Sunday, December 18, 2011

800 Words: Hitch and Me Part 3

Hitch: Well Evan, prepare for lots and lots of namedropping.

Evan: It’s a specialty of us both. And how else will people remember all those names. With you gone, a whole era’s beginning to pass now.

Hitch: Yes it has. I’m just the first.

Evan: Weren’t you predeceased by Tony Judt and Peter Porter?

Hitch: Judt’s an academic. Porter’s an Aussie.

Evan: What about Pinter?

Hitch: (waves hand dismissively) Pinter’s not a writer.

Evan: Oh.

Hitch: But soon it’ll be Naipaul and Frayn, thereafter Clive James and Derek Walcott, and soon enough it’ll be Salman and Fenton. Eventually even Martin will go.

Evan: And those are just the English ones. But some of those guys: like McEwan, Barnes, Stoppard, they look like they could go on forever:

Hitch: Indeed, they could last as long as Robert Conquest.

Evan: And even Robert Conquest outlasted you.

Hitch: Don’t forget Eric Hobsbawm.

Evan: And Robert Service. I always thought Robert Conquest and Robert Service were the same person.

Hitch: They are. Don’t tell anyone.

Evan: But except for the occasional Naipaul, it’s probable that no American of my generation knows any of those names.

Hitch: They know Salman’s.

Evan: Not for his books.

Hitch: You’re right, they know him for the death sentence and marrying that chick on Top Chef.

Evan: I haven’t even read anything by half of them.

Hitch: Well then if you want to understand what they meant to a certain part of the world, please imagine something for me. Let’s say for the moment, there is a long tradition of English letters that begins with Tyndale and the King James Bible. It begins as a tradition appreciated mostly through oral recitation with Marlowe, Jonson, Fletcher, and Shakespeare. Meanwhile Shakespeare and Donne begin to create with the sonnets begin to create a written tradition that takes spiritual sources from the Bible and erotic sources from antiquity. It’s developed by Herbert, Marvell, Traherne, Crashaw and Cowley. And it reaches its apex in Milton, who assimilated all of his predecessors’ work and the writers who influenced them to create a metaphysical, erotic work that challenges no less than the Bible itself - aesthetically and morally.

Evan: I never cared for Paradise Lost.

Hitch: Shut up.

Evan: Yessir.

Hitch: This tradition is now so strong that it begins to dawn on them that they are responsible for seeking a greater freedom - a freedom from the inevitable requirements of tyranny that accounts for matters both aesthetic and moral. With Pope its poetry moves away from the stiff poses of heroic verse, and he brings with him poets as diverse as Oliver Goldsmith, Ambrose Phillips, John Gay, Henry Carey, the Thomases Grey, Wharton, and Percy, James Thomson, and Edward Young. With Locke, philosophy begins to postulate that men need not be ruled like cattle, which leads to the speculations of Bishop Berkeley, Hume and Bentham in a line that culminates with John Stuart Mill. With Swift, we realized that people can and should make fun of authority. With the good Dr. Johnson, the art of criticizing other becomes an art in itself. With Edward Gibbon, we see that historical writing can catalog an entire civilisation. And finally, with Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, and Sterne a new, entire, imaginative universe is revealed to us, parallel to ours, alike and utterly different from it. It is the novel in fetal state: less verifiable to reality, narratively less secure. But it is at very least the modern novel’s official birth.

Evan: I’m pretty sure I had to read the last three of them for an English lit class.

Hitch: What did you think of them?

Evan: I never did the reading.

Hitch: Skip Richardson, read the other two. You should see the Albert Finney movie of Tom Jones.

Evan: I have, it’s awesome....So would it be fair to say that this your favorite period of the tradition.

Hitch: Not entirely unfair.

Evan: And you are today’s Swift or Samuel Johnson?

Hitch: I could never write fiction, so that precludes being Swift. But if I’m not the good Doctor, at least I’m somebody’s Boswell.

Evan: Better than being somebody’s Andrew Sullivan.

Hitch: And so by the 19th century, this tradition accumulated so much to learn along the way that the artists within it must begin to question its value. People are able to read poets like Keats, Blake, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge - each of whom throws off the conventions of the Enlightment in completely different ways and forges new paths for poetry utterly unlike one another.

Evan: Weren’t Keats, Byron and Shelley all champions for all the Enlightenment causes?

Hitch: Keats didn’t love anything that wasn’t at least two millenia old, Shelley was a pagan, and Byron fooled around with his sister.

Evan: Ah.

Hitch: A generation later, the imaginative universe of the novel becomes a battleground to elucidate truths about the world of our own. It starts when Austen critiques the world of love and the Bronte sisters the treatment of women. It then metastasizes to the searing critiques of a larger society which one finds in Thackeray, Trollope, Dickens, George Elliot, Wilkie Collins and Thomas Hardy. If one could view this development as a river, then they are the main banks, with many tributaries for genres that are populated with later writers like Lewis Carrol, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G Wells, and Beatrix Potter. In addition, there is a resurrection of the English stage centered upon Wilde and Shaw. And meanwhile, there is a second flowering of romantic poetry, this one meant to be full of grandeur and portent, an imperial poetry for an imperious age in which we read the new verse of Tennyson, Swinburne, the Rosettis, the Brownings, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Macaulay, A. E. Houseman, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. And with it comes a school of brutally hard-hitting critical essays that flow from Dr. Johnson into the Walters Pater and Bagheot, the Thomases De Quincey and Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, Samuel Butler, John Ruskin, and William Hazlitt.

