CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS AND THE ART OF INSULT

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We live in the Age of Insult, though we might not think so.

Talking heads—of which Christopher Hitchens was largely one—trade insults, but at the end of the day, it all seems rather tame: Fox News might increase its ad revenue; there’s a vague sense some politician’s approval rating could go slightly up or down (and yet there might be a ‘backlash’ later that will cause a reverse).  At the end of the day, we snicker, perhaps celebrate a little if we sense a politician we hate took some ‘damage,’ and then shrug.

Past ages had duels and yellow journalism.  Wars once began with insults, not an empire nation’s calculated geo-political strategy.  In our day, we don’t do ‘pistols at dawn’ very much. The ‘politically correct,’ the default etiquette among the chattering classes, keeps civilized conversation and blogs more or less clean.  The on-line term, ‘troll’ refers not only to the peripatetic cretin, but any user who, in speaking their mind, veers too close to what might be construed even as a possible insult.  The civilized person walks in fear of insult—both another’s and their own.

This is not to say that people are not insulted anymore; road rage, violence erupting and hatred festering because of insult, real and perceived—of course this will always happen on a quotidian level.

Insult is a timeless social phenomenon, and worthy, perhaps, of more analysis than has previously been the case.

There will always be a perception that any use of insult is weak and not manly, especially when the insult burns with hate, for if you happen to hate a person or a thing that much, you ought to do something about it that gets results, instead of merely saying, “I hate you,” or “you suck!”

Yet insult can be a very effective way of fighting by other means, and sometimes it does get results.

There’s also other sides to the art of insult.

Knowing how to take insult is part of the art.

Giving insult without seeming to do so is another effective rhetorical weapon.

Few know how to win the insult game, but those who do gain a distinct advantage, staying clean while their opponent is muddied.

Hitchens was terrific at giving insults, and he probably made up his mind one evening, after a potent combination of cigarettes and whiskey, that insult was finally petty, and war, not insult, was the best way of bringing justice to the world. Hitchens’ take-no-prisoners ferocity is glimpsed in the following:  Busily insulting a priest’s religion during an on-air debate,  the Christian cleric chivalrously opined, that in spite of Hitchens’ strong objections to everything he (the priest) stood for, Hitchens would never be his “enemy.”  Hitchens proceeded to tell the priest that he (Hitchens) was indeed his “enemy,” that he (Hitchens) wanted the priest’s kind wiped off the face of the earth, and, finally, Hitchens said, the priest was obviously too stupid to know an enemy when he saw one.

But Hitchens was never any good at being insulted; you couldn’t insult him, because he was so expert at insulting you first, and once that brand of rhetoric is joined, as soon as the war ship sails, there’s no turning back.

Groups and organizations can grow more powerful when they are insulted: early Christians, jihad Muslims, post-Holocaust Jews, post-Civil Rights movement blacks.

If you don’t wish to belong to a group, and as an individual, you criticize groups, there’s little hope for you.  Calling Hitchens a belligerent drunk isn’t going to get you in trouble.  Insulting certain large groups, will.

Now that Hitchens is gone, and he can’t fend for himself in a live debate, his reputation is bound to diminish, unless a living champion steps forward, a Plato for his friend, Socrates.

True, we have those videos of Hitchens, but videos are like books or paintings—they cannot come to life and defend their subject.

Only a soul can do that.

The game of insult is a mass war, not one which favors the individual.  Hitchens probably always knew this, making him desperate and increasingly ferocious.  Hitchens must have known that after the tour was over, after the live debates ceased, his party would never have a life of its own.  Oh, sure, we’ll see his books prominently displayed in college towns for a few months, but without a group, Hitchens will be forgotten.

One thinks of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 8 and its admonition: “Thou single wilt prove none.”  Hitchens belonged to no secret society, no group, no club with a secret handshake.  Single, he will perish.

Perhaps the most famous short story in the world begins thusly: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.”   We can produce injuries in our good fortune, but once we “venture upon insult,” we are doomed. This seems to be the moral (if it have one) of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado.”  As Fortunato is being led downward, away from friends and family, he asks the narrator if he belongs to the Brotherhood of Masons, one of those groups which protects the individual and to which Fortunato belongs—and the narrator replies by opening his cloak and showing Fortunato a trowel.  “You jest,” says Fortunato, for he had made a secret sign which was incomprehensible to the narrator.  Like the priest debating Hitchens, Fortunato failed to recognize his enemy—because his enemy was playing by entirely different rules.

