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Thomas Larson: The Fearless Oratory of Christopher Hitchens

February 6, 2014

The relationship between Hitchens’ written and public voices illustrates the potential of the social author.

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Christopher Hitchens, center. Image from Flickr via redteam

By Thomas Larson

In Mortality, Christopher Hitchens’ trenchant elegy to the vocal chords he was losing to esophageal cancer, he writes that, “To a great degree, in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation . . . were innate and essential to me.” At the Guardian, where, just out of Oxford, he got his journalistic start, his mentor told him that his prose was well argued but dull. Write “‘more like the way you talk.’” Life-launching advice. One swipe of the screen back in Mortality, he notes, “It may be nothing to boast about, but people tell me that if their radio or television was on, even in the next room, they could always pick out my tones and know that I was ‘on’ too.”

Gone in December 2011, Hitchens remains the apotheosis of the social author. Dead but, via YouTube and C-Span and rhetorical legend, still with us. Cameras, audiences, and radio hosts adored him and the drama of his intellect, especially when he nailed an opponent for desultory thinking. Among his many books, hundreds of columns, and war-wrung journalism, there are also videos of his speeches, debates, interviews, panels, book talks, and more, which can be found collected on a Kickass Torrent, totaling 93 Gigabytes. To study the whole Hitch, future critics must go through this trove as well as his print oeuvre.

Hitchens mined the multimedial: audiobooks read in his fulsome Brit; videos of debates with adversaries, who typically cower, on religion, U.S. atrocities in central and south America, the Iraq war; TV clips where he defends his atheism in which, after smoking brought on his cancer, he would still not relinquish to their “don’t-you-believe-now” theological abuse, (Hitchens said his haters claimed theistic justice when his throat was cursed, which he proudly labeled his “organ of blasphemy”); and the hundreds of deadline dispatches and pithy books the man effortlessly, it seemed, penned. As a magazine polemicist, he didn’t publish his first substantial tract, The Missionary Position, until age 46, which suggested he couldn’t wait to get back out on the hustings and, in front of an another capacity crowd (friend or foe), develop a contentious idea or launch a barbed thought—his speech studded with such spikes as “up with which we will not put,” “Sir, you’ve misled yourself,” and “is it not the case.”

Trained in the persuasive arts, Hitchens may have single-handedly returned the debate to its requisite perch, among intellectuals, at least.

Author as caduceus—talker entwined with scribbler. Unlike his friends and contemporaries, the socialphobic Martin Amis and the macabre Ian McEwan (novelists who don’t need, and were never inclined, to socialize their authorship), Hitchens lifted his audience to his level by the passion and gravity of his voice, the moral sting of his attacks, the rhythmic swagger of his sentences, popping out of him, on the spot, like spring jonquils. And by his writing gift.

By my tally, Hitchens’s oratorical fearlessness stems from three things: his Oxford education: it’s common for grads to be supercilious arguers, the best among them suit-coated for Parliament by the time they’re thirty; the masculinity of his righteousness, fueled unquenchably by whiskey; and his conviction that writers must bring the bad news as often as they do the good. His classic on Mother Teresa was, as one critic wrote, “a dirty job but someone had to do it.”

Hitchens neither wrote nor spoke with his latter-day swagger from the get-go. If we back up to his early columns for The New Statesmen in England and The Nation in America, his forums in the 1970s and early 1980s, he was an aggressive polemicist but not yet a mesmerizing speaker. Hitchens may have sounded his scoundrel best to friends and editors who loved his vulpine conversation. But it took time before we’d soaked up enough of him, and he had seasoned as a master manipulator of the heated moment: his pugilistics with “religious” leaders didn’t begin until 2006 after, alone on the Left, he’d championed Bush and Cheney’s war in Iraq. (Trained in the persuasive arts, Hitchens may have single-handedly returned the debate to its requisite perch, among intellectuals, at least.)

Many of us loved (I know I did) to hear Hitch showering contempt on theocracies or ridiculing the bloviators of mass TV. This “Hitchslap” on Sean Hannity’s rump must have smarted: “You give me the awful impression—I hate to have to say it—of someone who hasn’t read any of the arguments against your position, ever.” Note, in such moments, the hyena glare in Hitchens’ eye when he knows his opponent has fouled his own argument. My dream debate: Hitch vs. Dennis Rodman.

