Katha Pollitt, George Orwell, Essayists and Posterity

For a couple of days now, Katha Pollitt’s obit/remembrance of Christopher Hitchens has been making the rounds to near-universal adulation. For good reasons; the piece is well worth a read, especially as it highlights aspects of Hitchens’ writing and personality that few have seen fit to focus on (especially not by his drinking buddies, whose cliche-ridden remembrances will be chuckled over by many for years to come).

But toward the end of the article, Pollitt throws in the following:

Posterity isn’t kind to columnists and essayists and book reviewers, even the best ones. I doubt we’d be reading much of Orwell’s nonfiction now had he not written the indelible novels 1984 and Animal Farm.

Pollitt seems to be trying to establish the following thesis (roughly): Even the best non-fiction writers only get read by future generations if they are lucky enough to have written some quality best-selling fiction. I disagree. (Notice, incidentally, that Pollitt has thrown “essayists” into a group that includes “columnists” and “book reviewers”; I do agree that “columnists” and “book reviewers” are more inclined to be creatures of their age who risk rapid obscurity unless they write more substantive and possibly popular work. I’m also aware that “non-fiction” is too broad a category in my purported thesis above but I think it is clear what Pollitt and I are aiming at.)

The simplest way to refute Pollitt’s assertion is to dredge up examples of essayists whose place in posterity is secure without their being famous through the fiction they wrote: Michel Montaigne, Edmund Burke, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, Susan Sontag, Jacques Barzun; the list goes on. (Standard caveat: to really settle this dispute check back in a couple of hundred years). We can disagree plentifully about how well posterity is treating every single member on the list we would generate, and about its definitive membership, but when the smoke would clear, we would still list many essayists to whom posterity has been “kind” without requiring that they have written a best-selling novel or two. Indeed, in some cases, it would be clear their literary fame has been achieved not because of the fiction they wrote but in spite of it (I think this is especially true of Sontag, whose fiction I simply could not stand).

But there is another problem in Pollitt’s assertion given its reliance on the case of Orwell. Would Orwell simply have slipped into obscurity had he not written those “indelible” novels? Well, fiction is always more likely to reach a broader market than the non-fiction a writer puts out. And popularity in that genre can have the salutary effect of attracting a broader readership to the rest of a writer’s corpus. And yes, Orwell’s writings became famous only after he wrote his best-selling novels (I’m inclined to think that 1984, incidentally, is a not-very-good novel whose fame was ensured by a particular set of historical contingencies). But is a large readership what Pollitt means by being treated kindly by posterity? Or would posterity still be kind to a writer if critical acclaim for the writer’s non-fiction corpus were to endure through the ages? If the latter, then since Pollitt is trading in hypotheticals, let me do so too. I think anyone that wrote Homage to Catalonia, The Road to Wigan Pier, Decline of the English Murder, How the Poor Die, Shooting An Elephant, Why I Write, or Politics and The English Language would have found enduring critical, even if not popular, fame.

Lastly, slipping a mention of Orwell into a remembrance of Hitchens shows that Pollitt has succumbed to the temptation to lump the two together. Please. Cease and Desist.

Dragon Tattoos And Flirting With Pointlessness

Right. So David Fincher’s remake of Neils Arden Oplev’s _The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo_ is out, and even the normally-hard-to-please Andrew O’Hehir isn’t entirely displeased with the product. For myriad reasons: Fincher’s cast adds “emotional depth;” the movie is “beautifully engineered;” it possesses a “depth and subtlety” that was perhaps absent in the Stieg Larsson’s novel; all resulting in “an ingenious and engrossing work of pop cinema.” Still, all these encomiums are powerless to prevent “a wave of ennui” from washing over our critic. Two more remakes? Is this is the best way for Fincher to spend his time?

I feel similarly drenched by ennui, and I haven’t even seen the movie yet. This induced lassitude finds its springs not just, however, in the thought that a beloved auteur might be wasting his time when he could be turning his film-making attentions elsewhere. Rather, I am struck, in general, by the pointlessness of remakes that hew so closely to the original’s plot, setting and visual grammar. For all the differences noted by O’Hehir in his review, it is pretty clear–from the trailer and various clips I’ve seen–that Fincher’s remake aspires to the Scandinavian setting and aura of the original, that the plot is, twist-for-twist, turn-for-turn (till the end) the same, and that many frames are replicants of the Swedish-language version. This high degree of fidelity to the original in the copy seems to be a waste of possibilities galore.

Why not, for instance, set the action elsewhere? In Argentina following the Dirty War? Or in South Africa during the apartheid days? Change the hacking to other forms of system-cracking and surveillance? All the while retaining the central themes of political and moral corruption, misogyny, unlikely alliances, and social violence? The richness of the cinematic medium and the palette of tools it affords the talented movie-maker cry out for more ingenious reconceptions of the written word than the mere path-following involved in remakes such as Fincher’s.

Fincher should take O’Hehir’s concern for how he spends his time seriously; if he does feel compelled to remake the remaining parts of Larsson’s trilogy, he should consider Oplev to have “been there, done that” and turn his not-inconsiderable talents to more imaginative reworkings than this sort of mimicry.

