26/06/2007

nemesis of faith

Christopher Hitchens – God is not Great

If religion were a necessary element of human life – a hard-wired neurological epiphenomenon that brought with it order, psychic hygiene and social cohesion, private comfort and public benefit – then perhaps we could simply accept it as such, enjoy the advantages it confers on us, and ignore its flamboyant absurdities.

The spiritually-inclined will insist that it has been for us a source of precept and succour; enables us to box the moral compass, and satisfies a need to be reassured that our sublunary flounderings aren't wholly meaningless. If we all could live peaceably in a Betjemanian fantasy of gentle rites and hymnals, a flowery harmless Anglicanism (or regional variants thereof – Sufism, on the face of it, being equally attractive), mightn't we be rid finally of poverty and cruelty? So far, so via media.

By this reckoning organized religion serves at once as psychological poultice and societal solvent: useful, perhaps indispensable. A delusion it may be – a peculiarly robust one – yet still it functions as a benign form of spiritual welfarism. “Humankind cannot bear,” T.S. Eliot whispered from the depths of his own flight from experience, “very much reality.” We aren't so configured – as limited biological entities – to grasp the immensity of the universe. Each of us is a poor, bare, forked creature impaled on our finitude. Where does grandeur reside, save in contemplation of something bigger than ourselves?

Thus runs the broadly theistic line. By such imaginative shifts humanity ennobles itself, raises itself from the weariness, the fever and the fret of being in the world. Again this seems on the face of it pretty unexceptionable: a mechanism of evolutionary psychology, if you want to be rigorously positivistic about it.

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Christopher Hitchens begs to differ. His barnstorming polemic God is not Great is written – dare I say it? - out of an apostolic fury, an upwelling of frustration at the persistence of the religious mentality (which Hitchens exposes as no more than a reflex of power-obsession). Salman Rushdie's knighthood this week re-ignited calls from the Muslim world for his execution as blasphemer and apostate. The argument initiated with such spittle-flecked rage and mob histrionics on the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1989 hasn't really been won or lost in the intervening years. The murderous fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomenei has proved, further, not to have been merely some 'black swan event' (as the meme of the moment would have it). It signaled, in fact, a permanent revolution, processing slowly but steadily across the turn of the century. Religion poisons everything, Hitchens epigrammatizes the theme of his book. That's about the sum total of it. L'affaire Rushdie hasn't simply wound down and disappeared, and still provokes so chilling a response – orchestrated, largely for political ends, by the mullahs, who command congregations of thousands – that it mightn't be too much to suggest a certain timeliness in Hitchen's effort. With the disintegration of the Communist bloc, the forces of Counter-Enlightenment have retrenched and rearmed. Death cults and supremacist creeds are back on the agenda.

Not merely Voltairean anti-clericalism, then: but a root and branch rejection of the very claim of the truth of religion. Hitchens presses home the fatuity of faith; he doesn't simply rail against the fraudulence of priestcraft, for example (a soft target), but against the case for any metaphysical warrant to human activity. We can marvel that, after the labours of nineteenth century biblical scholars such as David Strauss and Ernest Renan – who settled the question once and for all of the historicity of the Bible and its time-bound, man-made nature – there are many millions of literalists who still credit the reality of the Fall. Tartuffisme remains as much a staple for today's satirists as for Moliere; and we know how venal Chaucer's Pardoner was. But Hitchens, the scourge of the credulous, seems to accept Freud's insight that religion will endure for as long as we are afraid of death. (Freud, some would suggest, was as much a juju-man as any priest; his philosophy as questionable as that of any of the Church Fathers...)

