Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Amis on Hitchens


Martin Amis has written a simultaneously urbane and touching tribute to his friend Christopher Hitchens' rhetorical skills over at the Guardian. Amis praises Hitchens for his ability to create witty retorts and one-liners, but adds that Hitchens' rhetorical flourishes are coupled with a depth of insight usually lacking in those gifted with a quick tongue and a sharp wit:
"A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realisation that you can't make old friends."
"It is only those who hope to transform human beings who end up by burning them, like the waste product of a failed experiment."
"This has always been the central absurdity of 'moral', as opposed to 'political' censorship: If the stuff does indeed have a tendency to deprave and corrupt, why then the most depraved and corrupt person must be the censor who keeps a vigilant eye on it."
While Amis is generous in his praise for his friend, he also doesn't shy away from a few criticisms that seem to hit the mark. Remarkably for a writer with Amis' reputation, he (justly) accuses Hitchens of violations of literary decorum in the latter's insertion of low-brow (if punchy) verbal attacks against his opponents:
Here are some indecorous quotes from the The Quotable Hitchens. "Ronald Reagan is doing to the country what he can no longer do to his wife." On the Chaucerian summoner-pardoner Jerry Falwell: "If you gave Falwell an enema, he'd be buried in a matchbox." On the political entrepreneur George Galloway: "Unkind nature, which could have made a perfectly good butt out of his face, has spoiled the whole effect by taking an asshole and studding it with ill-brushed fangs." The critic DW Harding wrote a famous essay called "Regulated Hatred". It was a study of Jane Austen. We grant that hatred is a stimulant; but it should not become an intoxicant.
As deft verbal attacks, Hitchens' barbs are effective, but they violate Amis' formulation of literary decorum, which demands (inter alia) that a writer match his content with his style. Amis seems correct that, when having a serious argument on topics such as politics or religion, the potty-mouth language and low-brow humour is best left behind (though perhaps to be used later in a different context. . .).

I enjoyed reading Amis' essay, both for the wit and wisdom of Hitchens himself, and for the just criticisms that Amis makes of his friend's literary conduct and character. I was also intrigued by Amis' brief discussion of literary decorum, which brought to mind Cicero's classic discussions of eloquence, and the recurring interest in Cicero as a model for rhetoric and prose by later generations of scholars and thinkers in the West--from the Renaissance at least down to the period of the Enlightenment (when writers such as David Hume were directly inspired by Cicero's Latin prose in crafting their own literary creations using early modern vernaculars). I will close with Amis' statement of the principle of literary decorum, which is far too sloppy to satisfy an analytic philosopher, but succeeds in providing a useful starting point for anyone who cares to think seriously about this matter:
In literature, decorum means the concurrence of style and content – together with a third element, which I can only vaguely express as earning the right weight. It doesn't matter what the style is, and it doesn't matter what the content is; but the two must concur. If the essay is something of a literary art, which it clearly is, then the same law obtains.
Well said!
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