Indeed, read Ian Parker’s 2006 New Yorker profile, as brilliant a commentary as the man in the scope, to hear tales of Hitch’s talent. “Many guests can report,” Parker writes, “seeing Hitchens step out of the room after dinner, write a column, then step back almost before the topic of conversation has changed.” Or this: one day, for a book review, Hitchens wrote a thousand words in the morning, which he calls “my usual ambition,” then another thousand words with lunch his stopping point, after which, sure enough, the review was done and he sent it. Or these jarring descriptions by Parker of Hitchens’s facility: “He wrote God Is Not Great in four months”; “He almost never uses the backspace, delete, or cut-and-paste keys”; and “What emerges [from his pen] is ready for publication, except for one weakness: he’s not an expert punctuator, which reinforces the notion that he is in the business of transcribing a lecture he can hear himself giving.”

***

This last is essential to the social author. There’s a kind of Muhammad Ali in some of us whose mind like a mouthy teen runs constantly. In the egregious cases of Ali and Hitchens, proximity to mic and assembly arouses the mind to open the mouth so the pearls or the parodies tumble out, prefigured from one chamber or newly uttered from another. This was endemic to Hitchens’ biology, sprung from his multimedial M.O.

Hitchens pushed his words into the public arena, insisting they be part of the rabble he roused. The one question I wanted to ask him was this: Did he write so he could speak, or speak about what he’d written?

Let me first suggest why Hitchens epitomizes the social author with a nod to the new authorship of the late 16th century. On the heels of the printing press, four oral forms saw their works first copied out as manuscripts, later published in very limited editions as books: the sermon, poetry, drama, and the Bible. These forms, studied prior via memorization and recitation in groups, became classics. Among the best were the plum sermons of John Donne and the Renaissance drama of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, et al. In our time, Hitchens reverses the oral-to-print revolution. His writing-speaking resurrects the drama of the soap-boxed, sermonizing, political pamphleteer; for example, in his polemic The Trial of Henry Kissinger, in which he charges Nixon’s secretary of state with war crimes. Post-pub, the charge became the subject of documentary films, media hounding of Kissinger, and Hitchens’ ceaseless calls for Henry’s head. He followed up his acerbic text with a passionate sales talk, which had an effect a book could not. Unlike most writers of the 20th century, Hitchens pushed his words into the public arena, insisting they be part of the rabble he roused. The one question I wanted to ask him was this: Did he write so he could speak, or speak about what he’d written?

***

Here’s the hillock I want to climb. Actually three of them, from which to see the new vistas of social authoring that Hitchens has wrought.

First, the writing-speaking author reanimates language as social exchange. From where do our words issue? Not only torturous concentration at the keyboard, but also tongue-thrust, aired (mind and mouth converge) via direct engagement. This is not a banal point. Hitchens writes in his memoir that one early insight about his future craft came when “I understood that words could function as weapons.” It was a childhood incident; a confidently launched retort kneecapped a bully. Speech slung at the ogre: David versus Goliath. Not always, but often such encounters force the other off his game—he must listen, punch back, think and reason on his feet. This is a good deal removed from the reader’s one-sided, silent, solipsistic contemplation of a written work.

To whom do we write? Those who have provoked us to answer a call, an accusation, a goading, a desire for banter or honest dialogue. But at some point, we are likely to be looped into a community of other speakers and conversers. Which underscores another of language’s purposes—to induce with language cooperative, expressive differences among its users.

[Hitchens, like Bill Clinton] renders thought in winding yet full paragraphs: thesis, examples, endpoint or argument, counterargument, refutation. Not one “you know.” They, these speakers, may as well be writing.

In Hitchens’ case, his bond to the dialogic, especially those whom he needs to convince, was decided upon by that bully. From an early age Hitchens was marked by this directness, and knew he could direct his speaking-writing so his position (his purpose) was known: no purely literary form intruded—nature essay, encomium, lyric poem, short story of Beckett-like despair. No wonder Hitchens got so good, given his fixation on the rhetorical form. When I hear him speak (as is also the case with another master, a man Hitchens despised, Bill Clinton), each renders thought in winding yet full paragraphs: thesis, examples, endpoint or argument, counterargument, refutation. Not one “you know.” They, these speakers, may as well be writing.

Here you may say such live verbal dexterity is true only of polemicists who promulgate a cause and put a head on their pour with literary allusion. Not so. Consider poetry after modernism, that the metaphoric abstraction of Wallace Stevens has no counterpart in Allen Ginsberg. Allied with music and stubbornly topical, much written/spoken poetry since the Beats is performative—slam poets, hip-hop artists, singer-songwriters. Talk about heard language.

