Hitch and Irwin: Warriors for Hard Times, Global Province Letter, 03 October 2012

'Life is like riding a bicycle: to keep your balance, you must keep moving' -- Albert Einstein. (He was apparently a bit of bicyclist and you can find this one on the internet under 'inspirational bicycle quotes'). ---from Nigel Rees Quote…Unquote

Boundary Breakers. When times are good, we are in need of men in grey flannel suits who know the rules and do the obvious. But what about bad times? Who can show us the way then? Here are a couple of candidates who unfortunately have passed from the scene. But we can look for more like them--men whose contrary brains or overwhelming bonhomie can get us out of a funk and onto the next battle.

Hitch. Christopher Eric Hitchens, son of British Navy folk, was another one of those well-spoken Englishman who come to life on the American stage, but, with a difference, since he wrote his own lines. We encountered his voice in essay, poetry, magazine article, and, of course, in debate after debate, from one end of the continent to another. Son of Royal Navy folk, he was pushed to better things by a mother determined to see him become part of British aristocracy but was thrust into Marxism and eccentric intellectualism by combustible genes that were stoked by cigarettes and alcohol. He was enough of a renegade to take root in American soil.

He was passionately wrong about a lot of things, but so are we all. We just lack the passion. He became a staunch advocate for our bloody and costly adventure in Iraq, and it is fair to say that his views in that quarter were rather silly. Yet, as a thinker and a poet, he brought a whole lot to matters metaphysical and eternal. A devout atheist, he starred at putting pinpricks into religions and the gods that they elevated. Surely, he won in his debates about God and the like with the Reverend Al Sharpton and Tony Blair, even if those politicos brought some very clever sophistry to the table.

It is a pleasurable and valuable to have Hitchens and other men of moment arguing about the unknowable. Strangely, in this age, we often leave matters of god and man and the eternal to weak, narrow minds who trivialize godly affairs with their ignorant bleatings. To deal with the metaphysical, we are in need of Hegels instead of hustlers. A Hitchens brings divinity into our consciousness, even if he chooses to write off the existence of a supreme being.

It is ironic to have Hitchens denying God or gods. For in his manner and conceit, he very much seems like an ancient mortal who jousted with the very colorful Greek gods that roamed freely at the beginning of our civilization. The Greeks, in fact, gave birth to the intellectual feast at which he gorged some thousands of years later, from Plato to Zeus. In fact, the World War II hero and great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, a chap much celebrated by Hitchens, appears to contend in Mani that Christianity was the last great invention of the classical Greeks. This should have given Hitchens some pause for thought when he was casting his barbs at the divine. Greekish gods and then one god are part of our deep tradition.

Cancer. His last book, Mortality, is short, to the point, Hitchens at his best. He tells what it is like to wrestle with cancer, to suffer gradual dismemberment as the disease progresses, to sustain his ideas about the eternal as death dances closer, and to wittily admit to some humbling as time eats away at him. Even at his end his antic spirit shines through. The writing is not only stylish, but is so direct that it seems like he is having a conversation just with me, or just with you, an intimacy that springs from his power to lay himself bare. Even the writings of the saints and the prophets do not seem as revealing. His voice is so clear on what it is like to decay day by day and to think about oblivion.

Of course, there's yet another reason why Mortality speaks to some of us. In late 1988, we ourselves played peek-a-boo with death, the most expert of physicians thinking we probably did not have long to live. They even gave us the odds: 40%. This little game lasted until mid-1990, when, by some chance or stroke of the gods, we fell into remission. Many of our own sensations were close to those of Hitchens. Our relationship to those in Wellville (the healthy) was as strange as his.

A year or so after our cancer retreated, a reporter asked us how the brush with death had changed our life. "Ah," we said, "we no longer have time or patience for the small stuff." A little bit of death in one's life makes one see things crisply, pushing banalities out of sight. As Hitchens would have it, the trivia spewed out by well-wishers is endless and must be shunted or laughed aside: "In her famous essay on Hollywood, Pauline Kael described it as a place where you could die of encouragement. That may still be true of Tinseltown; in Tumortown you sometimes feel you may expire from sheer advice."

