atheism, Christopher Hitchens, James Joyce, literature, Marcel Proust, Saul Bellow, Swann's Way, the Adventures of Augie March, Ulysses
Christopher Hitchens was best known as an outspoken atheist, and atheists are often known (absurdly) as being consumed by a vacuum, as if the rejection of the biblical god means they do and think nothing else. It’s strange, but I have often encountered the rejoinder to religion’s disparagement, “but atheism offers nothing.” Of course! Nobody claims any different. It’s important to reject conventional notions of god insofar as the old myths inform new and otherwise stupid laws, customs, morals, wars, etc. But the world is full of fantastic stuff, and the god conversation gets very boring very quickly. Among other things, Hitchens is underappreciated for being fantastic on literature. Check it out.
On Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March:
Hitch wrote the intro to a 2001 reprinting of Bellow’s classic. He very nicely reframes the importance of bringing Yiddish out of the American Jewish ghetto in a time before guys like Roth, Heller, Woody Allen were around. Hitch tours the book, describing nicely the protoganist’s central theme, “He decides to march himself against the continent, seeking no one’s permission and deferring to no idea of limitation. His making, like his omnivorous education, will be his own.” This nicely encapsulates what makes Bellow’s vision American, and, this done by an immigrant, what was new about it at the time. Hitch is refreshingly not at all priggish, something unfortunately associated with literary criticism: “To be blunt, Mr. March is led around by his cock.” Hitchens’ point is that the Bildungsroman requires the character be shaped by love, poverty, and war (incidentally, the name of the anthology wherein these writings are contained), and Bellow carefully includes plenty of episodes about Augie’s occupational hustles, romances, and his later foray in the navy. For the introduction of a book Hitchens gives much away, and perhaps it’d be better placed at the end of the novel, but his essay shows a deep love for Bellow’s language and heart, a charming affinity for many of its characters and episodes, and a great understanding of its place in history.
On Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way:
Hitchens is good on Proust, even if general. I like his summary of Proust’s achievement: “His work par excellence exposes and clarifies the springs of human motivation. Through his eyes we see what actuates the dandy and the lover and the grandee and hypocrite and the poseur, with a transparency unequalled except in Shakespeare or George Eliot. And this ability, at times so piercing and at times even alarming, is not mere knowingness…not…the product of cynicism. To be so perceptive and yet so innocent.” This nails Proust. Like Tolstoy, who shows you how everyone operates without telling you how to think about them or without revealing the author’s own opinion, it took me a while to see that Proust was having a private laugh at these people. Perhaps this had to do with me reading in translation, or is the fault of my own ineptitude. Proust doesn’t barge into the text and tell you how to judge, nor do his characters.
Oddly, without being able to speak French himself (like this writer, sadly) Hitchens sheds some good light on the various translations. “The whole point of downstairs peasant wisdom, as quoted with amusement by those upstairs, is that it be brisk, vulgar, and memorable.” This in response to a dirty, funny limerick that is five lines in one English version, three in another, and only two in French. Oh, to understand the original!
Fine fine, I’ll include them both for fun and to show how radically different the same thing can be translated:
“Dear, dear, it’s just as they used to say in my poor mother’s day:
‘Frogs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails,
And dirty sluts in plenty,
Smell sweeter than roses in youg men’s noses
When the heart is one-and-twenty.'”
The Davis Version:
“Oh dear! It’s just as they used to say in my poor mother’s patois:
‘Fall in love with a dog’s bum,
And thou’ll think it pretty as a plum.'”
Proust can’t be discussed without talking about time. Hitchens relates how as a child he was told that Oxford-to Woodstock was 10 miles apart, and he always imagined any future distance of 10 miles to be essentially this small journey. It told him, warmly, that he was nearly home. Proust is all about time and mnemonic devices that unleash floods of memory, but it’s also about “slowing [time] down, if not exactly holding it up, so as to enable himself to take longer sips of the precious but evaporating fluid.” Nicely put, Hitch.
