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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