Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"Hermano": An Evening With Christopher Hitchens and Why I Love Brits.



Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian (new York: Basic Books, 2001).
Christopher Hitchens, Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays (New York: Nation, 2004). Christopher Hitchens, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere (New York: Verso, 2003).
Joanthan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (New York: Signet, 1960), originally published in 1729.




A handsome, middle-aged man in a beautiful midnight blue suit, wearing a white shirt with a button-down collar and gray silk tie sits in a plush leather chair. He is chatting, in dulcet tones and in an Oxbridge accent, with a BBC interviewer and tells the following anecdote:

"A foreign ambassador and his wife are in a silver Rolls Royce, heading for Buckingham Palace and an official reception. They are accompanied by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. As they cross an intersection, a chemical accident in a nearby building has left a foul and nearly unbearable odor, which pervades their vehicle, creating an uncomfortable silence and a very unpleasant ten minutes or so. Finally, they drive out of the affected area and Prince Philip leans foward to offer an apology. With a smile his guest explains ... 'Not to worry, my wife also has gas after a big dinner.' ..."

As everyone laughs, the gentleman from the "Foreign Service," smiles and lifts an eyebrow.

My guess is that the gentleman who told this story -- whose interview I saw many years ago on PBS -- was a spy for "Her Majesty's Secret Service." At some point in his life, drenched in literature as he clearly was, he had decided to become "James Bond," except that Ian Fleming's invention had been improved by Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene.

Obviously, this British cousin succeeded in his ambition and is very likely, even now, at work in Washington, D.C., seducing interns and stealing documents for his government, doing both as needed. No doubt he was born in East London, never attended university, and his parents had emigrated to Britain from Poland. Whatever else he was, this man had become an artist whose greatest creation was himself.

I am often accused of being an "Anglophile" and said to "hate" my own ethnicity. Much the same was said of Hannah Arendt, for similar reasons, also of Philip Roth. I am charged with being both "anti-American" and "pro-American"; I am accused of being a "Communist" and also a "Fascist." Sometimes both on the same day, which would be a neat trick. I may have to try it someday, perhaps in my old age.

Some of this is the result of being a writer with a horror of banality and conventionality, of the dull, unthinking, intellectual conformity that is the death of mind for anyone. Mostly this failure to understand what I say results from the unwillingness of persons to surrender the platitudes and cliches (accents are not available on this keyboard) which they use to perceive the world and to construct their realities. Their small, tiny realities and political bromides have nothing to do with me.

No writer or thinker -- and I hope to be both -- can be reduced to a conventional or trite perspective, much less to a psychobabble platitude. No one is a platitude. Kierkegaard's self-chosen epitath will be mine too, "here lies that individual." No, "lying" is no longer a part of my daily life, sadly. On the other hand, it is the very fabric of the lives of many liars and frauds that I left behind as "colleagues" in the legal profession, as they happily abscond with public funds, in the charming (if radioactive) neighborhoods of north Jersey. New Jersey's legal "community" -- I use the word "community" loosely -- is a world well lost.

"But don't you write fiction? Isn't that lying?" This is usually spoken by one of my former colleagues, in a fading polyester suit, in the tones of a vigorous cross-examination. My answer is that the most uncompromising form of truth-telling is writing literary fiction. At this point, I am accused, yet again, of being incomprehensible and indulging in paradox, hating my "Cuban identity," and being a "Communist." I plead non compos mentis, but only after listening to these ill-informed accusations and to those who make them. I am none of those things. I am not something that such people are capable of understanding. I will not be reduced to your stereotypes and demeaning categories. Do not judge everyone by your sad selves in the smoke-filled back rooms of the Garden State. (Only one newly-inserted "error" since last time is excellent.)

Christopher Hitchens is that rarest of journalists who is also an artist. He writes beautiful, sharp, piercing and melliflous sentences. He is witty and smart, street tough in both a London and New York sort of way as well as a charmer, when he wants to be. Christopher is a literary friend, since I know that we really would be friends for life, if we associated at all. In a way, we are friends for life. I met him only once at a signing ceremony (if that counts) and we hit it off immediately, laughing within the first minute of meeting. His handshake and our mutual parting smile, as our eyes met, together with Christopher's whispered word "hermano," has stayed with me. We "contrarians" have to stick together in order to prove that we are iconoclasts and individualists.

We share a fondness for paradox that is said to be very English. Christopher Hampton's British misanthrope (with a bow to Moliere) says: "My problem is that I am indecisive ... at least, I think I am."

Christopher is a fiercely independent journalist, not easily classified politically. My guess is that we are both best thought of as democratic socialists concerned to protect civil liberties. We share a fondness for the underdog, a hatred for all sorts of abuse by the powerful (anywhere), we hope to be defenders of artists' and intellectuals' independence. We are among the finest flowers of Western civilization at this decadent moment in history. We are also humble.

Christopher is one of the best literary critics in the English language. He reads books by the truckfull (me too), especially English literature, which (watch this, I am about to get in trouble again!) happens to be THE BEST literature in the world.