On James Joyce and Ulysses:
Hitchens knocks this one out of the park! My favourite for sure. He nails Joycean double and triple entendres while describing neatly the humour, the fun, and the humanity in it. Wordplay is often considered snobby or stuffy, and this review rightly makes Joyce seem like a devoted humanist as lewd and funny as he was sophisticated!
He begins with a “Joycean” joke. A surly English overseer sees what he thinks is a bum Irishman approaching him for work, shabby and pipe in mouth. The supervisor says, “You don’t look to me like you know the difference between a girder and a joist.” “I do too!” The Irishman says indignantly, “The first of them wrote Faust and the second one wrote Ulysses.” This is paraphrased for brevity, but the point is, at Hitchens puts it, it doesn’t just revenge itself on the English caricature of the Irish as stupid (of all things…the people of Yeats, Swift, Shaw, and Wilde!), but this mutable brand of English is very much Joyce’s native language. He goes on in it indefinitely.
Hitchens is especially great describing how much masturbation and other bodily functions (burping, shitting, farting, nose picking, a lot more) figure into the novel. It’s not just vulgar: Joyce inverts the historically accepted search for finding heroism in war and killing by placing the body centrally in the human condition. Of course, added to this is the impossibly sophisticated “ventriloquizing” of Shakespeare in young Stephen’s round table discussion of art, and the general theme of Greek and Jewish culture coming together in the uniting of Leopold Bloom, the Earthy wandering Jew figure, with Stepehen Dedaulus, the intellectual with the Greek name. “The great Victorian Matthew Arnold thought that the true cultural balance was between Hellenism and Hebraism, or between the polytheistic, the philosophical, and the aesthetic and the spare, stern monotheism of the Old Testament.” In Ulysses, these two traditions in the climax of the book, and of Western literature, are enshrined together when the two men piss side-by-side outside Leopold’s house after a very long day/novel. This wonderfully parodies Homer’s “golden bow,” the bow and arrow Odysseus strings before killing the suitors. (Joyce describes the piss stream, the “golden bow,” at length.) Joyce profoundly and humorously prefers a glorified porch piss to killing, even if the suitors had it coming (it was sanctioned by Zeus’s thunderbolt, a divine authority Joyce is unwilling to abide by).
Hitchens points out that on the day Ulysses takes place, June 16, 1904, papers reported “…a war between Japan and Russia that would curtain-raise the events leading up to the great war of 1914.” Also, it was the first time Joyce got a hand job from Nora Barnacle, who he’d go on to love and marry. This accounts for the date. Hitchens includes Joyce’s description of the formative moment: “You who slid your hand down inside my trousers and pulled my shirt softly aside and touched my prick with your long tickling fingers and gradually took it all, fat and stiff as it was, into your hand and frigged me slowly until I came off through your fingers, all the time bending over me and gazing out of your quiet saintlike eyes.” Joyce would go on to inspire first-rate writers like E.L. James. Hitchens calls Ulysses, “A mastur-piece.” Yup.
In the introduction of Hitchens’ anthology, he states, “I wake up every day with a pervading sense of disgust and annoyance.” He muses on how good his life is, but despite all the things he loves, it’s natural, and in a lot of way more practical, to write about what’s horrible and needs fixing. This describes much of his political and religious musing, but this isn’t all there is to the man! He writes lovingly about Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Borges, Bob Dylan, Huxley, and more. When it comes to the omission concerning probably my favourite writer, he says,”If you ask me why there’s no Nabokov the answer is quite simply because I am not ready. This is a love that matures in the cask, if you will, and deepens with time.” He was full of love and humour, and supremely wide in scope.
Despite all this, I bet there are religious people who still believe that, as an atheist, Hitchens, who like Augie was of an omnivorous education of his own making, was lacking in pleasure and moral ballast. To these imbeciles I can say nothing more, and I doubt they’ve read this far, if at all. But to the rest, I am glad to shine a light on the darkened corner of a man’s ouevre who, despite dying, hasn’t totally left the spotlight.
May he be remembered with Hitchensian breadth.