Poe, like Shakespeare, belongs to that rare class of writers who aspire and succeed as lasting prophets entirely on their own; belonging to no apparent group, they published work of such a high order that the work itself is enough to defend them.

What if the desire to tell the truth is stronger than the fear it may hurt someone?  Or what if that fear is stronger?  Insult comes about from a number of hidden factors.

Hitchens’ war against Christianity reminds us of something Poe once wrote.  Poe wasn’t overtly religious, though he often spoke abstractly of “the deity.”  I think Hitchens would have agreed with the following.  According to Poe, one should not love one’s enemies—for this was the same as hating one’s friends.

Is insult a necessary fact of life, a kind of polite war by other means, or is it something deadly and to be avoided?

The clouds insult the sun.  The sun insults the clouds.  Is every human accomplishment, or victory, an insult to someone, somewhere?

Which is more damaging, the public insult, or the secret one?

When it comes to insult, perception is everything.

A poetry review may be brilliant, or ugly—depending on the point of view.

Is it possible to write poetry which cannot be insulted?  Yes, the John Ashbery poem is insult-proof, and that’s the secret of its appeal.  The Ashbery poem, by having no overt meaning, keeps things close to its vest; the poem of no-meaning is critic-proof.

But is criticism the same as insult?

The sacred, by definition, is that which can be, and ought not to be, insulted.

If the sacred is a powerful human need, it is going to conflict with a fear of insult.  One wonders why anyone would ever put themselves in a position to be insulted, and yet the sacred gives meaning to life; being free of insult, as much as that might be desired, does not.

If history is an endless battle between a pursuit of happiness and a pursuit of license, it seems, as a society, we passed from the former to the latter sometime in the 1960s.

The more conservative elements of the Catholic Church are insulted by homosexual rights; conversely, homosexuals feel insulted by the rules of the Catholic Church.  Is one side of this debate “sacred,” and the other, not?  Is homosexuality “sacred” to some?   Why would a kid in high school ever choose to be homosexual—who would voluntarily suffer that social exile, and all it entails?  But who knows why homosexuality is desired—save those who do, in fact, choose it?  Maybe there is something glorious, something sacred even, to a person who makes that kind of choice.  Why did the early Christians choose their path, when torture and death was often the result?

If I had feelings of guilt because I was having an adulterous affair, or having sex before marriage, would it be fair of me to blame the Catholic Church?   A homosexual, by its simple definition, is 1) a sexual being and 2) cannot have sex within Catholic marriage.  The Catholic Church’s rule against homosexuality has nothing to do with homosexuals, per se, then.

Insult is a kind of magic force; it works non-materially.  Everything else being equal, a racial slur, a word, will entirely upset the apple cart.

An insult can even be wordless, can even be unknown.

For instance, I once heard someone say the reason there is objection to homosexuality in some quarters is purely mathematical—because homosexuality selectively avoids one of the two genders, it always insults one of the genders, by excluding the man or the woman from the most sacred and intimate joining together of two human beings.

But can an insult be as abstract as all that?

As a rationalist, Christopher Hitchens would say that an insult has nothing to do with the truth; that an insult given and taken involves pure emotion; and that none of the feelings surrounding an insult should ever be trusted.

Perhaps Hitchens was gloriously right.

Or perhaps Hitchens was stupidly wrong.

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14 Comments

  1. David said,

    December 30, 2011 at 7:39 am

    Tom, this is a great post. There’s a lot to ponder here.

    Hitchens proceeded to tell the priest that he (Hitchens) was indeed his “enemy,” that he (Hitchens) wanted the priest’s kind wiped off the face of the earth, and, finally, Hitchens said, the priest was obviously too stupid to know an enemy when he saw one.

    According to Poe, one should not love one’s enemies—for this was the same as hating one’s friends.

    Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies, not to pretend that enemies were friends. Jesus called his disciples friends and he knew well enough that the Temple authorities who sought to kill him (and would eventually persecute his friends) were enemies indeed.