Irwin. Irwin Edman was just as accessible a writer, just as good at making complex thoughts useful to the common man, but skilled at dealing with an entirely different kind of adversity. We do not look to him for instruction on death, the divine, or destiny. Even as a philosopher, he brings a practical bent to everyday human affairs, figuring out how to live with the world as it is. He mused about how to stay on the high road through America's Great Depression, World War II, and the early years of the Cold War. He was best at dealing with societies gone astray and nations asunder, not the depravations of the gods.

Born in New York's Morningside Heights, he was educated in Manhattan, became a philosopher at Columbia, and moved easily amongst the bright and beautiful of New York City throughout his career. He was very much the academic don that each of us would have liked, but missed, at our university. He celebrated and lived a broadly civilized life, but was not unaware of the cruel realities of war, poverty, and dislocation that troubled the world in which he lived.

The secret of the good life amidst troubled times was to surround oneself with a host of compelling interests and broadly intriguing people such that life did not seem too dour. His memento Philosopher's Holiday nicely endorses this prescription. In it he takes a vacation from philosophy in order to revisit the places and people that had enriched his life. His chapter on "Sane Englishmen" salutes the very kind of people he himself would most want to emulate:

I know, of course, and knew then that there are business men in America who like to paint, who collect old furniture and who love old books, and business men in England who are duller Babbitts, but I chance never to have met anyone quite like Mr. Broadbent, with his modest expertness, his self-deprecating connoisseurship, his unself-conscious citizenship of a world of beauty in which he imaginatively lived and to which in a small, unpretentious way he tried to make his contribution. Either England is filled with such people or some accident of destiny has brought a large number of them into my orbit.

Edman excelled at praising and enjoying understated men of capacious interests, but still was realistic enough to worry about a barely post-Imperial England whose class-ridden ways still trampled on the fellow at the bottom of the economic ladder. The world's several tragedies always lurk in the background of his writing, even as he rejoices in civilization's brightest and best in his daily life.

Fiction, poems, travel, and easy-going essays filled out his life as his personal philosophy took him beyond logic to experiments with the creative life. One bit of verse was entitled "Portrait of a Connoisseur." Surely it was autobiographical, as was much of his writing.

Making the Complex Sublime. The times are throwing obstacles aplenty our way. Simple, glib answers put no stop to the hurricanes, viruses, financial sandstorms and worse that are pointed our way. There are no safe ports in which to invest, no good places to store one's money. Diseases once thought to be over, such as tuberculosis, are back in force, hardily resistant to the wonder drugs of yesteryear. So we need a Hitch and Irwin to reckon with the complexities and translate them in ways that attract the eye and ear of every man. Finally, we must face up to and deal with complexity when all about us very average men are ladling out pedestrian answers that answer nothing.

P.S. "A derecho (-ray-choh, from Spanish: derecho, "straight") is a widespread, long-lived, straight-linewindstorm that is associated with a fast-moving band of severe thunderstorms," according to Wikipedia. They're a good metaphor for the cruel blasts which again and again are sweeping through human affairs. Dealing with them requires a different sort of cuss...

P.P.S. Philosopher's Holidaywas another one of those delightful books on the family bookshelves during our teens--that we ignored. We were sure that it would be boring. The best is often close at hand, if only we would not ignore it.

P.P.P.S. A number of interesting Englishmen, risen from the economic and class depths, will have not truck with a god. God for them is associated with the Church of England and the like, the church then being viewed as yet another imperialistic trick to keep them in their place.

P.P.P.P.S. We are now working our way towards an entirely different kind of economy and polity. We are in need of unusual intelligences who can frame popular arguments to get us there. And they won't be Bob Dylan.  Above all, they seem to believe that the most dangerous thing we can do is not to take risks.


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