Christopher Hitchens: the last 1930s liberal

My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, anyplace, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line and kiss my ass.

– Christopher Hitchens,

I have been re-reading some of my favourites from Christopher Hitchens’s Arguably (pictured). At over 800 pages, quite appropriately for the tone of the contents,  it would make an effective weapon.

Christopher Hitchens's book, Arguably

The Weapon

Christopher Hitchens died on the 15 of December last year. While he was alive he was the most fearsome verbal pugilist in the world. He has sweet and admiring pieces, but you do not love him for that. You love him for his great critical essays and his public debates. Stylistically, the two overlap. It is less that Hitchens wrote like he spoke; more that he spoke like he wrote. He spoke extemporaneously with disarming ease, studious care and verbal bruising. Victims are often simply immobilised by this barrage of politics, geography, history and literature. He always spoke with conviction. If he was ever ingratiating for a single moment of his life he hid it well. This was a man who would literally give the finger to the audience if he thought they deserved it, who lost lifelong friends on the left over his beliefs about the Iraq war and who refused to flatter his new friends on the right when they engaged in torture and illegal surveillance.

He spoke the truth even to the dead and so when we speak of him, now dead, we should note too that he had his faults, such as defending the Iraq war long after it became clear that it was a horrific mess. (His often asked refrain was, would Iraq be better off still under the psychopathic Saddam Hussain? As if the answer to the question would make a wrong war right.) But on the whole, I admire the man a great deal.

This brings me to one of my favourite essays of his: The Perils of Partition” — a history and criticism of partition across the globe. Hitchen believes that, “as a general rule it can be stated that all partitions except that of Germany have led to war or another partition or both. Or that they threaten to.” He develops his point by drawing on a deep well of knowledge of poetry, history and politics. As a Northern-Irish person (that polite compound term) I recognise some of what he speaks too well:

Sigmund Freud once wrote an essay concerning “the narcissism of the minor differences.” He pointed out that the most vicious and irreconcilable quarrels often arise between peoples who are to most outward appearances nearly identical. In Sri Lanka the distinction between Tamils and Sinhalese is barely noticeable to the visitor. But the Sinhalese can tell the difference, and the indigenous Tamils know as well the difference between themselves and the Tamils later imported from South India by the British to pick the tea. It is precisely the intimacy and inwardness of the partition impulse that makes it so tempting to demagogues and opportunists.

Pettiness is the Northern Irish political reflex to all issues – this is all too true. I can recognise where he is oversimplifying Northern Ireland: yes, his knowledge is not perfect. Yet I know no more global journalist.  How many would be able to compare, from personal experience, the stupid half-hour time difference between Pakistan and India to the nonsensical north-south hour difference between the two halves of Cyprus   — and eloquently too? There is still only one Hitch.

Enjoy the essay and admire particularly how well he weaves the different source materials together. If you are still hungry after all that has an excellent collection of reminiscences of Hitchens’s recent work and videos. The New Yorker’s old profile is still brilliant.

Posted in Essayists, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

I have a dream… about structure and rhythm.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech analyzed by Nancy Duarte from Duarte on Vimeo.

I am already cheating with this blog. Rather than an essay, go look at a speech by Martin Luther King. It is only justified because the above video about King’s I have a dream speech explains rhythm and thematic parallelism so very well.

When it comes to language, every one of us is just a rhythm junkie. We will say we like a sentence like “These are the times that try men’s souls…” and note with wonder that it seems better than “These are difficult times for people…” without considering the scansion:

These are the days that try men’s souls…*

x          /     x    /       x       /     x        /

At the larger level we hear “one day” repeated across paragraphs and the ideas are stitched together ready to be contrasted with “this will be the day…” without any of us even noticing.

There are other types of rhythm of course. Take polysyndeton and asyndeton: excessive and unusually little conjunctions respectively.

Hemmingway was a big man for the polysyndeton:

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains. (In Another Country , see here for further discussion)

See how the repetition of the conjunctions creates this slow and sleepy rhythm witch matches the content. Churchill’s

…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…

is great asyndeton. “We shall never surrender…” stands out much better without an introductory “and.”