    Hitchens was right about one thing. That priest was stupid and didn’t know an enemy when he saw one. What neither Poe nor Hitchens understood was that loving our enemies unto death is ultimately a great gift to our friends. For us Catholics, that gift is the presence of the crucified Jesus in the Eucharist.

    I sampled one of Poe’s literary reviews the other night. Withering stuff, but not the stuff of insult. Criticism is not the same as insult. Criticism is in the service of truth, insult is in the service of ego.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    December 30, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Here is Poe’s exact quote (from his “Marginalia,” jottings he published in various magazines:

    As far as I can understand the “loving our enemies.” It implies
    the hating of our friends.

    Poe also wrote:

    What can be more soothing, at once to a man’s Pride and to his Conscience, than the conviction that, in taking vengeance on his enemies for injustice done him, he has simply to do them justice in return?

    “Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies, not to pretend that enemies were friends. Jesus called his disciples friends and he knew well enough that the Temple authorities who sought to kill him (and would eventually persecute his friends) were enemies indeed.”

    Well put.

  3. David said,

    December 30, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Poe’s view here is not Christian. I’m not judging or condemning him for it, just pointing out the obvious. 🙂 Again, the Christian (specifically Catholic) view is that Jesus’ loving of his enemies unto death on the Cross has come down to his friends (i.e., his disciples) as the ultimate gift of the Holy Eucharist. It implies the very opposite of hating his friends.

  4. Des said,

    December 30, 2011 at 7:13 pm

  5. David said,

    December 31, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    According to his own theory, the “supposed” Christopher Hitchens is non-existent. His legacy is a vapor. What was that buzzing? It’s gone now, never mind.

  6. Dominic Giovanni said,

    January 1, 2012 at 12:46 am

    I came to Christopher Hitchens late, too busy in my adult working life making fine furniture to worry about who was saying what to whom. One of the fellows who worked alongside me often would debate about art, literature and life with me for years on end. To him, Hitchens was a god who could do or say no wrong. To myself, Christopher Hitchens wasn’t a poet and didn’t fit into any category that I cared about.

    Since my late twenties I only thought about poets, Irish, Scots and British poets for the most part, with a scattering of Americans thrown in. You, see, I am an Irish citizen, a citizen of the United Kingdom, and an American all at the same time. It may sound complicated but I assure you, reader, that because of my birth it’s not. As far as I know Hitchens never wrote anything that inspired me to write a poem about him. I only heard about him second-hand while I sawed and sanded the years of my life away. Then it was announced the man was dying. Thus began my late interest.

    Cowper in his “Task” put it bluntly:

    All flesh is grass, and its glory fades,
    Like the fair flow’r dishevell’d in the wind;
    Riches have wings, and grandeur is a dream;
    The man we celebrate must find a tomb,
    And we that worship him, ignoble graves.

    Dom Giovanni
    Irish Italian poet

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 1, 2012 at 4:08 pm

      Yes, Cowper did put it bluntly there, and sometimes the blunt can be very beautiful. I think we need more bluntness today…

      “too busy in my adult working life making fine furniture to worry about who was saying what to whom.”

      so that’s what all the good people have been doing instead of reading Scarriet!

      Welcome, Dom, happy new year, and thanks for your comment. We try and make Scarriet a place where things “fine” matter (including furniture) and “who was saying what to whom” matters, too.

      I just saw a new book in the library about a man who took up his father’s work, exploring Italy and all the many references in the many Shakespeare plays which take place in Italy (aside from the History plays, Italy was by far Shakespeare’s choice of locale). We Americans don’t often realize how relatively small, and yet packed with history Europe is, how closely related, for instance the Celts and Romans are, etc. Americans, especially poets, don’t appreciate the influence of the European, the rest of the world, and the old. Poets act as if there’s something wrong with you, that you are highly prejudiced, if 90% of your favorite poets are not born after 1900 (or 1870, if you count all the Modernist poets you are expected to adore). The Italian renaissance, and Plato’s influence on it, was obviously important to Shakespeare. The past is important—not just because it is old and quaint, but because there are “fine” things there.

      It’s certainly not too late to take an interest in Hitchens, and there’s plenty of writings and videos out there. Something about his spirit attracts me, even though I don’t agree wtih everything he says. He’s an example, I think, of many virtues and flaws writ large: vanity, intellectuality, honesty, desire for truth, child-like anti-piety, causticity, etc.