Second, the compulsion for authors to write and to speak carries with it, and is energized by, a desire to relight the darkened halls of intellectual debate, shrouded, as they have been, by our monastic “Internet communication.” Hitchens much preferred to clash with, as opposed to assault, organized ideologies and their apologists. When he compared eternal life in heaven under God to living in North Korea under Kim Jong-Il, well, that got noticed. College kids, and adults thirsty for such bracing waters, flocked to his God/no-God contests, as did Christian stalwarts who failed to best him. Such yolk-breaking discourse makes bestsellers. What’s more, gilded slogans like “religion poisons everything” and “no one left to lie to” summon big crowds to book signings.

Third, Hitchens’ most devilish peroration featured a kind of vilifying free speech—necessarily assaultive because, he felt, it must confront the pious, unbroken metanarratives of our culture. In his orb, true free speech is as much heard as it is provoked: its unspokenness, typically self-censored, is what it’s freed from. In our time, write a book about a vicious, immoral God and few read it. But debate former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the subject, as Hitchens did, and the world turns out. Such unscripted intercourse is vitalizing for both positions. The book about one’s position just doesn’t cut it. That position needs to be aired.

Hitchens trained his sights on Paine and Jefferson, who trumpeted free speech, or on Kissinger and Clinton, who gamed its protections. Would we have questioned Mother Teresa and her abortion politics or Kissinger’s role in Allende’s assassination without Hitch’s fomenting us? We all shrink from the astringency of such multimedial loudness: vide today’s radio and TV opinion-mongering, choir-preaching, or the latest turn, “affirmative journalism.” I volume down the noise and put up with broadcasters’ gaffes and Chris Christie’s apologies because our New Media echo chamber is quite good at inciting dissent. Hitchens, case in point.

A writer’s freed speech—that deep-set, arena-ringing wish and commandment to disclose self and social truths and have them heard live, pre- or post-page—revivifies a core need most authors share: the attention of a reader.

Of course, rampant speech can be shrill, egoistic, ad hominem. An example is how 9/11, hooked to the growth of cable TV and YouTube, unloosed a shower of bloviation. Post-attack, with Hitchens piloting, media talking heads were often as obstreperous as the anti-Vietnam jihadists of the 1960s. A good thing. Yes, there is always too much talking, writing, tweeting. But one tolerable result of New Media is that free speech and social authorship—writing to and speaking in the mediated moment—begets millions of forums and blog posts. There, with Phil Robertson a metaphor for the rights of idiots and Edward Snowden for the rights of citizens, the chatter crosses the shifting line between what should and shouldn’t be said. As I say, a good thing.

***

There is a sameness to Hitchens’ style which is absorbingly authorial in print and impassionedly tornadic in speech. Both are served by Hitchens’ merging (though I believe it was unconscious) his erudition and his avoidance of literariness. By that I mean Hitchens did not invent forms or take imaginative gambles with writing genres. He prized the column, the tract, the debate, established molds he exceled at while young and which carried his fire.

In his chatty autobiography, Hitch-22, the fact bulge of his learning and his friendships goes long, taking in a politically evolved and self-satisfied half-century. His audio reading lacks the verve of his speeches, and it seems that getting down just a tenth of the anecdotes and the erudition was enough, damn a compendious revision. (One drawback for the social author: so accustomed are we to a public writer’s voice, accent, gestures, and personality—those live, improvisatory surprises—that any leggy text without a commanding style may fall flat. I’ll examine this more next time with Rachel Maddow.)

Like a war correspondent, Hitchens favored the dispatch, a bell-ringing tract done for topical publication or to publicize the topic. This applied to book assignments as well. Why Orwell Matters, Letters to a Contrarian, and Thomas Jefferson: Author of America were each part of a series, snugly decamped around an editor’s wishes and a book-length quarrel. Indeed, these series allowed him to be what he prized: a writer paid, then hired anew to speak on what he’d just written. And all this without a website.

This first head on the Mount Rushmore of the social author changes nothing of the writer’s art, the toil of say, Joyce Carol Oates, who, I sense, tunnels her way in her room twelve hours a day. Writing teaches us how we think. Writing teaches us that we can think better than we do. And writing well, whether read aloud or read by others or anchored as a text for a speech, remains a primary goal. But a writer’s freed speech—that deep-set, arena-ringing wish and commandment to disclose self and social truths and have them heard live, pre- or post-page—revivifies a core need most authors share: the attention of a reader. (This is harder and harder to get when 25,000 books are published by U.S. publishers alone every month, and there are fewer outlets to see them than ever.) Hitchens set the writing-speaking bar so high that in our lifetimes I doubt any author may clear it.

Thomas Larson is the author of three books:
The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative
, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and the forthcoming The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease.

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