Defiance unto Death: On Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

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Could anyone keep up with the Hitch? Was there another writer on the planet who could churn out a few essays, dispatch a book review, quell a bloated pastor, give a lecture in New York, get beat up by fascists in Beirut, and still find the time (and stamina) to empty a bottle or two — before getting down to do some serious work?

I ask because in practically every tribute printed in the days and weeks after Hitchens’s death last year, a prodigiously long lunch in the late writer’s company was dimly recalled, and the attendant week-long hangover spoken of in hushed tones of corporeal humility. To wit, Hitchens’s friend Christopher Buckley:
One of our lunches, at Café Milano, the Rick’s Café of Washington, began at 1 P.M., and ended at 11:30 P.M. At about nine o’clock (though my memory is somewhat hazy), he said, “Should we order more food?” I somehow crawled home, where I remained under medical supervision for several weeks, packed in ice with a morphine drip. Christopher probably went home that night and wrote a biography of Orwell. His stamina was as epic as his erudition and wit.
The poet Craig Raine:
I stayed with him in Washington when he was married to Eleni Meleagrou. I was reading at the Library of Congress. As Eleni and I were having tea, Christopher came in, fresh from California, reeking of fags and booze. He had been debating with Alexander Cockburn. “Drink?” I said I never drank before a reading. “Gosh,” he said and poured himself a big brandy and Campari. For the next two hours, he put it away. Then we went to the Library of Congress. Afterwards we went to several bars. By 1 a.m. I was speechless with drink and Hitch was in spate…I don’t remember going to bed. I got up at 7 and found my way to the bathroom, wary as a seal, in case my headache exploded. Hitch was in his study, at his desk, a glass of brandy and Campari to hand, a cigarette immolating itself in the ashtray. He was writing a piece.
And finally the writer Benjamin Kunkel:
“An orange juice,” I said to Hitchens in the Old Town Bar, where when I arrived he’d been amiably baiting an occasional cartoonist for The New Republic. “I’m just getting over the flu.”

“Fuck off!” he replied — he later wrote a paean to the expression for Slate — and ordered me a Johnny Walker Black […]

I emerged from the Old Town Bar in a barely ambulatory state, Hitchens and I embraced each other on a street corner like parting lovers, and we never saw each other again. I asked him once if I could use his name in a pitch I wrote as a young freelancer on the make, and he said by all means: “May you flourish!”
You get the picture: a lunch with the Hitch was an unforgettable honor for which, if you couldn’t keep up (and who could?), you paid the price. This was his public image: the long-lunching orator, the scotch-swilling scrivener, the fag-smoking provocateur. After paying Hitchens a visit in Washington D.C. in 2006, the Danish journalist Martin Krasnik confessed to feeling almost physically in love with his host. I know the feeling: I met Hitchens at the 2010 PEN World Voices Festival. Filling in for Sherman Alexie, Hitchens had jetted up to New York from D.C. to deliver the Arthur Miller Lecture in Cooper Union’s Great Hall (the same venue where, two years later, I was lucky enough to attend Vanity Fair’s Memorial Service for him). After a typically engaging talk, and an equally entertaining on-stage conversation with Salman Rushdie, Hitchens milled about among fans and friends off-stage. I caught him there and introduced myself. “It’s an honor to meet you,” I quivered. “If you say so,” he quipped. I went on to explain that I was from Denmark and wanted to thank him for his very vocal support of the Danish cartoonists back in 2006. He leaned in and put his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t let them fuck you around,” he said, before wandering off.

As an orator and rhetorician, the Hitch was notorious. Martin Amis recalls that when he was in Cyprus to be best man at Hitchens’s first wedding in 1980, he would spend his mornings decamped by the pool, whereas Hitchens would often show up in a suit and announce his immediate intention of going to the bar to find someone to argue with. “Ideally my day will include at least five arguments,” he told Martin Krasnik. It was a compulsion, as the proliferation of Hitchens’s appearances on political talk shows and news hours in the last decade of his life showed. There he was — debunking the inflated achievements of crooks like Jerry Falwell, picking fights with pious men of faith, or calling for the arrest and trial of war criminals like Henry Kissinger. (Once, as Kissinger was delivering a lecture in Pittsburgh, Hitchens used a fellow journalist’s press pass to enter an auditorium and heckle the audience with cries of “Toads! You’re all toads who’ve come to listen to a toad!” before getting himself thrown out by security guards.)