Update: replaced “hue” with “hew”; classic, embarrassing typo.

Nietzsche, Henry Moseley, and Conscript Armies

Years ago, as a schoolboy, I read Isaac Asimov on the evolution of the periodic table from Dmitri Mendeleev’s relative atomic mass version to Henry Moseley’s atomic number version. At the end of the essay, after describing Moseley’s contributions to devising the modern form of the periodic table of the elements, Asimov wistfully noted Moseley’s death in 1915 at Gallipoli (“”In view of what he [Moseley] might still have accomplished … his death might well have been the most costly single death of the War to mankind generally”). Moseley had enlisted (in the Royal Engineers and taken a sniper shot to the head; the Nobel Prize that might have been his in 1916 was never awarded. I was stunned by this coda to the seemingly straightforward story of scientific discovery that I had just been reading, and for years, was haunted by the thought of what the twenty-eight-year-old Moseley might have gone on to do.

It is said that Nietzsche has a line for everything. So, well, from Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human, Section 442, Chapter 8 (“A Glance at the State”):

Conscript army. The greatest disadvantage of the conscript army, now so widely acclaimed, consists in the squandering of men of the highest civilization; they exist at all only when every circumstance is favorable-how sparingly and anxiously one should deal with them, since it requires great periods of time to create the chance conditions for the production of such delicately organized brains!….and, in fact, it is the men of highest culture who are always sacrificed in the relatively greatest number, the men who guarantee an abundant and good posterity; for these men stand as commanders in the front lines of a battle, and moreover, because of their greater ambition, expose themselves most to dangers.

As always, standard caveats about Nietzsche apply.

Ross Douthat, Sophistry, and Getting Philip Larkin Wrong

Folks familiar with Ross Douthat’s writing over at the New York Times should be well clued-on to his style, which produces bits of meandering sophistry that include a sentence or two toward the end giving away the game. In those sentences, Douthat reveals the tension of maintaining the appearance of a sophisticated intellectual conservative is too great to bear and rips off the mask to grant us all an unmediated audience.

The latest exhibit in this portfolio of pretense-and-revelation is on display in Douthat’s attempts to enlist the recently departed Christopher Hitchens into the ranks of the believers. Douthat’s arguments do not rise above the level of suggesting Hitchens’ attitude toward religion was a case of Freudian reaction-formation. But, as promised, the real kicker is at the end, where with delightful predictability, Douthat reveals his true agenda:

When stripped of Marxist fairy tales and techno-utopian happy talk, rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade” — that “death is no different whined at than withstood.”

This is a classic-threefer.

In turn: “Marxist fairy-tales”? “Techno-utopian happy-talk”? What are these? Button-pushes, I’m guessing; rallying cries to enlist the faithful. “Rigorous atheism” does not require either fairy-tales or utopian promises; au contraire, it aims to dispense with the need for those anti-humanist, teleological, and eschatological narratives that Douthat apparently needs to sustain himself.

Then there is the tired old claim about atheism making “human hope and endeavor” impossible. The breathtaking arrogance on display here is almost too much to bear. The only one with the impoverished view of the human condition and the only denier of the infinitely varied human ability to make and sustain meaning is Douthat himself. Mankind has shown itself capable of meaning-construction in myriad, countless ways; belief in the existence of a Supreme Being has never been necessary, sufficient, nor in many cases, desirable. Historical ignorance and pathetic parochialism are the least of Douthat’s sins here.

Finally, just to round things off, Douthat gets Philip Larkin wrong. Those who will admire Douthat for his erudition in quoting a poet in an Op-Ed should read Larkin’s poem for themselves. How Larkin’s ode to the challenge that death lays down for all our attempts to reckon with our temporary, transient foothold in the cosmos can be read as an indictment of atheism is beyond me. If anything, Larkin’s pessimistic vision can be read as the starting point of a new hope; having dispensed with all false promises to make death palatable, one is finally ready to face its irrevocable, everlasting, mysteriously-contoured sentence.

The Decline and Fall of Christopher Hitchens

I have no talents to speak of; all I can do is read and write. Thus, it would make eminent sense for me to admire those that read a great deal, and write really well. Christopher Hitchens evidently read a lot, and he wielded his pen and keyboard with great flair. He was also a stylish rhetorical pugilist, and I would not have wanted to have ever had him in an audience after I had given a talk whose central points he disputed. But sadly for my desire to admire the well-read epistolary genius as a human archetype, Hitchens botched his record, and in spectacular style. Amongst other things, he aggressively and unapologetically cheered on an illegal war and the gruesome troika of mass-murdering criminals–George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld–who prosecuted it, and later, descended into unvarnished bigotry directed at Muslims under the guise of keeping the world free from ‘Islamofascism.’

Once Hitchens had placed himself in the company of those that could be fawned over by the unspeakably vile Michelle Malkin and her ilk, I knew I was done with my incipient admiration. Hitchens was keen, as many newly-minted Americans are, to show his allegiance to his newly-found country and political faith, and he thought he would do this best, I think, by throwing his not-inconsiderable physical and intellectual weight behind what he thought were its considered responses to the violent external assault of the World Trade Center catastrophe. But he did so by cheering on those who did their best to eviscerate this nation’s Constitution and the rule of law it entailed. In doing so, he seemed not to have figured out that those whose side he had gone over to were doing their best to make the America he thought he was signing on to unrecognizable.