Guillermo Cabrera-Infante (a loyal British subject at his death), during a talk delivered at New York's Public Library, mentioned arguing with a member of Spain's Royal Academy of Literature on this point and being told that "Shakespeare is not so good." At which point, Cabrera-Infante indicated that he knew what he was dealing with, "a moron." He may have indicated as much to the member of the Academy, by asking the professor if he could spell "moron" correctly. The answer to that question is not known to us.

Anyone who loves literature, no matter who the person may be or where he or she lives and whatever other literatures are also admired, should acknowledge that English literature is simply the greatest literature in the world. This is beccause it is the greatest literature in the world. This would be true if English literature could claim only one writer, Shakespeare.

There is also no better philosophical tradition, though Germans, French and American traditions of philosophical production are the equals of the Brits. I admit that Italians and Spaniards, Latin Americans and the very great Indian and Asian traditions are all potential rivals, but I know them much less well than the British-American history of thought. It is possible to view the English-language philosophical tradition as a single history of struggle with the great issues in life. It happens that the two greatest philosophers of the modern world are Germans: Kant and Hegel. On the other hand, the interpretations and creative use of their works in the English language are probably some of the very best anywhere.

To mention just a few other Brits who occasionally took up the pen to create literature there is Fielding, Richardson, Swift (whose view of lawyers I will offer today in conclusion), Dryden, Marlowe, both Johnsons, Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Eliot, Meredith, Stevenson (so beloved by Borges), Conan-Doyle (Christopher's review essay on Holmes is a masterpiece), Wilde, Bernard Shaw, Waugh, Forster, Woolf, Orwell, Greene, and many more. I could easily discuss any of these figures with Christopher for hours. Martin Amis refers to Christopher as "the Hitch," so I will do the same, mostly because I have no right or permission to do so. ("Shakespeare's Black Prince" and "A Philosophical Investigation of Ludwig Wittgenstein.")

This gift for literature is in the English air (along with the rain) and may help to explain the British gentleman that I spoke of earlier. Every Brit is a writer in a corner of his or her soul, also an actor. This is because each of them has been invented by Shakespeare. With the acquisition of this glorious music called the English language -- where Shakespeare's presence is still felt and found -- one gets (free of monetary charge) a gift of imagination and an engraved invitation to make use of it. So we English-speakers do. We wield the magic ("Hogwarts" anyone?) of the world's greatest literature, which contains a powerful yearning for freedom and equality. Take a look at George Santayana's essay "English Liberty in America." Also, see Peter Ackroyd's Albion and English Music.

Christopher is philosophically aware, perfectly capable of discussing Adorno or Benjamin, Hegel or Foucault, Lezama-Lima or Guevara, Chomsky (with whom there was some unpleasantness recently) or Zinn. Hitchens loves Vidal, almost as much as I do, reads the great Americans (Roth's recent American cycle is a stunning achievement), somehow managing to find time to know the details of most international events and controversies. Whenever you see "Christopher Hitchens" listed as the writer of something in a magazine or any periodical, get it and read his article. If you are out there and read this Mr. Hitchens, it is time to get off the pot and write that novel. The same goes for me.

As for my feelings about Cuba and Cubans, I love the land where I was born, but as an American or "United States person," as Gore Vidal says, who is most American in his independence and "iconoclasm." Look it up. My greatest political passion is for the United States Constitution, which is to politics what Shakespeare's poetry is to literature, a paragon of what is humanly possible. (See "Manifesto for the Unfinished American Revolution.")

The Constitution of the United States is worth dying for, folks. I don't care whether saying this is unfashionable or considered corny in trendy corners of Manhattan, because it is true and it needs to be said today.

This Constitution is as much an ideal as an actuality. It prohibits torture. Yet many are now tortured by Americans, myself among them. We have to fight to preserve that Constitution every day. Americans are mostly magnificent. Their best features are not captured in the distorted image of them -- of us, as a people -- in the world today, which is really a partisan perception of a tiny group of very powerful persons (from both parties) and their spokespersons, who are usually coopted minority group members. Whether they are African-Americans, Latinos, or something else, minority spokespersons are too often only "house slaves" of the establishment.

What is best about us, as Americans of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, is a quality shared with our British cousins and others throughout the world. It is an uncomprimising independence that flows from a visceral conviction that each person is a locus of rights and dignity, an inviolable moral subject, no matter what evils are done to him or her. In violation of that fundamental juridical and political principle, persons have been tortured outside and within the United States to the indifference of men and women in black robes, who fail miserably in their duties each day that these horrors continue to go unpunished and are covered up by them. See: http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/supreme/images/wallace_j1.jpg (Why?)

Liberty is a principle or belief captured as much in the resonant phrases of Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution, in Shakespeare's great speeches in Henry V and in the irreverence of his grave digger in Hamlet, as it is in the barbs of "The Hitch," or in Anthony Hopkins's favorite curse to speak to (and of) the powerful: "Fuck 'em." These are words to live by, which I am tempted to place on my tombstone.

