Preston Jones has written a perceptive review of Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch-22, for Books & Culture. What interested me was Jones’ reflection on the craft, character, and consequences of writing:
Words have consequences. Hitchens fleetingly acknowledges that his decades of radical musingcompromising millions of published words in, among many other venues, The Nationhelped to create an environment in which some would respond to the 2001 assaults with the feeling that the U. S. had finally got what it deserved. And then, when he took up the case for the invasion of Iraq, some readers (like Mark Daily) took that seriously, too. Hitchens, by now a libertarian, was sobered.
So, one might have thought that the reconsiderations undertaken by the sixty-year-old author of Hitch-22 would lead him to tone down a little. Through the years Hitchens has “won” so many debates arguing for points he himself now repudiates. Surely he would acquire some modesty, be a little less dogmatic, and strive not to interpret disfavored realities and people in the worst possible light? No. The Mark Daily interlude sticks out because it’s gracefully crafted, but also because it’s mostly free of intergalactic self-absorption and acid that pervade what might have been a memoir of enduring value.
Is there really any point to parenthetically spitting on a long dead President Kennedy with the crisp affirmation that he was a “high-risk narcissist”? Is there nothing better to mention about Isaac Newton than that he was a pursuer of “bogus alchemy”?
To read this book is to study the Parable of the Talents upended. No one could allege that Christopher Hitchens has failed to use his notable gifts for speaking and writing. The fault lies in profligate overuse. As Hitchens tells us, he writes about 1,000 “printable” words every day. This signals a remarkable intellectual ability. It also points to a keen need for attention. Indeed, in another arresting portion of the text, Hitchens admits to a certain psychological “insecurity” which drives him to prefer argument to boredom (as if there were a dearth of other alternatives). It must be this that drives him readily to accept invitations to be placed on camera with the electronic pundits who have done so much to debase the public culture. It must be what puts him on TV with Bill Maher during the political campaigns of 2008 in order to admit that he felt a little “queer” for Barack Obama. It’s what makes him call Mother Teresa a frightful “criminal” and Jimmy Carter a “pious, born-again creep.” It’s what makes him rejoice that he “finally” got a bestseller with God Is Not Great (2009), though many thoughtful people put that work aside as shallow and ill-executed. It’s why he hustled together this memoir, which sees so much and observes so little. Anyway, it’s difficult to take seriously a text that offers so great a quantity of unsought-for penis jokes.
Important questions emerge for anyone who writes, whether that’s for the new media or old media:
- Do I recognize that “words have consequences” and “create an environment” for my readers?
- Do I realize that the tone matters as much as or more than the content?
- Am I arguing to “win” points in debates or arguing to discern the truth?
- Am I proud or modest in my expression?
- Will tomorrow bring regret for today’s dogmatism?
- Do I present “disfavored realities and people in the worst possible light” or do I show love toward my enemy?
- Is my writing “mostly free of intergalactic self-absorption”?
- Are my talents being put to “profligate overuse”?
- Am I motivated to write because of “a keen need for attention”?
- Does insecurity drive me “to prefer argument to boredom (as if there were a dearth of alternatives)”?
- Am I seeing much while observing little?
Cross-posted at Mere Orthodoxy