Despite these shenanigans, Hitchens was inspired and formed by his descent, in the early 1970s, on literary London, where he met a glittering generation of fellow English writers — novelists, essayists, poets, playwrights, journalists — with whom he formed lifelong friendships based on mutual admiration and a shared brew of private jokes and word games. It was there in the pubs and bars and editorial offices that Hitchens first got a whiff of his career as a political man of letters. As he tells it in Hitch-22:
If ever anyone was “hooked,” it was me. The network of streets and lanes and squares roughly between Blackfriars Bridge and Ludgate Circus and Theobalds Road and Covent Garden had me in thrall. So they do still, in their way. This was the district that stretched from the Marx Memorial Library on Clerkwell Green to the British Museum Reading Room where the old boy had done his best work. Extending itself a bit to the north and colonizing Charlotte Street up to Fitzroy Square, it became the area where Anthony Powell had located some of his more louche scenes of pre- and postwar literary interpretation. Looping around itself and doubling back via Shaftesbury Avenue, the neighborhood might be said to “take in” Soho, with its little grid of streets and alleys, containing the offices of Private Eye and New Left Review, and then Gerrard Street, now “Chinatown,” in which Dr. Johnson’s “Club” of Burke, Gibbon, Reynolds, and Garrick had met (and near the corner of which I was later to take my last glimpse of my mother). In these and other purlieus was manufactured the journalistic small-arms ammunition that was to be hurled against the gigantic (but inaccurate and poorly commanded) batteries of Fleet Street’s Tory newspaper establishment, located farther east as a sort of bulwark to the City of London.
Since his death, people have wondered why Hitchens never wrote a novel. After all, he was a great lover of fiction and poetry who for many years reviewed books regularly for The Atlantic; and as the passage above illustrates (though I’d like to quibble with the word “purlieus”), his command of prose was something worth envying. But the consensus among his friends — the novelists Martin Amis and Ian McEwan in particular — was that sitting alone by yourself conjuring up imaginary people and events was not something that suited Hitchens’s temperament: he wanted to be near the action, on the front lines, fighting in the streets. They might have added that a novelist, in order to just sit there all day, must be tirelessly self-conscious. The interior life (the novelist feels) is where the real action is; everything outside of that, everything beyond the fictional, is somehow not enough. As Martin Amis puts it in his memoir Experience, real life is “thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are either predictable or sensationalist. And it’s always the same beginning; and the same ending…”

Christopher Hitchens was not this kind of writer; he rarely sallied forth into the realm of the personal. Even his memoir Hitch-22, with the exception of the moving and painful portraits of his parents, is less a memoir than it is a tribute to his vocation, and to the many people he met pursuing it (he was a great teller of anecdotes). Put it like this: the Hitch was not a subject of urgent interest to the Hitch. Everything else was. In the foreword to Unacknowledged Legislation, his formidable and essential collection of essays on “Writers in the Public Sphere,” he claimed for himself Orwell’s desire to “make political writing into an art.” And just to illustrate his success in this regard, let’s take a gander at the final paragraph of his book on Orwell, Why Orwell Matters (2002):
If it is true that le style, c’est l’homme (a proposition which the admirers of M. Claude Simon must devoutly hope to be false) then what we have in the person of George Orwell is by no means the ‘saint’ mentioned by V. S. Pritchett and Anthony Powell. At best it could be asserted, even by an atheist admirer, that he took some of the supposedly Christian virtues and showed how they could be ‘lived’ without piety or religious belief. It may also be hoped that, to adapt the words of Auden on the death of Yeats, Time itself deals kindly with those who live by and for language. Auden added that Time ‘with this strange excuse’ would even ‘pardon Kipling and his views’. Orwell’s ‘views’ have been largely vindicated by Time, so he need not seek any pardon on that score. But what he illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that ‘views’ do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think; and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them.
The critic James Wood read this passage aloud at Vanity Fair’s Memorial Service for Hitchens, and justified his selection by claiming that, like all good criticism, this bit was really about the critic himself.

Detractors of Christopher Hitchens might want to keep that passage in mind as they go about their business of reproaching him for his “views” on, for instance, the war in Iraq. You could disagree with those views, like his close friends Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, James Fenton, and Salman Rushdie did, but the principle of anti-totalitarianism on which those views were founded seem to me worth a good deal of respect, and even admiration. In any case, a man who wrote so well and so thoughtfully, and with such Hazlittean “gusto” — his words, in writing and in speech, had that “double relish” — cannot easily be reduced to the summation of his political views, which often contradicted themselves anyway. James Wood wrote of Orwell not long ago that “contradictions are what make writers interesting. Consistency is for cooking.” The same applies to the Hitch: as Martin Amis pointed out in his eulogy at the Memorial Service, Hitchens was so argumentative, was such an auto-contrarian, that it often seemed as though the only person he thought it worthwhile to argue with was himself.

