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.