Christopher discovered in middle age that he has Jewish ancestry (so does more than one person that I care about and respect), even as I know myself to be American down to the bottom of my soul, in the words of the Oracle in the Matrix films, "balls-to-bones." I have been an American almost since I can remember. This allows me to absorb and bring into my political identity, my Cuban and Latin American roots, Cuban humor (which is street-wise and erotic), African-American street culture, Jewish humor (From Philip Roth to Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen), Cuban literature and cinema, wonderful painters, poets, music; even as I reject a not-so-wonderful Cuban political tradition of thuggery, Fascist and Communist totalitarianism, corruption, machismo, violence and sexism and homophobia as well as anti-semitism, as many Cuban-Americans who happen to be Jewish can attest.

Hating racism and antisemitism, by the way, will not preclude me from pointing out that a person who commits "crimes against humanity," but happens to be a member of one of those groups, should be punished for it.

The totalitarian impulse is what I do not like in Cuban culture, or anywhere -- including American culture. Neither do many Cuban-Americans who detest, as I do, the Right-wing fanatics who claim to speak for all Cuban-born persons in the United States. No one speaks for me. No one faction or group speaks for all Cuban-Americans. We reflect the same range of opinion on all subjects as any other group of Americans.

I want to leave you with a small sample of Christopher's prose, so that you will go out and buy his books. I want to get his essay on the Anglo-American comedy, which I have not yet read. Appropriately, I have selected this paragraph from "Havana Can Wait":

Cuba. The very name -- short, pungent, yet romantic -- has ineffaceable associations. Cuba -- the place where the United States received a foretaste of Vietnam in its humiliation in the Bay of Pigs. Cuba -- where the missiles of October gave the world its longest and steadiest look at the nuclear furnace when that hellish door swung briefly open in 1962. Cuba -- home base to the gangsters who clustered around JFK and may even have killed him. Cuba -- whose exiled fanatics were caught in the Watergate building. Cuba -- whose troops inflicted the salutary military defeat on the South African forces in Angola. Cuba -- an island, like Ireland, which refuses to accept its real size and weight in the world, [me too, or is that all of us? England?] and whose writers and poets and musicians populate our imagination. Can such a place undergo a graceful menopause, like a veteran of some Buena Vista reunion?

I doubt it, Christopher. A poster in Havana proclaims: "Revolutionaries are always young!" I say on behalf of the United States and the American struggle for independence that gave birth to this great nation: "Revolutions are always young because they are always unfinished." I promised to quote Dean Swift's comments on the legal profession, and it occurs to me that Mr. Hitchens is only a more recent incarnation of Jonathan Swift, so that Chris might have spoken exactly these words, in his inimitable drawl, if he had lived in the eighteenth century:

I said there was a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white, according as they are paid. To this society all the rest of the people are slaves. For example, if my neighbor hath a mind to my cow, he hires a lawyer to prove that he ought to have my cow from me. I must then hire another to defend my right, it being against all the rules of law that any man should be allowed to speak for himself. Now in this case I who am the right owner lie under two great disadvantages. First, my lawyer, being practised almost from his cradle in defending falsehood, is quite out of his element if he would be an advocate for justice, which as an office unnatural, he always attempts with ill-will. The second disadvantage is that my lawyer must proceed with great caution, or else he will be reprimanded by the judges, and abhorred by his brethren, as one that would lessen the practice of the law [by being honest]. And therefore I have but two methods to preserve my cow. The first is to gain over my adversary's lawyer with a double fee, who will then betray his client by insinuating that he hath justice on his side. The second way is for my lawyer to make my cause appear as unjust as he can, by allowing the cow to belong to my adversary: and this, if it be skillfully done, will certainly bespeak the favor of the bench.

I have reserved Joanathan Swift's most bitter and perceptive comments concerning judges in order to dedicate them now to the distinguished members of New Jersey's judiciary:

... judges are persons appointed to decide all controversies of property, as well as for the trial of criminals, and picked out from the most dextrous lawyers, who are grown old or lazy, and having been biased all their lives against truth and equity, are under such a fatal necessity of favoring fraud, perjury, and oppression, that I have known several of them refuse a large bribe from the side where justice lay, rather than injure the faculty, by doing anything unbecoming their nature or their office. [After all, even in New Jersey, judges must have some principles.]

In pleading [and in their decisions] they studiously avoid entering into the merits of the cause, but are loud, violent, and tedious in dwelling upon all circumstances which are not to the purpose. For instance, in the case already mentioned, they never desire to know what claim or title my adversary hath to my cow; but whether the said cow were red or black; her horns long or short, whether the field I graze her in be round or square, whether she was milked at home or abroad [the last word is not intended as a sexist slur!] what diseases she is subject to, and the like; after which they consult precedents, adjourn the case from time to time, and in ten, twenty, or thirty years, come to an issue.

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