I can well imagine a believer bridling at his condescension here. A member of an educated cosmopolitan elite sneering at the lackwit naivety of those not so well-favoured by circumstance. Recall H.L. Mencken's reporting from Dayton, Tennessee, where 'they tried the infidel Scopes': “In the big cities of the Republic, despite the endless efforts of consecrated men, [evangelical Christianity] is laid up with a wasting disease.” Hitchens might appropriately have attached these remarks of Mencken's to the flyleaf of God is not Great:

Despite the common delusion to the contrary the philosophy of doubt is far more comforting than that of hope. The doubter escapes the worst penalty of the man of faith and hope; he is never disappointed, and hence never indignant. The inexplicable and irremediable may interest him, but they do not enrage him, or, I may add, fool him. This immunity is worth all the the dubious assurances ever foisted upon man. It is pragmatically impregnable. Moreover, it makes for tolerance and sympathy. The doubter does not hate his opponents; he sympathizes with them. In the end he may even come to sympathize with God. The old idea of fatherhood here submerges in a new idea of brotherhood. God, too, is beset by limitations, difficulties, broken hopes. Is it disconcerting to think of Him thus? Well, is it any less disconcerting to think of Him as able to ease and answer, yet failing?


This, quoted in its entirety, Mencken calls the Doubter's Reward. (A far saner, more honest counter to Pascal's wager.) Hitchens goes about elaborating on it, illustrating its rightness: a mild and reasonable disposition setting itself in contrast to the intolerance and vulgarity of the religiose. Religion is totalitarian in a sense easily overlooked by those hypnotized by its apparent benignity and specious solace; and Hitchens time and again returns to this awkward datum.

Mencken wrote his article 'The Hills of Zion' (about his sojourn among 'the Dayton illuminati' during the Scopes trial) “on a roaring hot Sunday afternoon in a Chattanooga hotel room, naked above the waist and with only a pair of BVDs below.” (Hard to visualize C.S. Lewis composing one of his stale humourless apologetics in a similar condition.) The point, I suppose, is that the Doubters and secularists, in their acceptance of our creaturely nature, seem more congenial than the bloodless ascetics – invariably repressed, frigid, humanly stunted – ever could be.

Hitchens and Mencken are brothers-in-arms, both in their impassioned advocacy of secularism and in the way their prose rises to a furor loquendi when targeting the pious frauds of modern theocracy. Indeed, Hitchens retreads certain of Mencken's broadsides, as when the latter, in an article of 1924, 'The Cosmic Secretariat', demolishes in a paragraph the concept of Argument from Design, '..once the bulwark of Christian apologetics', now once more on the scene in the guise of Intelligent Design and 'irreducible complexity':

The more, indeed, the theologian seeks to prove the wisdom and omnipotence of God by His works, the more he is dashed by the evidences of divine incompetence and stupidity that the advance of science is constantly turning up. The world is not actually well run; it is very badly run, and no Huxley was needed to labor the obvious fact. The human body, very cunningly designed in some details, is cruelly and senselessly bungled in other details, and every reflective first-year medical student must notice a hundred ways to improve it...


Mencken's impatience with 'high and ghostly matters' sounds throughout his writings on American religion; and it is an exuberant contempt that animates them; as much for the duncery of red-neck Holy Rollers of the Midwest as for those who encourage them. Hitchens tends to be rather more measured, his reasoning forensic. Yet dismantling the scholastic conceit of the Argument from Design is merely busywork for him – a demonstration that he has the intellectual acuity to meet the religious on each and every point. God is not Great becomes something altogether more powerful, something operating on another plane of regard, when Hitchens comes to reflect on the ethical deformities wrought, more often than not on the vulnerable, by the religious mindset.

To wit, religion is the cruellest instrument of tyranny devised by mankind, and every sacred text a sadist's charter. “To 'choose' dogma and faith over doubt and experiment,” Hitchens says, “is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.” (The allusion to Jonestown echoes faintly but definitely through the book: church fetes and ritualistic suicide lie on the same continuum.) Hitchens bangs away at the point – religion and its various impedimenta, from the Book of Common Prayer to the putative bones of saints, are inarguably human inventions. Organized religion is an elaborate contrivance; an imposture set in train by those intent on acquiring and maintaining power. It embeds servility and self-hatred, enslaves people by the millions. The moreso in the 21st century. (Nazism was shot through with pagan myth; Stalinism, ostensibly expunging superstition from society, was nonetheless a political religion – complete with votaries and its god-king).