The diagnosis of esophageal cancer in June 2010 forced self-consciousness on Hitchens. The product, Mortality, a slim but courageous volume of dispatches from “the land of malady” originally published in Vanity Fair, came about reluctantly. In a moving afterword, Carol Blue, Hitchens’s widow, tells us that “the first time Christopher went public and wrote about his illness for Vanity Fair, he was ambivalent about it. He was intent on protecting our family’s privacy. He was living the topic and he didn’t want it to become all-encompassing, he didn’t want to be defined by it. He wanted to think and write in a sphere apart from sickness.”

The delightfully Hitch-like solution is to treat his illness as he would any other subject: with verbal flourish and twanging wit. “I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation,” he writes of his diagnosis, “taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of the malady.” And though this new land is “quite welcoming in its way,” it has its predictable lacunae of comfort: “the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited.”

True to character, and as though his superb mental acuity were impervious to incorrigible bodily decline (made throat-cloggingly visible by the book’s author photo), Hitchens artfully cleaves his way through thickets of illness-related delusion. He dispenses with self-deceptions and “facile maxims” shortly after his diagnosis (one of his last articles was a tear-up of Nietzsche’s claim that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”) and, like J.P. Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne — a novel Hitchens admired — refuses the false comfort of religious belief to the very end: “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”

Best of all are the jibes and swings that illuminate the many ironies of the illness business. While at a hospital in Texas, for instance, Hitchens persuades the chaplain’s department that it is “slightly idiotic not to boast of a thirteenth floor but instead to skip from twelve to fourteen.” He even proposes a “cancer-etiquette” book after a tiresome encounter at a book-signing (a female reader, mistakenly assuming that Hitchens is interested in her cousin’s diagnosis with cancer, frustrates the author and the many other people in line to get their books signed). “I have hardly been reticent about my own malady,” Hitchens allows. “But nor do I walk around sporting a huge lapel button that reads, ASK ME ABOUT STAGE FOUR METASTISIZED ESOPHAGEAL CANCER, AND ONLY THAT.”

There is so much to admire in this short volume that, paradoxically, you occasionally forget it was composed en route to death — so coolly does Hitchens face the approach of his own end. I for one find such acceptance of death incomprehensible (when I have a cold, I lay sniveling and whining in the fetal position for a week, calling piteously for refills of Nyquil and whisky), and stubbornly share Nabokov’s urge to “take my rebellion outside and picket nature.” But to think seriously or at length about one’s death — well, as Philip Larkin put it: “it rages out / in furnace-fear when we are caught without / People or drink.”

Larkin also said that courage is no good, yet the moral import of Mortality is precisely the courage displayed by Christopher Hitchens as he fought, not against the cancer (he knew he was dying: “the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five”), but to keep writing for as long as it was mentally and physically possible. Being brave lets no one off the grave — but Mortality, as an act of writing, is an act of defiance.

Defiant unto death: how suitably Hitch.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Failing Better: Ian Hamilton and The New Review

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If you could travel back in time to a particular literary era, like Woody Allen’s characters in Midnight in Paris, where would you prefer to drop in? The New York of Mailer and Capote? The Paris of Stein, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald? Not me. I’d defy all the glamour and glitz and go to soggy ’70s London. Specifically, I would waltz into the Pillars of Hercules, an ancient pub on Greek Street in Soho, and report to the poet, critic and editor Ian Hamilton, who would no doubt be holding down the fort at the bar, an emperor-sized scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other (they didn’t call him High-Tar Hamilton for nothing), and ask to review a book for his monthly magazine, The New Review. Its offices were just upstairs from the pub, but all the real business was completed bar-side. There in the Pillars I might encounter Martin Amis or Ian McEwan, Jonathan Raban, or Clive James, possibly even an ageing and manic Robert Lowell, ensconced by wide-eyed admirers. With any luck, I would become audience to one of Hamilton’s celebrated witticisms, like the one about the young poet who came down from Oxford to write for the magazine. According to legend, Hamilton took him downstairs to the pub at 11:30 in the morning and bought them two large scotches. “Oh no, I just can’t keep drinking,” the poet demurred, “I must give it up, it’s doing terrible things to me. I don’t even like it anymore.” To which Hamilton indignantly remarked: “Good god, man! None of us likes it.”