      One of the things that makes discussions about religion and politics difficult is that there’s never one point of view that fits all: the rhetoric for the sheep is never the same as the rhetoric for the wolves, the public and the private points of view don’t match in any of us…before we even open our mouths to speak, there’s already a splintering…not that we shouldn’t try…and we should always keep our eyes on the “fine…”

      Tom

  7. David said,

    January 1, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    Deathbed Confession

    Glutted on righteousness chewed with deliberation,
    baptismal wool glistening with the oil of spiritual pride,

    the lamb has grown fat in these latter days, so who can blame
    the wolf for narrowing his yellow eye and sharpening

    his faculties to shrive
    that unrepentant throat
    in a most delectable absolution?

    © 2011 David A. Welch

    A warning to myself, the sheep tempted to gloat over the wolf’s death.

    • tom said,

      January 1, 2012 at 6:14 pm

      I don’t think an upright Catholic man like you needs to worry about warning yourself, David.

  8. David said,

    January 1, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    Thank you, Tom. On the other hand:

    … whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall. (1 Cor 10:12)

    In taking up my sword against the supposed “godless”, I let go of God’s hand and fall.

  9. thomasbrady said,

    January 2, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    Reading Shelley’s ‘Queen Mab’ (with notes) is to come face-to-face with a radical atheism/Marxism just as potent as Hitchens’, but this from a 19 year old in 1812.

    Shelley, however, attacks Malthus as a sexless priest, whereas Hitchens uses Malthus as a cudgel against Mother Teresa. Shelley was disgusted that Malthus would deny the poor their only real pleasure—sex.

    Over-population is perhaps the most divisive political issue.

    Shelley is such a good poet that I can’t help but listen attentively to his prose; perhaps this is wrong. No contemporary writes prose and poetry as beautifully polished as Shelley. Supposedly a moral monster, I have my doubts. He lost a large inheritance because of his beliefs.

    Shelley is one of the more brilliant and interesting historical figures who ever lived.

    If I am an atheist, it is because of Shelley.

  10. David said,

    January 2, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    My atheist son (age 19) has been trying to persuade me to read Sam Harris. I cannot be bothered. From the little that I’ve gleaned, Harris’ religious opinions are conventional and boring. Shelley, on the other hand, presents a larger challenge. I might take up Queen Mab, for my own poetic education if nothing else.

  11. David said,

    January 2, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    Over-population is perhaps the most divisive political issue.

    I think that it is the issue that will, before this century is done, be used to drive the Catholic Church back into the catacombs. I mean this in all seriousness.

    Interesting that Shelley and the Church would both earn the scorn of Malthusians for promoting fruitful sex among the poor.

  12. Dominic Giovanni said,

    January 4, 2012 at 12:19 am

    Percy Bysshe Shelley and I are opposites. His last thoughts perished on the storm-tossed coast of Livorno; likewise my own was seeded by several years living alongside the sun-burned sands of the South China Sea. We are opposites but because we are human we are much alike. I am quite possibly, actually, really, not as avowedly skeptic as Shelley was in his short life. When I was the age that he was on the day of his death I had already resolved to be something like the man. Those we think so highly of we often attempt to imitate or so I am told.

    Behind me as I write is one seven-foot tall by four-foot wide and still overflowing bookcase dedicated only to the books of Percy Shelley and his circle – Byron, Trelawney, T.L. Peacock, Leigh Hunt, John Keats whom Shelley himself revered, and many others important to the man. In over thirty-five years of accumulating often difficult to acquire early biographies, pamphlets, books of letters, and more, I have long given up my youthful obsession with the poet. But like Browning I still have much admiration for Shelley, and Browning and Shelley were also opposites in thought and temperament. Browning’s (both R.B. and E.B.B.) books won’t outstrip Shelley’s anytime soon, but I am far ahead of the non-selective university crowd.

    Sometimes when I have been sailing or kayaking deep into the heart of the Chesapeake my thoughts turn to Shelley and the copy of Keat’s poems found on his corpse. I would like to know if that sea-swollen book still exists? Some of Shelley’s ashes do exist entombed upon an ornately bound book cover preserved by his wife.

    Thanks for the reply. I just happened upon this site. I do not know why, and I saw that my email address and name were already filled in. I was astonished at how that may have happened.

    Dom Giovanni


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