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Hitchens can barely conceal his bewilderment that it should still exert any kind of authority. Astronomy and cosmology have given us intelligible pictures of the universe of far greater magnificence than any hopespun creation myth. Yet the intellectual affront represented by religion rankles with Hitchens most steadily throughout the book: true, the scandal of female genital mutilation and the appalling waste of grindingly corrosive sectarian conflict engage him, and with total conviction; but Hitchens seems most exercised by the deep, unreflecting idiocy of it, perhaps as much as anything else.

“Above all,” Hitchens perorates, “we are in need a of renewed Enlightenment, which will base itself on the proposition that the proper study of mankind is man, and woman.” John Gray, in his Straw Dogs, dismisses the form of humanism here described by Hitchens as a 'secular inversion of Christianity'. But religion simply hasn't a monopoly on human decency. Hitchens regards past, present and future conflicts between free inquiry and religious dogma as essentially a collision between the literal and the ironic mind. In this regard he essentially proposes a syncretic lumping-together of Comtean positivism and Socratic intellectual freewheeling. In God is Not Great Christopher Hitchens mounts “..a defence of secular pluralism and of the right not to believe or be compelled to believe.” It is, he concludes, “..an urgent and inescapable responsibility: a matter of survival.”

10/06/2007

the mind at serious play

Clive James – Cultural Amnesia

Even a glancing, sidewise acquaintance with Clive James's earlier collections – from The Meaning of Recognition to Even as We Speak, and further back still, In the Land of Shadows and The Metropolitan Critic – won't quite prepare you for this.

The aficianado will already have sensed that James was a closet aspirant to high seriousness: the critic-at-large as snapper-up of unconsidered trifles on the one hand – or perhaps dasher-off of populist bagatelles (James, until his retirement from mainstream broadcasting a few years ago, introduced us to 'Endurance' and Margarita Pracatan) – and, on the other, the admirer of Montale and Pushkin, Grub Street's most egregious, unembarrassed polymath manning the watchtower even as the tabloidisation of British culture proceeded apace. Inevitably – yet not without a certain defensive stiffening - James insists that these distinct writerly selves do indeed finally embrace on some deeper level. “..I was often criticized in my turn for talking about the construction of a poem and of a Grand Prix racing car, or of treating gymnasts and high divers ... as if they were practising the art of sculpture. It was a sore point, and often the sore point reveals where the real point is.”

Humanism was a particularized but unconfined concern with all the high-quality products of the creative impulse, which could be distinguished from the destructive one by its propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it.

James has always been intellectually peregrine. The excursions into TV-land - the realm of (financial) necessity – have always been offset by cautiously rationed furloughs into the kingdom of freedom – the Arts, creativity, Studia humanitatis. But he has consistently sought to allow dignity to both. In Cultural Amnesia James offers thoughtful, penetrating observations on Paul Celan and Dick Cavett, Thomas Mann and the director Michael Mann – all are accorded respect, and the overdone binarism of high versus low culture made to seem beside the point. James has written elsewhere of his admiration for The West Wing and The Sopranos, arguing that excellence needn't be dependent on the exaltedness of the medium. (Orwell, it will be remembered, was a fan of Donald McGill.) 'High-quality products of the creative impulse' sounds almost like the coinage of an advertising copywriter; but James means that we take it literally, and that even the humblest of created things contributes, in a very real sense, to moral enlargement, human flourishing and, finally, hope.

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An abecedarium of forbidding scope, Cultural Amnesia is formatted straightforwardly: from Anna Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig, we have short essays arranged alphabetically by subject, each prefaced by a capsule biography. James doesn't limit himself to discussing the lives and works of these figures. In many instances they serve as a speculative wicket-gate into musings on other matters: the piece on Lichtenberg becomes an occasion for James's meditations on pornography; Sir Thomas Browne gifts him with a pretext to discuss book titles. Cultural Amnesia – with its air of summary, of being a retrospective on the growth of a critic's mind – might suggest to us an implicit relation to Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave, but James nominates its principal model as Egon Friedell's Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit: “A fabulous effort of style and concentration, a prestidigitator's trick box packed with epigrammatic summaries of all the creativity in every field of art and science since the Renaissance, a prose epic raised to the level of poetry.” Hypertrophied commonplace-book or the product of a lifetime's earnest application?