Karl Miller once remarked that you could write an anthology of Hamilton’s pub-sayings. Accordingly, much of the written material concerning him tends toward the personal-anecdotal: everyone seems to have their favorite Hamilton-zinger. Julian Barnes, for instance, whose go-to drink in those days was a gin and bitter lemon (hardly a pub-drink), recalls that “the first time Ian offered me a drink in the Pillars and I told him what I wanted, he didn’t react, no doubt confident that he had misheard me. He was generously willing to stand me the round, but unable to pronounce every word in case the barman got the wrong idea. ‘Large whisky, pint of Old Skullsplitter, a gin and …you say it.’ ‘Bitter lemon,’ I admitted, completing the order and my shame.” Hamilton makes a fictional cameo in Martin Amis’s novel The Pregnant Widow as the “charming, handsome, litigious, drink-drenched, debt-ridden, women-infested Neil Darlington,” and in North Face of Soho, the fourth of his so-called “Unreliable Memoirs,” Clive James devotes a couple of pages to his old friend and editor. One and a half of those pages are devoted to his old friend’s sexual success, which was by all accounts considerable. “At the height of his pulling power,” James writes, “he never had to do anything to get a woman he wanted except fight off the ones he didn’t, so as to give her a free run to the target.” Hamilton’s good looks, in collusion with his poetic air and understated cool, caught the attention of more than just a few women. But there was an attractive darkness, too; an ironic, reserved demeanor that hinted at something broken or damaged. “He had the knack of embodying self-destruction in an alluring form,” James writes. When the two of them did a reading together in Oxford they were approached by a gorgeous young student. Smitten, Clive James invited her to drop by at the Pillars when she was next in London. When she did, James greeted her enthusiastically at the bar. “Is he here?” was all she said to him.

It’s tempting to romanticize this kind of set-up, what with all pub-hub and boozy camaraderie, but it shouldn’t keep us from acknowledging the achievements of the magazine itself.  Hamilton, though fearless, was a dream-editor. He launched his first literary journal, Scorpion, when he was in the sixth form at Darlington Grammar School, skipping class to ensure its distribution and getting in trouble for publishing it on the same day as the official school magazine. “It was an anti-school magazine,” Hamilton said. He would have much rather been playing soccer (a life-long passion; he was a self-professed “soccer bore”), but a heart condition prevented him from joining in with his fellow classmates. “I reached for my Keats,” he said. “I developed a kinship with sickly romantic poets who couldn’t play games.” When asked what eventually happened to that heart condition, Hamilton observed wryly that “it went away as soon as I started drinking.”

His editorial breakthrough arrived in the form of The Review, a journal bulging with poetry that followed the failure of Tomorrow, a “rather awful magazine” he’d launched in 1959 while a student at Oxford. The Review appeared in part because of the money Hamilton owed the printer of Tomorrow — a pattern that repeated itself with The New Review. Along with like-minded poets such as John Fuller, Colin Falck, and the American Michael Fried, The Review established a reputation for its acidity and combativeness. “I saw myself protecting poetry against the pretenders, the charlatans, the fakes,” Hamilton explained. It lasted 10 years. During that time, Hamilton moved to London and became the Times Literary Supplement’s poetry editor, not to mention a published poet himself. A pamphlet, Pretending not to sleep, had appeared in 1964 as part of a special edition of The Review, while his debut collection The Visit was published by Faber & Faber in 1970.

When it was revealed that the cultural magazine Encounter, launched in 1953 by the poet Stephen Spender, was being covertly funded by the C.I.A., Spender left in protest, as did other high-ranking officers like the late Frank Kermode, and steps were taken by England’s Arts Council to launch a counter-Encounter. After years of meetings and lunches (presumably to discuss next week’s meetings and lunches) the project ultimately failed to materialize, but a sizable amount of money had been put aside and was, in Hamilton’s words, “just lying there.” Charles Osborne, the Council’s literary director, didn’t object when Hamilton suggested the funds be used to re-launch The Review as a monthly magazine. A year later, in April 1974, the inaugural issue of The New Review appeared, featuring contributions from Robert Lowell, Clive James, Al Alvarez, and Martin Amis, among others.

