Sunday, December 18, 2011

Corey Robin on Hitchens. Recommended by Glenn Greenwald, via Chris Bertram in a comment at CT. The links in my comment are from other commenters on the post.
Robin's addendum
Update (11:45 am)
Many seem to view Hitchens’s undeniable talent as a writer as a mitigating factor in their assessment of his legacy. Such arguments have a long history. On this question, I take my cues from one of our finest critics:
The simple yet appalling fact is that we have very little solid evidence that literary studies do very much to enrich or stabilize moral perception, that they humanize. We have little proof that a tradition of literary studies in fact makes a man more humane. What is worse — a certain body of evidence points the other way. When barbarism came to twentieth-century Europe, the arts faculties in more than one university offered very little moral resistance, and this is not a trivial or local accident. In a disturbing number of cases the literary imagination gave servile or ecstatic welcome to political bestiality. That bestiality was at times enforced and refined by individuals educated in the culture of traditional humanism. Knowledge of Goethe, a delight in the poetry of Rilke, seemed no bar to personal and institutionalized sadism. Literary values and the most utmost of hideous inhumanity could coexist in the same community, in the same individual sensibility….

…I find myself unable to assert confidently that the humanities humanize. Indeed, I would go further: it is at least conceivable that the focusing of consciousness on a written text which is the substance of our training and pursuit diminishes the sharpness and readiness of our actual moral response. Because we are trained to give psychological and moral credence to the imaginary, to the character in a play or a novel, to the condition of spirit we gather from a poem, we may find it more difficult to identify with the real world, to take the world of actual experience to heart…The capacity for imaginative reflex, for moral risk in any human being is not limitless; on the contrary, it can be rapidly absorbed by fictions, and thus the cry in the poem may come to sound louder, more urgent, more real than the cry in the street outside. The death in the novel may move us more potently than the death in the next room. Thus there may be a covert, betraying link between the cultivation of aesthetic response and the potential of personal inhumanity.

—George Steiner, "To Civilize Our Gentlemen,” in Language and Silence
I'd written a couple of basic comments and ignored the quote. An anonymous commenter didn't.
Steiner is saying that the humanities do not improve us, but, rather, they degrade us, or at least give us cover for self-degradation. How you don’t read that as a condemnation of the arts, I don’t know. I am of the opinion that pleasure is an important part of life, and that insisting that it serve “a greater good” in every case is foolish and joy-killing.
Anon defends the arts as pleasure but not their central function. Pleasure is inevitable so it's smart to understand what you enjoy, so that you may understand yourself. My longer comment
Until just now I hadn't read the quote from Steiner; I'd dropped by earlier to make a general comment on Hitchens, then I got dragged in.

Anon is right about the Steiner; the vulgarity is shocking, but it begins with Corey Robin's introduction: "Many seem to view Hitchens’s undeniable talent as a writer as a mitigating factor in their assessment of his legacy."

That just blew me away. Robin means to refer to Hitchens not as a writer but as a 'stylist': not the same thing. Here are two examples of Hitchens as a writer.

On Isaiah Berlin in the LRB, in 1998

The Vietnam Syndrome, on the legacy in Vietnam of Agent Orange, in Vanity Fair in 2006

Yes, the arts humanize: they bring things near, but intimate relations or their facsimile result in loyalty. You love what is near you also because it is near, and that can shut out what is still distant. Hitchens as I said above was a Modernist. He had ideals that by association with the people he knew and the ideas he respected and then again with himself, over time turned inward. His hopes turned into fantasies. He looked in the mirror and thought he saw the world. It's a risk we all face. Robin and Steiner represent a softer but no less ideological variant of Hitchen's fatal flaw as a thinker: they have more sympathy for ideas than for people, and are so arrogant that they allow their ideas to replace the world in their imaginations. That's the end of openness and curiosity. I'll repeat a comment [here] after my discovery of that godawful rag, Jacobin: In 100 years a group of earnest right-thinking bourgeois left-liberals will start a journal and title it "Hamas".

It's hard to engage fully with the present. It's morally necessary and necessarily morally dangerous. There's a risk for all of us of fantasies becoming not reality but 'our' reality. And that's not real. Hitchens' end was tragic in every sense.
A commenter responds: "...I’ll leave aside ‘Anon is right about Steiner’ – he isn’t, but there’s no point in saying so. What really struck me is your later comments:
‘Robin and Steiner represent a softer but no less ideological variant of Hitchen’s fatal flaw as a thinker: they have more sympathy for ideas than for people’.
This seems to assume that your own ideas aren’t ideological? What are they, then? I could just as well accuse you of ignoring the cries in the street, but don’t, because it’s not explicitly there in what you write?
I suppose if I knew what this meant:
‘Yes, the arts humanize: they bring things near, but intimate relations or their facsimile result in loyalty’
I’d understand more of your take on ideology?"

My response
Do you love your family and friends? If so, why? Are they any more deserving of love than others?

You love what you love because it’s near to you, the familial is the familiar. If you read a report about a man run over by a truck in Ouagadougou, the only thing that makes you “feel” a response to one man’s death is the ability of the author to bring you close to the event and return that man to life in your imagination. The author’s skill creates imagined proximity and you may feel moved, when otherwise you might have been indifferent. After all, people die every day. The author’s skill is called “art”.

The experience of European Jewry is close to us, the experience of Palestinian expulsion is not. I know people who will not sit or stand beside anyone who might call themselves a Zionist. They’re Palestinians and their anger is that strong. Is it unjustified? If so, why? As I said in a comment on the follow-up post, the word “Nakba” does not appear on this page. Why not? 3/4 of a million people cleansed from their land.

Irene Gendzier [linked here Dec 8]

Picking Apart the NYT/Zionist Narrative on the Nakba [linked here June17]

Read the second one. I got it from Nir Rosen. His response: “Fucking Brilliant!”

I’m not a moralist; moralism is a lie. My father’s family are Zionists and on occasion I stand next to them in public. Am I wrong? Take away the bloodthirsty rhetoric and Hitchens was a moralist, and especially late in his life a thoroughly corrupt one. Cory Robin is only a moralist but that’s not a good start.
The arts are dangerous. That’s why Plato was scared of them. But the politics of Platonism has always ended in barbarism.

Earler comments on Corey Robin's page are reposted on this one. See the tag below.

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