Your opinion possibly depends on whether you take James at his own estimation. He reaches for the modesty topos often enough to prompt a suspicion that only the most considerable of egotists could even have conceived of this book. It could so easily have been 'Western Civ for Dummies', a Cook's tour for the professional too hard pressed to do the cerebral grunt work: the essential dinner party bluffer's guide. It's to James's credit, then – no mean thing – that in each of these hundred-plus essays he doesn't stint on the hard thinking, assuming on his reader's part at least the barest stirrings of intellectual curiosity.

In his poem 'Egon Friedell's Heroic Death' James reflects, as so often he does in Cultural Amnesia, on the murderous collision between political tyranny and those 'enchanted spirits' who set the tone of an intellectual era:

The civilized are most so as they die.
He called a warning even as he fell
In case his body hit a passer-by
As innocent as was Egon Friedell.

The Audenesque quatrains, with their clipped jog-trot, conceal an almost unbearable anguish, and an ethical crux. “Would you have had the nerve to do the same?” James asks of Friedell's suicide; and this question appears to have bitten James to the marrow. He worries at it more in the essay on Friedell here collected. “[A] triumph for the human mind,' he reckons, perhaps glibly, in the poem. A 'wisely chosen suicide', he describes it in Cultural Amnesia; and in three words we have, like an impacted tooth, ultimacies of heartbreak and (for James) regret, and prescience (Friedell knew what the Anschluss would bring): if suicide for this gentle, dignified, scholarly man were the best available option, he must have had a shrewd, terrifying idea of what the alternative was to be. European cafe society entre deux guerres clearly emblematizes for James a world of the mind set free. (“In a city stiff with polymaths,' James admiringly notes, “he [Friedell] was the polymath's polymath.”) The Nazis set about turning it all to ash, and James would have us remember that so many of the alumni of the public sphere that Habermas chronicled were exterminated as much for their intellectual Freiheit as for their ethnicity. Impatient as James is with ideologies of whichever hue, he thus feels compelled to set up as a potent counter-instance the vibrant talk of the coffee-house habitues, in all its fleet-footed nimbleness, its gaiety and severity. In contrast to the sanguinary flensing of language performed by the demagogues, these men made it dance.

Friedell 'looms large in this book' – little known and little read, he shared a similar fate with another figure from the cultural life of twentieth-century Europe, one feted today yet perhaps more often read than understood.

Unexpectedly James gives short shrift to Walter Benjamin, type of the tragic Luftmensch and displaced intellectual. It takes a moment to grasp, when we finish the essay, just how extraordinary James's dismissal of Benjamin actually is. Academic theorists have been almost wholly uncritical of Benjamin's work. Its canonicity has gone unchallenged. Commentators have trembled in reverential awe before its 'multiplex cultural scope'; and if we were to single out a sacred text in our postmodern era, Illuminations would be it. Benjamin's Kabbalo-Marxism excites us with its world-historical sweep and the audacity of its formulations. Here is the real thing, the critic-as-sage, a visionary among the clerks. Of Benjamin's end James – with a hint of impatient snarkery – observes: “ He had devoted his career to pieces of paper with writing on them, but he didn't have the right one.” - the visa with which he might have escaped from Nazi territory. James takes issue with Benjamin's obscurantism: the 'velvet fog' of his prose. Reading between the lines it seems evident that James's problem with Benjamin is only tangentially related to the philosophy.

Benjamin enjoys a posthumous fame denied to others who, in James's view, were significantly more deserving. Egon Friedell, for one. James clearly agonizes over why he can impart the bays to Friedell, yet deny them to Benjamin. Both men were caught in the gearwork of homicidal history; both committed suicide when the only other course available to them was unimaginable. Both were steeped in the habitus (in Pierre Bourdieu's phrase) of a cosmopolitan, free-thinking Mitteleuropa that was the confirmed antitype of the totalitarian project: humanism as a precondition of survival.