The magazine, with its glossy pages and design-conscious format, immediately caused a stir. This was the time, as Hamilton explained it, of widespread labor protests and Edward Heath’s three-day work week, and here was a large, baronial litmag priced at 90p an issue. “It did come under a lot of fire on all the waste-of-public money issues — which was bollocks, because public money paid only for about half of any single issue,” Hamilton said. The money was a mixed blessing at best. The Council’s Literature Panel, a committee made up of fellow writers, turned out to be a pharisaical outfit. “The truth is that when you give a bunch of writers any kind of money-muscle, they go slightly mad,” Hamilton wrote in a later essay printed in Granta:
And when you put them on committees that give money to other writers, they go madder still. I can hear their voices now: “Mr Chairman, on a point of order, I feel it my duty to observe…” And this would be some foppish, dreamy-faced poetaster fresh from a three-absinthe lunch. But nearly all of them behaved like this. Wild-eyed anarchic novelists would transmute into prim-lipped accountants. Tremulous lyric poets would rear up like tigers of the bottom line. Book-reviewers who, I knew, lived in daily terror of being rumbled by the Revenue were all at once furrow-browed custodians of public funds.
Of necessity, Hamilton became one of literature’s great hustlers, jingling with money knowhow. “Knowing how many days pass between a final notice and a cut-off, knowing much time you gain with a carefully-phrased ‘WAFDA pdc’… such information is the small change of a life that’s sometimes financed by small change.” When the poet Craig Raine worked as books editor on Fridays, he once met a bailiff on the stairs who asked him if he was Ian Hamilton. Raine took him upstairs to the office and asked Ian Hamilton if he’d seen Ian Hamilton. “No,” Ian Hamilton said, “You just missed him.”

Hounded by debt collectors, pressured by printer’s fees, fearful that the Arts Council would come through on its threats to pull their funding (not to mention more local troubles, such as the mental illness of his first wife and their eventual divorce), Hamilton was ever under intense strain. “He was the only person I knew who was sued by his own solicitor,” Christopher Hitchens recalled. On one occasion his thick, dark hair began to turn white and fall out in clumps. Eventually it grew back again.

In 1999, two years before his untimely death at age 63, the Cargo Press published a festschrift, Another Round at the Pillars: Essays, Poems and Reflections, in which many of Hamilton’s old friends and contributors paid homage to the man who took a chance on their work and half-destroyed himself doing so. In his contribution to the book, Ian McEwan memorably evokes what it was like in the Pillars, amid all the fumes and vapors and drink:
In The Pillars I met “my generation” of writers — male, born in the late forties — and made friendships that will last me a lifetime — among them Amis, Barnes, Raine, Fenton, Reid. Most of us had yet to publish our first books. We read each other with close, gossipy attention. It was a given that there was nowhere as good to place a story or poem as The New Review — at least, until the Amis-Barnes era began at The [New] Statesman. If this was a literary clique, it was remarkably open. I took various friends along who weren’t really writers at all, but Ian treated them as though they were and gave them books to review. Anyone, it seemed, could wander in and get a drink. Junkies came in to shoot up in the lavatories upstairs. If you wandered in too often, you were likely to be given an unpaid job. Mine was at a desk in a corner of the packing room on the second floor. Ian asked me to read the short story slush pile and tell him if there was anything worth his consideration. It took me two weeks to discover that there wasn’t.
McEwan goes on, like practically everyone else who contributed to The New Review, to emphasize the central importance of Hamilton to the magazine. Despite a reputation for being coolly reticent with praise, and devoutly more butch with dispraise (he apparently once told a writer that, if torn into small strips, his piece might serve nicely as cat litter), he was an editor writers were eager to please. He encouraged them to do their best — even if they weren’t getting paid (which they often weren’t). “There was no house style at all, but it had the personality of its editor, who was both hugely enthusiastic and encouraging and capable of scowling sardonically at what he thought was phony,” the writer Jonathan Raban recalls. “Hemingway famously said, ‘The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit-detector,’ and was what Ian provided for us.” Scanning its back catalogues, The New Review’s quality is glaringly obvious: fiction by Ian McEwan, Nadine Gordimer, Jim Crace, Jean Rhys, Paul Theroux, and John Cheever; poetry by Tom Paulin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, and Zbigniew Herbert; essays and reportage by Jonathan Raban, Frank Kermode, John Carey, Mary-Kay Wilmers, Terry Eagleton, A. S. Byatt, and Germaine Greer. There were special features on Scientology, Jaws, and the IRA; entire plays by Harold Pinter and Bertolt Brecht; interviews with Saul Bellow and Gore Vidal. There was a recurring satirical column by Edward Pygge, a fictional name used to poke fun at the Modish London Literary World.

