Sunday, July 1, 2001

Literary Legislators - In praise of partisan writers

Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, by Christopher Hitchens, London: Verso, 358 pages, $25

Christopher Hitchens' recently published indictment of Henry Kissinger rather too quickly overshadowed his Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, a collection of literary essays produced over the past eight years. This was ironic, if only because Hitchens has so often mocked the former secretary of state's propensity for attracting publicity. Hitchens has sought, like George Orwell, to turn political writing into an art, his starting point being "a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice." In Unacknowledged Legislation, however, his aim is primarily to reveal the politics in literature.

Three things stand out when reading Hitchens' essays. The first is his attitude toward public intellectuals, the "unacknowledged legislators" of Shelley's In Defense of Poetry. Hitchens also invites reflection on the ecumenism of literature--good literature--that seems to water down the "feeling of partisanship" that so pervades his writings. There is, finally, something to be said of the Hitchens style, which can be characterized as relentless provocationthough within disciplined boundariesand bold willingness to attack others on their own terrain.

For Hitchens' insights into the duties of public intellectuals, turn to a forum on the subject that ran in the February 12 edition of The Nation. There Hitchens stated: "I've increasingly become convinced that in order to be any kind of a public-intellectual commentator or combatant, one has to be unafraid of the charges of elitism. One has to have, actually, more and more contempt for public opinion and for the way in which it's constructed and aggregated, and polled and played back and manufactured and manipulated."

In an essay on H.L. Mencken titled "Critic of the Booboisie," Hitchens goes further, arguing: "Populism, which is in the last instance always an illiberal style, may come tricked out as folkish emancipation." Hitchens cites Murray Kempton and Gore Vidal as examples of "radical critics," a more partisan characterization than "public-intellectual commentator or combatant."

The reference to Vidal, in particular, is revealing. Hitchens' respect for Vidal runs deep and the two share several similarities (beyond the fact that they call Washington, D.C., their "hometown "). Though considered luminaries of the left, both have mostly classical bearings, and are more comfortable with the game of ideas and the attractions of style than with the dictates of ideology-an ideology of both left and right that tends to exalt "the public." As Unacknowledged Legislation continually makes clear, Hitchens has a rather quaint notion that the public intellectual represents a vanguard of sorts. "The sword, as we have reason to know, is often much mightier than the pen. However, there are things that pens can do, and swords cannot."

Hitchens is of course right about that. And a good case can be made that most great literary or artistic works were produced by individuals who were out of step with their environment. Where Hitchens is less convincing, however, is in so sternly positing an antagonism between the public intellectual and public opinion. The effective intellectual, even the radical, can also be the one who manages, while daring to be different, to discern and express what the public's opinion really is. For example, we may assume that in their moments of greatest relevance, Vaclav Havel, Boris Pasternak, or Richard Wright, "combatants" all, expressed what their peoples wanted to say but could not.

Hitchens might not disagree with this, inasmuch as it supposes that the credible intellectual is especially sensitive to the public's consciousness. But this raises a second problem: What allows us to accept that "intellectuals" have any greater feeling for the Truth than anyone else? Obviously some do and others don't, but what criteria permit the anointing of an amorphous assemblage of gatekeepers? Hitchens argues that populism has become the "vernacular for elitism." Perhaps in some circles it has. However, it is not particularly clear, on the basis of Hitchens' guidelines, what differentiates "acceptable" intellectual elitism from the elitism public intellectuals are supposed to combat.

A third problem is that Hitchens, who rightly assumes the public can be easily gulled, underestimates its aptitude for indifference--at least toward public intellectuals. Often there is simply no discord between the public and intellectuals, faute de combattants. Public intellectuals in much of the developed world-including the more luminous members of Hitchens' literary pantheon-often seem to interest a relatively small number of people. On top of this, much of the public is armed with a technology that allows it to circumvent gatekeepers when defining taste, style, quality, and social merit. It is not so much that public intellectuals are unacknowledged--which they are-but that they are incapable of legislating anymore.

But not to kill the beast too soon: What of the ecumenism of good literature, which gains its resonance in, and must provoke, contradictory sensations? Those in search of an answer will find few pens sharper than Hitchens'. The reason is that he invariably allows art to transcend dogma in his writings. That may sound like a cliche, but one apparently not so readily embraced by Hitchens' political comrades. Propping up a favorite straw man, former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, Hitchens writes that "Podhoretz is accidentally right, as it happens, in maintaining that there is...a special ad hominem venom on the Left, and an extreme willingness to attribute the very lowest motives to those who transgress its codes." Thus speaks the unmade friend of Sidney Blumenthal-Hitchens was famously set upon by the left after he accused the former Clinton administration strategist of being deceitful on behalf of the president.