Do not become some boring person who tries to scan sentences they write, but do listen to how it sounds. We are never just saying anything. If we are trying to write properly we are looking for the rhythm and pattern from the sentence right up to the essay as a whole. If only we could all appreciate that we might just avoid some of the ugly sentences in the world. Wouldn’t that be great?

* Thomas Paine’s “The American Crisis” pamphlet series of course.

You should follow me on twitter here.

Posted in Style | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Sinatra Has A Cold”: New Journalism and Gay Talese

Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” published in April 1966,  has one of the best back stories in journalism. Talese travelled to San Francisco to interview the great music legend for a profile piece. Sinatra, approaching 50, out of popularity, growing old and suffering from a cold changed his mind and refused to be interviewed. In a great moment of lemonade making out of lemons, Talese began to instead interview everyone around Sinatra:

That night I’m sitting at a bar around ten o’clock  watching people, and sure enough I notice Frank Sinatra sitting down the corner of the bar with two blondes. Sinatra goes to play pool and I witness a scene between Sinatra and a guy named Harlan Ellison, and I write it down on a shirt board. But I don’t get it all, so I go up to Ellison and ask him if I can talk to him the next day. He gives me his phone number and address. When we speak in person I ask him not just what everyone said, but what he was thinking. I always ask people what was on their mind. Were you surprised by Sinatra? Had you met him before? Did you think he was going to hit you, or did you want to pop him?

(Gay Talese, The Art of Nonfiction No. 2, The Paris Review)

The result is a Sinatra without the Sinatra’s editorialising. We get a view of the man rather than the man Sinatra wishes to tell an interviewer he is. The whole thing becomes a vivid story about the hero’s superpower weakening (his voice), the fight against his enemies (the media) and his glorious victory. If it were not an essay it could be a play or a poem. Look how he describes Sinatra’s cold:

Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel — only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.

That paragraph makes me want to start the whole thing all over again.

Talese skill was to write slowly and deliberately, while knowing his subjects to such a depth that he could reliably ascribe them with thoughts and feelings rather than just words and actions.

Often a negative review is a put-down of my technique. They don’t believe me. They think I’m faking. Talese writes so-and-so was thinking this. How do we know this person was thinking that? The reason I knew is that I interviewed them over and over again.

(The Paris Review)

Gay Talese in an excellent suit

Talese’s father was tailor; his mother made dresses. Dressing well is a family tradition.

This all makes Talese a father of New Journalism – the movement to introduce unconventional techniques borrowed and stolen from fiction into journalism whilst trying to maintain journalism’s objectivity. As with most things that call themselves “New” it is rather old now. Almost every newspaper these days will have some story in it with techniques that would have once been thought of as very cutting edge New Journalism and are now readily accepted. You will seldom, however, have read  New Journalism written quite as well as this. Esquire recently named it as one of their greatest stories of all time. You can find a copy on their website. Enjoy!

Posted in American, Essayists, New Journalism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Joan Didion ‘On Self-Respect’

Once in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. … I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect. – Joan Didion, On Self Respect

Have not we all misplaced it, at one time or another? Joan Didion is, like many essayists, at her best when she is talking about herself. There is a sense of dread throughout much of her work. At times she is the sour candy of the literary world – something against the normal palate but delicious nevertheless. Essayist, no less than anyone else, hide who they are. They surely must. Yet the best, and Didion is among the very best, give the impression of complete honesty. This is a daring start to an essay – to say that you disliked yourself – but what follows that is startling:

Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception.

It is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.

Only because she is honest do we trust her enough to listen her advice. Anyone who has been younger than they are now will know of times when everything that they thought was important fell apart, and it felt like everything that mattered to them was crumbling away. (It probably was not.) At this point you did one of two things: you either fell apart, or learnt to accept what happened as a consequence of your choices.

This is not about loving yourself, nor is it some romantic self-esteem bandwagon that says your feelings are all that matter about what happens in life. On the contrary, except in that you respect yourself, feelings do not matter at all. Treat yourself as you deserve. Tell yourself what really happened. And never lie to yourself. You cannot fool yourself and you will always find yourself out. Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov says:

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.