In The Little Magazines: A Study of Six Editors, a small book published in 1976, Hamilton looked closely at some of the most influential of the 20th century’s little magazines: The Little Review, Poetry, New Verse, The Criterion, Partisan Review, and Horizon. What characterized them were “small resources, small respect for the supposed mysteries of ‘how to run a business’, small appeal outside a very small minority of readers.” It’s hard to shake the sense that Hamilton, whether he is writing about T. S. Eliot and The Criterion or Geoffrey Grigson and New Verse, was also writing about himself and The New Review. He would definitely have sympathized with Eliot’s complaints to John Quinn in a letter of 1923: “I wish to heaven I had never taken up The Criterion… It has been an evergrowing responsibility… a great expense to me and I have not got a penny out of it: there is not enough money to run it and pay me too… I think the work and worry have taken 10 years off my life.” And no doubt he must have been a little inspired by Grigson’s sardonic willingness to make enemies, even of his friends. Just as practically all poet-contributors to New Verse would eventually see their own work savagely debunked in its pages, so Hamilton never shied away from publishing reviews that were critical of the writing of friends or contributors. Before John Carey’s panning of Clive James’ The Metropolitan Critic appeared in The New Review’s pages, Hamilton showed James the typescript over drinks at the Pillars. “In the name of editorial integrity,” James wrote, “he not only didn’t mind making enemies, he didn’t mind hurting his friends either.” James, however, didn’t hold a grudge: his second collection of essays, published five years later, bore the title At the Pillars of Hercules.

“Each magazine needs a new decade,” Hamilton wrote, “and each decade needs a new magazine.” Clearly The New Review was the magazine of the ’70s, and though he believed that the ideal lifespan of a little magazine was 10 years, it only ever made it to five. The Arts Council pulled the plug in 1979 and The New Review collapsed under a ton of debt. Hamilton remained in financial rubble for years to come, though eventually made a living from his journalism and, later, as the author of acclaimed biographies of Robert Lowell (Robert Lowell: A Biography) and J. D. Salinger (Ian Hamilton, being Ian Hamilton, was naturally sued for In Search of J D Salinger — by Salinger himself). He wrote learned and entertaining volumes about the lives of writers and their biographers — Writers in Hollywood 1915-1951 (1990); Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography (1992); A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold (1998); Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth-Century Poets (2002) — as well as several volumes of essays and reviews, not to mention two books on Paul Gascoigne, the once-controversial English soccer star. “I think every book I’ve written has some strong autobiographical element in it. That seems to me okay,” he told Dan Jacobson in the London Review of Books shortly before his death.

Nothing was more autobiographical than his poetry, and turning from the wry, self-deprecating voice of his journalism to the spare, somber voice of his verse is something of a shock. His deeply personal subject matter — his father’s illness and early death when Hamilton was just thirteen; his first wife’s mental illness; his divorces and disappointments — are not, like the later poems of Robert Lowell, evoked with all the reticence of a tell-all tabloid spread. Instead, Hamilton’s poems are like eavesdropping on one half of a private conversation. Stripped of personal context, whatever private crisis was there has to be inferred by the reader — Hamilton remains stoically silent. But the emotional intensity, though sparing, is anything but:
I am dumpy, obtruse, old and out of it.
At night, I can feel my hands prowl over me,
Lightly probing at my breasts, my knees,
The folds of my belly,
Now and then pressing and sometimes,
In their hunger, tearing me.
I live alone.
The poetic voice comes as a jolt when compared to the prose, but the two are in no way contradictory. They are contained in each other.  In a little analysis of the “none of us likes it” quip that I opened with, the critic James Wood rightly observes that the joke implies a “stoical tragi-comic world…a picture at once funny and sad.” Hamilton was funny in the way of a proverb from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Excess of sorrow laughs.” His self-deprecating tone is amusing and charming but, like the tip of the iceberg, is sustained by the bulk of private terrors submerged beneath it. In the long interview he gave to Dan Jacobsen in the London Review of Books at the end of his life, the same note is struck again and again. Of The New Review he says: “Looking back, I think I should probably have done it differently, but I didn’t, so there it was. And it still looks pretty okay to me and has some really quite good stuff in it.” When you look at those back issues, pretty okay and quite good are not exactly phrases that leap to mind — nor do they seem to be phrases Hamilton deployed merely out of a sense of false modesty. The New Review, after all, was a result of serial failures, and in the end must have seemed like something of failure to its creator, too. When it folded and he left the magazine racket for good, he went on to occupy an uncertain ground as a sometime-poet and occasional-biographer. There would have been plenty of occasions for the intense self-doubt he admired in Matthew Arnold. In his book on Arnold, published very late in his life, he put a quote of the poet’s at the beginning that he was very fond of:
It is a sad thing to see a man who has been frittered away piecemeal by petty distractions, and who has never done his best. But it is still sadder to see a man who has done his best, who has reached his utmost limits — and finds his work a failure, and himself far less than he had imagined himself.
Posterity isn’t usually kind to editors, biographers, critics, or even poets. Hamilton was all four, sometimes by accident, always by virtue of his wit, intelligence and quiet rebelliousness. Still, he very likely saw himself frittered away piecemeal and, if not exactly as a failure, then as less than he imagined himself. It’s fair to say, I think, that he made a career of his many failures: his failure to become a soccer star, his failures in the magazine business, the private failures that fuelled his poetry. He tried, he failed, and then he failed better. At certain moments we may wish to acknowledge the inevitability of this — in writing as in life. Those of us who lack the madcap artistic genius of a Lowell or a Salinger, and whose greatest gift to literature may simply be to serve it, will often feel that we have courted failure. Though he was not a genius or a great artist, Hamilton served literature by setting a great example (The Lowells and the Salingers of this world are hardly exemplary). In a kinder world, his achievements would have yanked him from the penury of posterity. But no matter. I still want to time-warp back to the Pillars, when Hamilton, in the words of his poem “Returning,” was at his best:
Dear friend, I wish you could have seen
This place when it was at its best,
When I was,
But it isn’t far. It isn’t far. Come with me.