If Hitchens had ever attained a self-consciousness of the irony implicit in the self-proclaimed resister of religious fundamentalism turning into a fundamentalist of sorts himself, he never revealed it publicly. Did he never hold his nose when he received praise from the same bigots who he might have fancied himself eviscerating in his older days? Did he ever realize that his older self would have chuckled with delight at the easy target that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld presented for his poison pen? It does not seem so. He seemed so caught up in his desire to place himself on what he thought would be a position vindicated by history–the lone, courageous voice of reason urging a insufficiently muscular polity and culture to defend itself against external threat–that he never stopped to consider that he might be undermining that very culture’s proudest achievements.

I own more than one book by Hitchens and I don’t intend to get rid of them. But their status in my library has morphed into being exhibits of how a great talent can be diverted to the wrong ends. I still aspire to the kind of ravenous appetite he showed for the printed word and its production. But I also hope never, ever, in a fit of sustained insanity, to join the company of those whose principles stand in such direct contradiction to my own.

Pick-up Games, Participation, and Basketball

As is evident from a glance at my “About” page, I blog on cricket. Which would seem to indicate I’m obsessed about the game to some extent. But when it comes to actually playing a game, cricket is not my favorite sport. And the reason for that is simple: cricket too often permits non-participation by players (this can all too easily be induced by one’s teammates, a fact I bemoan in my latest post over at The Pitch on ESPN-Cricinfo). For that reason, and sometimes, I suspect, for that reason alone, my favorite game to play is pick-up basketball, whether three-on-three in a half-court, or five-on-five in a full-court.

On a basketball court, during a game, no matter how poor a dribbler or shooter you are, you can contribute somehow. And the best way to do that is to play solid, vigorous defense: keep close man-to-man markings, set picks, go up for defensive rebounds; in short, put on a good old non-stop hustle. Similarly, when it comes to offense: run hard, keep your marker guessing, and get in position to receive a pass from the more talented shooters and playmakers. I never mastered a lay-up, and never had any fancy offensive moves. But I was capable of at least attempting a shot if I was not under pressure, and always managed to keep moving in an attempt to shake off my defender so that I could get the space and time required. I was not a very talented shooter either, so I need more time and space than most. But I did manage to sink a few and those went up on the scoreboard like anyone else’s baskets. Even when I played with the most selfish of players on my teams (a terrible fate for anyone playing a pick-up game), I managed to at least shutdown the one player I was in charge of marking. I contributed, somehow, in every single game I played.

Playing a basketball game involved me more completely than any other pick-up game I’ve played (even soccer, where again, players can be marginalized, frustrated and shut-out). In basketball, I was able to always make myself participate and force a presence for myself in the game. That is the particular genius of this game of nets; it manages to draw us all in, making space for competent and incompetent alike, accommodating our weaknesses and strengths, ensnaring us in its charms and challenges as it does so. In doing so, basketball accomplishes what many social orderings are unable to do: provide an egalitarian space for human endeavor, one that rewards our honest toil, and leaves us all in the end, satisfied and sweaty, with elevated heart-rates and lowered LDL counts.

Oscar Wilde on Kidney Markets

Reader Austin Donisan has a long comment worth reading in response to my post on why kidney markets might offend me. I’m not going to engage with every single point Donisan makes, because in doing so I would be repeating myself (please read the post which started this discussion). But let me make a few responses in any case.

First, Donisan suggests I have “an a priori opinion on the matter of paid organ donation.” Well, yes, I do. As I stated in my last post, I have a strong, instinctive revulsion to the possibility of poor folks in this country, in these times, selling their kidneys for pittances; my revulsion is not directed toward paid organ donations per se. Call it a preference if you like; no worries. But do indicate what my preference is for in more specific terms.

Second, Donisan is too keen to convince me in economic terms; that is not going to work in this situation. You are asking me to make commensurate two scales: one, which measures markets in terms of efficiency; the second, which reacts to markets in less tangible terms like distaste. We might be talking past each other.

Third, Donisan says:

The ability to donate a kidney may be poor’s biggest comparative advantage, and comparative advantage is the only way to get ahead in the world.

So, presumably, the best way to help the poor would be to encourage them to sell their kidneys. This doesn’t sound right to me; I can think of many other strategies that would enhance the “comparative advantage” of the poor, which do not require them to sell their vital organs.

I’d like to evaluate kidney markets in a broader context and Donisan wants to make the context narrower; it will enable a market-based argument to go through, but it does so at the cost of making the argument uninteresting to me. A poor man selling a kidney in the US today is just an abstract agent seeking comparative advantage for Donisan; not so for me.

Anyway, I’d like to stop repeating myself and let Oscar Wilde have the last word. So, from Lady Windermere’s Fan, Act 3:

CECIL GRAHAM. What is a cynic?

LORD DARLINGTON. A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

CECIL GRAHAM. And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.