One clue lies in James's stated contempt for the system-builders; and Benjamin was a systematizer, with too great a fondness for the programmatic. His work, as James has it, is a 'synopticon', simplifying, falsifying whatever is the case in the service of a theory. James responds to the whiff of fraudulence that hangs around Benjamin by arguing that there isn't 'a progressivist, humanitarian license for talking through a high hat.' Benjamin's perceptions may or may not have borne the stamp of authentic genius, but his prolixity and his instinct for over-elaboration succeeded only in robbing them of their point and specific density. In this regard James prefers the direct address of those, like Alfred Polgar, who wrote for a broader readership. Critics have been too readily beguiled by Benjamin's story. “As a critic devoted to the real, however,” James says, “Benjamin deserves the courtesy of not being treated as a hero in a melodrama.”

Fakery and charlatanism stand in this book as the incubi against which James directs his scorn. They squat over the Benjamin piece, and over, too, the brief essay on Jean-Paul Sartre: there, James's uncharacteristic contempt for Sartre's dissimulations and posturing takes fire. Sartre continued to vaunt the Soviet regime, even in the face of evidence that it annihilated dissenters by the million. Once more James chides one of his subjects for the 'blethery bathos' (as Gerard Manley Hopkins described the poetry of Swinburne) of his public pronouncements, the meaningless rhetorical blazon, gesture politics of the crassest kind. Sartre, in order to have fully realized his gifts, needed a reality check. Instead he brought the mandragora of popular celebrity to his lips and deadened his capacity to think ethically, to think honestly. Nor does James spare Robert Brasillach – a minor journalistic talent who prostituted himself to Nazi power, a craven anti-Semitic hack who, with Celine, connived in mass murder with his pen. All such figures, James insists, ought to have been beset – at least dimly, naggingly – by a bad conscience: none of them, on the face of it, did. Their reputations have been condignly marred.

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In The Meaning of Recognition James was anxious to stress the distinction between unearned celebrity and genuine accomplishment. Or – if not stress it, to hammer it emphatically home, to make it plain. The “..mass-psychotic passion for celebrity .. is one of the luxurious diseases that Western liberal democracy will have to find a cure for in the long run...” James favours the obscure, and the obscurely heroic: and in a significant regard Cultural Amnesia is an act of retrieval, in which the vanished reputations of certain paladins of civilization – Gianfranco Contini, Marcel Reich-Ranicki – are granted a deserved reprieve from the dark backward and abysm of Time. Others – Nadezhda Mandelstam, Sophie Scholl – bore courageous witness to totalitarian nightmares. Might it be fair to suspect that James rather envies these people? Envies the scholarly brilliance and virtuosity of some, of course; but envies also the destinies of those exterminated by the regimes? Perhaps not. But their suffering lends a kind of legitimacy to their work, James implies, setting the seal on whatever moral authority they might lay claim to.

The book's sheer heft encourages slow reading. But its format makes for dippability. Nothing of its import would be lost were you to read it in haphazard order: if you were feeling a tad unresponsive to exquisitely refined aper├žus on Proust, you'd still have the book in your hands in any case – glance over the essay on W.C. Fields instead. Themes shimmy centripetally; alarming yet plausible connections leap across time and context. For, in the final analysis, James is proposing no less than a cultural Unified Field Theory; and it must be common humanity and the 'rule of decency' that sustain us in our advance through our benighted times.

Fear not, though: the homme d'esprit of old still flits through these pages – James has the nous, when the mood calls for it, to forego the rise, the roll, the carol, the creation in favour of the snap, crackle and pop of the coolest wit in town. (He nails the longeurs of Gibbon's prose style thus: “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a Grand National with a fence every ten yards, each to be jumped backwards as well as forwards; and you have to carry your horse.” A balm in the Gilead of any failed attempt to yomp through Gibbon's epic.) James occupies a niche somewhere between Jacques Barzun and Peter Ustinov (Or maybe Jakob Burckhardt and Charles Lamb?). The high and low stylistic registers delightfully tangle: T.S. Eliot, after all, wrote a fan letter to Groucho Marks.

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