Modernity and its Discontents: George Scialabba’s The Modern Predicament

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I’m going to wager that George Scialabba is the best political critic you’ve never heard of. I certainly felt the satisfying click of a missing piece when I stumbled on him a year and a half ago. And this is a guy whose essays and book reviews — wide-ranging and widely learned, unhampered by the temporary pull of fads or fashions — have held their own in the pages and columns of the left-wing press for the better part of three decades; in Dissent, in The Nation, the Boston Globe, the Village Voice. He is to some extent a critic’s critic, noisily lauded by the likes of Richard Rorty, Norman Rush, James Wood, and Vivian Gornick, yet unread by the larger reading public. This is less a result of his own modesty than it is the inevitable fate, these days, of the “generalist” critic. The long-form intellectual essay, I gather, is considered by many a dead genre, a cultural relic of the twentieth century easily bullied by the twenty-first. In his last book, What Are Intellectuals Good For?, Scialabba himself warned that the “political culture has changed in a way that undermines not merely the viability, but also the authority, of the generalist.” He worried about the “intellectuals’ incorporation en masse” into power elites (read: News Corp.), and wagered that the “cultural conversation has grown and now includes too many voices and perspectives, too much information.”

But Scialabba’s eloquent prose and boundless literary-intellectual reserves shrug off these claims to redundancy. He is a natural heir to the critics whose lives, works, and careers he explicated so sympathetically in What Are Intellectuals Good For?: Dwight Macdonald, Nicola Chiaromonte, Lionel Trilling, Randolph Bourne, Irving Howe. He is a counterargument to his own claims about generalists. Reading George Scialabba emphasizes the need for more George Scialabbas.

The Modern Predicament, his latest collection of essays and reviews, shifts our focus from the vocation of the intellectual to the legacy of modernity. In fifteenth-century Europe, according to Scialabba, “a critical, experimental, libertarian spirit began to flourish, which came to be known as ‘humanism.’” Before that, you’ll remember, it was all superstition and church and feudalism, and people generally seemed to be having a pretty bad time. Then came Modernity, with its radical scientific breakthroughs, its unfettered geographical exploration, and its febrile artistic innovation, and what happened? Enlightenment. “Humankind’s emergence from its self-imposed minority,” in Kant’s famous words.

This sounds great but, as Scialabba sensitively shows, the gradual and then sudden erosion of traditional constellations of belief and community had particularly adverse effects on people’s happiness. “A short definition of modern intellectual history might be,” he suggests, “the progressive undermining of all firm distinctions, metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical.” Many of the writers and thinkers addressed in these pages are individuals whose ideas were in part reactions against modernity. And though Scialabba is no friend of conservatism or antimodernism, he is clearly sympathetic to their rattled nerves and shocked intellects.

And so he returns again and again to Christopher Lasch (“the most important American social critic in recent decades”), admits that D.H. Lawrence’s “ideas are an embarrassment” but considers him a great diagnostician of nihilism, and finds uncomfortable the thought that Nietzsche — “neither an optimist nor a democrat” — was “the person who saw most deeply into the meaning of modernity.” He also weighs in on antimodernists like Kierkegaard, prophetic raconteurs like Foucault, and contemporary critics like Michael Ignatieff and Barbara Ehrenreich.

