Book written by Christopher Hitchens
I am tempted to say that there is an art to annoying a huge amount of people during a lifetime, but then, so many manage it that it may simply be a cultivated trait. When the ability combines with a literary bent, we tend to see the artist as a polemicist. If they have any flair for a wryly-turned phrase, they may even become a celebrity.
Of course, the role of fly in the ointment does require concurrency above all else. We just don’t read take-downs of Truman anymore, let alone George Bush (either one). The problem is not simply a lack of interest or even relevance. Historically speaking, all three are worthy of consideration. The polemicist works in the moment, however. Often, they make references to events and people that change meaning with the passage of time. All those Adlai Stevenson jokes wither on the vine these days.
We read Voltaire and Jonathan Swift because they couched their opinions in entertainment. A reader would have to engage in willful ignorance to get through their major works without some sense that they were angry about the world and the people that run it. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were no less angry, but they saved their greatest invective for the stage. Moreover, they buried the lead in heart-breaking tragedies as well as humor arising from character as much as situation. George Orwell modernized the polemic, incorporating genre fiction and social criticism. Yet, we don’t read 1984 because of what it said about the world after WWII.
And thatbrings us back to the challenge of writing about current times. From Vidal and Buckley to Woodward and Bernstein, the essayist/document-er must practically ignore posterity, which is odd. The drive to write a screed comes, at least a little bit, from the desire to have one’s objections noted.
I do believe that art contributes to the movement of the world. I also recognize that it is hard to write with art and entertainment about subjects that challenge your audience’s preconceptions. Hitchens often wrote things that people did not want to read- well, they wanted to read them because he wrote so well, but they probably also wanted to argue with the paper in front of them. I know I did.
And I miss that. Instead, we have devolved to the “Top Five Reasons” and lost thoughtful opinions. Our ideas are captured in a picture or a cartoon- they need to be set in black and white, requiring no nuance whatsoever. We would rather forego a change of mind based on deeper knowledge. We hide in imagined horrors rather than do the harder reading about actual horrors… say the origins of the Iran/Iraq war, which Hitchens was once so eloquent about.
The real loss is our need to define Orwell, Hitchens, Woodward, Bernstein, Dickens and Twain. We call them liberal or conservative or worse based on third-hand knowledge. They voiced hard-thought opinions based on research and experience which we are unwilling to do.
What’s it all about?
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 142 more to go.
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