Evan: Y’know...this is beginning to sound an awful lot like simple namedropping.

Hitch: Where else would people need to go for intellectual namedropping on the internet if they simply read my articles and your blog?

Evan: Point taken. But what does portent mean?

Hitch: I’ve never given it much thought.

Evan: I see why people called you intellectually honest.

Hitch: Speaking of intellectually honest, how many of these 19th century writers have you read in a serious manner?

Evan: Um...I’m tempted to say none. But the truth is...let me think...certainly many of these poets, some Dickens, I love Middlemarch but I still can’t finish it...

Hitch: That’s George Elliot.

Evan: I know that. Also, a good amount of Sherlock Holmes, Treasure Island when I was MUCH younger, The Time Machine...and a lot of kids’ books versions of every novelist you mentioned. I also loved Jude the Obscure, (shoots Hitch a look), that’s Hardy I know. I also love Hardy’s poetry, particularly The Darkling Thrush. I really liked a Trollope novella I had to read in college, but with a name like his...

Hitch: Insert obvious university freshman joke here.

Evan: You asked.

Hitch: Indeed, which brings me to my next question, what did all of these writers have in common?

Evan: They’ve never been in my kitchen?

Hitch: Quite true. But they too are English to the marrow. With so few exceptions, every name dropped in our conversation thus far is native rooted to English soil. It is only with the arrival of Joseph Conrad, a Pole for whom English was a third language, that England reads an author of a truly international English tongue. He was one of the two first and last documenters of England at Empire - him and Rudyard Kipling alone were the imperial authors. Together, the weary cosmopolitanism of Conrad along with the innocent exuberance of Kipling’s adventurism. How much of Conrad and Kipling have you read Evan?

Evan: Not enough. I’ve read a number of Conrad novels and can barely remember a single thing about them. As for Kipling, some poetry a number of years ago....I remember thinking it was pretty good.

Hitch: A good thing this lesson in English literature is given by me and not you.

Evan: Indeed.

Hitch: But the grand adventures stopped very quickly after World War I. And afterward, English writers began to paint on canvasses far smaller that almost completely ignored that which they did not wish to see. By this time true breath of imaginative English writing was to be found in America. And because these canvasses were smaller, there were more of them than ever before. There was Wodehouse, Waugh, Powell, Forster, and Kingsley Amis who focused almost exclusively on upper class gentry. There was Virginia Woolf using the upper class as a pin upon which to hang her formal experimentation. There was the science-based fiction of H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Doris Lessing, Alasdair Gray, and J.G. Ballard. And the Christian based fantasy of Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Mervyn Peake, and Robert Graves. There was the children’s fiction of Roald Dahl and Philippa Pearce. And the historical fictions of Georgette Heyer, and Penelope Fitzgerald. One can't forget the political fictions of Orwell, Graham Greene, and John leCarre, and no less important the genre fiction of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Patricia Highsmith, and Ian Fleming. And then there is the more considered high philosophical novel you find in Iris Murdoch, John Fowles, Muriel Spark, Anthony Burgess, A.S. Byatt, and William Golding, and the travel writing of Naipaul and Jan Morris. But one simply can't forget to mention a new theatrical tradition that begins with Beckett and goes through our near contemporaries like Pinter, Stoppard, John Osborne, both Ayckbourns, both Shaffers, Ronald Harwood, Michael Frayn, and Alan Bennett. And it's particularly important that one can't forget the poets: War poets like Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon. Modernist poets such as D.H. Lawrence, Richard Aldington, Ford Maddox Ford and T.S. Eliot. Or the MacSpAuDay group of the 30's: W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Lewis MacNiece. Or the poets from The Movement which spurned modernism like Phillip Larkin, Peter Porter, and Seamus Heaney. Not to forget poets as important as Ted Hughes, Alan Sillitoe, and Geoffrey Hill who fit no movement neatly. And last but not least an entire philosophical, historical, and critical tradition of commentary, the names from which it would be impossible to recite without doubling this list.

Evan: At this point can’t we count Joyce, and Yeats too? You've already counted a bunch of other Irish.

Hitch: What’s another two Irishmen in this company?

Evan: Even I can’t believe how incredibly pretentious this got.

Hitch: And rather boring, but there is a larger point of all of those names, and that is to say that in order to inherit all of this tradition, we had to swallow the whole thing; read everything from the Bible to John Fowles’s beard and be able to recite days worth of the stuff from memory. The tradition of English letters is one of the longest and fullest flowerings of civilisation in the world's history. Through an our body of literature, we have reached the limits of what humanity has yet thought. And in our particular corner of human thought, our generation reached the absolute limits of human erudition. No generation has ever nor will ever again know it nor be required to know these writers as intimately the as English writers and readers of my generation did. For our generation is the last for whom the English language is not the property of the entire world. We shall be the last Dead White Males. After us, Englishness shall no longer matter to the English language. And with that irrelevance, many of the great English writers will disappear completely.

Evan: That’s a lot of literature to learn about.

Hitch: Well, wikipedia helps.

Evan: So in a sense, your literary generation was the one which buried English literature.

Hitch: We didn’t just bury English literature. We blew up the corpse. English literature is over. And it will never be rebuilt.

Evan: How did you do that?

Hitch: Politics. But we can discuss that in part 4.

Evan: At some point we have to end this conversation. I still have 13 more in my favorite cultural stuffs of the year.

Hitch: Well, whenever you like. I have nothing but time now.

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