-matched waistcoat, but dash it all I cannot hold with this idea that there are any girls who'd so much as stifle a sneeze at it. My Aunt Valerie is a girl. Or, at least she used to be back in the mesozoic era. And she's about as funny as a coral snake on the breakfast tray. My girlfriend is a woman (if all the ribbons and go-gas in her hair have anything to say about it), and I do find that I can't crack one good snapping joke about the sort of noises a backside can crack you up with without she'll be too busy going all gape-jawed at the night sky, going on about how the stars are god's little oysters, and the moon is an angel's dimple.

Steve, you can have them, as far as I'm concerned. You always seem to know what they want. Me, I'm staying in with a book. A funny one! And without any damn breasts in it, thank you very much!

locke said...

The whole, sudden "Hitchens is a wet-brain drunk who can't write or reason anymore" clamour that has reached the tipping point this fall, strikes me the same as this fall's sudden outburst from middle america and the mainstream media of "hey, Bush is a disasterous moron and Iraq is an unsolvable mess" -- I mean, "uh, yeah, DUH." Steve and I have bounced this notion around before, usually when he'd recommend some Hitchens blather in VF -- but that's once a month in a high-paid glossy fashion magazine, where Hitch no doubt fortified and put forth the hungover effort longer than usual... I've been reading him in Slate (it's a magazine that's online, Steve -- on the interwebs, just like this blog-thingee!) for five years now and there, where the pay is less and the editors more easily cowed by his blustery, Britishy haught and acerb (now I'm just making up words), and his Slate stuff has been slush-headed and silly from the get-go... so, as I said to the rest of the nation (the country, that is, not Hitch's old lefty stompin' grounds) after the mid-terms, I say to the newly vocal Hitch-hatas, "Welcome! Have a seat! Enjoy the sad, infuriating show!"

hippolyta said...

Well, Sebastian, it's obvious simply by the fact that she's with you that your "humorless" girlfriend already understands that life is, as Hitchins claims only men understand, "a joke in extremely poor taste."

Or, could it be that you choose to surround yourself with humorless women because a funny girlfriend would threaten your intelligence? ("Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright), it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny.")

Then again, after this little misogynist rant of yours, I'm not surprised that you have never "stimulate(d) her laughter...at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression." No big surprise here that she's staring up at the sky (or the ceiling?) admiring the stars...

hippolyta said...

Oh man! No response from Sebastian? Steve...where is this comment sparring I was promised?

Anyhow, Steve, just wanted to let you know about yesterday's NPR "On Point" show on the best books of 2006...

Sebastian said...

Apologies, Hippolita! I really can put my foot in it from time to time, can’t I? (Although, sadly, not reliably—I was a bit blurry when Fulke tried to get my feet into my loafers at noon this morning and accidentally served the poor creature a face full of sock! But he’s an understanding chap, that Fulke. He quietly blessed me in his mother tongue and got on with the difficult business).

My Hippolita! Dear, Hippolita! I never meant to imply that ALL women are humorless. Far from it! Why, I can tell from your last knee-hammering post that you’ve got an A-1 sense of the stuff. You’re probably from that generation of Bryn Mawr girls that daddy used to tell me about over his whisky with a slightly fearful gleam in his eye. You know, the kind of girls who start the day with Mozart and Politics, boxing lessons in the afternoon, bawdy sing-alongs over sloe gin fizz in the evening. What I mean to say is you seem like your own woman, and I can’t imagine any man trying to get involved in your business, or to touch on your concerns in any way.

You remind me of my Aunt Harriet not a little: she was a wit and a half! I still remember how she used to gather us youngsters at the foot of her bristly legs, lean back in her huge tweed sportcoat, and, puffing away on her meerschaum, regale us all with one hilarious story after another: misplaced knickers, rude names, the whole caboodle. During pauses to gasp for air, we could even hear Uncle Henry chuckling away in the kitchen as he did the washing up and nursed the youngsters, and braided his long hair.

Jeff E. said...

Will you two please get a room?

hippolyta said...

Oh swoon!! ;-)

Sam said...

Goodness, the comment boards have been positively pullullating with women these days.

Kevin Caron said...

I blame myself.

hippolyta said...

Wait, you say it like it's a bad thing!

Sam said...

And yet, no sign of Beepy. Could it be that she's become too FAMOUS for us?

steve said...

I agree with Jeff - methinks the lady doth protest too much!

If you've finally seen the light, Hippolyta, I believe Sebastian has an opening in his sex-calendar next Wednesday, from 4 to 5.

You'll want to leave a generous amount of time afterwards for vigorous showering, although be warned: the dirty feeling never ENTIRELY goes away.

steve said...

Beepy, say it isn't so! Say you haven't shot off to greener pastures (or, more accurately, drifted slowly off to more fertile lagoons)?