Essayist vs. Essayist

Two of my favorite essayists had a scuffle in 1995. Richard Rodriguez published “Brit Twit,” an attack on Christopher Hitchens, his British-ness, and his disdain for Mother Teresa. Here is that essay.

Hitchens, a day later, responded on C-SPAN.

Both the essay and response are first-rate. File this exchange under “When writers were not bores.”

Here is the Reason Magazine Rodriguez interview Hitchens mentions.


Shipping news

Arks are in the news, or at least one ark is, as the new Charlton Heston movie “Noah” opens soon. Don’t care for the ark story (yet prefer it to any Orc story), but literate boats remind one other ships, even one with a strange history, the SS Deutschland, which wrecked and rescued 135 out of 213 passengers. And yet 5 of the drowned were nuns. So much for the chivalry of 150 years gone.

The wreck inspired, or at least sparked, a favored poem, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Wreck of the Deutschland. This is a mini-epic, and in the epic vein tells a story, a song of experience, of adventure, of triumph and loss. One of the stanzas is well known:

  I am soft sift
      In an hourglass—at the wall
   Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,
      And it crowds and it combs to the fall;
I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane,
But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall
    Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein
Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift.

While many others are not as known, but sublime nonetheless:

      No, but it was not these.
      The jading and jar of the cart,
   Time’s tasking, it is fathers that asking for ease
      Of the sodden-with-its-sorrowing heart,
Not danger, electrical horror; then further it finds
The appealing of the Passion is tenderer in prayer apart:
      Other, I gather, in measure her mind’s
Burden, in wind’s burly and beat of endragonèd seas.

That stanza stays with me. And while Hopkins can lay allusion and allegory a bit thick, his cadence and meter still strikes one as refreshing and affirming, what the best poetry ought to do.

The Prevention of Literature

Of course, print will continue to be used, and it is interesting to speculate what kinds of reading matter would survive in a rigidly totalitarian society. Newspapers will presumably continue until television technique reaches a higher level, but apart from newspapers it is doubtful even now whether the great mass of people in the industrialized countries feel the need for any kind of literature. They are unwilling, at any rate, to spend anywhere near as much on reading matter as they spend on several other recreations. Probably novels and stories will be completely superseded by film and radio productions. Or perhaps some kind of low grade sensational fiction will survive, produced by a sort of conveyor-belt process that reduces human initiative to the minimum.

from George Orwell’s essay The Prevention of Literature. Here’s a video of an hour-long conversation between Christopher Hitchens and George Packer on Orwell, wherein this essay is discussed.

Ibsen’s Ghosts

The big dust-up in Act 1 of Ghosts pits pious windbag Pastor Manders against the widow Helene Alving. This is a front-loaded play, with a great back-and-forth, featuring Manders patronizing Helene about her financial holdings and the contemporary books she enjoys, and later his supposed do-gooder role as family adviser to the Alvings–he kept Helene and her late husband together when she wanted to split after one year of bad marriage–and Helene’s ace response to Maders’ entire being.

It’s great fun to watch Manders flail when Helene turns on him, cutting at his stupidity and ignorance of her unhappy union, of all unions, of which a pastor of course knows nothing. Helene’s a super-woman, hard-lived and fearless. She’s smarter than Manders but defers to him out of manners and a dated cultural probity. She is a free spirit, or wants to be, admiring of her reckless son. Manders is pre-Enlightenment hot gas, wise with useless wisdom. Wonder if 19th Century audiences found him as funny as he is.

Notes on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

Rereading Ibsen and made the following notes about A Doll’s House:

It’s a Christmas story, inasmuch as a Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Conan Doyle’s Blue Carbuncle. Setting around the holiday, and with Torvald’s bankrupt pleas to Nora to stay with him out of duty to religion (in Act 3) is a smart move.

Kristine and Krogstad are still my favorite characters in the play. They are, in various and varied degrees, doppelgangers of Torvald and Nora, at various stages in their past, present, and future. We do this often as humans, measure ourselves against others, as Nora and Torvald do with Kristine and Krogstad.

Nora turning on Torvald–after ceremoniously removing her dance costume–is not as sudden as I remembered. Nora in Act 1 is plainly full of shit, disguising her unhappiness at every turn. Don’t know why I saw it differently so long ago.

Torvald is a great fool, incompetent, boobish, perhaps the first man-child in western literature. His outburst anger at Nora in Act 3 is the only time in the play he is genuine and alive. He knows his anger more than anything else.

Nora acknowledging the lonely journey she has planned for herself–informing Torvald she is leaving–is terrific. Her voice is calm and assured yet still confused and questioning.

Kristine and Krogstad are the only honest characters in the play until Nora comes clean; their easy way with their failures and hardships (and the truth) can be said to influence Nora’s talk to Torvald.