In a scant 149 pages Scialabba probes questions that are eerily, exhaustively, familiar: Can we be good without God? What does it mean to be a moral person? How do we pursue a viable and fair social arrangement? His answers and conclusions are fresh and invigorating. These essays may well be, as Scialabba suggests, “highly compressed” summaries of “enormously complex arguments,” but in his hands they are transformed into a kind of running commentary on modern intellectual history, agreeably and rigorously narrated by George Scialabba.

This achievement is the result of an intellectual caution, a suspicion of sweeping narratives and ideologies. Take his essay on Charles Taylor, the Canadian communitarian philosopher. Responding to Taylor’s 1989 study of modern identity, Sources of the Self, Scialabba says of his own “moral heroes” — Godwin, Bentham, Mill, Marx, Morris, Luxemburg, Orwell, Russell — that although you could argue they may have been better off with “a proper metaphysical foundation,” the likes of which Taylor seems to champion,
maybe the fact that they scraped along pretty well without one means that the question “Why care about others?” and the larger question “Why act right,” which Taylor thinks can only be answered definitively by invoking some “constitutive good” can’t be answered definitively at all. And needn’t be.
Scialabba admits that Taylor’s doubts are “daunting” and that the contingency of virtue in a moral universe without God is worth troubling your mind with. But rather than drum up an exhaustive metaphysical foundation, Scialabba concludes, “I confess I see no alternative to living with this suspicion, perhaps permanently.”

This suspicion stems from the fact that although Scialabba is responsive to the protests of antimodernists, he remains skeptical of their political sympathies. Neither Lawrence nor Nietzsche, Kierkegaard nor Eliot, for instance, were lambent democrats hungry for majority rule. For similar reasons Scialabba is unmoved by the religious cant of Philip Rieff or the Victorian nostalgia of Gertrude Himmelfarb; he doesn’t want to see humanity enlisted in some sweeping ideological or theological prescription-plan. “Ordinary people must become heroes,” he writes, “and we can.”

It strikes the reader that Scialabba’s is a sympathetic temperament (much more Trilling than Macdonald), and that his intellectual and imaginative leaps are the foundation of his penetrating critical skill. In an essay on the little-known sociologist John Carroll, he entertains the thought that “perhaps modernity is a mistake” and goes along with many of Carroll’s arguments and conclusions about the need for “a new cultural myth” to replace the falsity of humanism (Carroll’s most famous book, Humanism, diagnosed the decline of Western culture). Yet he finds Carroll’s exhaustive religious interpretation of modernity “profoundly wrong” and hopes instead for a truce between believers and nonbelievers: “Why not lay aside questions of ultimate meaning for as long as there is unnecessary suffering in the world?”

Detractors will doubtless complain that Scialabba has little to offer in the department of viable alternatives. In this sense he is “good” for nothing. Though he hopes for “the solidarity of the hopeful” (“communitarian and individualist, republican and socialist”), he has no enchanting utopias to dazzle us with, no heaven on earth to erect. His purpose is not, as he writes, “to propose a policy” but merely to “sort out my feelings.” This is more generous and stimulating that it sounds. The qualities he celebrates in his favorite writers — intellectual humility, a strong moral imagination, a willingness to accept uncertainty — are qualities Scialabba embodies artfully. The comparison to Lionel Trilling is apt; in an essay on Trilling, collected in What are Intellectuals Good For?, Scialabba wrote of the former’s own intellectual caution:
Yes to greater equality, inclusiveness, cooperation, tolerance, social experimentation, individual freedom… but only after listening to everything that can be said against one’s cherished projects, assuming equal intelligence and good faith on the part of one’s opponents, and tempering one’s zeal with the recognition that every new policy has unintended consequences, sometimes very bad ones. But after all that… yes.
Like Trilling, Scialabba believes in the moral obligation to be intelligent. In “Crowds and Culture,” the closing essay of The Modern Predicament, he wonders if increasing the number of creative and critical human beings might not be possible through a “supreme effort of democratic pedagogy.” Clearly he pines for such a pedagogy — pines, in fact, for his own irrelevancy, for if such an effort were undertaken, the generalist would undoubtedly cease to be necessary.

But for the time being, despite Scialabba’s doubts and reservations, we need the generalist, the solitary voice whose diligence and range, intellect and literary verve, can guide us through the informational hodge-podge of the twenty-first century. We need, that is, George Scialabba.