Therefore, do not praise yourself beyond cause, or criticise yourself beyond justice. Take the middle way and learn to respect yourself. There are dislikable people in this world, people we curse and swear at, and straight out enemies that we nevertheless grant respect. If we grant such respect to enemies, how much more readily we should grant respect to ourselves.

Experience is a great teacher, but she has so expensive fees, goes a saying. Didion has had some expensive lessons in life that she boxes up in beautiful prose and gives away. That boxing is rather perfect. Look again at the rhythm of that paragraph:

It is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.

It starts with, “It is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price.” This metaphor of price is repeated in the final sentence. These sentences sandwich a long list between them. The contrast in length of sentences creates pattern, and culminates in the short clauses in parallel structure, again using repetition for effect (“play” appears twice) and contrasting with something different (“odds”) . Good prose, as always, is more like music than magic.

It is hard to find something of hers not to recommend. I am sure we will return to her again, but for the moment I hope you enjoyed the post and do take a glance at the excellent “On Self-Respect” where you can find it.

Posted in American, Essayists | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Welcome to my obsession

In a moment of honesty I once said to a friend that, “I would rather have strong and powerful prose than rock-hard abs.”

Funny as that is, it is true. Ever since I was a teenager reading George Orwell under the bed-covers, prose stars have always impressed me more than sports stars.


Yeah, I guess he is OK. – Image: Burnell University

For me the coolest things were always writers doing something spectacular with prose; something like this:

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.

They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil. – George Orwell, “The Lion and the Unicorn”

This is the sub-ten-second 100m of introductions. That first paragraph doesn’t mess around. It tells you what the essay will be about in the most startling way. He tricks us. We are calmly talking about the “civilised human beings” in a long clause and then, to our surprise, they are killing him! That is really cool. If you don’t think so, re-read it until you do.


King of cool

The essay’s argument is not actually his best: he is in full on English nationalist mode, writing under the Blitz, and trying to argue in favour of socialist revolution. As an Irishman, English Nationalism never impressed me, but that I enjoyed it as much as I did despite its subject is testament to his genius. Orwell’s Nationalism, spliced rather with international socialism, is a charming thing.

In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious. They do not retain among their historical memories the name of a single military victory. English literature, like other literatures, is full of battle-poems, but it is worth noticing that the ones that have won for themselves a kind of popularity are always a tale of disasters and retreats. There is no popular poem about Trafalgar or Waterloo, for instance. Sir John Moore’s army at Corunna, fighting a desperate rearguard action before escaping overseas (just like Dunkirk!) has more appeal than a brilliant victory. The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction. And of the last war, the four names which have really engraved themselves on the popular memory are Mons, Ypres, Gallipoli and Passchendaele, every time a disaster. The names of the great battles that finally broke the German armies are simply unknown to the general public.

Growing up in Northern Ireland, with Orange men beating lambeg drums each summer, it was a British Nationalism I did not recognise and yet could not help but admire when Orwell spoke about it. You get the sense that he believes it. He knows his Literature, he knows his History, he knows what is going on in war. You get the sense that he knows and loves the ordinary British people. Let us be honest – you get the sense that he would a good guy to go for a pint with [1].

That really is what distinguishes an essay from any other type of non-fiction writing: you get to know the writer’s personality. Articulate assholes can probably make a decent living as reporters or novelists, but they are really going get far as Essayists. The essay is more and more about getting people to trust you. That kind of writing is what you should find here: lots of voices trying to charm you into believing in their argument. I might stretch the definition a little bit, but expect to see little snippets of  Orwell and Johnson, Zadie Smith and Joan Didion, F.Scott Fitzgerald and Clive James, David Foster Wallace and John Jeremiah Sullivan and many more. People with prose that I really really love. I hope you enjoy it and see something brilliant that you did not know about before.

[1] See “The Moon Underwater” for proof that the man knows a great deal about what a good pub looks like.

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment